I can’t believe I’ll be starting my third year in a tenure track position this coming August.
It really seems like yesterday when I graduated with my Ph.D. and moved across the country to start my position. In addition to all of my summer travels
I am working diligently to pull together my reappointment portfolio for my upcoming third year review. As daunting as that may sound, I am really enjoying putting together this “carefully curated collection” of materials that demonstrate my productivity and efficacy in research, teaching, service and professional development. Truth is, like many other early career academics, I am generally working so much and so hard that structured opportunities like this prove very useful : it’s a chance to reflect on what I've done and a moment where I can focus on where I want to go next in terms of my work. In the past three years, I’ve managed to cultivate some measure of personal well-being and professional success during what I imagine will be some of the most difficult years of my professional life. When I look back, I have to ask myself, what have been the choices I’ve made, risks I’ve taken and resources
I sought out that have made a difference in my success? Three things immediately come to mind
:You can’t do it by yourself:
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am a strikingly independent person by nature. I value self-reliance and resourcefulness and I have worked pretty hard to be in a position to “handle my business.” Still, the truth is that success isn’t something we create all on our own. I have had to use my bold, direct nature to cultivate meaningful relationships, both personally and professionally, in order to make it where I am today. Sure, I could have just put my head down, focused on my 5-year plan and pushed full-steam ahead but when I think of the opportunities I would have missed I can’t help but cringe. Being successful is as much about your personal sense of commitment and follow-through as it is about finding and making use of much needed assistance offered along the way. Humility is key…don’t be so “independent” that you miss out on resources and relationships that can change your career for the better. Focus on the Positive:
There are so many things in life that have come along which could have knocked me off of my game. In the last few years, I have dealt with illness, “being broke,” losing friends, spiritual crises, family upheavals, a devastating break-up and death in my family. All of that along with the day-to-day life stuff has brought me many a day where I felt sad, demoralized, alone and afraid. It is in those moments that I have had to focus on “the good.” There have been times when I have had to sit down and recite a list out loud of things that were going right in my day. What I’ve learned over time is that each time I managed to focus on what was going right, I was able to pull myself back from the brink of bad decisions, self-destructive behavior and all manner of negativity. When I couldn’t do it for myself, I called on the people in my life who I trust and they have helped me re-focus away from the negative…they helped me focus on where I was getting support as opposed to being angry about it not coming from the folks I expected to offer me a sense of reinforcement. If there is anything happening that is good, including the fact that there is air in your lungs and blood in your veins, hold on. Where there is life there is hope. That is a fact. Keep going. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
: As life has gotten increasingly complex, I have to be ever more careful about where and how I spend my time. In order to maximize the time I spend on work and play, I have to keep other daily distractions to a minimum and manage tasks with efficiency. All that “stuff” that I used to associate with being a "grown up," like having a budget, keeping the closet clean and organized, making sure my workplace is well-stocked and tidy--these are all things that are a regular part of my life now. Why? Because simply put, I don’t have time for extraneous stuff that sucks away the time and energy I need to write, think, teach, play and enjoy the company of my loved ones. Anything that streamlines a process -- from having my organic veggies delivered to my house to managing all of my social media accounts from one app -- saves me time and energy that I need to do other things that are of critical importance both personally and professionally. I’ve also had to simplify my relationships, which has meant getting very clear very quickly about who my friends are, what a colleague is and what the values are that govern those relationships. Simplicity and clarity break me out of any tendency to procrastinate or waste time. This is critical when that tenure clock is ticking! When I look at my career today, I am happy. I am genuinely proud of my accomplishments and I feel good about myself. Moments like these inspire me not only to reflect but to share what I’ve learned over the years with others. I believe that the "best good" is the "shared good."
Here's the thing: This is my second year on the tenure track at my current institution. This is my eighth year teaching in higher ed. I've worked at a variety of schools ranging from small liberal arts colleges to emerging research institutions. While I have had to learn a lot as I went along and sought out help and support at every turn, the truth is, my primary struggle as an emerging academic is not with the teaching/research/service paradigm I find myself in at this point. I teach well, I am productive and I contribute wherever I can. My primary struggle seems to be, upon reflection, about guarding my heart in the academy.
I came into the academy because I wanted to teach and to serve. I've been blessed to have a mother who was a wonderful teacher and truly, I've had good teachers throughout my education, both in the classroom and in community settings. With age, I even appreciate the teachers I had that were not so excellent, because truly, they reminded me of what not to do. Fact is, folks can really only show you what to do and what not to do, so I am grateful for both examples in my life because they have taught me a lot. My point is, I came into the academy because I value learning, I wanted to share my gifts as an educator and I wanted to create new knowledge with my students. I'm the kind of educator who values diversity -- of all kinds -- in my classroom and believes that when we work together to support student learning, the entire society benefits. I am committed to infusing best practices in my classroom even when taking the time to learn new strategies and re-design courses proves inconvenient. I live for that moment when my students are connecting seemingly unrelated ideas and making new discoveries. It is so worth it. Always.
