My Year Away. And Back.

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


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 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.


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.)


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.


We Could All Learn from Professor Woodrow Wilson.

As part of My Year Away, I’ve been reading biographies about presidents. I wrote what William Taft taught me about administration after reading The Bully Pulpit. Right now, I’m reading A. Scott Berg’s new biography on Woodrow Wilson.

The largest chunk of Berg’s book is about Wilson and his presidency. But the part of the book that has really intrigued me was reading about Wilson the Academic and his years at Princeton—both as a professor and ultimately as the president of the university.

Wilson’s research productivity would make him a shoo-in for tenure and promotion even in these publish or perish days. He was a professor who was a prolific writer, but also an amazing teacher. Without a doubt, Woodrow Wilson was the ultimate prof!

And the Princeton community recognized his abilities. As a result, Professor Wilson became Princeton President Wilson (rather quickly, too).

I wish we had more leaders like Woodrow Wilson running our academic ships. The trend, however, seems to be to select leaders outside the academy. The decision makers often argue that non-academic leaders are the only ones to fast track progress (or to “disrupt” education to use the current buzz word in academe). Often the implied assumption is that a “real” professor would be too “absent minded” to run a university.

In the decade that Woodrow Wilson held the reigns at Princeton, he challenged the culture of cheating and made academic integrity a priority; he enhanced the importance of the liberal arts; he set academic standards applicable to every college graduate; he raised millions of dollars. And he did all of this (and more!) while continuing to teach and to publish.

He was an academic through and through. I’d like to think that this is the norm for educators today, but sadly, I think it’s becoming the exception.

I want to believe in the ideals of education. I want to believe that embracing the liberal arts is a key for an enlightened society. I want to believe that die-hard academics are the ones running our academic communities.

Since I’m now on sabbatical, I’m removed from the day-to-day activities of university life. Being away is giving me time to think deeply about the life of a university professor—and the kind of professor I want to be when I return to the classroom. I’d like to be a bit like Wilson, I think. Someone who loves to teach, who loves to write, who loves a challenge. I’m obviously not going to become a university president, but I’m going to hold Wilson up as an academic example worth emulating.

I’m looking for more academic heroes. Any takers?


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.