Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Scholars Of Color In Academia

Image source: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Image source: Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

Several weeks ago, Audrey Williams June wrote an article for Chronicle of Higher Education about the additional service burden experienced by many faculty of color in academia:

“The hands-on attention that many minority professors willingly provide is an unheralded linchpin in institutional efforts to create an inclusive learning environment and to keep students enrolled. That invisible labor reflects what has been described as cultural taxation: the pressure faculty members of color feel to serve as role models, mentors, even surrogate parents to minority students, and to meet every institutional need for ethnic representation.”

Aptly, June highlights that this service burden (“cultural taxation”) has grown as student bodies have diversified on college campuses, while diversity among the faculty have lagged. Students of color are disproportionately poor or working-class, on financial aid, and first-generation (i.e., the first in their families to attend college). On top of the challenges of getting into, paying for, and navigating college, many students of color also enter a racially hostile environment, perhaps for the first time in their lives. (I’ve lost count of the number of students of color who have told me they are miserable at my institution, for some, even saying that this is the “worst chapter of their lives.” It’s heartbreaking.) Sure, they can turn to any faculty member, regardless of race and ethnicity, for some challenges; but, students of color may find that racial bias comes from faculty, too – inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, they turn more easily to faculty and staff of color. And, with a sense of linked fate or at least empathy, many faculty and staff of color are ready to be a listening ear, shoulder to cry on, mentor, tutor, life coach, stand-in parent, friend, therapist, financial planner, etc.

To say that few colleges are equipped to deal with the challenges of being a student of color is an understatement. This is particularly true for “Historically White Colleges and Universities” (HWCUs), here borrowing from the language of Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. With few exceptions, American colleges were built by and for white elites; today, they are overwhelmingly led by white presidents and administrators, with a majority white faculty. Racial integration and racial diversity have largely been the products of legal challenges rather than changed hearts and minds. Although it seems diversity is talked about on every college campus, its meaning is hallow. Allowing students of color into otherwise white campuses does nothing to change the racial climate; you can have racial diversity without true racial inclusion and racial equality. (Just look at how racially segregated your campus’s dining hall is.) Diversity in terms of the number of students of color doesn’t change the lack of diversity among the faculty and administration, the lack of coverage of race in appropriate courses, the absence of authors of color from syllabi, the absence and/or underfunding of Black/African/Latina/Asian/Native American studies departments, and so forth.

Short of institutional change, the burden of supporting students of color often falls to faculty of color. This is in addition to disproportionate requests to serve on committees related to diversity. And, in addition to “non-race-related” forms of service, plus teaching, plus research, plus having a personal life, plus navigating racism on and off campus. For my own professional and personal well-being, I have begun saying no to new service requests more and more. But, my heart aches a little (for me and for students of color) when I do; realistically, there aren’t many other people who have the expertise on race (be it research or personal experience). The pessimist in me, however, has reasoned that the institution has already failed students of color. If I give any more of my time away (from research, teaching, or my personal life), I risk having the institution fail both the student and me. Unfortunately, supporting that Black student is not going to be as valued – it may not even “count” as something CV-worthy unless it’s a formal activity; but, sending these articles out to journals is valued. I can’t realistically earn tenure if I’m spending all of my time mentoring students of color. And, I don’t have the time or power to change the institution to improve the situation for them (or myself).

Minimizing The Burden

What can we do in the mean time? In September, I attended the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows – an annual meeting of some of the brightest scholars of color in the US, namely those who have received a Ford fellowship at one time. One of the conference sessions was on “Invisible Labor: Exploitation of Marginalized Scholars,” including panelists Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori), Dr. Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), and Dr. Steve McKay. Without even reading the description, I knew what the panel would be about – and that it would speak to a growing frustration of my own. And, the panelists didn’t disappoint in the advice they offered to reduce the burden of additional and race-specific forms of service placed on scholars of color. I took thorough notes, which I share below.

Think Big, Think Long-Term

  • Gain the knowledge that you need to survive in, thrive in, and succeed in academia. Professional socialization in grad school rarely speaks to the unique experiences and needs of marginalized scholars, so you may need to find your own mentor (perhaps in another department or at another university). Use external resources like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), books like The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul, and blogs like Conditionally Accepted, University of Venus, The Professor Is In, Get A Life, PhD, etc.
  • Have a broad vision to drive your career. As new opportunities or requests to serve your department, college, or local community arise, first assess whether doing so is in line with your vision. In other words, you need not say “yes!” to everything, or use the blanket “no!” to avoid everything; rather, you can prioritize those things that bring you closer to achieving your goals.
  • Have a vision for your life beyond your career in academia. This will help to put the demands, requests, and opportunities in academia into proper context; after all, it is a job at the end of the day, and we are more than just workers.
  • Know your value beyond academia. A healthy mindset is remembering that no job can give you, or deny you, your worth. Do not fall prey to depending on external validation, particularly from an institution that benefits from your labor, to feel valuable.
  • In general, don’t feel you need to get along with everyone. Ensuring you get tenure/promotion and pursuing your personal and professional goals are more important than being liked by your colleagues.
  • Tenure allows you to make a difference for a lifetime. So, think long-term about what’s expected of you and what you value.

