My Year Away. Again.

First, I went on Sabbatical. Now, I'm beginning My Year Away again as I start my first year of Retirement!


Here’s What I Learned During My Second Sabbatical Cruise.

I agree that two cruises within four months is kind of extravagant—and not the typical sabbatical outing. But this trip to the Panama Canal was altogether different—and beneficial in a completely different way to my sabbatical than my first cruise for two reasons:

  1. I went with my sister. While this might not seem like a big deal, for me, it was. I haven’t spent any significant time with my sister since we were both in high school. Let’s just say that that was a long, long time ago.   Thanks to my dad who helped finance this trip, we spent 12 days together—and we even got along the whole time.

    My sister and me when we were little.

    My sister and me when we were little.

  2. I have wanted to see the Panama Canal for about forever and, really, the only way to do that, is by boat.

So how was it? In a word, epic.

We travelled on Holland America’s Zuiderdam, either a “good old boat,” or a “needs to be in dry-dock boat,” depending on your perspective. I found I kind of liked her creaks and moans. I could relate!

To the first point: my sister.

Those who know me well know that I am actually a bit of an introvert—or as I like to remind people, I’m an introvert stuck in an extrovert’s body. My sister is both a chaplain’s wife and a social worker. She helps people. So, of course, she talks to them. I, however, am a professor. On sabbatical, no less. So I’m alone a good bit.   Give me a comfy chair and a book and I’m good to go.   On this cruise, however, I decided that it was time to strike out and play the extrovert. I’m glad I did because in the process, my sister and I had dinner with at least 50 different—and mostly interesting—people. Our dinners typically lasted two hours in which we would savor our lovely four-course meals.

Time for the first course.

Time for the first course.

My sister and I were quite adept at bringing people out of their shells. Between her social work skills and my curiosity, we were both able to work the crowd fairly well. Most of the people we met were retired—and thrilled to have more free time, even though they all seemed to have enjoyed their careers. Most were eager to chat. We met a former editor of the Boston Globe; a retired soprano with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus; a doctor who had climbed Kilimanjaro; another doctor who weekly travelled up to North Dakota from Minnesota to practice medicine in an area that desperately needed doctors.   We met couples who had been married over 50 years. We met people who were traveling alone. We even met another set of sisters. In the process, my sister and I also learned quite a bit about each other.

Now to the second point: The Panama Canal.

To get to the canal, you have to travel a long, long way. Lots of days at sea. And the seas were something during this trip. We had near gale force winds more than one day hitting F7 on the Beaufort scale. (Even if you don’t know what that is, it sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?)

It was a lot of rocking and rolling on our ship.

It was a lot of rocking and rolling on our ship.

One morning during our daily 7a.m. “stretch and exercise” class, we had to do all the moves sitting down because it was too difficult with the movement of the ship. So it felt like I was on a voyage, which, somehow seemed appropriate for my sabbatical.

Once we got to the canal, we entered the first set of locks (Gatun Locks) early in the morning. Each section is about 1,000 feet long. Interesting because it is also the length of the ship. It was a tight fit and quite exciting to go up 87 feet (over the three locks that make up Gatun Locks). Once we got into Gatun Lake, the real fun began. Here’s what I did: got into a lifeboat (really!), and traversed the high winds to the shore; got into a not-great bus for a 90-minute trip across not-great roads listening to a not-great guide spew political opinions (of which I disagreed) about the canal. I can sum up his viewpoint by saying he was not a fan of Jimmy Carter. Then I got into a not-great ferry boat for a very hot ride through the rest of the canal, including the San Pedro and Mira Flores locks. Then another 90-minute ride back with the same (but even more annoying by this time) guide. I was glad to get back on the big ship and was sound asleep by 8.

But the point is this. I saw the Panama Canal. Just about every inch of it. It wasn’t necessarily the most fun way to spend the day, but it was one of the most interesting days I’ve had in a long, long time.

On the canal heading toward the Bridge of the Americas.

On the canal heading toward the Bridge of the Americas.

The next morning after the ship docked in Limon, Costa Rica, I was refreshed enough to head out with my sister to the rain forest to zip line. Did I ever think I would zip line anywhere (let alone the rain forest of Costa Rica and let alone with my sister???)? Uh. No. No. No. No.

