Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking stock: where I am, where I've been, where I'm going

As my post on being a pissed-off woman in academia demonstrated, my job may in the next few months take a turn I hadn't anticipated into cubicle land and consolidation of units. Along with cubicles and consolidation comes, I fear, surveillance of how my colleagues and I spend our time, our work habits, our efficiencies and inefficiencies. Since my work habits and sensibilities tend to be more aligned with those of faculty than staff, but since I am technically a staff person, there may be some rocky shoals ahead.

Of course, this makes me wonder: Why am I not teaching full-time instead of being an administrative type?

The simple answer: Money. This job has more stability than any adjuncting gig, and the salary is far better, too. And I do enjoy much of my job.

But late last year we lost an unfilled staff position due to budget cuts, so increasingly my job has become less about thinking and consulting about teaching and more about taking care of the thousand little details that attend programs, events, grantmaking, and committee work. In addition, as I've expressed before, I feel complicit in what I have increasingly come to see as the factory farming of students. What else can I call it when there are classes of 900 students? I have no plans to leave my job anytime soon--again, I enjoy most of it, my colleagues in particular--but I can't help but think about what my next steps might be, a year or two or three from now, depending on how much control I can retain over my job duties and my time.

A number of events have conspired this autumn to show me that I may eventually find myself in a situation where I'm more of a free agent. Herein I explore some of the possibilities--both to set it clear in my own mind, but also to open a conversation with those of you who are finding your way in and out of, or along the edges of, academic and intellectual life. I'd like to hear what paths you are taking, and what advice you might have to offer me and others in similar positions.

At this moment, my ideal life would look like a mix of writing, art/illustration, teaching museum studies and American studies, consulting with museums, consulting about teaching in higher ed, and working at intersections of public institutions (museums, universities) and communities. I'd also be able to spend more time with Lucas and Mr. Trillwing. I'm definitely what Marci Alboher would call a "slash": a writer/artist/consultant/teacher/quasi-intellectual.

Perhaps the most inspiring moments of the fall came when I joined Barbara Sawhill, Laura Blankenship, and Barbara Ganley at BG's amazing home to talk about some common interests around teaching and learning, community development, and storytelling.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again a hundred times: I want to be Barbara Ganley when I grow up.

Barbara Ganley

The "Fear 2.0 Dream Team": Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill (in background), Barbara Ganley. Much missed at the gathering: Martha Burtis. Much appreciated: Laura's pomegranate martini recipe.

Barbara Ganley and Finn-dog

Dinner conversation: Laura Blankenship, Barbara Ganley, and visiting from his mountaintop, Bryan Alexander.

I've already blogged a bit about our retreat, so I'll summarize by saying that I'm tremendously inspired by BG's and Laura's recent leaps from academia, and Martha's decision to work part-time on projects rather than remain an administrator. These women are further along in their careers than I am, but watching them gives me hope that I, too, can craft a work-life balance that I find meaningful, that balances the creative and the critical impulses of the mind. In addition, I'm totally jazzed about BG's community storytelling projects around the country and hope to participate in them in some capacity.

BG's home is in itself a fabulous metaphor and also a collection of slashes. Without compromising too much of her private life, here are a few glimpses:

The entire house is built from green and salvaged materials. Her chandelier is something out of Jules Verne, and is made of recycled plumbing fixtures. I didn't get to see this feature in operation, but the fixture belches colorful steam at a signal from a remote.

The front door is also an assemblage of reused materials, and has been inscribed by her menagerie of dog and cats. But most interesting to me is the door in profile:

It appears to be three doors combined into one, all of which lead to the same place--a site picked by Barbara's family when they sited the house on the property. I like this metaphor of constructing one's own door and deciding onto what place it opens. It's much more appealing to me than the usual metaphor of selecting one door from among the many presented to me.

Barbara and her family have set out a pair of urns to mark a trailhead near the house. Again, I like the idea of defining one's own starting point, of mowing one's own trail.

I also still enjoy my position teaching graduate museum studies students. Museum studies is such a fertile field, and I very much enjoy playing and working in it. All my musings about slash careers aside, I would be delighted to teach in this program full-time. It's just all-around awesome, even though this quarter marked the first time I felt I didn't fully connect with a class of students. In the winter and spring quarters, I'm overseeing the master's theses of 14 (!) students. We'll meet as a group every other week for three hours, during which time I'll be leading them step-by-step through the process of writing their theses. Thankfully, the program director has already helped them select their topics and methodologies. I'm very much looking forward to reading these theses, as most of the students are among those I taught last year, and I adore that cohort of students. (I think the affection is to some extent mutual.) Plus, it sounds as if I'll be meeting a few new-to-me students, one of whom is a (woman) taxidermist. Awesome.

Exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History - mammal hall. Have I ever mentioned I have a preoccupation with taxidermy?

Taxidermied birds--where else?--in Barbara Ganley's home

I'm also trying to be an even better citizen of my university by serving on a committee that serves as a watchdog over the status of women (faculty, staff, and students) on campus. I attended my first meeting a couple of weeks ago, and the ideas I put forth were accepted with great excitement by many on the committee. It was odd to be a newcomer and yet suddenly in the middle of all this hustle and bustle on a committee that seemed, if I'm reading the situation correctly, to be looking for a cause or two to champion. Yes, it's one more thing on my plate, but it's an important thing.

On the back burner for the time being is a big project--a series of projects, really--related to multicultural education and targeted at progressive parents of youngish children. It's more entrepreneurial than any of my other pursuits, and in this economy I should probably move it to the front burner, but I don't have the energy at this moment. Still, the older Lucas gets and the more I learn about No Child Left Behind, the more I realize the importance of this endeavor.

Motherhood continues to amaze me.
I think being a full-time stay-at-home mom would drive me bonkers, and it wouldn't do much for Lucas's development right now. He's learning to be social, and it helps for him to be in a daycare/preschool environment. That said, I'd love to spend even more time with him during the daylight hours. I'll post more photos of him soon. He's crazy tall and his vocabulary is growing faster than his bones. Plus he has a wicked sense of humor. Wonder where he gets that? These photos are from a trip we took with my parents to a riparian reserve. They're kind of bird nerds and wanted to see some sandhill cranes (in the interest of full disclosure, so did I).

Where does all this lead? I don't yet know, but I sense it's someplace good--if I can make the financial picture work. Another spanner in the works is that Mr. Trillwing is in the newspaper industry, which, in case you haven't noticed, is on death watch, so we're trying to rethink his career as well.

Most of all, I'm learning to put myself out there, which does not come naturally to me. I'm redrawing the boundaries of what I'm comfortable doing. I'm unlearning the many ways that women (in academia and in professional life in general) sabotage themselves. I'm trying to balance reflexivity and research with action. I'm trying to clear the decks of old projects so that I can focus on new ones. I'm trying to become the person who believes wholeheartedly in her life's work. And that's not easy. I'm planting seeds, but sometimes I'm surprised by what grows.

P.S. Don't miss Fang's post on our Thanksgiving adventures. Here's a bit he didn't cover--a young bobcat (there were three of them) playing a few yards outside our hotel room in Tucson:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

5 things teachers could learn from the slow blogging movement

(Cross-posted from BlogHer)

This week The New York Times featured the slow blogging movement in an article that profiled my friend and colleague Barbara Ganley. I was glad to see Barbara featured by the venerable paper, but the piece was short and didn't make the best use of Ganley or the other bloggers it cited. Here's a big part of what it missed: Slow blogging isn't just about lifestyle (the article was in the Fashion and Style section). It's about learning.

I've put together a list of things teachers and professors could learn about teaching by taking a virtual page from slow blogging. (And yes, I realize the list as a genre is more typical of quick blogging than slow blogging.)

1. Slow blogging privileges learning that is expressive rather than regurgitated.

Todd Sieling writes in his Slow Blogging Manifesto,

Slow Blogging is the re-establishment of the machine as the agent of human expression, rather than its whip and container.

Slow blogging provides evidence of sustained thought in the form of words frequently accompanied by carefully selected images. In an age of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests graded by machines, slow blogging provides an antidote to retrograde educational initiatives like No Child Left Behind.

2. Slow blogging promotes reflection and conversation.

The best classrooms allow learners to help determine the content and nature of their learning experiences. As Ganley wrote in the post where she first articulated the term "slow blogging,"

So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

Chris Lott elaborates:

Slow blogging is mindful wandering is meditative reflection is an attempt to face the fear, to take a stab at the heart, take responsibility and risk, and in the process create a gift of immense value to others, a manifestation of our particular truth.

Slow blogging is about learning and producing truths, not facts.

3. Slow blogging can work in tandem with more of-the-moment exercises and activities.

Not all learning needs to be documented with evidence of sustained thought. Sometimes blogging and learning take the form of a call to action, as Courtney writes at Feministing. A key tenet of slow blogging, at least as practiced by Ganley, is stepping away from the screen to engage with one's community offline.

4. Slow blogging builds on itself.

Earlier this month, the Oxford University Press blog emphasized this characteristic of slow blogging, contrasting it with newer forms of social media:

Slow blogging also means coming back to the same issue with new information, months or even perhaps years later. It thus calls for a nonlinear interface, less like a journal page or a Facebook wall that flits by and then deposits week-old items into archives. Think about accretive knowledge, where the accretion is slow, sure and steady, not slapdash.

