My Year Away. And Back.

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


Why Rowing is Possibly the Greatest Sport in the Universe

I just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by David James Brown (ISBN 978-0-14-312547-1). In case you haven’t read it yet (I think I’m the last rower on the planet to read it), in a nutshell it’s about the University of Washington varsity 8+ crew winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But if you think it’s only a book about rowing, think again. It’s a book about life. And what you can do no matter how wretched life is.   At the very least, it’s a book that will help you think about whether you really want to whine about whatever is not working out the way you want it to. (Note to self here.)

Come to think of it, rowing is not really just about rowing. You can be bad at it and enjoy it. But if you want to be good at it, you have to dig in and put in the effort. Which means not just rowing, but reading about rowing, thinking about rowing, dreaming about rowing. You have to be flexible—in your body if at all possible, but definitely in your mind. If you think you are doing everything right and you are not willing to make adjustments, you’re not only wrong, but you’re the kind of rower no one wants to row with. It helps to have high pain tolerance. You have to have some intelligence because a lot of rowing is counterintuitive. After all, you do row backwards.

I’ve been rowing for about 13 years. I’ve been a part of four rowing clubs. I’ve rowed in beautiful conditions—and I’ve rowed in are-you-kidding-me weather. I teach other people how to row. Others teach me how to row better. I make the same mistakes—but I keep working on them. (In case anyone is wondering, I still tend to shoot my tail.)

The book focuses on seven seat, starboard rower Joe Rantz. This guy doesn’t talk much and it takes him awhile to get the rowing technique down, but nobody can fault him for effort. Joe’s family leaves him twice—once as a 10 year old and again at 15. He has to fend for himself and during the Depression, it’s near impossible for a kid to find enough work just to feed himself. But Joe prevails. He lives alone, scrapes by, stays in school (and makes good grades), and eventually ends up at the University of Washington. He is desperate to make the crew team, not because he knows anything about rowing, but because he learns that if he does, he will be promised a part-time job–and he has to work to pay for college because his family has abandoned him.   During his four years at Washington, he earns his engineering degree, he rows three hours every day, he works at his part-time job every evening, and oh, yeah, he wins Olympic gold.

Joe Rantz worked a lot harder in college than I ever will as a professor. In fact, I have a downright cushy life in comparison.   But what I particularly loved about this story is that Joe wasn’t a natural at rowing. He had to stick with it.   I’ve known colleagues who seem to have magic lives. Everything they write gets published. Every lecture they give is spell binding.

I’m not like that. I have to work at it. But I like it that way. I teach my students; my students teach me. I chip away at the data and hope that eventually something will get published. If not the first journal choice, maybe the second. Or the third.

Like many rowers, I have a high pain tolerance. And I can be stubborn. So during My Year Away, I’m reading about people like Joe Rantz. It’s not making my work any easier, but it’s helping me not to whine about it.  And for the record, I’m not giving up on my rowing either.


All the World’s a Stage—Even When It Comes to the Life of an Academic.

During My Year Away, I’m trying to carve out a balance between travel, trying new things, and keeping the pedal to the metal on my research. August was designated as a travel month. Between my academic field’s national conference (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) at the beginning of the month and the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications meeting (I sit on the council) at the end of the month, I had the skeleton of an interesting car trip.

The AEJMC conference was in Montreal this year, which meant that I could drive up the east coast visiting friends. That first week was an absolute blast. I rowed with my rowing friend Patti in Chapel Hill, NC. I stopped in to see my friend Kathy’s new house in Massachusetts. I caught up with my high school friend Polly in upstate New York. The trip was turning out to be everything I was hoping it would be.

Too soon it was time to make an appearance at the conference. It was jarring to barrel into Montreal with my academic game face on. I was deep, deep, deep into thinking like someone on sabbatical. AEJMC, on the other hand, is the conference that marks the end of summer and the beginning of the semester. So everyone is abuzz with the anticipation of the potential of all the great things that await a fresh start at the university.

I have attended this conference for over 20 years. I worked my way up the leadership chain becoming president in 2009. But this year I was attending the conference for the first time in a long time as a bone fide—and nothing else—academic. I was there to do only traditional professor things. I (along with my co-authors) presented two papers ( I participated on a panel about qualitative research methods. I got together with colleagues around the country to talk about research.

It was invigorating—but also a little intimidating. During the whole week, I kept thinking about whether I would actually be successful in this new chapter of my academic career. In some ways, I felt like I was simply playing the part of successful researcher–trying on the role for size and hoping it would fit.

