The Academic’s Dilemma: Being a Good Citizen and Managing Time

23 August 2018, 0218 EDT

Tis the season for academic navel gazing so here are some things I’ve learned the hard way. This is primarily a piece for folks on the tenure track. I know that I come at this from a position of immense privilege as a tenured professor at an R1, layered by being a white guy. I know that some of the advice I’m going to give won’t be all that helpful to folks in more vulnerable positions as adjunct faculty, but I still think this advice needs to be said for new tenure track faculty. I hope others find it useful.

Jealously Guard Your Time
You are low man or woman on the totem pole. There will be many demands on your time. New course preps. Departmental meetings, committees. Hopefully, senior faculty will be looking out for you and try to shield you from more onerous tasks, but don’t count on it. You might need to say no, though might not feel like you are in a position to say no.

Try to get a handle early on what service obligations are especially bad time sucks, admissions and search committees in particular often are, award committees less so. Keep track of how often you’ve been tasked to do these on repeat. Sometimes the same people get tapped to do admissions over and over again. Moreover, departments vary in the degree of staff support and organization behind some committee work. These aren’t often well organized machines but clusters of bad management.

I can’t tell you how many search committees I’ve been on where colleagues and I have had to create a spreadsheet and fill in key biographic attributes of applicants because of bad planning/ inadequate/ overburdened staff. If you see a process that looks FUBAR from the outset, you might ask if there is a way to fix a process to avoid wasting time.

Ask around and find out what meetings you can miss and which ones are consequential.

Senior Colleagues/Mentors Can Run Interference
Here, you need senior departmental colleagues on your side who will look out for you. If you get an assignment or request or a series of them that tests your coping capacity or that you think exceed what is fair to ask of you, then solicit help from your mentor(s). If you have a good relationship with your dean or department chair, you may be able to raise the issue directly with them.

It is especially important for female and faculty of color to be mindful of requests for extra service since most places have problems of under-representation. So whenever they want to have a woman or minority on a committee, they have a limited pool to choose from and you might get tapped time and again. In those instances, you need to point that out and suggest that compared to other colleagues, that you are drawing the short end of the stick. Again, having senior faculty make that point can be easier.

It doesn’t help that students often gravitate to women to be their informal life counselors for bad things happening to them. This isn’t an argument to be hard-hearted but just know that there will be many different demands on your time, some of it unequally distributed.

You don’t have to say yes to everything, though recognize that if you say no, then there could be some task-shifting to someone else. If that someone else is adjunct faculty or if that pattern is gendered, you might want to rethink if you are perpetuating inequality within the department or field. You want to be a good citizen, but you also don’t want to be a sap.

Institutions Don’t Love You
In most places, tenure decisions are largely about how productive you’ve been since you’ve arrived and what your future trajectory looks like. You might find all the demands of teaching/service/etc. to be difficult to manage, and we know what the consequences of not meeting expectations are.

Most places will have a 3 year review so it’s not like you can gin up and count on publishing a ton in the last year of your tenure clock. You may well get strong and potentially career-defining feedback earlier on. My spouse, Bethany Albertson,  has excellent advice on how to respond if that 3rd year review is tough.

You likely have to have things set in motion in year 1 or 2 so you can’t screw around finding your bearings. People may like you, but you got to make it easy for them, and your tenure file and success at most places will hinge on strong outside letters that say compared to other people who came out when you did, you are as if not more awesome than they are.

Publications Can Take a Long Time
I had an article in one of the field’s best journals that took almost three years between submission and publication. There were multiple rounds of revision. It took 6 to 9 months to get reviews back. You have to be mindful and ask around about what journals might have really good turnaround and those that, under the current editors, seem to be dragging.

If you are aiming high, which you may well want to do depending on your placement, you have to anticipate the lag. That’s all the more reason why you can’t wait until year 5 to get your s–t together.

Blogging or Tweeting Won’t Get You Tenure
Consider blogging here or on the Monkey Cage or Political Violence at a Glance or writing policy pieces or doing a podcast. You should do those things if you find them fulfilling. Where you have peer-reviewed research, they are absolutely important complements to your peer-reviewed journal article or book, and I think certainly help with visibility of your scholarship.

They are not a substitute for serious peer-reviewed scholarship. So, if you find yourself doing too much of this, and not enough getting your manuscripts out, remember that being a prolific blogger or having a large follower base on Twitter won’t get you tenure.

I wrote a lot of policy pieces before tenure but always considered that work additional to peer-reviewed work. I have it a little easier at a policy school where some of the engagement stuff might be looked on a tad more favorably, but still, it comes down to the work.

Keep an Eye on the Clock: Research and Parental Leave
It is not always straight-forward how departments manage the clock coming up to tenure. Your institutions should have pretty clear rules on how long it takes to come up for tenure (typically 7 years), but I came in as a weird hire with an extra year as a postdoc so I ended having to spend an extra year before coming up to tenure because that first year didn’t count.

In other cases, if you say go on parental leave, your official clock may stop but it isn’t always well-communicated to outside reviewers how long you’ve been out and whether say you took time out for parental leave or to care for a sick parent. If your department f–ks this up, outside letter reviewers might look at when you got your PhD rather than how long you have actually been in rank and on the job.

If you can get research leave with outside or internal funding for a semester or year to write, avail yourself of that option, because you may need the time. You should be clear though with your institution whether or not that year counts towards your clock. You might not always have a sympathetic department that looks kindly on people taking research leave so you want some cover from senior colleagues to make that case to the powers that be. But, if you are on unstructured leave time, make sure you organize your time well.

Moreover, get very clear guidance from your institution about what service you are required/eligible to do while on leave. If you leave town, it is harder for them to impose on you. If you are still in town, you open yourself up to committee assignments or people popping in, if you go to the office. Go somewhere else if you can, a coffee shop or wherever to lie low.

Writing Dates and Accountability Buddies
Your other assistant professors might be good comrades to meet up at a coffee shop for writing dates so you can hold each other mutually accountable. While that can turn in to shooting the breeze, you might find a regular routine works well to get in the groove. There are more formal programs that you can apply for that do this on a mentoring basis.

Establish Practices with Students that Work for You
I would never recommend blowing off students. You have an obligation to them, but you don’t have an obligation to respond to emails at all hours. I only teach graduate students so I don’t have a huge problem with lots of requests like this, in part because the numbers are low, but my wife teaches online classes of 1000.

You need to figure out a routine that keeps your obligations manageable in terms of office hours and feedback. If you have TAs, make sure you establish clear expectations of what they are supposed to do and what you are going to do. The last thing you want to do is spend more time than is necessary, especially if you have big classes.

Ask your senior colleagues about what the expectations/rules are for office hours and TA responsibilities. You have to protect your time and serve the students. It is a delicate balance.

Reserve Time for Physical/Mental Health & Family
This s–t is stressful. You are no good to yourself or anyone you care about if you don’t take care of yourself. Work out, get some sleep, eat well, and spend some good quality time with your family.

That means figuring out how to deal with devices at night. We have not figured this one out ourselves, but you and your spouse or partner can’t always be staring at a screen when you are together.

Twitter can be a terrific time suck, and this current moment in world history is especially trying. You need to actively manage your own care and get help if things aren’t good.

Did I say work out? Get outside and enjoy nature. Run, lift weights, do yoga, take a barre’ class, bike, some activity that gets you away from the screen.

I don’t know if these thoughts are useful, especially for folks who are adjuncts and in a much more precarious hiring position. I’ll give some more thought about how tenured faculty can be good allies for untenured folks/adjuncts in subsequent posts.