Sunday, April 22, 2012

Midcareer Query: Is it actually getting harder, or are we doing this to ourselves?

SPOILER ALERT! The answer is: yes.

You'll notice that blogging has been light this semester.  Part of it is the post-book identity struggle.  Part of it is my aim to observe, rather than complain for the sake of venting.  But part of it is that I'm swamped.  And I've been wondering why.  Why don't things get easier after tenure?  Why, in fact, do they seem to get harder?

Part of it is that they actually are harder, at least from my vantage point. Budget cuts, starting a new research project, a bit more committee work (okay, so I'm mostly still hiding under my desk when it comes to that bit), a new prep, three independent studies with grad students... Yep.  Lots of work.

But here's the thing that I've been talking about with a few other local proffies around my vintage here at Grit City U.: Once you get tenure, and the pressure to publish that first book is off, you turn to your courses and start... tinkering.  You start, gods help you, trying to improve them.  A new assignment?  New readings?  Or, if you're like me, you go all individual conference-intensive, trying to get better results.  For the record, all this tinkering has produced better results, for the most part. And the former SLAC-er in me finds this a vindication of what I've always believed: individual attention is the way to go.

Some days, I think of the struggles my students are facing, and I think, "Okay, this might actually be a hill worth dying on." Other days, I feel like I'm being devoured by a monster of my own making.  And in the tug-of-war between wanting to be the best at what I do, and sanity, I'm honestly not sure what's going to win.


Dr. Crazy said...

Honestly? I'd say it's probably a little bit of both. On the one hand, conditions (money, morale, etc.) are WAY worse now at my institution than they were when I was hired nearly a decade ago, and I suspect the same is true for you. Years of doing more with less means that the job *has* gotten harder.

But also, you are probably making things harder for yourself, too. When you add in something like mandatory conferencing (which I do, in some classes) then you've got to give up something else. You can't stay sane and just keep adding and adding and adding to your workload. What I have been trying to do in the past semester or so (because, like you, I'd been adding adding adding to my workload without any subtraction) is to take one thing away for every new thing I add, or, barring that, to refuse to allow myself more than one change per course, if what we're talking about is a change rather than an addition. So if I'm going to change a writing assignment in a course, that means I'm not *allowed* to change the content or anything else in that course. If I'm going to add in a mandatory conference, that means taking away one short graded assignment. I've decided that it's not about doing more - it's about doing *better.* And sometimes that means that for one improvement one thing that was just fine is going to go. And that's ok.

Comrade Physioprof said...

One thing that has become clear to me is that institutional loyalty is a fools' game, and that academics owe it to themselves to put the majority of their effort into tasks that raise their profile and esteem not within their own institutions per se, but rather in their scholarly fields at large. Scholars with tenure should be spending less time on teaching and more time on research than they did before tenure.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Fair enough, Comrade, but I'd put a sliding scale on your advice -- that is, that the degree to which one can or should implement this depends on the type of institution you're at.

Crazy, you're right about not making too many changes at once. I do try to implement that.

In general, what I meant with the post was an explanation of how midcareer in general is a time when we start "fixing" things in a way that takes up more of our time.

Squadratomagico said...

I found that the post-tenure phase when I was trying to research my next book was awful. I kept losing the thread of my ideas, because they had to be sandwiched in with everything else; I felt uncertain, sometimes, if the book would ever happen or if I was on the right track. And somehow that made everything I was doing feel overwhelming. However, once I really figured the second book out, and had enough of it written so that I could identify clearly what needed to be done, something clicked into place. For the first time ever, I feel like I am on top of everything, even new preps. For me, it seems that how I feel about my research sets the tone for it all.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Wise words, Squadrato. It's hard for me to resist instruction-creep when the time I'd be gaining would be devoted to what is, right now, an amorphous mass.

Alternatively, I could get *nothing* done and spend time online. Which I think may be a sign of aimless wandering just this side of depression.

Right. Fuck the grading. Back to the books.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Fair enough, Comrade, but I'd put a sliding scale on your advice -- that is, that the degree to which one can or should implement this depends on the type of institution you're at.

Definitely, any shift in allocation of effort has to be within a dynamic range imposed in part by this factor.

Janice said...

You're right that we can become lost in endless improvements and tinkering. I try to minimize changes, now, instead of revising everything! Let's fix one problem and leave well enough alone with the rest so that I can assess the value of the one big change.

But my classes continue to creep up in size and I'm getting more grad students which is a lot more work, all the while I need to keep my research and publishing plans on track!

Anonymous said...

Tenured = more committee work, more letters of rec, more administrivia, more grad teaching. Hard to believe when you are going through it, but pre-tenure is a lighter and more coherent work load. Ah, those were the days. Ha!

Historiann said...

I think you should listen to the advice here, esp. w/r/t the time you're spending on teaching. (And I write this as someone who needs to learn this lesson myself, although I've got a 2-2 and not a 4-4, so I feel like I *do* have the time to read new books and add new lectures every semester. . . )