Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

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Day Anew

So many sweet successes, each alone more than enough.

Today, a group of emerging higher ed superstars wrapped up our yearlong Leadership Legacy program. Before the university president’s speech, before certificates and applause and cake, participants shared the ideas for change we’d launched into existence. It thrilled me to describe an alumni mentor initiative that’s now charging forward, with current PhD students paired with graduates. This program aims to retain and support the success of underrepresented students (first-generation and students of color) by offering a connection with graduates from similar backgrounds.

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Teach As If

Classroom Active

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.


John Dewey

If only we still believed students were containers. We could pump them full of data and deposit them, ready to perform, on the job market. Our task would be so much easier. We could rely on the old models. We could stand at the front of the class and, through sheer force of will, hold court on subject matter we have mastered.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that because our professors taught us in the traditional models and we managed to learn something, our students should be able to do the same. Even as we try to convince ourselves that we can coast on familiar habits, we know better. We know too many students who have fallen through the cracks. We see students able to perform problem sets but unable to function on a team. We notice how they arriving at the end of a semester having somehow missed the skills they most need to flourish as professionals, creative thinkers, and contributing members of our communities.

We know, even as we continue to write the same tests and deliver the same lessons, we have far more to offer our students. And our students have far more to tap in themselves.

No one can pour learning into someone else. Learning happens through the interplay of cognitive, emotional, physical, and social processes which a learner must experience directly. We need a new starting point. Subject matter is only as important as its application to real-world problems, and it is no longer a reliable guide. The learner must serve as our compass point. The engaged teaching approaches we practice — active, reflective, collaborative, experiential, and inquiry-based learning – help our students integrate content and make use of it through practical skills.

No matter how tired we feel, no matter how stuck in our ways, we can revitalize learning. As long as we have students in the room, we can open up a window. We can re-imagine our classrooms as places of engagement, excitement, and experience. We can practice what we aim to create.

The call is simpler than we imagine: Play with ideas. Require the active and sometimes exhausting contribution of every student. Do the heavy lifting and make room for learners at the center of our teaching. Model dynamic and critical participation. With each lesson plan, in each interaction, act as the reflective practitioner and engaged citizen we hope every student becomes.


Image credit: Wright State University

Fight, Flight, Freak

One of my coworkers just told me I should go somewhere to hide. Security has been called.

I ducked into my office. Now here I sit, perched on the quiet, stiff chair (not the squeaky roller one) under doused lights behind a locked the door. On my credenza under two years of accumulated, unfiled papers is the list of steps for how to respond to a campus active shooter.

Someone is looking for me. Not the general Director-me, but the specific Name-me.

She’s unarmed (they think) but how would we know?

Digging through papers makes noise. The active shooter list stays buried. I remember it says we’re supposed to silence our phones. Keep the room dark. Tapping on a computer keyboard makes noise, so don’t be tempted.

Deep breathing makes noise too, I now discover.

A heartbeat is deafening.

They told me we need to make her think I’m not here.

If only I wasn’t.

This piece would make great fiction.

If only it were.

Sometime when the threat has passed and my pulse slows, I’ll write about what it’s like to be a student advisor in the age of VA Tech and the Oregon community college. I’ll describe the trainings we receive, the offices we have to call, the way skittish professors will invoke feeling “threatened” by emotional students, and the chilling consequences such a claim can have. I’ll explain how, just when you decide it’s all a little too much paranoia, a student walks into a law school class right next door and attacks an instructor with a box cutter.

Someday I’ll write that. Another day when my keyboard’s noise is no longer a danger.

This is not supposed to be the trenches. But I sit here in paralyzed silence hearing only the throb of my own blood against my skull as it primes me for attack. I know, of course, that this is the real gritty world as much as the busy street 5 stories below. All of my community is here. All the financial stressors, the diminishing mental health support, the demands for excellence in a context of dwindling resources, and the social isolation that plagues every overcrowded city. It’s all here, inside this not-so-ivory tower. The students carry enormous burdens. Which means we do too. This is the trenches after all.

I hunker down wait for someone to come for me, to tell me it’s safe now.

If only.

Leap Frog

leapfrog
The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.
 

