Well, it’s the eve of my first full day of meetings related to the new semester, and thus it’s a good time for making some goals.
Tomorrow’s day-long shindig promises to be fairly low-stress. Irritating and long, but I doubt there will be many opportunities for me to get myself into trouble, and at minimum it provides a free lunch, a 50 dollar gift card to the campus $bucks, and the possibility that I could win an iPad!!!! or free parking!!!! (which I won’t). Oh, and there’s a wine and cheese reception after.
The day of meetings on Tuesday promises to be more dangerous, in terms of me getting myself into trouble, but I’ve been gearing up for it, and I think I have a plan.
So here’s the thing. As you might imagine, one of my greatest flaws is a corollary of what I think is actually one of my greatest strengths: I am a person who speaks her mind. When in doubt, I speak. I never paid any mind to the wisdom of the Chronicle of Higher Education Forums, which advise all new faculty members to STFU. My feeling was always, you hired the person I am, and I am a person who speaks, who contributes. You need to know that about me if you’re going to tenure me, and I’d hope it’s one of the reasons that you hired me. It is, pretty much, anathema to my personality to STFU. But pre-tenure, I was a bit more… careful… in what I let come out of my mouth. Since tenure, I’ve had more security (obviously) and I took that security seriously. I figured that security came with the responsibility to speak up, speak out, and speak often. Which in itself I believe is still “right,” as such things go, and I think that people who don’t use their tenure to make a contribution that they couldn’t make pre-tenure are, to some extent, not doing their part.
But. That belief on my part, in a department where lots of people don’t see tenure in that way, led to a lot of resentment on my part (and, to be fair, probably to a lot of resentment against me on the part of some colleagues). My resentment was then compounded by a series of exceptionally high-stress and high-stakes service responsibilities (see the part where I believe that tenure comes with responsibility), which included (among other things): 1) after submitting my tenure materials, being responsible for chairing a committee to totally revamp our major; 2) in the first year that I had tenure, taking over university and college curriculum committee representation, in the year that we had to totally revamp our gen ed curriculum, at the same time that I also had to submit about 150 forms for the revamping of our major and also when I was on not one but two search committees, one of which resulted in a law suit against the university, which I have dealt with into recent months; 3) in year two of tenured life having sabbatical to start a new book project but also dealing with implementation of the New Gen Ed as I continued representing my department at college and university curriculum committees upon my return from sabbatical – oh, and also developing, with CF, and teaching for the first time a brand spanking new introduction to the discipline course, now required by the new major; 4) in year three of tenured life learning that the state council on postsecondary education had issued a new mandate for curriculum and assessment of majors, which required us to revamp our only recently revamped major, oh, and also I was chair of the college curriculum committee. Oh, and also I taught a 13 different preps (yes, 13, I’m not kidding) over the past three semesters. While trying to write a book. So over the past year or so, I have been at my wit’s end, and that made me a loudmouth. Because when times get tough, I lash out. I don’t retreat, even when it’s wise.
Now, I took on each and every one of the things that contributed to my stress, so this is not a post about how I was “right” to speak up, speak out, and speak often in ways that were offensive, mean, rude, brusk, or dismissive of other people. The reality is that I should not have taken on so much, and I shouldn’t have fallen into the trap of thinking that because I did all that work that I had more of a say than other people who didn’t do squat or who didn’t even have a clue about what they were talking about. ( I get unreasonably pissed off when people who don’t do the work or who don’t do their homework speak up, and while I think that is understandable and human, me being an asshole to those people isn’t the most productive or mature response. So while I give myself a break for those feelings, I do acknowledge that my behavior in reaction is not called for. Now, I’d argue that if those in leadership took responsibility and knew how to run meetings and didn’t allow people like me to take on unreasonable loads of terrible work that I wouldn’t act out in inappropriate ways, but still, I’m responsible for my actions, and my actions over the past year especially haven’t been so grand.)
So, I spent the spring extricating myself from a lot of stuff that was making me unhappy and that was making me treat people badly. And setting some necessary boundaries regarding teaching. That was step one, though – I realize that doing that, while good, is not actually enough. The tougher part, in a lot of ways, is what happens next, in step two. I need, in this academic year, to learn to speak less and to speak more quietly. Notice: I’m not saying that I need to STFU (which I think is irresponsible), but rather that I need not to shout people down, or contradict every wrong thing at every turn. It’s not that I need to “use my words” – I always use my words. Actually, what I need to do is to use my words strategically.
It’s not my job to make people see the Truth or to make people agree with me. It’s my job to do the best I can do for my students, department, college, university, and discipline (in that order). Being a loudmouth doesn’t actually achieve the goals that I want to achieve.
So my goal for this week, my goal for this semester, is to choose my words carefully. When in doubt, I probably shouldn’t respond or react. If things are that bad, I still probably don’t need to speak, not publicly: I have the power to shut things down without actually arguing with anybody (which I do feel like isn’t playing fair, because I’d rather be up front than sneaky, but the reality is that the sneaky approach probably be more comfortable than what I have been doing).
I’ve got a big stick. I’ve got my reputation with students and with colleagues and administrators and staff outside of my department (college-wide, university-wide, in my discipline); I’ve got my understanding of the issues that we’re dealing with (understanding that is a result of doing all of that heavy-lifting service-wise, reading the Chronicle and IHE, reading blogs, and just basically thinking about higher education on a regular basis). I don’t need to convince people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and I don’t need to convince people who care more about a power-play than they do about the things that really matter. I need to be willing to use the big stick, rather than giving in to my first impulse, which is to shout people down.
At the end of the day, I’m really excited about this academic year. For the first year in four years, I’m going to be able to make teaching and research my primary areas of focus. I’m still doing service, but it’s service that isn’t going to turn me into, depending on the day, a bitch or a zombie. As opposed to having about 30 regular committee meetings in the academic year (aside from other ones I want to be a part of), I’m going to have like 6. For the first time in three years, I’m going to have a fucking lunch break on my heavy teaching days. And you know what? If other people want to do the heavy lifting for a change? Because I’m so horrible? Let Them.
Maybe the biggest stick that one can wield is to give the haters the freedom with which to beat themselves to a bloody pulp. Or to succeed. I mean, hell, maybe what they’ll do will be awesome. In which case, I still win, as I’m not the one who has to do all the motherfucking miserable and thankless work.