Similarly, the best learning is iterative: It revisits earlier subjects, earlier theses as the learner builds new paradigms. I don't think the best learning is structured like that of, say, a typical biology survey course, where the subject matter moves apparently logically from cells to more complex lifeforms. Nor is it like a U.S. history class where all the content is structured from East to West and by presidential administrations. Yes, it may be necessary to learn the "facts" of history or the basic forms of life before making an argument or proposing a hypothesis, but slow blogging offers an alternative to learning that borrows its logic from mere chronology.

5. Sometimes the best way to learn is to write publicly.

Too many of our students' projects are never seen by anyone but their teachers or perhaps their parents. In certain instances, public accountability--the sharing of one's learning in a forum, be in online, in a classroom writing workshop, or in small groups working on the same project themes--moves learning along much faster than does private, individual study and meditation.

How might you learn from slow blogging in improving your conversations, learning, and reflection online and off?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On being a pissed-off woman in academia (and losing my office)

(Cross-posted to BlogHer)

So the word on the street is that the academic unit that oversees mine and several others would like to consolidate us geographically. Makes sense, yes? Except that the price tag for rehabbing the proposed space (an old science lab in a "temporary" building) is, I'm told, somewhere around $400,000 in a year of dramatic budget cuts. Even scarier? That price tag is for cubicles, not offices. Offices, I hear, would cost $200,000 more.

So yes, I soon may be losing my current office with its lovely closing door. My underground, windowless office--but an office nonetheless. And one that has been mine and mine alone for all of two months, since my graduate student researcher (and friend) sought out greener academic pastures. The other woman holding my same position will also, it appears, be losing her office.

Lest I sound like a total whiner, let me point out that this is the first time in my professional life I have had my very own office. I've done the cubicle thing. I've shared offices. I've held office hours (as a grad student) on a couch in a random academic hallway, in coffee houses, in more places than I care to name, really. And so getting my own office, even knowing that I'd be sharing it for a while with a grad student, was for me a huge perk of my job.

We're told that the converted lab space will have a few offices with doors, but that they're for general use, to be reserved for meetings. I meet with or call faculty regularly about confidential matters. And my productivity has increased at least 200% since I found an office I could call my own, with a closing door.

When I mentioned my concern to someone in the academic unit that oversees mine, she mentioned she herself (she outranks me in the unit's hierarchy) shares an office with two other people, and that they just ignore one another's phone calls.

This is not okay. I understand there is a shortage of space on campus. (I also understand there are science faculty who teach in two or more departments who have two offices and large labs.) I feel I've earned that door. And the university has a complicated formula that determines whether one gets a door, how much office space a person gets, etc. But apparently a Ph.D. who consults with faculty on how to teach, say, a class of 900 students does not merit a door. Nor does someone who meets with her grad students (and, next quarter, undergrads) merit office space. That is cubicle stuff, my friends.

OK, I know I sound a bit like a diva. After all, it's likely the half-time faculty director of our unit will also be sitting in a cubicle--but he has an office elsewhere in the university, as does a male colleague who works in my department 50% of the time. In short, all the men who work with our unit in some capacity will have offices elsewhere. We women folk? Not so much.

I was chatting with my therapist about this yesterday, and she asked if I was angry. I said I didn't really do anger. Then she asked if I was pissed off. I paused a moment and then thought, yes, yes--that's what this feeling is--I'm totally pissed off. Ends up, though, (surprise!) that I'm not alone. Historiann has been writing about and linking to pissed-off academic women. There must be something in the water. Or maybe we're just always being provoked. Let's take a look, shall we?

The History Enthusiast talks about one of those many incidents that may or may not be sexist--until you consider the varying respect given to grad student women and faculty men:

Every year I get a new round of stories to share with people who think I'm making this "sexism" up. Last year my office mate told me about a student that entered my office (which was a 3-person grad office), saw that I was not there, and promptly began to rummage around on my desk. When my office mate asked what he was looking for, he said something to the effect of "[History Enthusiast] gave a handout in class, and she said I should come by and pick one up." Why that entitled this person to have full access to my desk, I don't know. It may not have been sexist, but I doubt they would've felt comfortable doing that if I were a male professor.

Historiann deals with a male student who writes a bit too informally requesting advice. Really, you must read this series of e-mails--and particularly the final one from the student--to believe it.