100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more.

I also knew that it was the right time and place to make that push. This condo is in my son’s school district, near his dad and my parents, close to the metro, and tucked into a neighborhood where we can walk and play safely. We had been living with my folks for three years and had saved just enough cash to launch.

Even understanding the danger of the optimism bias, I decided to trust in our capacity to create new opportunities. A couple of other factors nudged this trust into action. One was that the window was closing fast — interest rates and home costs were rising while inventories were shrinking, and this place was a great fit at an almost-manageable price. Another was that I had to admit out loud that I am the lucky owner of education, skills, a supportive family, proximity to a strong job market, and a well of determination whose depth I was only just beginning to grasp. My cozy little port of self-doubt and hopelessness still felt safe but it was beginning to rot.

So I headed out of the shallows.

When I hit land again, the sail that had carried us there freed itself from the rigging and floated down around me. It covered the terrain with its ripped and unraveling seams, its ragged opacity. Since then, I’ve only peeked through those holes at what crawls around underneath. I’ve been too shaken by the place I found myself — and honestly, too consumed with making hard strides through it — to pull back that fabric.

Until now.

Because I can.

The 100 Things I Can exercise has taught me this: every task, every challenge, every desire I consider beyond my capacity is actually within reach. Some may demand too much investment — Iet’s be honest: the work required to become a cardiac surgeon at this point is more than I’m willing to take on — but at least I see a way.

These 100 Things have also given me pause to notice how quickly I say “no” when something big swells up on the horizon. Each is an opportunity to turn to towards it and ask straight on, “What would it take?” I may accept the challenge or I may steer clear. In either case, I’m learning oh-so-slowly how to make that choice a considered one rather than one that comes from the deadly comfort of habit’s padded cell.

Over the past year, I’ve taken on two teaching gigs, a writing project, an executive search, and two additional graduate programs. All of this is on top of the full time responsibilities of my job. Every new pursuit has felt like crossing the Atlantic on a raft. But oh, how strong these arms are now!

The raise that’s accompanied this growth is meager. Nonetheless, it is enough that I have to circle back around to that limp sail still hiding the ground under our feet.

Can we make it on my salary?

What I find there will probably be hard to face. Honestly, the question scares the pants off of me, which is why I’ve avoided it for so long. My pay now is about as good as it gets with my education in my industry. If it turns out we are living beyond our means, then I have to make some serious and difficult (and yay exciting I remind myself) changes. We are just us, Bug and me. I am the one at the helm of this family. My career, his education, my retirement, his best shot in this life. For the future as far as we can see, my choices are THE choices that determine our fate.

(Pressure, anyone?)

Again, this: I can. I can write a new map for us. I can learn new skills to get us going. I can handle so much more than I ever knew. I can certainly handle the answer to this question.

So I ask.

And now I sit.

Before this calculator, this screen, this heap of financial documents, I sit and pull back the sheet. I assess the rough terrain of this place we find ourselves.

What is under there is indeed hard to face.

After all the essentials — food, shelter, health care, child care, car expenses, utilities, all the stuff that keeps us clicking along — we have $120 left.

That’s $120 per month to cover all the rest.

Here is what “all the rest” includes:

Clothes, shoes, gifts, eating out, games, toys, furniture, art & craft supplies, outdoor gear, birthdays and Christmas and every other holiday, snacks, plants for the garden, travel, postage, home improvement, festivals, subscriptions of any kind, eyeglasses, accessories, fitness classes, donations, electronics, books, and entertainment of any sort.

$120 per month.

That number is a choke collar. My head throbs. My hands clench. I try to pull the cover back over but that only tightens the grip.

Until I pause and notice something. See where that wretched little number stands? To the left of the asset line.

I feel for the knot at my throat and tug it loose. I open my chest for breath.

For the first time since this whole single-parent-working-mama journey began, my assets are greater than my debts.

I let the number sit still there for a moment, then I take it in my hands. It is a size I can bear. It is a gift after all, and I repeat this truth to myself: We can make it on my salary.

We can. For now, for as long as we need to, we can make it. As I sort myself out for the next project, we can make it.

