Time to aim high, or low?

August 30, 2010

It is that time of year.  The semester starts off for many of us professorial-types.  Some of us may be full of noble aspirations for the classroom this year (I will write more interesting lectures; I will integrate a new service learning module into my course; I will never look like a slovenly sot in class; I will not crack lame jokes to which my students do not respond) while others (over here!) are settling into a year with lowered expectations (I will show more films in class; I will leave the lame jokes in; I will eliminate one writing assignment so I have a little less grading to do).

First, let me clarify that my lowered expectations are for myself, not my students.  I will still be holding them to the very high standards that make them narrow their eyes at me in rage.  Starting year 3 on the tenure-track, my lowered expectations for myself in the classroom stem from several realizations that have sunk in over time.  First and foremost, whether I spend 3 hours or 30 minutes preparing my class, the students seem not to be able to tell the difference.  They get as excited (or bored) by a lecture I sweated over for hours as they do over the ones I outline in 45 minutes.

Second, now at a point (temporarily) where there are no new preps (no new preps!) I am teaching courses with which I am more than passing familiar, and all of that cumulative preparation has paid off.  So no big changes, complete overhauls… the time has come to tweak, to finesse, and, though unrealistic, to perfect.  There will be some changes to my courses, but they are of the minor kind, requiring me to write two new lectures, to substitute a few readings for others, and to demand a wee bit more from my introductory students who I think are capable of producing more in my big ole lecture course.  And of course, to show an extra movie in each class (though I have recently learned from the very smart Schnauzer not to list these on the syllabus ahead of time and just surprise the students with them in class– it turns out they are more likely to come to class this way.  Who knew!)

The final realization that drives me to leave my courses as they are (more-or-less) is that in the third year I will face the dreaded gauntlet of the Third Year Review.  This is a common phenomenon at many institutions of higher learning in which junior faculty’s three years are evaluated in terms of their progress towards tenure.  In theory, my senior colleagues could decide that I am a miserable bet on the tenure track and choose not to renew my contract and send me packing.  In our case, the third year review also sets us up to be competitive candidates for sabbatical funds (pre-tenure sabbaticals are not guaranteed at Midwestern U.)  The take-home message of the impending review is that while teaching counts, research is what really matters.  I’d love to be tenured because of my teaching, but this is not the take home message of the institution for which I work.  So this year, I really have to put my nose to the ground, polish off promised manuscripts, and shove a couple of more things into the dreaded pipeline.  It will be dazzling.  It will be stupendous.  It will be utterly terrifying and exhausting, but hey, it’s what I signed up for… isn’t it?

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In my elementary school days, I often remember having to prepare the infamous ‘how I spent my summer’ essay or presentation.  The stakes always seemed rather high.  What fabulous adventures had we all gotten up to over the summer months when some of us flitted in and out of each other’s lives?  Remember, this was elementary school in the days before cell phone ubiquity and e-mail, let alone Facebook.  Upon our return to school, newly shod in squeaky stiff shoes and, as we grew older, perhaps trying out a new fashion risk (hot pink jellies!), we would listen as our classmates enumerated their many adventures.  We kept track of who traveled the farthest, went to the neatest camps, or took one of those iconic journeys associated with Americana (the Grand Canyon!  Disneyland!).  I was frequently a stay at home kid.  While my parents would occasionally spring for day camp a few days a week, more often than not I was at home, reading books, swimming in the public pool, and playing with my upstairs neighbor in the hallways of our old apartment building. When my elementary school days ended, I was often taking summer classes, interning, or working– otherwise building my college prospects.

Now, after a semester with no teaching, I find myself realizing I am still a stay at home kid– at least for now.  No fabulous field trips to start new research projects, no overseas conferences, or other exotic travels.  I stayed home, sometimes commuting to my other home with Mr. Rottweiler on the East Coast.  And what, do you ask, did I do with my time at home?  When I started out in January, I was determined to work on my book proposal and dive into the book manuscript based on revising and elaborating my dissertation.  For those who are unaware of my relationship with my dissertation, a quick reminder: I am still enamored of it.  So I had really been looking forward to applying myself to its improvement, really getting down and dirty and wallowing in the thing and then sending it into the ether to meet its match in an academic press.  Predictably, that is not what happened.