I had hoped that my sabbatical would provide a combination recovery period from a decade of administrative work and a platform for (re)launching my scholarly life. It has done that. And more. I’m looking forward to returning to campus. But, not quite yet. I still have a lot of rest, recovery and research to do!



The Path Between the Seas Is More Than a Book About the Panama Canal

As I’ve shared in several previous postings, I’ve been focusing my pleasure reading on presidential biographies. Sometimes, however, circumstances require a detour. On Sunday, I am heading to the Panama Canal. Talk about a detour! So, of course, I needed to read up on the building process. All scholars agree that the final word on the canal is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas (ISBN #0-7432-6213-1). With 600+ pages, it presents every detail (and I mean every detail) in constructing the canal. As a bonus, it features my current three favorite presidents—Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—so it seemed like a no-brainer of a book to read during my sabbatical.

Visiting the canal has been on my bucket list, which is a bit weird since I actually know very little about the canal. That is, until I read Path. Whoa. This book covers everything including “political skullduggery” (thanks New York Times review!), swashbuckling French iconoclasts (Ferdinand de Lesseps, the original canal champ), explanations of economic fortunes (who knew General Electric was basically put on the map because of the canal?)—and Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to boot.

What people might not realize about this book, however, is that it’s also an excellent primer for learning about university administration. Path boasts vision, but it also celebrates the day-to-day drudgery of getting into the mud, digging all day, returning in the morning to the same mud, and starting all over. Day after day. Year after year. When some of the visionaries gave up on the canal, it was left to the worker bees to take that vision and complete the task.

I’m all for vision. But vision without structure (or the tools and resources to complete the vision) makes a lot of people grumpy. To his dying day de Lesseps preached “We can build the canal.” But they couldn’t. The vision was plumb wrong. The Panama Canal could be built. But not the way de Lesseps’ envisioned it. And he was too stubborn to change. A lot of French citizens’ life savings were swept away with de Lesseps’ vision.

Universities are certainly not immune to skilled bloviators. I’ve worked at four and have dealt with at least one in every school. I continue to marvel at faculty who are willing to believe the hot air. The French should have known better. But many wanted to believe the get rich quick dream. (You’d think a decade into the project with no discernible progress would make people hesitant to continue to invest, but that was not the case.)

Professors are smart people. They, too, should know better. Perhaps we should all swallow a big dose of realism. Let’s face reality. Making progress is hard. You can’t just create a vision and then wave a magic wand. You have to dig deep and get dirty. It’s not all that glamorous. For example, I’m not sure we’d have a Panama Canal without John Stevens, the American engineer who tried to figure out what the French were trying to do, who organized the masses, who found financial support for the doctors who figured out how to control yellow fever, who spent his days at the dig sites making sure everyone was doing the work. John Stevens didn’t start the canal. And he didn’t finish it. Sometimes his name is not even associated with helping to build it—although it could not have been built without him.

During My Year Away, I’ll admit I’ve written some rather cranky posts about administration. Sure, it’s probably a bit of sour grapes. But this post is really meant to be a paean to the hard and important work that administrators do—especially the associate deans, directors and chairs who work in the background. If you find yourself in one of the non-glamorous administrative jobs know that your work is important. Realize that if you’re doing your job well, there’s a chance that no one will notice. But it’s still important. I’m thankful for the behind-the-scenes administrators who stand at the ready to get dirty and do the tough work. One shovelful at a time.

I will be thinking about y’all when I lean over the ship’s railing at the Gatun Locks and marvel at how those behemoth gates still work. I’ll remember that it took an awful lot of hard work from lots of people. That if it weren’t for those willing to work even when the end was nowhere in sight, we’d never have a Panama Canal. That it took both vision and simply slogging it out.   And I’ll tip my hat to the sloggers.


I Just Got a Big Dose of Administration—and I Was Ready to Run Pell-Mell Back Home to Curl up with my Statistics Book!

Although my yearlong sabbatical is all about reinvigorating my scholarly life, periodically I have a few administrative duties that call, forcing me out of my flip-flops and reluctantly into a business suit. One of those duties is going on schools of journalism site accreditation visits. I sit on the national ACEJMC Accreditation Council, the group of academics and professionals who oversee accreditation for our J-Schools so I didn’t think it was right for me to bow out of visits this year.

