Academic Kindness

This has been one of those years of self-reflection, especially that of the academic self. I’ve been reading pedagogy and career-related books instead of actually doing any “real” research. I re-read Carnes Minds on Fire, and either started to read or read Filene The Joy of Teaching; Berg and Seeber The Slow Professor; Hall The Academic Self; Fink Creating Significant Learning Experiences; Gabriel Teaching Unprepared Students; Harass, Hiltz, Teles, and Turoff Learning Networks; and (ahem) Silvia How to Write a Lot. In the next few months I’m going to start the pile of game pedagogy books sitting on my floor.

Why? Well, I think that it’s a good time in my career to be really honest about what kind of academic I am, if I’m happy with what I’m doing and with myself, and where I want to be in my career. I’ve been asking myself some important questions like:

  1. What kind of professor do I want to be?
  2. What kind of innovative, immersive, student-centered pedagogy do I want to employ in my real-time and on-line classrooms? What kind of assignments or activities should I give my students? How should I actually teach this stuff? What kind of reading should I assign?
  3. What kind of researcher am I and what kind of researcher do I want to be? What is my primary research? Secondary? How does my research shape my pedagogy in real time?
  4. Why do I find it almost impossible to stay on schedule on a daily basis? What am I fighting and why?
  5. And most importantly, what kind of colleague am I and what kind of colleague do I want to be?

The first four groups of questions are typical for academics to ask themselves periodically. This is especially true when we’re on the job market and writing research statements, teaching statements, and cover letters. These are the things that are asked in interviews. These are the things we discuss at conferences. But the fifth question, “what kind of colleague am I and what kind of colleague do I want to be” never seems to get asked. This doesn’t get discussed in departmental meetings. This isn’t something career coaches address in their writing or seminars. What kind of colleague are you?

Many senior scholars, junior scholars, and  grad students complain about “venomous” colleagues, departments that are akin to “snake pits,” and express helpless horror at the deplorable behavior exhibited by fellow students, colleagues, and professional peers. I’ve seen academics steal projects, ideas, and classes, throw each other under the bus, and engage in damaging gossip. I’ve seen female academics be particularly cruel to each other, picking on everything from writing style to make-up style … or lack thereof. I’ve had male colleagues “man-splain” topics that I know inside-and-out because they read one book on the subject. I’ve been treated like an idiot by my peers because I attended “a public school” while they went to Ivy Leagues. And I’ve been treated like an outcast because I refuse to follow the “normal” academic path forged by the “brave souls” who made their way into the Ivory Tower. Grad students can be really nasty to each other as they compete for advisors, funding, and golden opportunities. And forget about the venom that is spewed forth at important professional conferences! Good grief, how does anyone get out of there alive?

I understand how competitive academia is. I also understand how difficult it is to get tenure-track jobs or grant money. I’m not stupid or ignorant of the realities associated with academic life. We’re often over-worked, juggling administrative and teaching duties with home life and personal research projects, and emotionally taxed by a system that can be humiliating, berating, and demoralizing. Many of us work alone in archives, libraries, or labs. And we all seem to be dealing with increasingly anxious students who are also trying to find their place in a huge, scary world while maintaining “their cool.”

And yet, we find the time and strength to be assholes to each other. Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have befriended some incredibly generous, kind, and supportive colleagues who currently make up my Tribe. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have academic peers within my discipline and outside of my discipline who have taken an interest in me and my work, and vice versa. We make up a supportive circle of friends who have each other’s back no matter what. And that’s a great comfort to me.

But, how wonderful would it be if all colleagues and peers were just nice to each other? That’s all. Nice. Respectful. Mensch. If not nice, than professional. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. What kind of colleague am I? Ahem I’m guilty of gossiping … I’ll admit it. But do I want to be involved in this kind of behavior? And how do I handle people who are? Academia is hard enough without folks being nasty and cruel. Berg and Seeber discuss academic kindness, collegiality, and community in their book The Slow Academic. They argue that the cultivation of collegiality and treating colleagues with respect and kindness is necessary for the health and well-being of academics, as well as necessary for the overall health of the university (Berg and Seeber 71-84). It goes without saying that a supportive community of colleagues, or at the least a group of people who respect each other and treat each other professionally, would make all of our lives better and academia more tolerable.

