My Year Away. And Back.

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


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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.


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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.


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And So, The End Is Near…But Did I Do It My Way?

It’s June. That means I’m in my last month of administration. In the words of Frank Sinatra “The end is near.” July 1 is right around the corner. Here’s what I have to do before I check out and begin My Year Away.

  1. Faculty Evaluations. Yuck. I don’t know why I find this an unpleasant task, but I do. I enjoy reading what the faculty have accomplished over the past year. I just don’t like to write the letters commending them for the good stuff (that part is easy) but nudging them to improve in areas that need work. More times than not, I’m impressed with all of the willing service to the university they provide. Even so, it’s an interesting exercise to read 40 self-reports. Garrison Keillor isn’t the only one who lives in a town where Everyone Is Above Average.
  2. Finding adjuncts to cover the classes we have scheduled, but don’t have enough faculty to teach. We’ve got a record number of students returning to campus in August and somebody’s got to teach them. Finding qualified adjuncts who are available to teach at paltry sums and who have the academic credentials to satisfy the university accreditation watchdogs is a challenge, that’s for sure.
  3. Finding someone to take over our graduate program. Yup. Our brand-new grad director jumped ship after one semester. I’m trying not to take it personally.
  4. Read dissertations or dissertation proposals and participate in the defenses. Over the past week, I’ve had three. It’s just that time of year.
  5. Launch four faculty searches to start in August. Let’s see, five faculty members and one graduate student for each committee, justification paperwork for central administration, selection of advertising venues.
  6. Go to Tbilisi, Georgia, to teach a doctoral seminar on academic writing and to lead a workshop on pedagogy.   Georgia, in case you don’t know, is next door to Ukraine and eight time zones away. You might question why I would do such a thing during my last month of full-time administration. Let me just say that I have asked myself this question many times.
  7. Clean my office and move to my new (smaller) office. It’s amazing how much paper a person can accumulate in the era of paperless digitation.

There’s more, but I’d rather not think about it right now.

As I wrote in my March 12 post “When Administration Duties Backslap You..” (https://carolpardun.com/2014/03/12/when-administrative-duties-backslap-you-on-both-sides-of-the-head/), it’s been one crazy semester that has just about done me in. But, as I look back, I’ve accomplished quite a lot, both as an administrator and in preparation for becoming a regular faculty member. I got word that both my papers for AEJMC (https://carolpardun.com/2014/04/01/hooray-for-writing-deadlines/)were accepted for presentation in August. I successfully completed the first course in the Data Scientist Specialization via Johns Hopkins and Coursera. (I’ve decided I need to read more about R and practice writing code more before I tackle the R Programming course. One more thing to add to my sabbatical list!) I successfully completed teaching two courses and three independent studies (https://carolpardun.com/2014/02/26/i-taught-all-day-today-and-it-was-okay/)  My teaching evaluations were solid. One student even suggested that I was a cool hippie back in the day. Whatever that means.

I helped my new administrative assistant adjust to her new job responsibilities. By the way, she is phenomenal. Every day at work, I marvel that such a qualified (and crazy young) professional found her way to our school.

We completed our search for our new Big Data assistant professor. The process continues because our choice is an international graduate student who has just completed his PhD. (Visas, work papers, spreadsheets, etc. It’s quite amazing what it takes to demonstrate to the government that there is not a U.S. citizen more qualified for the job.) He is excited about joining us, which makes me happy. I love seeing young scholars decide that the J-School at South Carolina is the place to launch a career.

The renovations for our new building began this semester. Our meetings with the architects, construction team, interior designers and technology consultants have taken up hours upon hours this semester, but the meetings have been worth it. The construction is underway and when I get back from My Year Away, I will be in an office on the third floor with two windows and a tremendous view. (Our school has been stuck in the basement of the coliseum—yes, a real coliseum—for years. No windows does things to people. Just sayin’.)