Normally, I love going on these visits. They usually come at a time in the semester when I’m ready for a break from my own university. It’s always fun to see a different school. I usually come back with at least one great idea to think about—and even more thankful for my own university.

Going on these visits while on sabbatical is a different beast altogether. It’s a bit jarring. First, you receive a ginormous box of reading material that the unit sends to convince the accrediting team that it’s at the top of its game. Then you have to get on a plane and travel to the school for three days of intense inspection and report writing. For some reason, I always seem to get the cold schools so I leave the comforts of the south and head into weather. Always.

This visit was no different. I arrived at Kent State University just in time for a snowstorm. My husband thought it would be helpful to text me a picture of the weather report while I was gone. A balmy 70 degrees at the beach.

Part of the beautiful (but snowy) Kent State University

Part of the beautiful (but snowy) Kent State University

I was the only non-administrator on the recent visit. All the other team members know me as a fellow administrator so I had to remind them a few times that that wasn’t my life any longer. My fellow teammates had to have conference calls back at their universities, had to keep up with emails, had to check in with their administrative assistants. They were giving close attention to our task at hand—but they had to keep one eye on things at home.

I did not. In fact, I hardly even know what’s happening at my own university these days. It’s taken me a number of months to unplug from (most of) the academic gossip, but I am deep, deep, deep into life now as a sabbatican (I think I’ve made up that word; don’t you think it should be accepted into the lexicon?). As I’ve written before, one of the frustrating things for me as an administrator was the amount of space it took up in my brain. But now, as a regular professor, I can think long, deep thoughts without interruption.

Currently, what I’m thinking about is how to run a MANOVA with two independent variables and three dependent variables while trying to show the interaction between each level of each independent variable simultaneously. My stats ability remains rusty, but I have spent considerable amount of time this year trying to master statistics. I’ve taken MOOCs, I’ve read books, I’ve run everything there is to run on SPSS, I’ve read what other scholars have done in similar situations. In short, I’m thinking deep and hard about statistics.

On the plane out to Ohio, I sat with the accreditation self study, reviewing the report again making sure I would be ready to hit the ground running when I got there (of course, there was no real running since I had to do everything I could to stay upright on the slippery sidewalks).

On the plane out of Ohio, I sat hunkered over, huddled with my most recently purchased stats book. I was determined to get to the end of this multivariate conundrum.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” Who knows if that is true, but I’d like to think it is. I’ll tell you. I nearly cried when I finally got the model to run and watched all those beautiful statistical significant results scroll down my computer. Hey, I’m a numbers nerd. And that makes me happy.


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.


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.


Water, Water, Everywhere. An Ideal State of Being.

Finding books to expand my thinking during My Year Away has been a serendipitous treasure hunt. I knew I would spend part of this year reading presidential biographies. Nothing like a list to keep a person organized! Just in case you’re counting we’ve had 43 different presidents. (I include Grover Cleveland only once considering he served two non-consecutive terms—and I’m definitely not reading two biographies of Cleveland!) That’s a doable list—especially when you discover books like The Bully Pulpit, which covers two presidents.

Still, I can’t just read books about presidents. So far, I’ve also read books on rowing, the perils of higher education and Alzheimer’s. Today I write about water. Wallace J. Nichols’ Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (ISBN 978-0-316-25208-9) is a book that made think about water in ways I had never imagined—and I thought I knew quite a bit about the stuff.

photo[2]Apparently there is a whole group of scientists around the world who conduct experiments about the properties of water. They publish their research (in journals this social scientist has yet to discover) and they even get together for academic conferences in exotic, water-oriented locales. (I might need to put one of these conferences on my Bucket List.)

In a nutshell, Blue Mind lays out the science that provides convincing evidence that being around water is a good thing.  It not only reduces stress, it can even make us smarter! The importance of water is multi-layered. It’s the actual water, it’s the sound of water, and it’s even the color of water.

Is blue your favorite color? According to Blue Mind, it’s lots of people’s favorite color for the basic reason that blue makes us all feel better. With apologies to Elvis’ crooning that he’ll be blue, blue, blue this Christmas, research indicates that blue lifts our spirits, cures our depression, lets us concentrate.