It is going to kick our asses to do it. The kiddo will learn to live with hand-me-down jackets and weekends at the park. I will grow my hair wild and invite friends over for coffee. I will keep the lines firm in my grip. Through these unmapped waters, I will hold the boat steady.

While I’m here at the helm, I can start looking up.

The horizon there may be a shore, after all.

And there is always the sky.

81. Things I Can Celebrate: Five Years

Anniversary Bed

August 23, 2010: first day on the job. This was another shift in the surge between a tidal wave of beginnings and a fierce undertow of endings. Landing a position at a university — one that had deigned to give me a graduate degree before I took off on a fateful, cross-country marriage odyssey — meant more than compelling work with college students. It meant benefits and a way to rebuild a gutted financial base. At a time when the best I dared hope for was chalk dust, this was gold.

So many things whirled and roiled to push me onto the metro that morning in August. Selling everything, leaving a home in the mountains, separation and divorce, going back to work, single parenthood. . . Every stroke felt like the last one I could possibly take. Then I took another, just as grueling. And another.

I wish I could tell my sisters that the other side of divorce is less of a slog. Isn’t that the line? “It gets easier.” Much like what my boss has been telling me every time the pace picks up at work. “Things will slow down soon.”

Five years, they still only ramp up.
Five years, single motherhood is still a steep ascent.

That said, the frantic anxiety about how to make it all work has quieted. When I press the gas on my work week each Monday morning, my mind leaves much of the domestic uncertainty behind. Eventually, my boy and I did manage to buy a home. We know our neighbors. He is rocking the classroom at school. We have a rhythm to our days, plenty of eggs and veggies in the fridge, a little cash in the college fund, a little more in the 401K. Within the few realms we control, we are doing as well as we can. Truthfully, we are faring far better than I ever imagined.

This relative peace at home allows for full presence at the office. I have attention to tackle the new set of pressures and commitments that greets me each Monday. Change keeps churning, wicked as whitewater. Like many universities, mine is trying to grow its influence under suffocating pressure to shrink its operating budget. Resourcefulness is as important as a bold voice; careful consideration as necessary as high-octane exertion. Most critical of all lately? Blind faith in the germination of sloppily but copiously scattered seeds.

I nourish and water. I pray to an absent god.

At this milestone, I can see and even feel what has broken the surface. Sturdy roots, infant limbs. Promotions and raises, geographic flexibility, new projects. People making decisions include me in conversations about the direction of our school.

All of this has meant growing up hard and fast. Five years is really just a blink. I understand now that maturity — at least “maturity” as it takes shape here at the 40+ year chapter in the story — involves going after more and more of the hardest stuff even when presented with the option to coast. This is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher habit to establish, especially when the young adult tendency is to dabble and blame, to shift responsibility and do a good-enough job. To hold out vague hope for something better down the line.

Growing up means understanding that “down the line” is stamped on the ticket I already bought and the miles I’ve already covered. My choices on Monday morning, on every morning, forge my destination.

I am learning to take on creative and difficult tasks that I’ve long assumed were the domain of people with talents and capacities entirely different from mine. I would sooner imagine myself capable of learning Mandarin than write computer code or keep tabs on a several million dollar research budget. But here I am.

This all comes at a cost, though, and it is a cost I still struggle with accepting. My days increasingly belong to tasks I would rather leave to someone else. The work I most love is crammed into the spaces between. My body is weary, my mind is sapped, and my sense of pleasure in just about everything is so far beyond reach it may as well be dandelion fluff in the last gust of summer.

So I celebrate in the least celebratory way imaginable.

I sleep.

This one weekend on the 5-year anniversary of life catapulting me into a foreign land, I finally let myself rest. Two nights ago, I clocked a solid eight hours. Yesterday, I took two naps. Last night, I managed 10-1/2 hours, and today, another nap. I dream long and luscious stories about dusty road trips and strange mountain men in dapper white suits. I wake up exhausted, walk the dog, and go back to sleep.

Tomorrow is Monday morning and I head back to the office. I’m excited to kick off the next half of this decade refreshed and restored. If the first half has taught me anything, I’ll need all the fuel I can get.