What I Wish I Had Known

In a few hours I will be participating on a panel with 3 other Brock faculty members as part of the new faculty orientation events that are going on this week. The theme of the panel is “What I Wish I’d Known” and we each have 10 minutes to talk about things we know now that we wish we’d known when we first started at Brock. It is meant to be conversational, but I thought I’d take the time to write out some of these ideas here as it will help me organize my thoughts.

1)I’ve learned how important collaboration is. Academic life can sometimes be a solitary one — sure, you are among other human beings when you are in front of a large lecture hall, but the bare bones material of academia comes from hours of research, reading and writing which are largely solitary activities. I’m an introvert and I find these quiet activities quite soothing and enjoyable, but since arriving at Brock I’ve also learned that it is really important to collaborate with others on some of this type of work. There are a number of benefits, including getting to know your colleagues and being able to approach a research question or classroom material from different perspectives. Some examples of collaborative projects I’ve undertaken at Brock include:

-collaborating with the liaison librarian for our Department in the planning of my classes, particularly the large first year “Intro to Visual Culture” class. Together we have developed assignments and assessment methods to help students improve on existing research competencies. We each have different academic backgrounds and areas of expertise and by combining these we have been able to come up with approaches that neither one of us would likely have done if we’d been working on our own. I’ve certainly seen the difference that having this included in my course makes in terms of student writing and research skills.

-collaborating with three other faculty members to plan and host Greenscapes, an interdisciplinary conference on how gardens have functioned (and continue to function) in human societies. Again, we each came to the project with different areas of expertise and, as a result, worked very well together as a team. The original conference was held in October 2007 and we are in the midst of planning for the October 2009 conference — look for the CFP to go out soon!

2)I’ve learned that it is really tough to maintain the 40-40-20 balance. (*note: at Brock, like most universities, our contract stipulates that 40% of our professional time should be spent on teaching, 40% on research and 20% on admin/service to the university). In my experience it has been more like 70-10-20, with 70% of my time being taken up by teaching. I’ve discovered that teaching will expand to fill as much time as you allow it. I suppose it is natural to focus on teaching because the rewards/repercussions are so immediate (i.e.: “I have class tomorrow and haven’t finished putting my slides together!”), whereas we all know how long it takes to get something written and published, so it is easy to fall into the “what’s one more day?” trap. What happens, of course, is that one more day turns into one more week which turns into one more month, and before we know it the term is wrapped up and very little time has been spent on research.

I expected to struggle with this in my first year as I’d been warned about how long it takes just to settle in to a new city, a new job and a new university. Also, of course, you are typically prepping new classes in the first year of a new job and those do tend to take a bit more energy and time. I was not, however, expecting the pattern to continue in my second year, but it did. I’m beginning my third year at Brock and will have to make a conscious effort to stick to the 40-40-20 allocation of my time. I have a number of strategies that I am employing to do this:

-First of all, I’ve found some colleagues who are struggling with the same issues and we’ve agreed to check in on each other on a regular basis. Perhaps we’ll meet for coffee to discuss our research or maybe if our schedules are too hectic we can check-in over email. The point is to be externally accountable to someone, to have someone ask things like — “hey, did you finish those manuscript edits yet?”

-I’ve also started a private WordPress blog that I use to track daily goals and progress. This is a modified idea I got from reading Paul de Silva’s How to Write a Lot, a book Katharine recommended to me. One of his suggestions was to keep a spreadsheet where you track your progress. I have tried this (and will probably continue to try this), but I found it too constrained for my liking. I wanted more room for narrative and felt myself thinking, “I’m in the arts, I’m not an accountant” as I entered in my numbers on the Excel columns. So I’ve supplemented the spreadsheet with the blog where I can freewrite (a tip I learned in grad school when the guru of dissertation writing, Joan Bolker, did a workshop at Queen’s), keep lists and track what I’ve done and what needs doing for the variety of projects I’ve got on the go.

3)I’ve also learned how important it is to find activities outside of work and to take the time to get to know the area in which you live, especially if you’ve moved to a new city/region to begin working. I know that the “to do” lists seem a mile high, but things will still get done if you take a Sunday afternoon off to visit a farmer’s market or go for a hike. In Niagara, we are lucky to have oodles of fruit stands and wineries, and one of my favourite ways to de-stress and get familiar with my new surroundings was to visit these places on the weekend. There are also a number of great places to go walking — Short Hills Provincial Park is a new favourite of mine, but there are many other spots to explore.

I’ve also recently taken out a membership at the YMCA and am amazed at how taking the time to go for a swim helps me feel so much better — I sleep better, I don’t feel as stressed out, and those aches and pains in my neck from spending so much time at my desk have nearly vanished. It almost seems counter-intuitive to stop what I’m doing and head on over to the pool when I’ve got overdue writing projects, courses to plan, meetings to attend, etc., but in the short time that I’ve been doing this I’ve come to understand how this will actually help me get more work done in the long run. I hope I can keep it up through the fall and winter months.

Alright — I’m off to campus to take part in this panel. I’m looking forward to hearing what the other participants have to say on this subject!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s