Before reading Blue Mind, I knew I loved the beach. I knew I was a more productive writer on the days I could hunker down at our beach house. I knew when faced with a choice for new house paint or new dishes, I tended to pick blue. But I didn’t know that this was all related.

Blue Mind is not the kind of book that you can read in one sitting. You might even want to have another book on your nightstand to reach for periodically while you’re making your way through the science presented in this book. But, it’s definitely worth a read.

As I journey through my sabbatical, I’m trying to better understand who I am as a scholar, writer, teacher. I think knowing just a little bit more about why I’m drawn to water will help me navigate my academic life wherever it takes me.

Blue, I love you. (And that’s the only line from Joni Mitchell’s song that is even mildly coherent.)


A Sabbatical and a Cruise. Who Would Have Thought?

As I have written about in other posts, part of the goal of My Year Away is to try new things. One of the things on my list is to take a cruise. While this might seem like a strange item to put on a sabbatical list, I added it for two reasons: 1. I would go with my best friend, Kathy, who loves cruises. I have long been curious about why Kathy enjoys cruising so much. Personally, I didn’t see the appeal, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. 2. It’s good to try new things. I don’t know why, but it is.

So, off to a cruise. I drove 10 hours straight south until I hit Miami, met up with Kathy and hopped on our 1,000 foot vessel, the Norwegian Getaway. Considering most of my boating experience has involved sailboats or my rowing shell, it was difficult to get my mind wrapped around what a 1,000 foot-long boat would be like. The most common phrase I had heard was “floating hotel.” Let me just say that the Getaway was not like any hotel (floating or otherwise) I have ever visited.

It was fairly incomprehensible from bow to stern. Getaway

First, the ship reaches port at 8 every Saturday morning. It offloads 4,000 people; someone cleans all the staterooms and then 4,000 different people get back on at noon. (I’m not making this up.) And this is all done with a “hey, it’s no big deal” confidence.  This might be hard to believe, but we parked the car (and spent a few minutes memorizing where we had parked it), went through security, filled out health forms, went through another kind of security, and walked on to the ship in under an hour. The whole week was like that. Organized, non-frenetic, easy peasy.

Besides my one bout with seasickness (I know, it’s hard to believe that I could get sick on a ship that size.), I had a blast. And I learned some things over the week. Here are my top four.

  1. Being disconnected is a good—albeit, rare–experience. When I go on vacation, I try to stay away from digital things. But “staying away” and being totally disconnected are two different things. Even while I was a gazillion miles away in Tbilisi last June, I was able to email people, check in on Facebook, and talk to my husband via Skype. You can’t do any of that on a cruise ship unless you want to pay for it. On principle, I was not willing to shell out 75 cents a minute to connect with the world so I was completely offline for an entire week. It was lovely.
  1. A cruise ship might be mammoth, but compared to the ocean, it’s actually just a tiny bobbing blip. So the prevalent image you see while cruising is water. Every inch of the ship (except the casinos, the stores, and the auditoriums, in which I spent next to no time) is geared toward a water view. Windows are everywhere. And, there are multiple outdoor areas—many more than I expected. Besides our balcony where I could read in private, or hang over the railing and look at the miles of ocean with no one to bother me, there were pools (I have no idea if we discovered all of them, but we saw at least five), a basketball court (where we attempted Salsa and Zumba exercise classes), an outdoor giant chess board, a ¼ mile jogging track, an outdoor promenade with restaurants and bars and plenty of quiet seating areas (it took us four days to discover this deck!), and that is just a partial list. I looked at the water all day long. This is a good thing, which I’ll write about in my next post when I review Blue Mind (which I read on the cruise), a book about the science behind the benefits of water.sunset

I felt like I was on a boat. I was glad, because I was worried that it really would feel like a hotel and if that was the case, why not just stay at a Hilton?

