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!


Leaning In. Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg!

As I prepare for My Year Away and contemplate what it means to be leaving administration, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (ISBN: 978-0-383-34994-9).  This book has received a lot of criticism—from both women and men—so I was curious.  And I wanted to think about whether someone like Sheryl Sandberg (grand poobah at Facebook, just in case you didn’t know) would think I was wimping out by leaving administration.

Let’s just say the book resonated with me.

Lean In is backed up with plenty of research to convince a thinking person that gender bias still exists in the workplace—and it’s not just men’s faults.

I grew up in a home where both my mom and dad told me I could achieve anything I set out to do.  They often asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—and would remind me of professions that weren’t thought of as “girl jobs.”  (If I said, “nurse,” my mother would say “doctor,” for example.  I think I finally settled on “geologist,” which if my college geology professor had known, would think was hysterical.)

In sixth grade, our class chose The Christmas Carol for its Christmas pageant.  I told Miss Bell that I would try out for the lead.  She said a girl could not play Ebenezer Scrooge.  I disagreed. I won the lead and played to a full house—bald wig and all.  Bah Humbug!

Sure, in seventh grade, I planned to take over my neighbor, Mike’s, paper route while he was on vacation, only to be told by the newspaper that I couldn’t “because I was a girl.”  But I rebounded in ninth grade with a landslide win over three boys for class president.  (Of course, the quarterback beat me the following year in my re-election bid.)

I played basketball in high school.  While we started with “girls” rules in ’69, by 1970, we were playing pretty much just like the boys (except we wore bloomer dresses and wore our hair in braids with white ribbons).  I was a fairly aggressive defensive player and had no problem ripping the ball right out of my opponents’ hands.  Title IX?  I didn’t think much about it.

And I didn’t think much about gender bias in higher education, either.  I’m the head of a large journalism school.  I’m a full professor.  When I return to the faculty, I’ll be one of the highest paid full professors in the school.

Then I read Sandberg’s book.  And I realized that some things did bug me.  And they bug me that I don’t do anything about them.

For example, my immediate supervisor does not have a PhD.  I do.  We are often at meetings together, talking with alumni, students, or friends in the community. More times than not, they call my male boss “Dr. xx,” and me either “Mrs. Pardun” or “Carol.”  This happens fairly regularly and I never say anything about it.   It’s not a big deal.  Except that in the academy, the earned doctorate is a big deal.  I think Sheryl Sandberg would tell me to make a big deal about it.  (Nicely, of course.)

Sandberg’s book is pro mothers, pro fathers, pro single men and women, pro careers.  She argues that we can all achieve something epic if we lean in.

What I especially loved about Sandberg’s book is that not only does she encourage women to lean into their careers, she implores men to lean into their families.  Let me tell you.  She is right!  My husband left his corporate job and began his consulting business when our twins were young.  More often than not, he was the one who was there to meet the kids after school.  In the process, he also built an amazing career.  True, he’s a terrible cook, but the man can (and does!) wield a vacuum and any number of household chores.  Plus, he can (and does!) fix anything.  (If you want to see how good he is, check out his blog,

I’m working hard to make sure I’m functioning on all cylinders when my sabbatical begins.  I want to look back on My Year Away and be able to say that I am making my mark as a productive academic.  I’m going to lean into my research and see what I can discover.  I can’t wait!


When the One Speaks For the Many (and other oddities about faculty governance)

As I plan My Year Away, it also means that I get to observe the process of sorting out whom to hire to replace me. In order for me to go on sabbatical, we have to have a new administrator at the helm.

This has caused me to remember some of the interviews I went on as I explored other administrative positions. I’ve been struck anew about the similarities of administrative job talks. Typically candidates meet with faculty, staff, search committee members, etc., all so the academic unit can weigh in on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. The candidates also almost always present a “vision for the future.”

Here’s where the sticky wicket begins.

Be too proscriptive (“If I come, here is what I’ll do,”) and the faculty will shoot you down for “not listening,” not “respecting faculty governance,” having too heavy a hand, you name it. But, be too tentative (“I would need to get to know the unit before I could say for sure”) and the candidate is viewed as a wimp.

What to do? What to do?

Sometime during the talk, faculty governance inevitably comes up. The candidate will wax poetic about how he believes in faculty governance, how he reaches for consensus, how he wants to hear from everyone.

