Image: Operations room
It was the beginning of the semester, and I was ready for the meeting. In a hotel room four hours from my campus, I was preparing for the next day’s board of directors’ meeting of the athletic conference to which my university belongs. As a faculty athletic representative, I am a voting member of the board, and I had been doing a lot of reading and research to get up to speed on the fairly long list of agenda items.
Unlike the athletic directors and conference officials who also sit on the board, I don’t move in this world every day, and the learning curve was a bit steeper than I had anticipated. But I’d done my homework, and by 10 p.m., I knew I was ready for the all-day meeting to come. I’d been a bit puzzled that the board was convening so soon after the semester began — it’s only the second week of classes, and I have to travel four hours and miss a whole day of teaching? — but I figured that’s just how things go in the world of college athletics.
So, before turning out the light, I decided to check my email to see if there were any student messages I needed to answer as I would be holed up in meetings all the next day. The first message was from the athletic-conference commissioner: “Please see this additional agenda item for your consideration. We look forward to seeing you at the Board of Directors Meeting next week.”
I had moved my classes’ work online, immersed myself in athletic administrivia, packed my bags, driven four hours, eaten an entirely unsatisfactory fast-food dinner, checked into a hotel, and reviewed a stack of summaries for a meeting that I had shown up for on the wrong week. (I’d like to publicly apologize to anyone who was staying at the AmericInn and Suites in Atchison, Kan., on September 8, for the loud string of profanity that emanated from Room 119.)
And that was how my fall semester started.
In hindsight, that snafu was an omen — a portent of disorganization-induced shenanigans that made the semester one of the worst I’ve had in my academic career. I knew going into the term that I would be traveling for professional reasons more often than usual. Some important and exciting opportunities had opened up for me, but since I would be off-campus on several occasions, I needed to redesign some class material to go online. No problem, I thought. I can get that done before my first trip.
Then I picked up an extra teaching assignment. Even though I have a half-administrative post, I still teach two courses a term. I’ve found that to be a challenge, and now I had a third course. Well, I thought, it’s one I’ve taught before; I should be able to swing it.
Then there was the student who had to do an independent study so she could graduate on time. I couldn’t stand in the way of a student’s degree program, could I?
All of that was piled on top of several manuscripts I have in progress — all of them important writing projects that mean a great deal to me. Thus, by the time we started classes in late August, my list of commitments had ballooned to an alarming degree. When my wife, my supervisor, or my colleagues expressed concern, I shrugged it off. I can do it all, I told them. I have a plan.
It turns out that my plan sucked. “Work harder and keep on top of my calendar” is not a plan that adapts well to changing circumstances — in case you were wondering. Witness:
- The extra class I picked up turned out to have significantly different outcomes since I last taught it, so it became essentially like preparing for a brand-new course.
- The independent study was in an area outside my immediate expertise, and I underestimated the time I would need to get up to speed for the student.
- Significant changes I’d made to course texts and materials in my other two classes seemed like great ideas last spring, but I came to regret them immensely by mid-September, when it was clear that I’d have to reconceive some modules to better fit the new material.
- The ways I’d planned to move material online to compensate for my off-campus travel were — you guessed it — more involved than I’d initially thought.
By early October, my “plan” was in tatters and the semester was starting to go sideways. I discovered my tablet’s calendar wasn’t syncing with Outlook properly when I started missing meetings. I got behind on grading. I struggled to meet the everyday obligations of my position. Then, in early November, the election turned so many of our worlds upside down. Oh, and in the middle of all this I came down with pneumonia. The doctor said I needed at least a week of rest. I took a day.
My semester, then, was largely characterized by failure. I rushed projects to meet deadlines — with predictable results. The harder I grasped at things needing to be done, the more those things slipped through my fingers. Even before I got sick, I found myself avoiding responsibilities like the plague because they literally hurt to think about.
What makes it so galling is that these problems were mostly of my own creation. They were avoidable. Despite cautionary advice from people who knew better, I overextended my schedule, my commitments, and ultimately my physical self. I let my ego get in the way of common sense, and wrote checks that my schedule would never be able to cash.
Academia glorifies overwork to a dangerous degree (Raul Pacheco-Vega has written about that quite powerfully). My story this semester shows just how seductive the Cult of Busy-ness can be, even to one who thought he knew better. However, these experiences also give me some real fodder for critical reflection.
As I put one semester in the rear-view mirror (and none too soon!) and look toward better days in the spring, here’s what I plan to do differently:
- Keep a paper calendar. I am the king of mobile devices, and proud of my digital planner. But there’s something to be said for writing out a schedule and keeping track of commitments by hand as well. If I ever run into the sync issues I had between my Google and Outlook calendars again, they’ll be an annoyance rather than a major issue. That peace of mind will be worth the extra time it takes to keep analog and digital calendars updated.
- Say No more often. That’s hard for me. I have a wide variety of professional and academic interests, and I like to be involved in lots of conversations. But not every initiative or conversation needs me to be involved, and it’s a mix of ego and folly to think otherwise. There are already plenty of nonnegotiable must-dos in my role as professor and administrator. I don’t need to search for more. I’ve learned that if I try to do everything, I end up accomplishing nothing. This spring, I’m going to bring balance back to my professional life.
- Eat more frogs. Mark Twain famously observed that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ll know that nothing worse can happen to you for the rest of the day. One of my chief ways of dealing with stress is avoidance: If I have a particularly onerous (grading), unpleasant (administrative report), or overdue (just about all my writing) item hanging over me, I will go to amazing lengths to avoid that thing as long as I can. Starting my workday with the thing I least want to do — eating the frog — will help me fight that inclination, as well as ensure I’m not letting important things slip through my fingers like I did this fall.
- Take more time to unplug. One of the best decisions I made was a couple of weeks ago when I took a social-media sabbatical. From Friday afternoon through Monday morning, I uninstalled Facebook and Twitter on all my devices and took a break. I’m usually very active on Twitter, and I’ve found a wonderful personal and professional community in that space. Yet sometimes the sheer pace and number of inputs can get simultaneously addictive and overwhelming. Taking a few days to unplug was an easy self-care measure that paid significant dividends.
- Remember why I do this. Probably the most discouraging thing about this semester was the way my teaching suffered. I didn’t come close to meeting my standards. I let all the other stuff crowd out the thing — teaching and learning — that’s at the heart of my academic vocation. When things are well-aligned for me, my teaching and my students are at the center of my work and everything else falls into place around those. I need to continually remind myself of that vocational purpose.
It was a humbling semester, but as I tell my students all the time, failure can provide its own set of opportunities if we’re willing to listen and discern. I wouldn’t wish the fall term I had on anyone, but I won’t write it off as a complete failure, either. Ultimately, I learned a lot about my limits, and about what I want my working life to look like.
I went back to that board meeting on the correct date the following week. Part of the drive there snakes along the east bank of the Missouri River, through some beautiful scenery and historic river-valley towns. Already knowing the route allowed me to enjoy the drive and listen to some good music on the open road. The meeting itself went well, and the preparation I’d done stood me in good stead as we navigated a crowded and complex agenda. As I think about it now, it occurs to me that I got a do-over, and managed to actually make the most of that opportunity. Maybe that’s the omen, the portent, I can take with me into the spring.