My Year Away. And Back.

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


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I Cannot Tell a Lie: George Washington Was an Odd Fellow—Not Unlike Some University Administrators I Have Met!

As I continue my reading quest (tackling a biography of every president) I have just finished His Excellency: George Washington (ISBN #978-1-4000-4031-5) by Joseph J. Ellis. I bought this book while visiting Mount Vernon during my 4,500 mile trip at the beginning of my sabbatical. I’m impressed that the gift shop sells this tome because it’s not the most flattering portrayal of our inaugural president.

Here’s the first half of the book in a nutshell. George is desperate for recognition, George is self-conscious about his lack of formal education, George isn’t much of a soldier (he really blew his first big foray). George looks the part (well over six feet tall) and doesn’t get blown to bits, so people give him the benefit of he doubt and decide he’s a fantastic soldier.

George is ambitious.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Clearly our country needed a hero and George was more than willing to step up to the plate. The rest is, as they say, history.

Here’s the second half of the book. George becomes president. He pretends to be humble and says he is not ambitious, but the writing is on the wall. He ends up doing a lot of good things. But politicians and the people learn fast. The new Americans go from a “do no wrong” in his first term to all sorts of criticism in the second term. Before Washington leaves office, the groundwork for vicious partisan politics is already established.

So what did His Excellency teach me about university leaders?

First, some people are willing to do whatever is necessary to get to whatever position they seek. I continue to marvel at who gets jobs and who doesn’t in the world of university politics. Washington had laser focus with his plans for the future and what he wanted his legacy to look like. He was willing to “rethink” a situation long enough that even if it wasn’t totally accurate, it had been reworked enough times that he honestly believed the revised story. For example, Washington used Robert Cary in London (a British merchant with a stellar reputation) to sell his tobacco crop. When Washington realized he was running out of money (actually, running out of his wife’s money, but that’s another story), after contemplating all the possibilities, he decides that his financial woes are because Cary is cheating him. According to Ellis, there is no evidence that Cary was anything but an honest businessman.   But to Washington, the case was closed.

I know some university people like this. A problem arises. They consider the options. They make a decision—even if there is no convincing evidence that this decision is appropriate—and that’s that. They tell their version of the argument with enough conviction and gusto that the innocent bystanders (often intimidated assistant professors) fall into line. (“He sounded so authoritative, how was I to know?” they lament.)

Second, George Washington looked like a leader. In universities, we still tend to pick people who look the part. People who know me know I rarely pull the gender card, but in this case I’ve seen it happen too often to say it doesn’t exist.   Some think a leader looks like a tall white man in a great-fitting dark suit. Washington’s clothes might not have fit him well (Apparently, he didn’t know how tall he was and consistently told his tailors that he was shorter than he was.), but according to Ellis, he cut quite the figure on his dashing white horse. I remember some comments from colleagues when I was on the search committee for an administrator at a previous institution. One of the finalists was a woman who was on the short side. One of my male colleagues actually told me that this woman was “too dowdy” for the post. If you find that hard to believe, how about this? When I was a graduate student, a professor once said loudly enough that I could overhear, “Only ugly women get PhDs.” (Fortunately, this fellow was not on my dissertation committee!) Looks matter. And, George Washington looked the part.

Third—and I’ll end on a positive note—in my opinion, George Washington became a better person as he aged. Whether he had pure motives or not, he ended up doing a lot of good things. He also worked hard as president and also when he returned to Mount Vernon.   He wasn’t perfect, but, really, who is? Even though he remained sensitive about his lack of formal education, he became self-educated. Washington showed me that whether a person is handed life on a golden platter, or whether a person has to work for every single improvement, effort matters. Over the years, I’ve watched scores of colleagues (at my own institution and other universities) go through the tenure process. In almost every situation, working hard pays off. Those who consistently worked at their research (even if they weren’t naturally gifted at it), eventually amassed enough publications to warrant tenure.  They don’t all get to progress as far in their careers as they might have hoped, but, then again, there are a lot worse things in the world than being a tenured professor!

As I begin the second half of my sabbatical, I’m going to remember George Washington’s work ethic—and not take his personal quirks too seriously. After all, we all have quirks. Even my university colleagues. Even me.


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While I’m on My Sabbatical, I’m Proud to Be a Ding-a-Ling!

I’m halfway through My Year Away (time is passing too quickly!) and, for the most part, I’m making progress on my academic goals. I have three academic papers completed and in review. All were developed with different research partners, which has been a fantastic way to explore myriad scholarly approaches. Another research colleague and I just finished developing a survey that is about to launch. We are placing great hopes that this project will yield at least a handful of important papers. I’ve got a few other research projects percolating at various stages. So by most standards, I think I’m doing okay on my research goals.

As my blog followers know, I’m also trying my hand at lots of new things, simply because it appears that trying new things wakes up my brain.bell

My latest “new thing” is learning to ring the handbells.   Really.   I suppose it’s not quite as weird as learning to play the bagpipes, but it’s definitely up there. I mean, seriously, who rings handbells?

Turns out, quite a few people. If you don’t believe me, go to You Tube and type in “handbells.” You’ll have choices like “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the Hallelujah Chorus played by only four ringers as well as traditional songs for bells like “Carol of the Bells.”

Our church has a handbell choir. I asked the director if I could join for the year. Since I’m in the regular choir and she happens to direct that choir as well (she also directs the children, plays the organ, handles all the weddings and funerals in the church, etc, but that’s another story!), she said yes. I was always curious about the bells.   Such an odd ensemble. What was up with the bells? How hard would it be to learn?

So the short answer is, it’s kind of hard. It takes some heft to ring the bass bells (the ones I’ve been assigned). Here’s what I’ve learned since I’ve joined the handbell choir.

  1. Don’t mock something if you don’t know anything about it.
  2. Pay attention. Always.
  3. Take joy in the unexpected.
  4. Practice.  Practice.  Practice.

Here’s the thing. I’m kind of good at ringing bells. Turns out I have a bit of a knack for it. And, it also turns out that the harder I work at it, the more I like it.My lovely bells

I may be the only person in the world who has learned a sabbatical lesson while playing handbells. But I’m thankful I took this opportunity to try something out of my comfort zone.

I think I could say the same thing about administration. I didn’t go to graduate school to be an administrator. I went to learn theory and research methods. But, 13 years into my professor life, I gave administration a whirl. Turns out, I was kind of good at that too. But, just like ringing bells, it didn’t mean I had to do it forever.

During My Year Away, I’m beginning to understand in a deeper way that doing things “for a season” can be a good thing. When my sabbatical is over, I’ll miss ringing. But, that’s okay. In the meantime, I’ll just keep slogging those bells. And wonder what’s next on my “wow, that looks fun!” list.