 Setting Priorities

  • Decide on the image you wish to portray to others. Are you exclusively focused on your research, only doing the bare minimum of service for tenure or promotion standards? Are you more of an activist or community advocate at heart, pursuing an academic career as a means to that end? Are you a teacher among teachers, always looking for ways to support and challenge your students and grow as a teacher? Whatever image you wish to convey to others, be sure that the service opportunities/request you accept should reflect that image. For example, the committee that awards grants to undergraduate student researchers may not be right for you if you’re a teacher above all else. Or, serving on the curriculum committee won’t make sense for you if you prioritize research.
  • Your energy, like your time, is limited. Devote your energy just to those things that are important to you. In particular, for marginalized scholars, give energy to those organizations that made your career possible; this approach helps you to give back or “pay it forward” so that future marginalized scholars will be supported as you were. By selecting forms of service that energize you, you can avoid or minimize those that drain you. And, in general, dispel the myth that exhaustion or busyness are signs of success; they reflect poor time-management, organization, self-care, and/or prioritizing.

Avoiding The Burden Of Service

  • Do not be flattered that you have been requested for service – any service, no matter how important or visible it is. This is especially the case for service related to diversity and inclusion; notice that your institution is likely not asking white men to serve.
  • Avoid making decisions out of fear. Ask yourself, “what is the absolute worse thing that could happen if I…[fill in the blank]?” Turn to trusted mentors or allies if you feel you cannot decline a service request without professional consequences.
  • If you feel uncomfortable navigating service, specifically declining service requests, assess where that discomfort is coming from – you can learn from it. Consider finding someone you trust with whom you can share these feelings.
  • With these conditions in mind, it is advisable to let “No!” be your default answer to new service requests. “Yes!” should be for the rare exceptions that fit with your vision, reflect the kind of scholar you are, and energize you.

Be Opportunistic About Service Opportunities

  • Pursue service opportunities that are visible on your campus, as well as those that actually have power on campus. This will give you more leverage to pick and choose service opportunities and, more specifically, to decline requests.
  • To ensure that the service you pursue is “counted” and valued, prioritize those that are in line with the university’s mission. This may help to avoid the expectation to take on “important” forms of service because the one’s you are already doing are deemed unimportant.
  • Use service as a means of making yourself an asset to your department or university by selecting opportunities to raise their profile.
  • Find ways to make opportunities for service opportunities for research. (I would add that it could also be opportunities for teaching, especially if you are a liberal arts college.)
  • Pursue service opportunities that build your professional networks and/or leads to additional professional opportunities.
  • Ask for a course reduction in exchange for taking on service, particularly highly time-consuming and high-stakes/high-status forms of service.

Get Help If Necessary

  • Find mentors who have a vision that is broader than academia.
  • Find mentors in and outside of your department, and colleagues in your discipline and subfields. They can serve as a guide for determining which forms of service to pursue (or avoid) and the ideal time in your career to do so.

What has worked for you? Please share your strategies in the comments section below!

Dr. Wendy Christensen Reflects On Year 2 Of The Tenure-Track

Wendy ChristensenDr. Wendy M. Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her research focuses on how inequality shapes political participation.  In her free time she loves reading feminist theory and mysteries (and feminist mysteries!), running, and drinking beer.  You can learn more about Dr. Christensen on her website and on Twitter at @wendyphd

Below, Dr. Christensen reflects on her second year on the tenure-track — teaching, research, and service — specifically highlighting what worked and what did not.

Reflections Of My Second Year: Teaching, Research, and Service

It is the end of my second year in my tenure track position.  I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I have developed some strategies for surviving (and even thriving!).

Below, I describe some of what has worked and what hasn’t for me this past year.

Teaching

What Worked?

  • Less is more. I plan less for class and allow for organic discussion. I assign less reading, making sure the important readings are done thoroughly instead of assigning lots of readings that just aren’t going to be read.
  • When it comes to documentaries, more is more! There are tons of great sociology documentaries in the areas I teach in (Social Movements, Social Stratification, Intro, Methods) so I decided to splurge and show a full-length documentary (one that takes up a whole class period) every 2-3 weeks. At first I felt guilty. Am I’m slacking off? Then, a colleague pointed out that I’m letting people speak about their own experiences. As a feminist teacher, that is something I strive for. The films I’ve shown have been touchstones for students throughout the semester. In fact, during the last week of my Social Movements class they were still talking about the film I showed the first week — The Life and Times of Harvey Milk! The True Meaning of Pictures sparked one of the best student-driven class discussions I’ve ever had on objectification and authenticity in research!
  • Short, regular low-stakes reading reactions are a win-win. They keep students doing the reading, thinking about them and writing regularly. And they are super easy and fast for me to grade on a simple 4-point scale.
  • Google Drive has been fantastic this semester for students in my Methods courses. They use Google Drive to share assignments (interview questions, survey results etc.) with me. I can comment, and they are able to peer review each other’s papers through real time editing. Learning to use Google Drive has helped them give up their USB drives for a real backup system.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Attendance. I’m giving up on taking attendance. I will continue to do it (using a seating chart) for the first couple weeks of classes to learn names, but after that it’s a waste of time. It’s demeaning. They are adults and can decide whether to come to class. If they miss class, they’ll miss key information, and won’t get credit for in-class assignments.
  • Google Drive. Yes, it worked, but I need to find a way to manage the email notifications that come when I get assignments. Since committees and my department also use Google Drive, my inbox was flooded with updates and comments and shares all semester. There has to be a way to manage that.
  • Assignments due at the end of the semester. Weekly reading reaction papers helped spread the grading out somewhat, but I need to move up the due dates of bigger papers (drafts, etc.) so that they aren’t all due at the end of the semester.

Research

What Worked?

