My Year Away. And Back.

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

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

4 Comments

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 (https://carolpardun.com/2014/04/01/hooray-for-writing-deadlines/). 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!

Author: CJPardun

I'm a professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. I am passionate about rowing, I'm mostly scared about sailing (but I'm competent), I love to cook when I don't have to, and I have some fairly strong opinions about journalism education.

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

  1. Sounds like an awesome time to me! I am 2 months in and trying to stay on task yet tell myself I should be taking the time to think and reflect…that is the hard part. However, it is such a privilege to be on sabbatical…I am pinching myself!

  2. Pingback: George Washington is growing in my garden! | The Professor & Her Garden

  3. And here I was convinced that living with the sharps is an exclusive attribute of corporate life…this publication process is daunting. Wonderful piece and a delight to read.

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