And then, here’s what happens. A faculty member will pipe up about a very specific idea. It’s well thought out because, well, the faculty member has been thinking about this idea for a very long time. The faculty member wants to make sure that the idea is in the ethos because he wants the potential new administrator to know what the faculty thinks is important.

Except it’s not the faculty’s idea. It’s one faculty member’s idea. Other faculty members have other ideas. Obviously they think their idea is brilliant because, well, it’s their idea so how could it not be?

Higher education attracts all sorts of people, but a common element among them all tends to be that they are individualistic and like to work independently. (Admittedly, it’s something I, too, love about the academy.) How can anyone build consensus in that environment? Too often “consensus” leads to “lowest common denominator”—not too exhilarating.

So here’s what I think. Forget consensus. Rather, seek vigorous debate. Faculty governance really means “shared governance.” It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree on a direction—or even that the faculty have to “approve” every decision in the academy. It does mean faculty have to be involved in many (but not all) decisions that occur on our campuses.

As I get closer to the start of my sabbatical, I’m already realizing that I am ready for a true breather from all the babble and gaggle of faculty governance. But, truth be told, I will also miss the vigorous debate. I’m going to try (really, I am!) to remember that when I return to work as a “regular” faculty member, I don’t have to push my personal agenda. I don’t have to weigh in on every single event in my academic unit. I will let the new leader lead.


Are Professors Lazy?

I’m a professor, so, of course, I’m going to answer this question with an unequivocal  “NO!”

Oh, okay, I’ll acquiesce; yes, some are lazy.  Years ago, at a previous university, I asked a colleague why Professor X wouldn’t retire.  In my mind, he was adding nothing to the school—and he was sucking down a humongous endowed professorship salary.  My colleague’s answer:  “Oh, he has retired.  He just didn’t bother to tell anyone.” I’m sure you can add all sorts of your own stories to the fodder.

Politicians love to pile it on about the cushy jobs we professors enjoy.  They like to point out that, after all, we are only working about nine hours a week.  (Here’s how they calculate the work week: a professor only works during the time she is teaching, typically three hours per class.)  They are apoplectic with the thought that research-extensive universities require even fewer than nine teaching hours.   Lots of people have written about this issue.  Here’s a particularly well-written post from The Accidental Mathematician that you might find helpful.

I’ve read a lot of commentary bemoaning how we lazy professors make the plight of contingent faculty (adjuncts) even worse.   What’s happening with adjuncts is certainly worth discussing, but for this post, I want to bring up a topic that is not discussed as much as it should be.

With the numbers of tenure-track/tenured faculty diminishing on campuses across the country, who will take up the burden of faculty governance and other service obligations?  Here is just a smattering of things that tenure-track faculty do:

1.     Sit on committees.  In the school I lead our committees include curriculum, technology, diversity, policies and procedures, petitions and other ad hoc assignments.  Faculty governance takes time (and tons of meetings) and I am constantly amazed at the professors who do the work happily.  Most of my faculty are on more than one committee at the school level.  Many are on several committees at the university level.

2.     Serve on search committees.  Sure, you get to take the faculty candidate out for a nice dinner, but you also have to slog through untold numbers of application packets, call references, set up meetings.  In our school, over the past six years, we have had searches every year.   This year, for example, we are searching for three new assistant professors.  That means we’re bringing in at least nine candidates.  You do the math.

3.     Review tenure and promotion dossiers for faculty around the country.  Once you get tenure, you, start getting asked to do this and, if you’re any good, it doesn’t stop.  I review several each year and believe me, it takes hours.

4.     Review manuscripts for journals.  Again, this takes hours.  Manuscripts have to be blind reviewed if they are going to be considered quality and to do that, it takes faculty who are willing to help out.

In addition to these service requirements (the above is just a beginning list of all the tasks faculty perform), we spend inordinate amounts of time working on our own research.  We have to think about research, look at previous research, collect data, analyze data, write up the results, submit research, revise research, resubmit research, and then wait (sometimes for more than a year!), before we finally learn the fate of our manuscripts.

A lot of work that professors do takes place “off camera.”  We’re in the library, or in the basement of an archive, or out on the road conducting focus groups, or at home crunching data.  We’re in coffee shops grading mountains of papers, we’re in other cities networking and presenting papers (often on our own dimes), we’re behind closed doors reading books we might use in our classes.

One of the aspects of the academy that I love most is the flexibility the job provides.  But people should not equate flexibility with laziness.  Just because I don’t want to punch in at 9 and punch out at 5 (or 6 or 7 or 8) doesn’t mean I’m lazy.