  1. People sort themselves into communities wherever they are. On a cruise ship, there are an unlimited number of activities. While they are all supposed to be fun, some to me sounded dreadful. Uh, Bingo? No thanks! Fun with balloon animals? Are you kidding me? Bidding on Thomas Kinkade art? You can’t make these things up. But, amidst all the goofy things on a cruise ship, there are plenty of things to do that I did find appealing. One of the favorite evening activities we discovered early in the week was listening to Brazilian pianist and vocalist Paulo del Souza. No matter what bar he was playing in, we found him—and so did lots of other people. Kathy and I started to notice his groupies. “Hey, wasn’t that couple here last night?” By the end of the week, we noticed each other, talked to each other, even shared a few bottles of bubbly together. In between Paulo’s sets, we would talk about all sorts of things and found we had lots in common. We even joked about some of the other activities on board that we agreed were sub-optimal.  It didn’t take long, but we had, indeed, found “our people” on this cruise.

Yes, I was on a vacation, completely out of my comfort zone, but I still found comfort by discovering a community of like-minded people. I also started being more observant around the ship and noticed other groupies: the group gathered around the Backgammon sets. Or the Trivia Challenge group. (I’m guessing there was a community of Thomas Kinkade art collectors, too, but I definitely didn’t see them!)

  1. Developing a routine helps us sort out our lives. Given how new cruising was to me, I didn’t expect to develop a routine so quickly, but I did. Without saying “Hey, Kathy, let’s develop a routine to make the most of our trip,” it just happened. By the first full day, here is basically how our days shaped up.
    1. Wake up.
    2. Grab workout clothes and hit the jogging track for a mile wake up stretch.
    3. Leisurely breakfast, chatting about anything and everything.
    4. Work out, either in a class or on the machines.
    5. Hit the therapy pool, the sauna, and the salt room.
    6. Leisurely lunch, chatting about anything and everything.
    7. We’d go our separate ways for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I would typically sit outside in the shade and read.
    8. Reconvene early evening where we would get ready for dinner.
    9. Leisurely dinner, chatting about anything and everything.
    10. Go find Paulo and listen to his set while drinking Prosecco.

There were variations, of course. While there are no pictures to prove this, we did, indeed, dance the night away at the Disco party under the stars. And we did watch a fairly bizarre musical rendition of Legally Blonde. But, we basically found a rhythm and a routine that was comforting, helpful, restorative, and productive. (We each got a good amount of writing accomplished during the week as well.)

It’s taken me about a half a century to realize how much I like a routine.

And, so here I am on my sabbatical where, theoretically, I can do anything I want for an entire year. I’m finding that what I want is to lead a productive life. And I’m realizing more and more that routine helps me do that. So does having a community to rely on. And so does disconnecting sometimes.

And so does going on a cruise.


Why in the World Would I Read a Book About Alzheimer’s During my Sabbatical?

And, really, not just a book about the disease, but a heart-wrenching, depressing, there-is-nothing-good-about-this-disease kind of book? All I know is that when I heard Meryl Comer give an interview on NPR, I had to read her book, Slow Dancing with a Stranger: Lost and Found in the Age of Alzheimer’s (ISBN: 978-0-06-213082-2).

To say that this book was painful to read would be an understatement. Here’s the plot in a nutshell. Comer’s brilliant husband gets Alzheimer’s in his 50’s. She takes care of him. Meanwhile, her mother gets the same disease. So, she takes care of her, too.

But, of course, the book isn’t just about the disease and the difficulty of caring for loved ones with the disease. It’s a book about the Love. Sacrifice. Dignity. Despair. Compassion. Sorrow. Frustration. Loneliness.

Comer writes with such clarity that you feel her agony with the turning of every page. But—and unbelievably—she doesn’t write to complain. She writes to illuminate. To give a face to the suffering, which includes both those with the disease and those providing the never-ending care.

I thought I knew a bit about Alzheimer’s. A relative suffers from it. My best friend’s mother died from it. Some of my colleague’s parents struggle with it. But, I didn’t know anything.

Here’s what I do know, though. Some people carry a burden that is more than those of us with cushy lives can fathom. We easy-life people need to think twice before complaining about something in our own lives. We need to be thankful every day for every blessing we enjoy. We need to understand that what we have is a gift. We don’t deserve this blissful life. And we have no guarantees that we will always enjoy this life of luxury.

During My Year Away, I have a cornucopia overflowing with the delights of a care-free life. I don’t want to take it for granted. I want to savor it. Appreciate it. And, somehow figure out a way to share it.

As Malala Yousafzai (herself no stranger to pain) so eloquently has said: “Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” Amen.


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!