An Academic’s New Year’s Resolutions

Oh, hey! It’s an arbitrary placeholder on an imperfectly-constructed measurement of the earth’s rotation around the sun! Time to make some important life choices!

Substitute "pants" for "basket," and that's about where I am.
Substitute “pants” for “basket,” and that’s about where I am.

In all seriousness, though, I am a sucker for the ritual of making some New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve found that the rhythm of the academic year is particularly congenial to that practice. I’ve had a semester to screw things up participate in some learning experiences, and now the winter break between semesters–and its coincidence with the turn of the calendar–becomes an excellent time to reflect on them and readjust for the coming year. Moreover, one of the benefits of making New Year’s resolutions, I think, is the formality and public nature of the ritual; by committing to choices in a public venue, with the written word, I build in incentive to remain accountable. Ultimately, these resolutions are for me. But sometimes having the words out there in public makes up for the internal motivation that can be absent on some days.So, in that spirit, I offer my resolutions in the hopes that they might spark some thought and conversation to make this coming year a better and more productive one for my fellow travelers in academe.

In 2016, this academic resolves to:

  1. Drink more coffee. Start with the easily-achievable, I say.
  2. Blog more frequently: What? It’s been a month since I’ve posted here? Hmmm. My bad.
  3. Write daily. Every bit of academic writing and productivity advice out there essentially boils down to the simple injunction to find a routine–preferably daily–and stick to it. For some, a daily routine isn’t possible; there have been some semesters where that’s been the case for me as well. But I’ve learned that, for me, a daily writing practice is essential for me to keep momentum and make progress on the writing projects I’ve committed to doing. When I write every day, even if it’s for just 20 or 30 minutes, I keep on top of my goals. When I don’t, I tend to fall out of routine with alarming speed. If I miss just a couple of days, the next thing I know it’s been three weeks and I’ve fallen into a spiral of stress-induced avoidance. “YOU SHOULD BE WRITING.” “BUT I WON’T BE SO BEHIND IF I DON’T THINK ABOUT IT.” That’s an awful spiral of procrastination and guilt to fall into, no matter how clean my office gets as a result (ALPHABETIZE THE BOOKS AGAIN).
  4. Read daily. And email doesn’t count. I’m happier when I’m reading different and interesting things–longform journalism, theory and philosophy,pedagogy, fantasy, sports blogs, different areas of history–and doing so regularly. I’m happier because I’m intellectually engaged with an array of ideas and conversations, which only makes me a better teacher and writer. It’s easy for me to lose sight of this when I’m burrowed deeply in my own research topics or bureaucratic tasks; I have to consciously commit to keeping a wide field of vision here throughout the year.
  5. Don’t steal others’ time, and don’t let my time be stolen. With the exception of good coffee, the most precious commodity for an academic is time. Yet, we rarely treat time like the valuable and all-too-scarce commodity that it is. Meetings that could be emails. Needless, redundant tasks. Planning a process for planning another process. Bickering over semantics in a committee meeting, or worse: group-writing policy statements (LIGHT ME ON FIRE NOW). All of these steal our time. And I will not let others steal my time. Let me make the distinction clear: I willingly spend my time on lots of things: my family, my students, my colleagues, my work. But it’s when others force me to allocate time in wasteful ways that theft is involved. I’m a teacher, faculty developer, writer, husband, and father. I spend my time in ways that allow me to be successful in all those roles. But when I’m sitting in a two-hour committee meeting with no clear agenda, where no one has prepared for the business at hand, then that committee has stolen time that could–SHOULD–have been spent on students, professional development, or my kids. Time is a finite resource for all of us, and I choose to protect mine as vigilantly as I can. And in return, I will protect yours with all my power. I will not chair a meeting with no agenda, I will not get people together in a conference room for something that could be taken care of in an email, I will not assign pointless busy work to my students.
  6. Be kind. This seems simple enough, but it can be really, really hard. Higher education is no picnic right now. Funds are evaporating: enrollments are uncertain; “edupreneurs,” pseudo-reformers, and other hucksters offer “solutions” that do nothing so much as blame faculty for our situations–we are in many ways besieged on a regular basis. And it sucks. But you know who’s not at fault for this? Our students. The neoliberal and corporatist turns in higher ed have hurt them, too–in many cases worse than they’ve hurt us. So slamming students for being unprepared, or making silly overgeneralizations arguing today’s students are stupid, or philistines, or narcissistic, or sheep-like does nothing but further punish the real victims of the attacks on higher ed. It’s a twisted logic, and I refuse to subscribe. Kindness, in the sense of understanding and empathizing with the increasingly wide variety of situations faced by the increasingly diverse array of students in our classrooms, can go a long way towards reversing this pernicious trend. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Students are our allies, not our adversaries.
  7. Be present. I struggle with this All. The. Time. I one sense, it hearkens back to the “stealing time” thing: am I stealing a student’s time if I’m thinking about my overdue chapter instead of focusing on what they’re saying in a conference? It sure looks that way, right? At home, I’m preoccupied by work-related stuff; at work, I’m preoccupied by home-related stuff. When I’m not present, everything gets out of alignment. In many ways, adhering to the resolutions I’ve listed above will help me with this one here–it’s easier to be present when I haven’t let my writing slide to the point where it’s weighing on me, for example. But presence is really hard to maintain when there are so many things–technology, gossip, stress, a growing to-do list–competing for my attention. So I turn off email, except for times I choose to check and process messages. I turn down the phone ringer. I try to stay out of arguments in which I have no place. I try not to let other people and their problems rent space in my head. But all of this is easier said than done. Being present remains a work in progress, a struggle rather than an accomplishment. But I have to remain committed to the effort.
  8. Drink more coffee. I remain committed to this effort, too.

So there’s my list of resolutions, put out here in public to remind me of what I want to do, and the way I want to be, this coming year. I hope all of you have a great 2016, and if you have any resolutions of your own that you want to throw out there, put ’em in the comments!

Happy New Year!

 

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2 thoughts on “An Academic’s New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. I enjoyed reading your New Year’s resolutions. Best wishes in making progress in each of these areas! I struggle with the being present one, too… Even if I get good at shutting off the devices, there’s still the part of me that focuses much too much on the future and way too little on this very moment.

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