Don't get me wrong. This tenure - track "thang" is exhausting and demands so much to do it well. By the end of a day, I am tired. By the end of a week, you could knock me over with a feather...but that's because I put my all into everything I do and teaching is no exception. I have learned how to implement classroom management strategies and prepare for teaching in an efficient way that gives me time to do the research I want to be doing (while meeting tenure requirements.) I am also becoming more adept at finding service opportunities that align with my interests. My big issue is dealing with the day to day stuff that I find obscures the reasons why I came into the academy in the first place.
I know that the business of the university requires more than my enthusiastic, idealistic and altruistic spirit, but c'mon. It's so disheartening to realize that very seldom do we as professors come together as a group and reflect on the essence of our endeavor. We have a responsibility, in my opinion, to do all we can to support our students and facilitate their educations. Yes, the research matters -- a lot! But it seems so critical to draw a line between what you research and what you do in the classroom -- even if that "line" has to do with ethos or sensibility and not topics, per se. I can go a full week and not be engaged in a conversation about what is in the best interests of the folks I've been hired to educate. I can also check my inbox and have way too many messages that have nothing to do with reaching the people I've been called to serve as an educator. And no, I'm not mad about it. I'm surprised. And...it makes me sad.
When I get sad, I have to go to a quiet place and remind myself why I did this. I have to remind myself why I've lived in 6 cities trying to become a professor. I have to remind myself of the people who sacrificed their comfort and convenience to make sure I learned something. I have to talk to myself about the value of the work I do in the classroom when I find myself in contexts that seem to only value the number of publication entries on my CV. I have to close my eyes and see the faces of the folks I serve in my classroom and remember that to them, what we do together is important...especially during those weeks when nobody around me has even broached that subject. I have to close my inbox, close my eyes and remember that good teaching changes lives and that's why I came into this whole enterprise. I have to speak to myself about the truism that education is a passport to the future. More than anything, when my very heart as a teacher feels battered and bruised by the pressure to reduce the academic enterprise to some pseudo - corporate foolery, I have to wrap my arms around myself and remember my "why." And I do that. And then? I get ready to go to class...
In an era where higher education is under attack and folks will openly question the value of what I do, I have to guard my heart. In a moment when folks openly suggest that professors are just a bunch of spoiled, lazy folks pontificating in the dark and taking our summers off, I have to guard my heart. And more than anything, when I find myself in conversations about various policies, procedures and initiatives where the best interests of students aren't even considered or discussed, I muster up all the strength I have in my heart, open my mouth and urge "us" -- whomever "us" is at that time -- to put the needs of our students back at the center of the dialogue and use that information to guide the decision making. This ain't no light action and it ain't easy, but it seems so necessary to me preserving not only my sanity but my integrity as a professor.
In the Spring 2012 issue of “The Presidency,” Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College in Northampton, MA writes to dispel the myth that a liberal arts education is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. She writes:
"It is no longer news that career trajectories are varied and multiple; that our professional pursuits have distinct chapters over the course of our lives; and that, especially for women, the ability to step off and back on the career track during childbearing years is critical to advancement. Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that more than three-quarters of employers would recommend an education with this emphasis to a young person they know. The challenges our graduates will face are more global than ever. Any judgment of value we place on a liberal arts education must take into account the new reality of the “flat” world."
I am particularly taken with the way President Christ characterizes liberal arts education as being centered around notions of “flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills” with an emphasis on writing. As someone firmly committed to the idea that dance has a place within the liberal arts/studies curriculum, it seems that the discipline of dance studies is extremely well suited to serve the goals of a liberal arts education. The characteristics that Christ points out are calling cards of a well-developed dance department curriculum that is informed by the needs of 21st century students and not held captive by centralizing what existing faculty can teach at any given institution.
It seems to me that if we consider (a) the needs of our students to exist and thrive competitively in a global marketplace, (b) the demands of dance as a discipline constituted by many practices (other than, but including performance,) and (c) the need to remain competitive in the academic context to ensure our programs thrive, some changes need to be made. Plainly, we need to re-think the structure of our programs, the benchmarks we use to determine how students progress through a dance major and what we think constitutes a “strong program.” I am particularly concerned about the ways in which undergraduate dance programs often place such a high priority (as evidenced by budget and resource allocations, scholarship decisions and hiring practices) on the centrality of performance rather than emphasizing the broader range of practices that constitute the discipline, (like pedagogy, research and therapy, for example) to ensure that our students have the ability to develop the traits central to a liberal arts education. By allowing our students the “freedom” (one of the meanings of the word “liberal”) to truly explore and engage the various aspects of dance (including a variety of movement genres and performance practices, introducing teaching and research modalities and therapeutic applications,) their chances of developing flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communication skills would be heightened.
What do you think? What kinds of challenges do you see that would make it difficult to implement these kinds of changes in an existing program? What models do you know of that are already taking a more holistic approach to educating undergraduate dance majors?