  • Simply writing. When I don’t think too much about writing—when to do it, where to do it, how stressful it might be etc.—then I am more able to just sit down and write. Overthinking about writing itself is a big time waste when I really can just spend the time writing.
  • I had a big writing wake up call this semester. In February attended my usual yearly feminist retreat, the winter meeting of Sociologist for Women in Society for my booster shot of empowerment. At this meeting I learned that I was being too much of a perfectionist about my writing. My mentors wisely convinced me that I am not allowed to be the judge of my own work. On the tenure track, I just need to write, finish drafts, and just send them out—for feedback and for publication. I left the meeting with a whole new outlook on writing. As a perfectionist, I am not allowed to decide when something is “done” because then it will never be done! This quote sums up my new approach: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”– Alain de Botton.
  • Regular writing. Yes, I’ve read about this before, but over the past year I really put it into practice. Writing in little chunks as close to daily as possible (~4 days a week) makes writing much easier. If I wait too long between writing sessions, I’m more frustrated and get less done.

What Didn’t Work?

  • A set schedule of what to do every hour. I tried making a schedule and mapping out my day. It didn’t work. Meetings, weeks with lots of grading, informal conversations with colleagues etc. all got in the way of the schedule. It stressed me out. I know this works for some people, but it’s not going to work for me.
  • Perfectionism. See above. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Failure, rejection? Trying again? Those things are all better than nothing happening at all!

Service

As a second year faculty member, I am not longer excused from service.

What Worked?

  • Doing service I care about. Each committee I’m serving on means something to me. I’m on the Curriculum Committee instead of Assessment (I’m not a big test person), and the Student Retention Committee instead of the Budget Committee. I’m on the LGBTQA Advisory Board and that counts as university-level service, so I’m steering clear of the faculty Senate for now. The colleagues I work with on these committees care about the same issues I do, and that’s energizing.
  • Consistency. Every year in our department we volunteer for committees. I decided to not try anything new, so that there isn’t a big learning curve again for new committees in the fall. Everyone is happy with my current level of service, so I’m keeping it exactly where it is.

What Didn’t Work?

  • Doing too much! Yes, like many junior faculty, I am terrible at saying no. What am I supposed to do when asked to be on the Race & Gender Project Board?  Say no?  Hell no! I did say no to being the chair of that committee, though!

What has your year been like?  What has worked for you and what do you still need to work on?

Dr. Nyasha Junior Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can, Too!)

N JuniorDr. Nyasha Junior is a scholar/teacher whose research focuses on feminist and womanist biblical interpretation.  She is passionate about CrossFit, grits, and BBC television.  And, she writes about teaching, academia, and offers advice for students on her blog, No Extra Credit.  See more about Dr. Junior on her website, and follow her on Twitter at @NyashaJunior.

Below, Dr. Junior offers a fun way to celebrate one’s own accomplishments for the past academic year. Enjoy!

How I Won 10 Faculty Awards (And You Can Too!)

It’s that time again! At the end of each academic year, like most faculty members, I have to complete an annual faculty productivity report. In this report, I provide details regarding my productivity as defined by some ad hoc committee from the Neolithic era. I give highlights of my year in four areas: publication and research; service; teaching; and professional development activities. I repeat what I wrote in a meeting with a designated administrator, and the report becomes part of the fabled “official file.”

I am an African-American straight, cisgender woman in a tenure-track position at a divinity school. I am a biblical scholar, and my year has been productive in terms of the four productivity areas. Still, the things that I am most proud of are not reflected in the report. In academia, rewards can be few and far between, and only those things that are deemed worthy by a committee are acknowledged. But no more!

This year, I am not waiting for my accomplishments to be recognized. I will not go gentle into that good night. I refuse to allow my good work, great retorts, and fabulous outfits to go unnoticed. Therefore, I hereby nominate my bad myself for the following 10 Me, Myself, and I Faculty Awards.

10. Best post-faculty-meeting huddle convener
9. Best redirect of an incorrect answer
8. Best short, sweet, and cold-blooded email
7. Best recovery from a bad twist-out on a teaching day
6. Best show of restraint in the presence of a rookie colleague
5. Best final assignment handout and rubric designer
4. Best 5-minute face after oversleeping
3. Best No! to service “opportunity” with accompanying silent stare
2. Best cute, cold weather teaching outfit
1. Best Yoda-like office hours mentoring

And the winner is:

Me!  In every category!  Gasp!

You can do it, too! It’s not a competition. You’re the selection committee. You’re the only entrant. You’re the only winner!

Here are the rules:

  • You must nominate yourself for 10 things. One is not enough. You need to really reflect on all of the wonderful things that happened this year.
  • You must not include things that appear on your CV, annual productivity report, or on any official document. Dig deep for those things that are usually overlooked.
  • You must include only positive things that you did (or did not do). This is not a time to thank the entire cast and crew, the Academy, your stylist, etc. Just you!
  • You must not use this exercise as an opportunity for thinking about what did not go well this year. It is likely that you dwell on the negative quite enough. Keep it positive! The saints would call this a “praise report.”

In which categories would you nominate yourself for awards?

I know. I know. You wouldn’t nominate yourself. You have issues with self-promotion. But try. Be creative.

I’m going to collect my swag bag, do a few post-award interviews, and go to the after party!

Share your awards in the comments!

One Reason To Consider Saying “Yes” To Service

Image Source: HuffPo (http://huff.to/MwaapI)

There is too much advice about avoiding service as a professor and, to some extent, as a graduate student.  As I started my own tenure-track position this academic year, I have comfortably adopted a (polite) “No.” to almost every request that has come my way.  And, since my final year of graduate school, in which I went on the academic job market while working on my dissertation, I have stopped serving communities outside of academia.  (I prefer to think of “service” not solely as those kinds of extra activities we do to serve our department, university, and discipline, but also as serving people outside of the Ivory Tower.)  I have been a good little new professor, and I now have two recent publications to show for it.