I have mixed feelings about informality in e-mail and in face-to-face interactions on campus. In a recent employee evaluation, I was called "democratic to the bone," which was once a compliment and a caution about providing sufficient deference to and careful handling of, say, the head of my university at events I put together. I do believe that all of us--students and staff and faculty and presidents--bring something valuable to the table that deserves consideration and respect. That said, I'm tired of asserting my own equality with men on campus, and I'm sick and tired of hearing that other women are experiencing the same thing with alarming regularity.

Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time provides some perspectives on these kinds of incidents:

The issue, I think, is less about each individual incident than about the many, many such incidents that such accounts as those in the two posts to which I linked represent. When this crap happens over and over again, at a certain point it becomes not just mildly irritating. And when you watch them happening to you, over and over again, while your male colleagues sit happily in their offices without the emails, the interruptions, and the challenges to one's professional status, yeah, it becomes something that pisses a person off.

Now, you might say, "well, all you lady professors are clearly just too sensitive!" This is often the tenor of the challenges that women professors get when they complain about these sorts of things. Our skins aren't thick enough; we take everything to "personally." My first response to such challenges would be that they in themselves express a certain kind of gendering of the woman professor. Because we have vaginas, we must be blowing things out of proportion. Clearly. My second response would be that the challengers, too, would lose their sense of perspective if they experienced this stuff not infrequently, but rather over and over and over again in each and every semester.

Yes, yes, Amen, yes. My office dilemma, taken alone, would already tip the scales for me toward a certain brand of disrespect. But because the cubicle move comes after countless times when I have had to whip out the Ph.D. to confirm my credentials with (mostly male) faculty who call my office about the programs I run, and along with the hundred little "subtle and insidious" (to borrow a term from Dr. Crazy) incidents that I suspect would not plague a man with my credentials, moving into a cubicle becomes a symbol, for me, of the larger place of women in academia--and particularly women in academia who are not on the tenure track and those who walk the line between faculty and staff positions.

What are your thoughts on these incidents? Do you have similar stories to share, inside or outside of academia?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Learning to converse

The scene: It's getting late for Lucas, a bit past his bedtime tonight. He's been using safety scissors to cut ever-tinier fish from pieces of paper. He is wearing a polo shirt, brown corduroy pants, and a long red cape, and he's been prattling on about cutting and paper and fish. Then, suddenly:

Lucas: I'm tiny.

Me: You're not tiny. You're 3 years old and (gets out the tape measure) 42 inches tall.

Lucas: I'm all over my place.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Found comedy, courtesy of Mr. Trillwing

Treat yourself the whole thing. I guarantee it will put a smile on your face.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Update: Lucas and Obi

I've been crazy overwhelmed, and I have a dozen blog posts percolating in my head. Tonight I need to catch up on some grading, write a talk I'm giving as a guest lecturer in a class I used to teach, read several articles for my museum studies grad seminar tomorrow, and plan for the museum studies class. And yes, it's 7 p.m. now.

But I have a couple things I need to blog before I forget them. The first is a Lucas update, so helpfully provided this week by Fang. Thanks, Honey!

Also, there was this exchange this morning:

Lucas: I squeezed Daddy.

Me: You squeezed Daddy or you hugged him?

Lucas: I squeezed Daddy.

Me: What's the difference between squeezing and hugging?

Lucas: (already wearing his red cape) That's a job for Supe'man!

The second thing I've been meaning to blog about is the new dog. Obi, he is not so easy to deal with. He's got this crazy puppy chewing thing going on that you really must see to believe. He is getting better about jumping up on people (he does it only about 35% of the amount he used to jump), and we just dropped a wad on some private lessons with a trainer as well as 10 group lessons, so he's learning to sit and lie down. Walking on a leash is a whole 'nother problem, and Obi has some serious territorial issues to work through.

But I had a revelation about him. See, when we told the trainer that he's about 14 months old--that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) told us he was 10 months old when we adopted him--she said the local SPCA tells everyone that any dog under 3 years old is 10 months old. I guess it's a popular age. That's when it dawned on me that Obi is also probably not the mix of breeds that the SPCA claimed him to be. Of course, since Obi was a stray, the SPCA folks couldn't know exactly what breeds he is, so they went with the popular Australian Shepherd x German Shepherd cross. And he does look a little German Shepherdy in that he's black and lanky. But the older he gets, the more he looks like--gulp--a Border Collie.

And since he likes to get soaked, I'm thinking he's a Border Collie x Labrador Retriever cross. A Google images search pretty much confirms this. There are a lot of BC x Lab crosses that look like Obi.

Which means, unfortunately, that we may have a very, very smart dog on our hands. Mr. Trillwing thinks he's dumb as a post, but I suspect Obi is like that kid you knew in high school who seemed a total slacker but then up and earned a perfect score on the SAT. Which means: after several more months of hard work, I suspect we'll have a wonderful dog. But right now. . . not so much.