I’ve embraced “academic kindness” as my mantra. I want to be the kind of colleague who is supportive, generous, and nice regardless of how bizarre it makes me. I want to be the colleague who celebrates my peers’ successes without feeling threatened or competitive. I want to be the colleague who checks in on my peers and brings them coffee when they need a “pick-me-up.” I refuse to play this competitive, crazy game any more. It’s easier — and healthier for everyone — to be nice and focus on our own work and our students, than to constantly spew venom, or knock each other down, or be mean to each other.

Will you join me in spreading some Academic Kindness? #AcademicKindness




Planning Like a Boss

Organizing the Kanban Board

“Do good work well.” 

I’ve tried everything to organize my life, work, and productivity. I’ve kept planners that organized every little detail of my life right down to the minute. I’ve kept huge calendars planned with colored pens and highlighters. I’ve written copious amounts of “Master To-Do Lists” that I systematically broke down into “easily digestible portions” everyday so that I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. I’ve kept a notebook where I wrote everything: plans, thoughts, research ideas, contact information of important people and places, writing plans. This year, I resorted to getting an undecorated planner that I religiously decorate with washi tape, inspirational stickers, and drawings just to get me “excited” about my week.

Let’s face it, I’m an awesome planner … but I am — and will always be — a horrific procrastinator. I’m the type of person who will spend months researching and reading only to pull an “all-nighter” just to get a paper written on time. My dissertation advisor told me to go to a writing class because she thought that I was terribly uneducated in grammar. What she didn’t know is that I spent eight years in Catholic grammar school dissecting sentences. What I was terrible at wasn’t grammar, but planning my time and actually getting things done. Those papers that frustrated her were always written the night before with no editing because I ran out of time. Instead of a writing class, I wish she would have sent me to a time management class — something that all graduate students really need, especially if they’re going to be successful in their academic careers.

My problem is two-fold: 1. When I feel overwhelmed and tired, I shut down. I never plan a day off to relax because … “oh my gawds! I have so much to do!” As a result, I get resentful of my ever-growing to-do list … and do nothing. And when “urgent” tasks and emails come in from work I get downright emotional. I never block off a “drop everything to do this” time in my schedule, so when it happens, it completely throws me off. And, most importantly, I never schedule moments to relax or to chat with colleagues either in person or via Skype or messenger. Being social is extremely important to me … I need the human interaction. 2. Ahem … I never look at my planner, “to do” lists, everything notebook, or the like. If it’s not in front of me, it might as well not exist.

Yes, yes … it’s a wonder that I got this far. Honestly, my time management system never worked, but I did manage to get stuff done in a crazy, “chicken-with-its-head-cut-off” way.

The Kanban Board with the End of August and September’s Goals

So you can imagine my panic and desperation when trying to manage my new and more intense schedule as a full-time professor. I have classes to build and maintain, things to grade, office hours, Live Lab duties, research and writing, my service to MAPACA, my editorial service to Response, conference papers, and other assorted things. I had to finally come to terms with my lack of organization and my inability to stick to a planning method. Enter Kanban.

As you can see from the above photos, Kanban boards are divided up into sections, or “lanes,” that reflect the stages of a task. The idea is to break down a project into its individual parts or stages, and then, move each part along the board according to where it is in the process. This type of planning: 1. forces you to break a project down into manageable parts and become visually aware of where those parts are in the process; 2. makes you visually accountable for the process, itself. For me, it’s nice to see everything laid out in front of me and it’s really satisfying to move those Posties across the board to the “Done” lane. I’ve only been using this method for a couple of days, but it’s been a good experience so far. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I walk out of my office at night, and I like to see my projects come to fruition. I have the feeling that this method is going to allow me to take time off for myself or for other activities without feeling guilty because I can actually see what I’ve done and what’s left to do. I won’t — and don’t — have that overwhelming feeling of guilt that “things need to get done,” because I can see that they are getting done. I’m not quite sure how this will affect my work and production going forward, but for now, it’s good. I’ll keep you posted.

What methods of organization do you use to keep yourself on-task?

