My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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What President William Taft Has Taught Me About Administration

One of the highlights for me this semester was plowing through The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I read it with one of my undergraduate students.  We met together every Wednesday afternoon to talk about the book as we trudged through it.  It’s incredibly long and slow going, but my student and I agreed that it’s really quite a marvel.

The basic gist of the book is a look at the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies within the context of the heyday of the Muckrakers. Fascinating enough. But what really struck me in the book was reading about how Taft handled his career.

Before I read The Bully Pulpit, my knowledge of Taft was scant to say the least. I only knew him as the obese president who had to have a special bathtub installed in the White House.

But, after 750+ pages, here’s what I learned. Taft got things done. And he got things done by studying the issues so he could make an informed decision about what policies to push. He listened to those who agreed with him and those who adamantly opposed him. He gave credit where credit was due.   He compromised when he had to—even when both sides found that unsatisfactory. He was willing to let others bask in the limelight. He worked hard at everything he did.

And he was willing to step up to the plate even if it meant putting his own dreams on hold. In the process he learned new skills. (Apparently he didn’t like to give speeches, but learned to deliver some pretty darn good ones.) His dream of sitting on the Supreme Court was put on hold for a very long time. In the meantime he became Governor General of the Philippines and, eventually, President of the United States. He ran for re-election even though it was never his dream to be POTUS in the first place. He ran a clean campaign despite running against scallywag Teddy Roosevelt’s fledging Progressive Party as well as Woodrow Wilson (who shared many of the same viewpoints as Taft).  And when he lost (big time!), he held his head high and left the White House with his dignity intact.

And, then, finally, William Taft got to do what he wanted to do most of all—and what he had trained to do for years—sit on the Supreme Court (as Chief Justice, no less!). A reward for a life well lived.

Granted, my administrative job is miniscule compared to Taft’s. But I’m taking his principles to heart. And as I get ready to begin My Year Away, I, too, feel like, perhaps I will be getting back to doing what I’ve wanted to do most of all—and what I had trained to do. The life of an academic, pure and simple.


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Joe Biden Is Our Commencement Speaker. Honestly, I Had Nothing to Do With This.

One of the least favorite things I’ve had to do as an administrator is talk to strangers on the phone, trying to explain things that aren’t my fault. I answer my own phone. I learned this from my dad, a former GE exec who answered his own phone. I always thought this was rather admirable. Until the other day.

Over the past six years, I’ve had phone calls from students asking me why they couldn’t get into a particular class (including students who aren’t even in the J-School!). I’ve had parents call me asking me why their high school student didn’t get a scholarship. I’ve had people from the community call me and ask me if I could edit their books. I’ve had compassionate community leaders ask me to help free innocent men from Death Row.  

But the other day, I got multiple calls from parents demanding (I’m using the nice word here) that I get them more tickets for graduation. It was just announced that Joe Biden would be our commencement speaker. Graduation occurs in a gargantuan arena, but apparently with extra security, the university has determined that only six tickets will be distributed to each student. One mother screamed at me. Another mother sobbed, begging me to do something.

For the record, I have absolutely nothing to do with who gets to speak at graduation.

Over the last several months, I’ve written about some of my least favorite things about administration. I don’t mind working hard. I don’t even always mind people expressing disappointment in my decisions, begging me to change my mind. But, these calls just about did me in. It was already a busy day.

A scheduled 90-minute meeting, discussing wiring for our new building (it’s mind-boggling how many decisions have to be made) became a three-hour meeting. I had to squeeze in reading an entire dissertation for a defense. Then I had to scramble to get ready for my three-hour doctoral seminar. And the second that class was over, I had to leap into the car and drive 150 miles to choir practice. (I know. An explanation for that will take an entire post.)

But these screaming episodes on the phone took the cake. Why were they calling me? Did they actually think I could do something? Or was I simply an easy target for a frustrated parent? It was kind of unnerving, actually.

For all would-be administrators out there, get ready. They don’t teach you this stuff in administrative school.

But, here’s the thing. Once the Biden brouhaha calmed down, I had a very productive rest of the week. I ripped through a mountain of paperwork. I answered untold faculty and staff questions. I solved problems.

