My Year Away. And Back.

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


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Riding the Train and Taking a Sabbatical Is Statistically Significant

When I think about My Year Away (which starts in just under two months, but who’s counting?), I know I have to be strategic in order to return to the university with renewed vigor for teaching and research. How to do this? Is writing all day every day an option? Crunching data? Mining the literature?

If I’ve learned anything about being an effective scholar/teacher, it’s that I have to pace myself. Read, write, think, analyze, read some more, write some more, think, think, think. But not all day, every day. I’ve often found that if I do something else, I can solve problems and get ideas that will then help me get back on (insert train metaphor here) track.

When I wrote my dissertation 22 years ago, I did two things primarily to fuel my brain. First, I picked up pinecones in our front yard. Living in Atlanta at the time, we lived on a very woody lot. Let’s just say that the yard was pristine by the time I defended my dissertation (right on time I might add).

I also took piano lessons. I had taken lessons as a kid, but thought that the discipline of piano practice might help me keep a regular schedule for writing. It actually worked. I became a bit obsessed with Bach. My piano teacher insisted I (re)learn Bach’s Two-Part Inventions with the fingering that Bach used, which, just trust me, was bizarre. She even made me write a little piece of music “in the style of Bach.” (I’m not sure Bach would have approved of my effort, but I was kind of proud of it.)

I found these little exercises of discipline helpful. That’s why I’m already creating my list of things I might try during my sabbatical in order to keep chugging away at my research.

And that’s why I’m riding the train today.   I thought it might be fun to take a cross-country train trip during My Year Away. The idea would be to write and read along the way, see new sights, and come home with renewed vim and vigor. My husband was all for this trip, but reminded me that I am prone to extreme motion sickness. How prone? Let me put it this way. When we were shopping for our first sailboat, we went to a boat show in a convention center. On land. I boarded a boat (mounted on the concrete!) and proceeded to get seasick. Over the years, I’ve learned techniques for getting control of my motion sickness. When I sail in the ocean, I know how to grab the helm and stare at the far horizon before I blow. I know how to make sure I don’t fixate on the water while I’m rowing (sitting backwards while rowing presents some challenges). I still can’t use my reading glasses. And I only made it 15 minutes with Google Glass.

So my very smart husband suggested I “try” a train trip before we “buy” the long-haul (and expensive!) cross-country excursion. A business trip to DC seemed the perfect trial run. Ten hours on the train. Would I be able to read? Write?

Yes and no. I’m writing right now and it’s going pretty well, but I can tell that I’m starting to reach my limit. Horizon-gazing time! I’m not yet sure about whether the coast-to-coast trip is going to happen. But it’s still on the list. And here’s what else is on the list. (I reserve the right to add or subtract from the list at any time!)

  1. Rowing camp. I’ve been before and it’s always incredible. Rowing three times a day with coaches yelling at me through every stroke. I concentrate too hard (and I’m in too much pain, anyway!) to think of anything other than improving my rowing. I always return with renewed energy for the academic life after four days of intense rowing.
  2. Stand Up Comedy workshop. I think I’m pretty funny—but not necessarily when I have to plan it out. How in the world does someone write a joke, practice it for cryin’ out loud–and still deliver it funny?
  3. Grow English peas. Seriously. Peas are awesome.
  4. A cruise. I have resisted the cruise line industry for my whole life. My friend and academic soul sister, Kathy, on the other hand, loves cruises. I hate “shows.” I hate watching people eat copious amounts of food. I don’t gamble. I’ve sailed in the Caribbean on a real sailboat. (where you can really, truly experience the water and the islands.) Still, since I’m trying new things, Kathy and I have hatched a plan. We’ll get a room with an ocean-view balcony and sit out there and talk/write about our research in the mornings. Then we’ll do whatever we want in the afternoons.
  5. Play in the hand bell choir. I’ve never touched a hand bell. I don’t know a thing about them, other than I’m intrigued about how a group of people can stand there holding one or two bells, swing them back and forth periodically, and come out with a song that I sometimes recognize.
  6. More statistics courses. As I wrote about several months ago, I took a stats class from a Princeton professor via a MOOC. I loved it. I’ve just finished the first course in a Data Scientist specialization from Johns Hopkins. (Once I figured out how to set the lectures to regular speed rather than 1.5 speed, the instructors were a whole lot easier to understand.) I’m ready for the next course.

And maybe I’ll take a coast-to coast train trip with my husband. So far this current train trip is going well. I’ve only had a few moments when I thought I might get sick. I’ve been able to read (although not for hours) and as you can see, I am able to write.