Of course, not all professors work as hard as they should.  If this happens early in their careers, they might not get tenure.  If it happens post tenure, they might not get promoted.  Some professors don’t care one way or the other.

But, many of them do care.  As I prepare for My Year Away, I want to make sure that I remain a diligent professor.  While I am planning to relax some during my sabbatical (for example, I’m contemplating a one-month road trip from SC to New York to Montreal to Mackinac Island to Spooner, WI, to Chicago to Murray, KY to home), I’m mostly planning to read, think, and write—and prepare for the years ahead.

I’m going to take the time to make the transition from administrator to regular faculty member.  A regular, hard-working, productive faculty member.  Bring it on!


For Something Fun in the New Year, Take a MOOC

We professors tend to yap our fool heads off about any number of things.  Everyone’s an expert!  In journalism education circles, this seems particularly true when it comes to technology.

In higher education, there is a lot of buzz about the pros and cons of massively open online courses.  Everyone seems to have an opinion—even if they have absolutely no idea how MOOCs work.  (I just read an article published in an alumni magazine, for example, that argued a MOOC is bad because it isn’t as good as a 16-student seminar.)  So, as I’ve been planning My Year Away, I decided I will need to experience a MOOC for myself.  But, turns out that I got too curious and didn’t want to wait until my sabbatical began.

I’m pleased to report that I just completed my first MOOC (successfully, no less!), a statistics class from Professor Andy Conway at Princeton University.  My analysis? I loved it!  It was challenging, fun, and a lot of work (I typically put in 10 hours/week on it.)

But here’s what surprised me most of all.  It felt like a real class.  Even though 100,000 students from around the world were my classmates (I have no idea how many dropped it, but according to the research, probably about 95,000), it felt like a real class.  I stressed out over the assignments, I had to ask fellow students for help, I got behind at times.  And perhaps what surprised me most of all was how intimate the whole experience felt.

I walked away from the class with a completely different attitude about distributed education models.  I was skeptical—and now I’m intrigued.

Recently, a number of people have written about the disappointing realization that over 80% of the people who sign up for MOOCs already have a college degree.  Apparently, many people have decided that MOOCs should be for the financially disadvantaged only—as a way to get a college education that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. (I’m not sure where Bill Gates falls into this since he is a college drop out, but clearly brilliant; Gates says that he has taken several MOOCs.)  Some argue that because most MOOC students have a college degree already, MOOCs are a bust.

In my statistics class (if the comments on the forum were representative) then this class, too, was filled with college graduates—many with multiple graduate degrees.  But, I don’t think this makes the grand MOOC experiment a failure.  What this class has done for me (besides helping me brush up on my statistics) includes giving me:

1.     A greater appreciation for distributed education models.  I used to think face-to-face was always the best way to share knowledge.  Now I’m thinking that variety provides an additional layer of acquiring knowledge.  I’m also looking outward from my campus more.  I’m thinking about ways we can make more of our classes available to more students in South Carolina (and maybe outside the state, too).

2.     Improved knowledge, which I have to believe, will make me a better teacher and scholar.  Ultimately, that should also benefit  my students.  I know more now than I did 12 weeks ago.  And I realize that I can do more to increase my knowledge–within in my own field, but also outside my typical scholarly boundaries.

3.     Compassion for those who struggle with minimal technical access.  My forum stats colleagues inspired me as I read about some of their struggles—and determination to succeed even though they lived in locations with sporadic internet connections and only had access to computers that were generations older than mine.

I love the idea that MOOCs could help students earn an undergraduate degree.  But until a demand grows for more MOOC courses like English 101, Algebra, Introductory to Rhetoric, etc. rather than the seriously cool courses that are currently available, it’s not going to happen.   But, to me, that doesn’t mean that the MOOC experiment is a colossal failure.

Sure, we have a long way to go before MOOCs can solve any kind of world-wide education gap between high-resourced people and those with minimal resources.   But rather than pooh-pooh the whole shebang, why not get into the middle of it and see what all the scuttlebutt is about.

Take a class.  It’s stressful, but a blast.  I’m already signed up for another statistics class that starts in February, this time from a professor at Duke.  I can already tell that my brain is gearing up for a successful Year Away.  I have no idea how many students have signed up for the class that starts in February (about 160 days before My Year Away starts), but I’m sure there is room for one more.  Anybody want to join me?