But, are there any reasons to say yes — ever?  Here, I do not mean  — or not just mean — those obligatory-voluntary forms of serving like advising, serving on departmental/university/disciplinary committees, providing journal and grant reviews.  What about requests for guest lectures, giving talks or speeches, or communicating with student and community groups?  Is there no budging on saying “No!” to all you can avoid without consequence for the seven years toward tenure?

Well, I can think of three reasons to say “Yes.”   At least three reasons.  And, I mean at least taking a moment to consider “Yes” — at least before politely saying “No.”

Meeting People (Who Aren’t Academics!)

I have been so effective at focusing just on teaching and my research that I have not met anyone outside of work.  Also, I am exhausted at such a deep, almost spiritual level that by the time I get home from work, all that I can do before bed is eat dinner and watch TV.  I definitely feel an itch to do something — something that helps me to feel I am making a difference in the world.  But, even my weekends are spent recovering.

Once my job gets a little easier, and the exhaustion is not as intense, I will continue to only interact with students and colleagues if I avoid (community) service.  I miss interacting with people who share my values, politics, and interests — something that is not a given just because we work together or pursued academic careers.  I miss talking about something other than academia.  (Seriously, every conversation about tenure ends with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.)  I miss hearing about people’s lives outside of academia.

Scholarship In Action

Sure, teaching is one way for scholars to apply their skills and expertise outside of research.  But, our students are a select (privileged) group.  And, they are asked to engage the material in a certain way, for which they are evaluated.  And, unfortunately, we do not always ask them to apply classroom material to their own lives or the world outside of the classroom.  Working with community groups, for example, has been one sure way for me to feel that much of what I know and the research I do is meaningful and useful.  But, we cannot expect our scholarship to get up and walk beyond the paywalls of academic journals and college classrooms.  Sometimes, just having colleagues critique my methods and argument is not satisfying that itch to feel my work matters (or can matter)!

Feel Appreciated And Respected

Okay, so the real starting point for this blog post — the argument that there may be some reasons to say “Yes!” to service — was that I caught myself using an automatic “No.” as a distraction from questioning why I was receiving invitations and requests in the first place.  “Oh, no — I couldn’t possibly do that!” came quickly enough to hide that I was also wondering “why me?  there must be a mistake!”

An example: One weekend, I received an invitation to use some of my blog posts in a class and, hopefully, to speak to that class.  The email was very encouraging, expressing appreciation for speaking openly about (my) challenges in academia.  That kind of openness sparked another request to be a keynote speaker at an honor society reception.  Wait… wait… the stuff I write on my blog — that I’m still waiting to lead to a real lawsuit or being fired even before I go up for tenure — sparked interest that led to invitations?  Wow!

By at least considering “Yes.” as an answer, I had to think through what I would say or do for these invitations.  That led me to realize that I actually do have something that (in my humble opinion) seems worthy of sharing.  Maybe this is why I received these requests in the first place!  People are beginning to take note of my scholarship (broadly defined).  I realized though, by automatically saying “No.”, I was not taking the time to remind myself that I am capable, and competent, and have something worthy to contribute.  I understand the need to protect one’s time, but there is definitely some merit to considering ways to fight off self-doubt and “impostor syndrome.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to close with a simple thought: give yourself more authority in defining your own career, measures of success, values, and goals.  At some point, bits of advice can start to feel like directives.  I realize now that I so intensely internalized the messages that service is to be minimized, and community service is completely avoided, and academia and activism don’t mix, that I learned to hide these activities.  Only in the last year have I begun coming out of the closet, so to speak, as an intellectual activist.  Sure, I am held accountable in certain ways since I desire tenure and lifetime job security; but, outside of that, I only have three authority figures to whom I must answer about how I lived my life: me, myself, and I.

Conformity is overrated.  And it is bad for science and higher education.

Reflections On Departmental Division Of Labor By Psyc Girl

psyc girlPsyc Girl is an Assistant Professor in Agricultural Psychology, her pseudonymous niche.  She regularly blogs at stressful times for psycgirl on her journey (the good, the bad, and the frustrating) toward tenure.  Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@PsycGrrrl)!

Below, Psyc Girl reflects on the lack of even distribution of service in the department, and the consequences of this imbalance for her and her colleagues’ careers.

psyc girl’s cycle of collectivist angst about unbalanced workloads

Members of academic departments can be roughly divided, I believe, into two groups: Those who one would define as collectivists, and those who one would define as individualists. Collectivists value interdependence, and are likely to see the well-being of their in-group as important. Sometimes the group is even more important than their own individual needs. Individualists, in contrast, are more likely to value their own well-being, achievements, etc.

It seems to me that the collectivists in academic departments are those who are more likely to engage in administrative work, volunteer to do things even if those tasks are not reflected in their official designated workload, and to help someone else even if it means putting their own needs on the back burner temporarily.  The individualists are more likely to decline tasks that are not reflected in their official workload, prioritize their publications and items that will translate into lines on CVs, and to put their own needs ahead of the group or department.

Anecdotally, the collectivists around me seem less likely to have the publication records (and thus the salary) of individualists. It seems that the characteristics possessed by individualists are those more likely to lead to “success,” as it is often defined in academia. (Anecdotally, again, it also seems that the collectivists vs. individualists seem to reflect the women vs. men in many departments, but this is not a post about gender.)

I’m a collectivist. The individualists around me have caused me a great deal of grief during my journey on the tenure track so far. I’ve done tasks that have not been reflected in my workload, taken on administrative work that needed to be completed (and completed well) by someone, and my intensive mentorship style with my students probably slows down my publication record even further. Taking on many of these tasks frees up the time for my individualistic colleagues to focus even more on their own research.