In the back of my head, a little voice (surprising like the voice of my [now former] chair, Big Dawg) started whining: “The book route to tenure is a risky strategy…. putting all your eggs in one basket.  It could all go so very horribly wrong!”  I ignored the voice, and commenced working on my book proposal.  But the voice did not shut up– so Day 1, I found myself unfocused and distracted.  On Day 2, I had a conversation with the voice. “Listen,” I said, “monographs are pretty standard routes for anthropologists.  I know it’s risky, but do you really think that I won’t be able to get it out in the next 6 years?  Really?” And without hesitation, the voice replied, “You never know….!”  I promptly told the voice I thought it was full of s*&! and being generally unhelpful and would it shut up already and let me knock out the book proposal, pretty please.

Day 2 did not go any better than Day 1, and neither did the day after.  I doggedly (hee) chipped away on the proposal for a week, but its completion eluded me, and the various pieces and chapters now actually seemed to repel each other (much like when you can’t stick two magnets together because they have the same polarity).  By the end of the week, I found myself staring at a single chapter, and I decided, then and there, to revise it into an article and send it out into the world.  I had presented this particular chapter on numerous occasions and as folks were generally receptive and no one had stood up and declared my total ineptitude and wrongness at any point, I decided that this one was ready to make its way into the world as an article.  I picked a date by which I wished to make the submission– a week before our junior faculty review (we get reviewed every year at Midwestern). I made my deadline.

Once the article was submitted, I turned back to the book proposal, thinking now I could really give it a go.  Turns out, I was wrong and Big Dawg’s voice started up again… this time muttering something about publishing at least one piece ‘beyond the dissertation’ in order to meet tenure requirements.  This time I knew better than to argue, so I looked at my old field notes and decided to write a new paper on a topic I had not had a chance to get to for my dissertation.  By May, I had a new article-length manuscript which I then test-drove at a conference, rewrote, and recently sent to some friends for another round of comments.

So how did I spend my summer?  If you’ve been paying attention, you know I didn’t get to my book proposal or manuscript.  Instead, I decided to tackle a third article, also “new” where it concerns my dissertation.  When I say ‘decided,’ I mean that I had organized a conference panel that all the participants were so excited about, we decided to try to turn it into a special issue of a journal.  In April, I finally found an editor willing to consider it, so I promised to get all the pieces submitted by June 1st, and, a week later, forgot about it.  When I finished my second article in May, I glanced at the calendar and realized that I had better get to the article to make the June 1st deadline.  No problem– base it on my conference paper, right?  Err…. well, problem was I had presented a paper that had already been published (my only peer-reviewed piece, actually), so I had to write something completely new!

I managed to pull the thing together by mid-July, buy myself more time to write the introduction to the special issue, and get the other panelists to turn in their pieces.  I am not sure if my submission will make muster.  It was by far the most unpolished thing I have ever allowed anyone else to see, but I definitely was happy to have it off my desk (at least for now).  I then returned to the conference paper I had finished in May (per above) and revised it in relation to the comments given me by my discussants and a trusted reader (ok– former adviser), before sending it out again.  Another glance at the calendar, and a series of administrative emails making various demands jolted me into the reality of the on-coming semester.  The last two weeks have been spent preparing syllabi (two old classes, one new!) and gearing up for a short research trip I will take before the term starts.

As of yesterday, I did hear back from the journal to which I submitted the first article (way back early in the Spring semester) and the comments are encouraging, so a resubmission seems to be in my future.  In addition to the three classes I am teaching, I will be headed to two conferences this Fall, necessitating two new papers.  It will be a busy semester and one in which I have now accepted that the book project will be on hold.  But come December… I will be getting back to it.  Oh yes, I will.  So if Professor Rottweiler is a little harrowed and a little snappish with students this semester, it’s because she is busy and doesn’t have time to deal with their silliness.  They’d best tread softly and stay away from my teeth.