My Year Away. And Back.

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


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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.


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If You Love the University, Read This Book! (If you’re frustrated with the university, definitely read this book!)

In preparation for My Year Away, I’ve started to read more books on higher education. Just a few days ago I finished Jeff Selingo’s College (UN)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students (ISBN 978-0-544-02707-7).

This book captured my attention from the first page to the last. First, Selingo is an excellent writer. Second, he’s a journalist. Third, his beat is higher education. No surprise he had me at page 1.

College (UN)Bound takes the perspective of advice to parents and students shopping for college. But, it’s really a book about the current state of higher education. Selingo provides a plethora of data so it’s hard to argue with his findings. And no doubt about it. Selingo thinks higher ed is broken. But, instead of just saying “Innovate!” “Change!” “Be flexible!”, he gives concrete examples of universities and colleges that are meeting the challenge.

Sadly, very few flagship research universities show up on his list of innovators. He claims we are a risk-adverse, self-satisfied industry (pg. xi). He says it is because of filiopietism (“clinging to tradition”—I love it when I learn a new word!). When you think about it, the whole university system encourages snail-paced change. If you’re a 9-month tenured faculty member (yes, yes, I know, we’re a privileged lot, not warranting much empathy), you work two 15-week semesters (yes, yes, yes, I know that we’re all incredibly busy over the summer doing research, etc.). During the first couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention to university issues because we’re getting our classes up and running. During the last couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention because we’re preparing exams and dealing with student crises. Which leaves about 15 minutes in the middle of the semester to lift our heads, look around, and notice that the university seems woefully behind, well, name whatever bailiwick, you’re currently touting.

In my field (journalism and mass communications), it’s usually about how the industry is going to hell in a hand basket and how J-Schools should constantly change the curriculum to meet the demands of the new world of content creation. For example, the school I lead just changed its curriculum. It only took four years. (You can’t make this stuff up.) The new curriculum is better than the old one, but probably not as innovative as it can (or should) be. But, that’s what happens when you put a group of 40 faculty members together working to effect change. Hey, at least we’re moving in the right direction!

Selingo’s book spends a lot of time discussing technology, credentialing options (other than the tradition credit-hour), disruptive changes we are either facing now or will face shortly, and a host of other issues. But, throughout, he somehow also demonstrates how important a college education is. For example, he makes an astute observation that all the techno greats who did not graduate from college such as Gates and Zuckerberg, did, indeed, go to college. He also masterfully touts the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, writing—all the things we academics like to say we teach (while we create more “innovative” classes that actually don’t focus on these, but, rather, meet the short-term goals of industry needs).

As I neared the end of College (UN)Bound, right before I got to the point of wanting to stick my head in the sand and declare that I would be the biggest filiopietist (I’m pretty sure that’s not a real word) in the universe, I realized something.

As I prepare to begin my sabbatical and My Year Away, I can start work now on making innovative changes in my own classroom. I haven’t taught very much over the past 9 years because I’ve been a full-time administrator. One more semester and that will change. I want to change, too. I want to embrace the dilemmas facing the university—and look for solutions. I can do that on a small scale now.

Jeff Selingo’s book will provide lots of fodder for me to consider during My Year Away. The university system has issues, that’s for sure. But, I’m thankful that I am a part of it. I will try even harder not to take it for granted.