My coping strategy with this “unfairness” has oscillated between two options. One is to say “Fine then. I’ll check out and focus on my research, too.” I see a lot of people around me taking the “fine then” approach. The problem with this approach, however, is that I don’t find it rewarding. I feel guilty. Tasks don’t get done in the manner they should. I’m not happy. I usually respond to these feelings with my second coping option – throwing myself into the work, telling myself no one will ever change, and eventually burning myself out. This makes me feel incredibly powerless. (And then I start again with “fine then.”) I end up locked in this vicious cycle of engagement, burnout, cynicism, disengagement, and guilt. In the meantime, my individualist colleagues have probably been working away, with no guilt whatsoever. Not only are the collectivists dealing with less time to dedicate to their research, via their personality style, they also have to work under the psychological cloud of this cycle – which can be exhausting. It exacerbates my inability to focus and produce research.

Recently, I needed some help with something, professionally. On paper, it wasn’t something that should have received any help from those around me. But, to my surprise, I received multiple offers of assistance. Helping me didn’t garner any lines on my colleagues’ CVs. They helped me because they respect me, they value me, and because several of them are my friends. I was surprised to discover, from this experience, that I do have power: I have social capital.

As an untenured junior faculty member, it is easy to feel powerless. It is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that almost every other member of my department will vote on my tenure application. I feel particularly powerless when compared to my individualistic colleagues. In fact, I often feel like a fool working away on administrative tasks while they publish twice as many papers as I do each year. As a result, their salary creeps up more quickly than mine and by the end of our careers there might be a large gap between our incomes.

Suggestions For Change

Lately, however, I’m doing okay – I’ve got the collectivist cycle of negativity on hold. I can’t guarantee these tactics will work for other scholars, or that they are all even possible in other contexts. Below are the strategies that have worked for me.

At The Individual and Interpersonal Level

  1. Acceptance (Part I): Yes, the system is set up to reward the individualists amongst us, and yes that system should be changed. But it isn’t something that I’m going to be able to change by myself, and it isn’t something I’m going to change this week.
  2. We need to be having conversations about the broader impact of this tendency. Who is doing the most administrative work? Who is “taking advantage” of the system? Are women doing less of the work that shows up on CVs and more of the grunt work? Minorities? And how are we going to change that, over time?
  3. Decide what is important to YOU.  It’s hard to know how to get from point A to point B if you have no idea where you want to go. What do you need to do, to focus on, to work on, in order to close your office door at the end of each day and say “I did a good job, today.” Maybe that doesn’t match with what your individualist colleagues find important. That’s okay. It’s also okay for this to include tenure requirements!  Apply this phrase as needed: “I would love to do more of [task X]. I really need to focus on getting tenure right now. After that, I’m all yours!”
  4. Acceptance (Part II): When I evaluated what is important to me I realized that being liked, respected, and having friends at work are all more important to me than extra lines on my CV or having the same salary line as my superstar colleagues. In my department those people are quite isolated. Being isolated would make me miserable!
  5. Regularly evaluate what you are working on – what can be dropped? What are you doing out of your “should” beliefs? What is not actually required of you? One of my colleagues is infamous for taking on no-recognition tasks that probably don’t really need to be done.
  6. Recognize that when you take on a task that shouldn’t fall completely on your shoulders, you are choosing to do so, and you are preventing one of your colleagues from doing that task. This further rewards the individualists for not picking up those tasks!
  7. Set boundaries. My individualist colleagues do it, and I started doing it too. I’m no longer giving away my writing time for meetings, I’m no longer overloading myself. I’m doing what I need to do for tenure, and what I need to do to accomplish #3.
  8. Last, recognize that there are other ways to get power besides publishing a ton of research. My power comes from my social capital – but as someone raised in the “publish or perish” culture of academia, it never occurred to me that this was helpful. Find your own place of power, and use it – don’t assume the only way to have power is by publishing.

At Department Level

We also need to be having conversations within our departments, where the cycle is unfolding. There are respectful, tactful, and powerful ways to say “I think I’m doing a disproportionate amount of work here.” Here are some possible outcomes of talking:

  1. Your colleagues might not know what you’re up to. Sometimes the individualists say “I didn’t realize you were doing all that. We should definitely share it more.” Don’t be resentful in silence, assuming your colleagues even know what you do, let alone that they are actively taking advantage of you.
  2. This cycle might not actually be occurring (or is not as bad as you think). After having conversations about workload in our program, we realized we’re more balanced than we thought.
  3. At the department level, years of this conversation have led to us considering “non-traditional” accomplishments as reasons for a raise. In fact, we now have a policy dividing our raises up into those for research and those for teaching, and we attempt to hit the same ratio of these each year.
  4. You can get some backup.  In my program all untenured faculty members get an annual review meeting with our department chair. That’s my spot to say “I’m doing X and Y, and I don’t think I should be yet. What do you think?” My department heads over the years have actually been quite supportive of balancing obligations to the department and individual progress.

Advice For The Final Semester Of Grad School

Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned ready to wrap things up for my PhD.  Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation.  And, then moving.  Yep.

Oh, there were many things I thought “why didn’t anyone tell me?!”  So, I write this post of advice to graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job over/after the summer.  I do not speak as an authority, certainly never having mentored graduate students; but, my own experience may offer something!  I have in mind those finishing up PhDs and then beginning a tenure-track position, or some other position in academia that entails teaching and research.  But, others may find this post useful, as well.