And then there’s all the other regular stuff that goes into running a journalism program with too many students, not enough faculty, and bare-bones staff support. Perhaps I didn’t always go about things in the most conventional ways, but I got the work done. So with apologies to Sinatra, “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew/When I bit off more than I could chew/But through it all, when there was doubt/I ate it up and spit it out/I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way…The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!”

Okay, taking the blows, absolutely; however, a lot of times I didn’t really get to do things my way. (https://carolpardun.com/2014/01/25/when-the-one-speaks-for-the-many-and-other-oddities-about-faculty-governance/). Instead, it was often compromise, pleading, trying another angle, more compromise. But, still our school has made progress over the past six years. So that’s what I choose to remember.

Meanwhile, it’s 30 days to go. I can do that. And if it get’s too harried, I’ll just start humming a little Frank Sinatra. That ought to clear the office!


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Joe Biden Is Our Commencement Speaker. Honestly, I Had Nothing to Do With This.

One of the least favorite things I’ve had to do as an administrator is talk to strangers on the phone, trying to explain things that aren’t my fault. I answer my own phone. I learned this from my dad, a former GE exec who answered his own phone. I always thought this was rather admirable. Until the other day.

Over the past six years, I’ve had phone calls from students asking me why they couldn’t get into a particular class (including students who aren’t even in the J-School!). I’ve had parents call me asking me why their high school student didn’t get a scholarship. I’ve had people from the community call me and ask me if I could edit their books. I’ve had compassionate community leaders ask me to help free innocent men from Death Row.  

But the other day, I got multiple calls from parents demanding (I’m using the nice word here) that I get them more tickets for graduation. It was just announced that Joe Biden would be our commencement speaker. Graduation occurs in a gargantuan arena, but apparently with extra security, the university has determined that only six tickets will be distributed to each student. One mother screamed at me. Another mother sobbed, begging me to do something.

For the record, I have absolutely nothing to do with who gets to speak at graduation.

Over the last several months, I’ve written about some of my least favorite things about administration. I don’t mind working hard. I don’t even always mind people expressing disappointment in my decisions, begging me to change my mind. But, these calls just about did me in. It was already a busy day.

A scheduled 90-minute meeting, discussing wiring for our new building (it’s mind-boggling how many decisions have to be made) became a three-hour meeting. I had to squeeze in reading an entire dissertation for a defense. Then I had to scramble to get ready for my three-hour doctoral seminar. And the second that class was over, I had to leap into the car and drive 150 miles to choir practice. (I know. An explanation for that will take an entire post.)

But these screaming episodes on the phone took the cake. Why were they calling me? Did they actually think I could do something? Or was I simply an easy target for a frustrated parent? It was kind of unnerving, actually.

For all would-be administrators out there, get ready. They don’t teach you this stuff in administrative school.

But, here’s the thing. Once the Biden brouhaha calmed down, I had a very productive rest of the week. I ripped through a mountain of paperwork. I answered untold faculty and staff questions. I solved problems.

My office has two doors and these last couple of days, someone was walking out one door while another person was walking in. And I loved it. I was making a difference. Truth is, I’m going to miss leading this journalism school. I’m not having second thoughts about stepping down. It’s time. But, I’m a bit melancholy about it.

Maybe Joe Biden will perk me up!


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When Administrative Duties Backslap You on Both Sides of the Head

According to the dictionary, “backslap” means to demonstrate “effusive goodwill.”  It seems strange to me that a word that sounds painful is such an ebullient word.  With 110 days left as an administrator, today I’m thinking about the times I’ve been backslapped while leading the journalism school at South Carolina.

I arrived at USC just in time to experience massive budget cuts.  Ouch. I kept a stiff upper lip and dealt with it.  Unfortunately, “dealing with it” meant cutting some staff positions.  At least I was able to say “Hey, it’s not you; it’s the economy.” Because this was a personnel issue, I couldn’t discuss the process with the faculty.  So very early in my tenure—after touting my commitment to transparency and faculty governance—the dean of the college and I had to make some tough decisions and then not talk publically about them.