Revisiting a Blog Post, or Thank You Wayback Machine

I searched for my old blog on the Wayback Machine … and low and behold this was the first post that seemed to be saved. Fitting. Timely. Inspirational. I wrote this post the day after David Bowie died. I needed to read it again … and again … and again. I needed to remember. I needed a mirror.

Dear Starman,

I heard the news first thing yesterday morning. Ed told me as he desperately tried to hold back the tears. He didn’t want me to find out reading my Facebook feed. He knew that this was personal news, and he was right. I’ve been crying since.
The news media says, that after 69 years here on Earth, you died on Sunday. How can you die? You’re immortal. Maybe they got the message wrong? That’s it — they got the message wrong. You just returned back to your home planet, or transformed into the pure stardust of which we knew you were made. But death? It can’t be.
Yes, Starman. You blew my mind, just like you thought you would. You also saved my little weird and freaky life from years of pain because you showed me that they are the ones who are wrong. That it is ok and good and artful to be who I truly am: weird, wonderful, artsy, ever-changing, experimental, courageous, and intelligent. You were the beacon for all of us weird kids in a world that desperately tried — and still tries — to demand that we be “normal” … that we wear some kind of uniform … that we find a tribe and fit in. Starman, I never fit in. I was too weird and smart for the Normal Kids, and too “ME” for the Cool, Weird Kids. You know the type. But I was never sad about it because you were with me. You showed me the way. You taught me how to wave my freak flag in front of the firing squad of adversity, and survive.
You’ve taught me so much, Starman. You taught me about who I am as an artist. You taught me that art is everything: what you produce, what you wear, and who you are. Art and person can not be separated. Once an artist stops creating, once they stop being art, once they stop living art, it’s all over. Isn’t it? We die inside when we go grey. I forgot this lesson, Starman. I got stuck doing one thing and being one thing. I got trapped … until yesterday when I heard the news. See, I knew it. You are immortal. Perhaps we need to wait for the third day for your glorious resurrection? Or maybe it already happened and you went out like a damned supernova? In death we are saved. Is there truth to this, Starman?
I was always in awe of your ability to transform yourself, to change, to EVOLVE. You shunned the uniform. You taught me not to be afraid of change, that it’s ok to constantly transform and experiment. After all, fashion and person are art and we are all the master artists of ourselves. You taught me how to hate uniforms … all uniforms. Move forward. Create. Don’t get stuck. THINK. You taught me that there is no such thing as gender and that we can make and remake ourselves at will. I remember my first time playing with androgyny. I cut off all of my beautiful blonde hair and dressed in baggy t-shirts, black ripped up cargo pants, and Converse. I wore little makeup, save dark lipstick. There were beautiful moments when I moved through the streets of NYC as a boy. I felt free and strong. You taught Ed that boys are beautiful in makeup. You’d be proud of Ed. He wore electric blue lipstick like no one else I knew. What freedom you’ve given us! What delicious freedom to be our true selves without fear. You taught us how to live in an ever-changing, divine, slippery, messy, artistic life with courage and with abandon.
And yet, I’m embarrassed to say, in the last two decades I’ve wholeheartedly accepted a uniform. Sure, I rebelled against that uniform, but found myself there again because it was comfortable.  I lost my way as an artist. I knew it when I saw you at Madison Square Garden. I knew it again when I saw you at the Garden State Art Center. You said to make art. I didn’t listen. I didn’t make art. I wasn’t art.
Other humans don’t know that I hate my uniform, just like I hated the Catholic school uniform. Conformity gives me hives, and I have a bad, bad case of them right now. Yes, I remember now … never trust anyone who only does one thing … or is one thing. If it doesn’t work, or if it’s stale, or if it doesn’t work with your present … then change it. Change. Move forward. EVOLVE. MAKE ART. BE ART. I remember. I remember now, Starman.
I’ll always remember. Safe travels, Starman. When I look up at the night sky I’ll try to find you. I’ll wave hello and remember everything you did for me and all of the other freaky, weird kids.
With all my love and thanks,

Dancing to the Beat of My Own Kazoo

When no one is looking and I’m all alone in my own head, I know who I am. When their voices are silenced and the traces of what they think are muffled by my own inner voice, I understand who I am. When I stop wondering how they get their work done and how they keep their schedule, I am able to do great things.