Preparing

“Oh my gosh, the job market is soo stressful.”  It certainly was.  But, there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when you actually work on your dissertation.  And, the reason why you never hear anyone say that?  Those students are probably isolated at home or in their campus office having very little interaction with the real world.  And, then they seem to quietly disappear, moving on to their new jobs.  I say this only from my own experiences: this last semester will be the most isolating, stressful, self-directed, underwhelming, and require the greatest level of discipline thus far in your career (maybe even life).

Yes, I said what you think I said above.  You probably will actually be starting your dissertation once the dust of the job market settles.  I mean here the actual analyses and writing.  (You have already defended the proposal, or done even more by now.)  Ideally, you are finishing up by early summer.  But, that does not account for the time you should give your committee to read your final draft before your dissertation defense.  And, that does not account for last minute editing before that.  And, that does not account for the time it takes to implement the very specific, tedious formatting that your university requires for submitted dissertations.

So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating.  (This includes booking a hotel room for family who will attend graduation early, especially if you are at a big university in a small town!  Also, renting/buying a cap and gown for graduation.)  This stage is where the training wheels really come off.  It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date.  At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.

A second suggestion is to create a work schedule.  As I said, finishing will take a great deal of discipline.  I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off were non-negotiable.  So, I had my butt in my home office chair at 6am getting to work.  I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities.  Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing.  If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said ‘if’), get out of teaching this semester.  You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that 4-5 experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate.  I will touch more on that later; but, I want to emphasize you need to minimize other distractions as much as possible.

Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration.  And, create an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature.  Of course, this was not a perfect strategy.  But, I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided.  Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!

You should also set aside time to decide when you will move for your new job, and to search for houses/apartments.  I strongly recommend finishing up everything related to graduate school and then moving.  And, as best as you can, finish before your job starts!  Some universities or departments may place you on some sort of probation or temporary status if your degree has not been conferred by your university by a certain date (make sure you know this date!).  If they don’t do this formally, you may be treated informally this way if you continue to finish your dissertation after you have started your new job.  Give yourself a reasonable amount of time, maybe a little at a time each week, to house-hunt.  And, I recommend actually making a trip to your new location before you move to get a feel of the town, preliminarily explore, and force a short mental break in the midst of dissertating.  Ideally, you negotiated for compensation from your new job to house-hunt, maybe even connected with a realtor or another service; if not, I suggest asking if there are funds for this.

Working

Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing.  I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time.  I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had results because I used it as my job talk.  Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback.  The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve, in his capacity as my chair, a chapter before any other committee member could see it.  But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members.  So, I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors.  And, while I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next.  I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.

I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage.  I flirted with the idea.  But, I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy.  This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving.  I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return.  But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer in return.  I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one.  I would advise against starting anything new at this point.

I strongly recommend isolating yourself to finish.  Fortunately/unfortunately, the department automatically backs away.  But, other students may not know to leave you be.  If you can, work at home or the library.  BUT!  You have to counterbalance this self-imposed isolation with taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.  If you do not have friends or colleagues checking up on you, reach out to someone.  Go out every once in a while.  Leave the house every other day.  Go for walks.  Have some regularly schedule time that is a non-negotiable break (you know, like “weekends”), and take part or all of spring break off.  Seriously!  Your brain will need to recharge.

Although I suggest cutting off all other professional obligations, it may help to have some other mental stimuli.  There were days that my brain felt like mush.  And, I found sitting in isolation in my apartment, looking at Stata output and folders full of articles — all in the name of social science — ironic and a tad depressing.  And, the constant self-censorship required for academic writing — “race discrimination” not “racism” — was exhausting, and threatened to impede my writing.  So, I continued to blog, an outlet in which I was not constrained.  Others have recommended blogging as a way to prevent writer’s block during the dissertation writing stage.  I know well the professional risks, and some simply are not comfortable blogging, so any kind of writing may suffice — private journaling, poetry, spoken word, sending thank you letters, etc.  You may find it useful to attend one campus event or talk, or even one per month, to ensure that you 1) interact with other humans, 2) are forced to shower, 3) are forced to walk, 4) are forced to breathe fresh air and see sunlight, and 5) are seen by others so that there is proof you are still alive.

A Note On A “Done Dissertation”

The most helpful advice I received to finish my dissertation was that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.”  So, as my committee expressed concern that one year to finish and secure a job was not enough time to write a “great” dissertation, I scoffed because it would sit on a shelf along side everyone else’s good, but completed dissertation.  And, when the time finally came just to write the damn thing, perfection as the primary goal gave way to completion.  And, if you have not heard this before, know that finishing does not mean by your standards (per se), by a journal editor’s or book publisher’s standards, or even your discipline’s standards.  You are finished with your dissertation when your dissertation committee has decided it is finished; they are the sole gatekeepers whom you must satisfy at this stage.  If they say to add something you do not agree with, add it — you can quickly remove it when you go to publish from your dissertation research.  (Or, if it’s a secondary committee member, ask your chair if she thinks you need to add it.  If yes, than do so and eliminate it post-dissertation.)

Hopefully, you will publish something from your dissertation research later on.  So, I want to suggest that having something a little more than a “done dissertation” may prove beneficial down the road.  I pushed back against my committee’s suggestion to produce a traditional, seamless dissertation, instead opting for an overarching introduction and conclusion, but otherwise distinct empirical chapters.  I followed what some call the “three paper/chapter model.”  At the start of my new job, I was able to send these chapters out with very little editing.  If all I had was empirical chapters that reviewed results with little front end and conclusion, it would take more time to extract these as distinct manuscripts.  Fortunately, my committee came around to the idea, as it was not the department’s norm.  If they do not allow you to take this approach, do as much as you can to make the chapters distinct to minimize work later on.  By today’s high standards for productivity, you cannot afford to waste time writing a magnus opus of a dissertation that does not easily translate into a book or a set of published articles!