During the question and answer session of the panel mentioned earlier, a young assistant professor asked a question with the follow-up comment, “I feel like a great imposter,” referring to her lack of confidence in her research ability.

Sitting on the panel next to me was a media historian with a stellar reputation. I have admired this scholar for years for deep thinking and high level of publication productivity. My Media History Guru laughed out loud and said, “I’ve got news for you. We all feel like research imposters.”

It’s a bit of a relief to know I’m not the only one who thinks this. But I’m also curious. I don’t feel this way about other parts of my job. Take teaching, for example. I’m confident that I’m a good teacher. I felt that way from the first day in the classroom—when I knew absolutely nothing about pedagogy.

But, research, now, that’s a different story. Perhaps it’s the peer-review process. In case you haven’t published in a refereed journal recently, here’s how it goes. You think up an idea. You do a literature search to make sure that no one else has thought up this idea already. You lay the groundwork to demonstrate that there is a gap in the literature and you are going to provide the “empirical bridge” (as my favorite grad school professor used to say) to find the answer. Next you figure out the method you’ll use. Then you create the instrument you need to collect the data. Then you package it all up and send it to the university Institutional Review Board where you await scrutiny to make sure you’re not going to damage someone’s psyche. Once you get the okay, you launch the instrument, collect data, analyze the data, think about the data—and, okay, perhaps downright torture the data—hoping against hope that you’ll learn something interesting. If you do, you write up the results, then shape the whole paper into a coherent well-written piece of art, send it off—and then wait. Often for months. Eventually, you get the news: “reject,” “revise and resubmit, or “accept.” A first-round “accept” is almost impossible these days, so you pray for “R & R.”

Once you get the okay to revise the manuscript, you go at it again. Suggested changes can be minimal (“Could you please clarify how you calculated the inter-coder reliability?”) to you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me bizarre (“Great manuscript! Just wondering if, instead of the survey that you did, could you run an experiment?”). If you’re fortunate enough to eventually get your manuscript accepted for publication, you’ll wait months (and sometimes even years) before the piece is actually published.

Top-tier journals typically reject 85% to 90% of its manuscripts—so publication is never a sure bet. That’s one reason scholars have multiple manuscripts “in the pipeline.” This is not something you can do one project at a time and hope to make your mark on the scholarly world.

The AEJMC conference has about a 50% rejection rate—still somewhat intimidating, but definitely manageable. The accepted papers are presented as “first runs,” and every scholar at the conference hopes his or her manuscript will be well received and that the scholar will be encouraged to send a revised version to a journal. The conference is both a celebration and a place to exhibit great anxiety.

I was among the anxious. Graduate students are in abundance because if they don’t have multiple conference papers and at least a couple of publications by the time they graduate, they have little hope of landing a tenure-track job. I’ll be the first to admit that the graduate students of today are a whole lot more productive (on the publication scale anyway) than the students were in my day.

Assistant professors are also in abundance at the conference as they frantically try to amass publication credits before they stand for tenure.

Less abundant as paper presenters are full professors. They have nothing to prove. Unless they do. I had something to prove. Getting back into the “publish or perish” rat race a decade after walking away and entering administration is not for the feint of heart.

Sure, I wrote while I was an administrator. There’s my book, Advertising and Society (ISBN-13: 978-0470673096). And a couple of invited pieces. Even a few journal articles that I worked on during my “research years,” but didn’t come out until after I had entered administration. But the day in, day out, living and breathing research projects? No.

So, for me, AEJMC was my coming out party. A time to play the role of the researcher. Yes, perhaps as an imposter. But, apparently, I’m in good company.

I’m two months into my sabbatical. How am I doing? Well, I haven’t had anything published yet, of course. (See tortuous paragraph above.) But, one of the presentations from AEJMC is now safe in the hands of a good journal, waiting review. I’m rounding the corner on the other conference paper as well and hope also to have it in review soon. Data is collected on another project. Some research background written on two other projects. A few ideas sketched out on some others. I’m in the process of filling the pipeline.

I had a blast at AEJMC. But, by the last day of the conference, I was ready to hop in my car and continue my trek, which included two days of driving across Ontario and along Lake Michigan into Wisconsin. My trip ended 4,500 miles after it began.

It’s September now and I’ve designated this month as a writing month. As Shakespeare penned in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts.” Imposter or not, it’s time to go on with the show!