My office has two doors and these last couple of days, someone was walking out one door while another person was walking in. And I loved it. I was making a difference. Truth is, I’m going to miss leading this journalism school. I’m not having second thoughts about stepping down. It’s time. But, I’m a bit melancholy about it.

Maybe Joe Biden will perk me up!


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Hooray for Writing Deadlines!

Anyone who is an academic in the field of journalism and mass communications knows how traumatic April 1 is. And I’m not talking about navigating the school newspaper that takes its First Amendment rights to places it probably shouldn’t go by publishing the April Fools Edition. Instead, April 1 is the deadline for paper submissions for the national conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Given budget realities in many universities, having a paper accepted for presentation is the only way to get funding to attend the conference—and even then, full funding is a distant memory for many.

At the J-School that I lead, I try to be supportive of all things AEJMC. As a former president of the organization, I have a sweet spot in my heart for this conference. I want my faculty there. I want other schools to see how successful our faculty and graduate students are with their research.

Therefore, I encourage any faculty member who has even the mildest legitimate reason to attend the conference.   I fund each faculty member at $1,200. It’s not unusual for us to have 15 or more instructors attend so it’s a lot of money. Some complain that it’s not enough. (I tell them to talk to some faculty at other universities and they might not feel so bad.)

But it’s not the money that brings me to my point today. It’s the stress of waiting to see if your paper is accepted. When I was a regular professor, I didn’t worry about this very much. I had lots of research in the pipeline and it was always fairly easy to whip something into shape that would be a sure bet for the conference.

But it’s different now. I’m a full-time administrator without a lot research time—especially this semester because I’m trying to finish up my administrative duties by tying up as many loose ends as possible and at the same time launch my “regular professor” life that begins on July 1 with My Year Away.

True, I can probably justify one more conference without a paper but I will need a legitimate reason next time. Since this is my transition year, I decided I might as well start experiencing the trauma just like everyone else.

I had to get a paper ready for April 1. I figured I better hedge my bets and get two papers ready. I needed a strategy. First, I called one of my long-ago research colleagues (who also happens to be a best friend, which makes it all the easier) and said “hey, let’s do a paper for AEJMC.” Even though she’s a provost with absolutely zero free time, she was in.

Second, I called a former graduate student who is in her first year as a tenure-track assistant professor. We had talked about doing some research together and she had a lot of unused data from her dissertation. Plus, the girl is a research machine. She, too, was in.

All this occurred in the fall when it seemed like there was lots of time to get this done. Then, of course, work got in the way of all our plans and we all found ourselves down to the last week with more work to do.

Today is April 1. Phew. Both papers are done and uploaded into the mysterious “All Academic” site that begins the blind review process.

I really didn’t want anyone to know that I was submitting papers because I didn’t want to deal with the humiliation of having to tell people if they were rejected. (And at least half of the submitted papers will, indeed, be rejected, so this is not a case of false humility.) But one reason I started this blog was to write what’s on my heart, to let people peek inside the life of an academic, to allow me a venue for working out my fears and joys about giving up administration and to head toward my sabbatical with my head in the right place. Somehow, owning up to insecurities about research, in my mind, is part of the process.

Plus, I wanted to publically declare that I love writing with these two academics: one a just-washed-behind-the ears assistant professor and one a senior academic with an awesome (the classic definition being “terrifying”) job. Social science research tends to be collaborative and I’m glad. I couldn’t have written these papers without them. I learned from them both. I was amazed at each of their strengths. The “young one” is a statistical whirling dervish (in the best sense of the word) and the “mature one” is a writing fiend.   She can spit out an elegant opening to a paper in about 30 seconds. I am second author on both of these papers and I couldn’t be prouder.

The academic life has some warts, no doubt. But, one of the best parts is sharing in the joys, the frustrations and, yes, the trepidation of rejection as we try to create new knowledge. We do this together. Full professors, brand-new assistant professors, graduate students. We might be at different places on the continuum of tenure, but as one of my favorite professors from graduate school said, “We are all colleagues-in-training.” Nothing like an April 1 deadline to remind us of that.