Finishing

Your committee, department, and/or university may have a set amount of time to send your committee your final draft before you defend.  I have heard 2 weeks is minimal, so I aimed for one month to be generous.  This is the first (or second) and last time you will have 4-5 experts sitting before to give feedback to improve your work and set your future research agenda.  You definitely want to give them enough time, considering their busy schedules, to thoroughly read your 200-500 page “baby.”  For me, the one-month window coincided with how far in advance I had to announce my upcoming defense.  Also, if I were behind schedule, I would still be giving my committee a generous 3-week window.

Be sure to have factored in time to actually proofread your work!  And, create a plan for printing and delivering your dissertation to each committee member in advance.  Having a mini panic attack at the local Kinko’s as you try to get copies to your committee before the department closes at 4pm, and being told “that’s $170” to print 5 copies, is not fun.

During the time leading up to your defense, I advise one of two things.  Leave this time to take care of the tedious formatting that your university requires for filed dissertations.  Or, if you have already done this, work on a project you have neglected over the semester, only returning to your dissertation the day before your defense.  Do not revise the content of your dissertation during this time!  After your (successful!) defense, you will have tons of changes to make before you can file your dissertation with the college — and, your chair may want to approve the final document, too.  Give yourself this time to take a bit of a break, at least to do mindless things or turn your attention to other projects.

Me - Looking Up

Looking Ahead

One of the greatest achievements of your career (and your life!) will end in the most anticlimactic, underwhelming way.  You go from securing a job (woohoo!), to finishing a draft of your dissertation (almost there!), to graduating (symbolic, at best!), to successfully defending (“Doctor” finally, but not really!), to submitting your dissertation to the college.  Three months later you get your diploma.  And, a month or two after that, you get copies of your dissertation, if you purchase them.  When you are officially, officially done, it seems your milestone is already old news.  I strongly recommend celebrating each and every step of finishing.

I had family come out for graduation in early May, including a family dinner.  But, it did not feel “real” just yet because I had not even defended yet.  By the time I filed and moved for my new job, I was ready to move on — or so I thought.  I declined my mother’s repeated request to have a big family celebration — I was one of few to get a master’s degree, and the first to get a PhD on her side of the family (and, one of very few on my father’s side, too).  “I don’t need all of this fuss about me; we already celebrated,” I insisted.  But, in finding no fanfare for this major achievement as I started my new job, it became clear that I had not properly celebrated.  A few weeks in, saying “you know, I’m proud of myself” out loud brought out an ugly cry that let me know I needed to do something to celebrate.  This is trickier than college, which ends with graduation and a graduation party with family and/or friends, because graduation precedes actually finishing your dissertation and having your degree conferred by the college.  So, make sure you celebrate at some point, if not every point!

Leave yourself enough time to properly move.  Set a deadline to file your dissertation and wrap up any other loose ends, and then turn your attention fully to moving.  And, once moved, give yourself time to explore your new home.  Sure, you should make an effort to hit the ground running at your new job.  But, you will benefit from having roots settled when the semester picks up.  Get a driver’s license, update mailing addresses, register to vote, find a new doctor and dentist — all of those things that become annoyances later on when you are very busy!  And, frankly, it is okay to take some time off to recharge your battery before starting the new job.  If your field typically holds conferences over the summer, it may be fine to take a year off.  (I went, but partially regretted it because of the costs, and I was too exhausted to network properly, and I had not yet shifted into “professor” mode — so I felt I wasted the time there.)

Once you do officially start your new job, which I recommend comes a couple of weeks (even a month or so) before the semester starts, take the time to prep your courses and get research moving.  Your first semester will be a busy, stressful time of adjustment.  If you start getting your “ducks in a row” early, you can coast a bit when the semester starts to overwhelm you.  By the latter half of the semester, you will thank yourself for your late summer productivity.

Please read this!  Of all of the things I wish I had known going into the final semester of graduate school, the most regrettable was not thinking ahead financially.  Your meager stipend or fellowship will likely run out by the end of this semester, and then you will have no income until September or even October.  That means living and moving on zero income over the summer!  As much as you can, try to save beginning today!  Hopefully, you negotiated with your new job for some sort of compensation for moving.  If not, ask about it immediately.  I suppose there are many things you will not know, but the financial crunch at this stage seems too pressing of an issue to (unintentionally) keep quiet.

Recap

So, here are the deadlines you will either need to set, self-impose, or for which to account in your scheduling:

  • How long you will give yourself to write, revise, and complete each chapter
  • When to factor in soliciting and incorporating feedback from your chair, other committee members and/or friends and other colleagues
  • How far in advance you need to apply for graduation, book travel and hotel for visiting family and friends, and rent or purchase graduation regalia
  • Allowing yourself enough time to coordinate each committee member’s schedule.  Keep in mind some leave on the first flight after their last class of the spring semester!
  • How far in advance you must provide your committee with the final draft of your dissertation for your defense
  • How far in advance you must officially announce your dissertation defense
  • Time to go through the detailed instructions for properly formatting your dissertation before filing
  • How far in advance you must file your dissertation, and if there are special circumstances
  • Time to house-hunt and then move
  • Time to properly recover, relax, and recharge before beginning your new job

And, the expenses — some (or all!) of which come right out of your own pocket:

  • Typical living expenses
  • Graduation regalia, transportation and lodging for visiting family, graduation dinner
  • Printing drafts of your dissertation (unless you print them on campus)
  • Submitting, binding, and printing your final dissertation
  • Transportation and lodging for a house-hunting trip, if you make one before moving
  • Rental truck, boxes, storage, and other costs associated with moving
  • Security deposit, first month’s rent, and any other initial expenses once you have moved (e.g., turning on power, groceries, driver’s license)

Others’ Advice

As I often do, I conclude with others’ advice and perspectives in recognizing that I can only speak for myself.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen Reflects On “Normalized Weekend Work”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer (see her full biography here).  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general). 