One thing I’ve learned is that when I want to do something, I need to start planning for it now. That’s why, even though My Year Away doesn’t start for two months, I’ve already started doing some of the things on the list. They are helping me get ready for what I hope will be a very productive sabbatical.

So far, I’d say this planning ahead seems to be working. I’ve already gotten more done this semester than I would have thought possible. In addition to doing administration full time, I’ve written a lot, I’ve begun working on some research with colleagues, I’ve read more than I have in a long time, and I’ve been thinking.

I’ve got a lot to accomplish before July 1 (faculty annual reviews, lots of meetings about our new building, a business trip eight time zones away, just to name a few.)

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Full steam ahead. (And thus ends my train metaphors!)


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Hooray for Writing Deadlines!

Anyone who is an academic in the field of journalism and mass communications knows how traumatic April 1 is. And I’m not talking about navigating the school newspaper that takes its First Amendment rights to places it probably shouldn’t go by publishing the April Fools Edition. Instead, April 1 is the deadline for paper submissions for the national conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Given budget realities in many universities, having a paper accepted for presentation is the only way to get funding to attend the conference—and even then, full funding is a distant memory for many.

At the J-School that I lead, I try to be supportive of all things AEJMC. As a former president of the organization, I have a sweet spot in my heart for this conference. I want my faculty there. I want other schools to see how successful our faculty and graduate students are with their research.

Therefore, I encourage any faculty member who has even the mildest legitimate reason to attend the conference.   I fund each faculty member at $1,200. It’s not unusual for us to have 15 or more instructors attend so it’s a lot of money. Some complain that it’s not enough. (I tell them to talk to some faculty at other universities and they might not feel so bad.)

But it’s not the money that brings me to my point today. It’s the stress of waiting to see if your paper is accepted. When I was a regular professor, I didn’t worry about this very much. I had lots of research in the pipeline and it was always fairly easy to whip something into shape that would be a sure bet for the conference.

But it’s different now. I’m a full-time administrator without a lot research time—especially this semester because I’m trying to finish up my administrative duties by tying up as many loose ends as possible and at the same time launch my “regular professor” life that begins on July 1 with My Year Away.

True, I can probably justify one more conference without a paper but I will need a legitimate reason next time. Since this is my transition year, I decided I might as well start experiencing the trauma just like everyone else.

I had to get a paper ready for April 1. I figured I better hedge my bets and get two papers ready. I needed a strategy. First, I called one of my long-ago research colleagues (who also happens to be a best friend, which makes it all the easier) and said “hey, let’s do a paper for AEJMC.” Even though she’s a provost with absolutely zero free time, she was in.

Second, I called a former graduate student who is in her first year as a tenure-track assistant professor. We had talked about doing some research together and she had a lot of unused data from her dissertation. Plus, the girl is a research machine. She, too, was in.

All this occurred in the fall when it seemed like there was lots of time to get this done. Then, of course, work got in the way of all our plans and we all found ourselves down to the last week with more work to do.

Today is April 1. Phew. Both papers are done and uploaded into the mysterious “All Academic” site that begins the blind review process.

I really didn’t want anyone to know that I was submitting papers because I didn’t want to deal with the humiliation of having to tell people if they were rejected. (And at least half of the submitted papers will, indeed, be rejected, so this is not a case of false humility.) But one reason I started this blog was to write what’s on my heart, to let people peek inside the life of an academic, to allow me a venue for working out my fears and joys about giving up administration and to head toward my sabbatical with my head in the right place. Somehow, owning up to insecurities about research, in my mind, is part of the process.

Plus, I wanted to publically declare that I love writing with these two academics: one a just-washed-behind-the ears assistant professor and one a senior academic with an awesome (the classic definition being “terrifying”) job. Social science research tends to be collaborative and I’m glad. I couldn’t have written these papers without them. I learned from them both. I was amazed at each of their strengths. The “young one” is a statistical whirling dervish (in the best sense of the word) and the “mature one” is a writing fiend.   She can spit out an elegant opening to a paper in about 30 seconds. I am second author on both of these papers and I couldn’t be prouder.

The academic life has some warts, no doubt. But, one of the best parts is sharing in the joys, the frustrations and, yes, the trepidation of rejection as we try to create new knowledge. We do this together. Full professors, brand-new assistant professors, graduate students. We might be at different places on the continuum of tenure, but as one of my favorite professors from graduate school said, “We are all colleagues-in-training.” Nothing like an April 1 deadline to remind us of that.