I am a slow academic. I am a slow reader, a slow writer, a slow editor, and a slow thinker. I slowly create learning experiences for my students which, I hope, will encourage slow, deep thinking on their part. While I do extraordinarily well under pressure and can produce good, solid scholarship or lectures in a short time, I am happiest when I’m slow. I’ve come to understand that in today’s academic world, slow is bad. Slow can cause issues with getting tenure. Slow can prevent you from publishing enough, grading enough, being involved enough, doing enough. But slow is how I work … and it’s how I’m happiest and most productive.

Many of my colleagues are busy, busy, busy. There’s no time to think, no time to breath. They spend all of their time writing or researching or grading or participating in academia in one form or another. Balance isn’t in their reach. They accomplish great things — or that’s how it seems to me — and they are always on the go, moving and shaking in the Ivory Tower. I’ve watched many of them in awe, comparing myself and my working methods to theirs. I listen to them preach: wake up at 5:00 am, start writing at 6:00 … you MUST write no less than 2,000 words a day, by noon switch gears and construct lesson plans and lectures, and finally grade in late afternoon into the evening. Go to sleep. Start again the next day. Every day. All the time. Forever.

I don’t work like this. Hell, I’ve never worked like this, even when I was juggling grad school and teaching. Me, I wake up around 7:00 and start doing one thing after 9:00. Sometimes I’ll read, sometimes I’ll write … more often than not I’m working on classes or grading. I completely and totally immerse myself into my task, only to change course in the afternoon when I feel fried. Whole days are usually set aside to do one thing … thoroughly, completely, and totally. And my evenings are usually times of rest when I’ll have a cup of tea or glass of wine, talk to Ed, or watch a movie. Do I get things done? Yes, mostly, in my own weird time and in my own weird way. Sometimes things don’t get done and then I feel the pressure to produce. Sometimes things get pushed to the last minute and I’m preying for a “Hail Mary” at midnight. It’s stressful, but that’s how I’ve always done it. Slowly. Methodically. And only once.

Since becoming a full-time faculty member I’ve felt incredible pressure to change the way I work. I’ve questioned my working methods and my role in academia. I’ve gotten swept up in the quick-paced, you must produce, you must suffer and be miserable for your work mindset. I’ve tried to change the way I work because I know that I’m expected to produce. I’ve been beating myself up because I just can’t seem to get out of bed before 7:00. I’ve been very hard on myself because I’m creating on-line courses and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing … and yet, I won’t give myself leeway to admit that this is new and I’m working on a learning curve. I’m stressing over the two papers that need to go out because so-and-so said that I simply MUST publish or I’m toast. I haven’t given myself any time to ease into this new job and I’m not giving myself any time to wrap my brain around moving to Texas.

Instead, I’m listening to them. The outside voices who keep telling me that I’m doing this all wrong. I’m reading Vitae and The Chronicle and I’m freaking out because I don’t really fit into this kind of academic culture that everyone seems to be living. I’m slow. I’m thorough. I cherish the time that I take to dig into a task … time stands still and I’m completely, utterly happy and satisfied while all my other works sits undone. It will get done, but in my own time and in my own way. This drives folks crazy. It drove my graduate advisor crazy. It drives my fellow scholars crazy. Hell, sometimes it drives me crazy.

I oscillate between being stressed out and completely blissed out. I wonder if part of being an academic is to hate my job and life, because that’s what everyone seems to do and that’s what I’m feeling right now. Does it have to be this way? Do I have to follow them and their methodology? Is this the only way to “do good work well” and do well in academia? Or is there another way? Can I get everything done in my own way and time, and still remain completely blissed out?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have decided to tune them out and follow my own Path. I’m doing this academic-thing my own way and in my own time. I’m allowing myself the time and space to figure it out because I REFUSE to hate what I do and I REFUSE to hate my life. I got into academia and scholarship because I LOVE what I do. I love the research, the writing, the debating … I love teaching. Will I publish? Yes. But I won’t be publishing a million things every year and I certainly won’t stress out about it. Will I figure out this on-line teaching thing? Yes. But I’m going to admit that I’m learning as I go.

Will I do great things? Only if I stay true to myself and my working methods. Only if I dance to the beat of my own kazoo.