Below, Dr. Jorgensen has shared another guest post (see the first here), in which she raises the unspoken question about working beyond the 40 hours for which academics are typically paid.  Enjoy!

Normalized Weekend Work:  It Is Basically Like Homework, Right?

Photo by James Mortiarty

Photo by James Moriarty

As I pulled the pile of grading into my lap on a Saturday evening, I paused to reflect on how normal it seems to do work on the weekends, in the evenings, and on the weekend evenings. These are normally coveted times for socializing, relaxing, and even doing unofficial labor like domestic tasks, relationship maintenance, and errands. I didn’t used to have a problem with working on the weekends, but something has changed: my perspective.

I was a student for the bulk of my life, going straight from high school to college, and straight from college to a PhD program (earning my MA on the way). When I finished my doctorate and starting adjuncting, for lack of other opportunities, I thought, okay, I’ll take on some freelance writing work to help pay the bills. Since I was trying to remain competitive on the job market, I also made time to do my own research, which has included publishing articles, presenting at conferences, writing book reviews, and starting to work on my book proposal. Teaching plus freelancing plus researching plus writing plus publishing has led to a somewhat busy schedule, likely to the detriment of my relationships and personal life.

I’m not as bad off as some academic overachievers, like this scholar, Kate, who delayed routine health checks only to discover that she had breast cancer.  But the more I think about the situation—what I’m putting in vs. what I’m getting out—the less I’m happy with working on weekends.

The disconnect came when I realized that working on weekends didn’t used to bother me. In fact, back when it was just “homework” I usually enjoyed it (yes, I’m a nerd like that). I have to spend this weekend reading a book? Oh no, how terrible! I can only go to the party after I finish a first draft of a paper? Fine by me, I hate arriving early anyway since it feeds my social anxiety issues. It didn’t seem that bad at the time.

Now, I realize that a large part of the reason I was totally okay with giving up evenings and weekends as a student was that it was supposed to be temporary. Being a student is a phase in one’s life, during which one works very, very hard to achieve the kinds of grades and learn the kinds of skills that will help one land a job or achieve whatever the next life goal is. Then, in the mystical, magical place known as Adulthood, one would maintain sane working hours and actually have something resembling the oft-rumored free time.

jeana

Photo by James Moriarty

Obviously, life is life, and we’ll never have as much free time as we desire. There will always be chores to do, sick friends to bring soup to, conversations about finances to schedule with partners. I balk, however, at accepting that I will always have to work weekends simply because I chose to pursue an academic career. Forcing weekend work on scholars is tantamount to assigning mandatory homework. The amount of labor implicitly present in academic job descriptions is deceptive, and I believe that the unspoken requirement to bring work home infantilizes us, treating us as though we’re still students, as though the institution always knows best, and we must always keep busy.

The blog post, “Perfectionism and Its Discontents,” distinguishes between having (usually healthy) personal standards of excellence and having (usually unhealthy) perfectionist tendencies. What the blogger advocates is that academics have high personal standards, and that these “standards be achievable, that our successes be recognized, and that our mistakes be accepted.” Is a job that implicitly requires take-home work encouraging its workers to subscribe to achievable standards? Will it recognize its workers’ successes?

In my mind, if I am getting paid to do a job, I’ll want to consider, among other factors, the hours involved, and how that correlates to the pay, the prestige, and what sort of good I’m doing in the world. I don’t think it’s unsustainable to expect scholars (or workers in general) to bring work home on some weekends or some evenings. However, it should not, in my view, be the norm without it being crystal-clear in the job description, without additional compensation, or unless the person chooses, without punishment or incentive, to take it on because they’re really, really into what they’re doing. This impulse to go above and beyond could be for institutional reasons (wanting to see a project through because it’ll benefit everyone) or for personal reasons (getting excited about new research).

I know I’m in a bit of a slump, being between research projects, and still trying to figure out how I feel about being in my second year of adjuncting, and attempting to plan my next move. But now that I’ve begun thinking of working on weekends as being akin to homework, I find myself less than eager to do it. Maybe my next exciting research project is just around the corner and I simply haven’t caught sight of it yet. Or perhaps realizing that there are power dynamics at work in how you spend your time is a bit of a disincentive to expending more energy for an institution that isn’t looking out for you. A little of column A, a little of column B?

Once I became more aware of this pattern, I’ve made the following attempts to work with this realization and deal with my resentment over it. Perhaps these strategies will offer you some ideas, too:

  • I log hours like I would for a “real” job, thus letting me see if I’ve put in 8-10ish hours already. Then I might feel justified in calling it quits in the evening (granted, measuring intellectual labor is tough, so I try to use a mix of looking for measurable results, like finishing a draft of that syllabus or those article edits, and simply measuring the time I spend with my laptop or a book being productive, regardless of how much I accomplish).
  • If there’s a non-academic event I’m looking forward to, like dinner with friends or a dance performance I’m in, I will establish in advance that it’s a priority, and that I will put down my work when it’s time to go.
  • If I really must work over the weekend or through the evening, I tell someone about it, so that I can be held accountable for that much work and not more. I’ll tell my workout buddy that I need to finish a stack of grading before we can hit the gym, and if there’s still grading waiting for me when I get back, I feel like it’s reasonable to keep working until the grading is done, and then stop.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with academic “homework” once you’re no longer a student?