Talk about baptism by fire!  To say that this made my first year tough would be an understatement.  I thought no matter how long I stayed at the university, I would always regard my first year as the toughest.

I was wrong.

Here’s how the current academic year has been going.  The semester began while I was still licking the wounds from my Aestas Miserabilis (roughly translated “Summer from Hell”).  I was still trying to figure out why the dean’s job I dearly wanted (and would have been perfect for, or so I thought) was shut down.  And I was still recovering from the surprise of outpatient surgery for melanoma. Truth be told, I got a little freaked out about it.  I look at the scar on my shoulder and still marvel at the bizarreness of it all.  Simply put,  these two events wore me down. I was ready for vacation and the semester hadn’t even started.

 Things had to get better.  Oops.  Wrong.

 Four weeks ago, my administrative assistant died.  Debbie was more than my personal secretary (that was a term that I never dared use in front of her!).  She was the administrative assistant for the entire school.  We are so short staffed that we don’t have room for redundancy.  So there were lots of things Debbie handled that no one else did.

 Debbie died in the middle of class scheduling.  Scheduling classes is a nightmare—even when everything is working.  It’s a balancing act between offering the classes that students need to graduate, trying to accommodate faculty requests (i.e. “I can’t teach before 9”), finding qualified adjuncts who are willing to teach for meager wages, figuring out which graduate students are ready to teach, finding available classrooms (we have so many students, we teach our classes all over the university), going to battle for the shared classrooms.  Once those challenges are met, the hassle really begins.  Everything has to be entered into a computer program just about  everybody hates.

 To complicate matters this semester, we are rolling out our new curriculum, so every old class has a new number and some of the new courses are using some of the old numbers.  (Don’t ask.)

 Debbie died on a Friday evening.  I got to work extra early that Monday because I couldn’t bear to look at her desk with anyone else around.  It was exactly as she had left things—chaos.  Evidence of frustration with the scheduling was everywhere.  I wept.

 I had a meeting that morning and I realized the toner cartridge for my printer was empty.  I went to our tech guy to ask him to put in the new toner because  “Debbie always did it for me—and I’m embarrassed that I don’t know how to do it.” And then I wept again.

 Debbie kept a basket of candy on her desk.  The basket was empty.  Students asked about the candy.  I didn’t know what to say other than “Debbie died.”  More tears.

 I lost a colleague and a friend.  But, I also lost an administrative assistant and the schedule deadline was looming.  I had no idea how to get the half-created schedule into the computer system, but I dove in anyway.  It wasn’t pretty.  A faculty colleague recognized my look of hopeless desperation  and asked if his wife, Susan, (who was between jobs) could come in and help me out.

 Susan didn’t know the software either.  But, she tackled it anyway.  She called people.  She kept calling people.  Thanks to her, we have an almost-completed schedule.

 Susan also cleared out all of Debbie’s personal belongings.  She boxed them up and gave them to Debbie’s family while I was at another meeting so I wouldn’t have to experience that.  She has organized everything so it is ready for the new administrative assistant who will start next week.

 So just when I think I’ve learned everything there is to know about administration, I can add at least two more things to my list.

  • Don’t think things can’t get worse.  They can.
  •  Learn more than your own job.  When something needs to get done—and there is no one else to do it—you have to do it.

The administrative hiring season is in full throttle.  As I observe this year’s list of candidates who are reaching for the next rung of the administrative ladder, I wonder if some of them really know what they’re getting into.

Sure, it’s great to be a visionary leader.  To see the big picture.  But, it’s what you do down in the weeds that can make or break you.  It’s been a tough six years for me at the University of South Carolina.  Really, not much has come easy.  But, even now, I can say that it’s been good.  Through it all, I’ve come to love this university.  It’s ripped out my heart a few times, but it’s also been a place where I have grown as an academic.

I’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears—tons of tears—into this job.  I’ve been backslapped—and not always in an “effusive goodwill” gesture.   But I’m pretty sure I’ll look back and say it was worth it.  With just a few months remaining until I begin My Year Away, I might be limping, but I’ll cross the finish line.