When Stationary is Progress

These recent months have been hectic for me. If you are considering the tenure track, then one aspect to always consider is the very real possibility that things will spiral out of control quickly. Once this happens, it takes a concentrated effort (read: the end of the semester) to get back on track. The fall semester started with grandiose ambitions of working on two books with colleague for which I am currently contracted. Additionally, I really wanted to focus on balancing the different aspects of research. What I mean by that is I heavily oscillated between finding funding, getting research results in the lab, and reporting those results through publications. When I was concentrating on one, I let the other two drift more than I liked. Writing 15+ proposals in a year is great, but when the sacrifice for that is fewer journal papers, it doesn’t equate. I thought by starting the semester specifically segmenting my various activities into discrete chunks of time in my schedule, I could maximize my efficiency.


And then shit happens.


In my case, I was asked to cover a class for an ill colleague. It goes without saying (but I am going to say it anyway) that I am sure my colleague would much rather be at the university than ill and, of course, I certainly would prefer to not teach an ~80 student lab/project class, but this happens. Also, I taught this class for the past five years so it, in theory, should be a relatively easy transition. In practice though, courses change even slightly when a new instructor is assigned and sometimes minor changes can affect large differences. This left me scrambling to understand the material that was (and was not) already instructed, the grading scheme, and trying to adjust while not moving the goal posts for the students. For instance, if I wanted to change the grading scheme, I do not honestly know if that is even allowed once it has been stated in the syllabus. From the students’ perspective, I can completely understand their frustrations (which were apparent at times during the semester) yet if I made drastic changes, those changes might have caused an equal amount of frustration. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

The silver lining in all of this is that I will be having a semester recap with the students next week. I have done this for a few years now where we simply have an open discussion one evening after the semester is over. I try to give students insights into the why behind the course. This could be everything from grading policy, to lab structure, to my much loved hated no-email policy, among others. I highly recommend doing this with your students if possible for two distinct reasons: 1) the feedback you get is often candid and much more informative than you will ever get from your end-of-semester surveys, and 2) it will give students valuable insights into management and decision-making processes. Students often use the end-of-semester surveys to bitch and moan provide strong critiques about the course. In a one-sided survey with no discussion, there is no incentive to think constructively. However, when that occurs during this session, my #1 response is along the lines of “well, how do you suggest we make this better?”. Sometimes this elicits a deer-eyed response of “ummm, I dunno” from the student and you can almost see the lights go on when they internalize that sometimes solutions are not readily apparent/available.

This is the best part about the recap session. Then it typically turns into a bunch of engineers trying to problem solve, which is great. And if I moderate the discussion appropriately, students will often challenge their peers and provide different perspectives. For example, Student A may hate my no-email policy and as such, really disengaged from the course. But Student B will often chime in with “I had no problem meeting with him and our meetings were more constructive than what email would traditionally allow”. (I use my no-email policy for this example because I actually didn’t institute this policy this year but students have heard of it from their peers. So many took that to actually be the case for the semester. We’ll see how this shakes out on Monday.) So this year, I am really interested to see what this recap with students brings.

As for the rest of the semester, I spent much of it just trying to keep the ship afloat. There were many leaks and rough seas. I managed only one traditional proposal submission (still pending), lost an internal bid for a NSF MRI proposal, but did get a project funded through the Center for Freeform Optics. This was a more productive semester with eight papers submitted, with four of them accepted and the others in various stages of review/revision. I had my second PhD student successfully defend recently and at least two (hopefully three!) more will finish by the end of the academic year.

The service side is where things have taken a beating. I haven’t really made progress on those books, which is an unacceptable rate of progress at this point. Moreover, I am not the only author and at this point I am disappointing my colleagues. Also, there is another initiative that I have been working on behind the scenes but I would have liked to make more progress on it by now. All the other stuff, certainly blogging and some podcasting, has fallen by the wayside. At the time of writing this somewhere over Kentucky, there are two podcasts in the queue that just need editing before posting. Since October.

That basically summarizes the outlook I started in the beginning of the post. I guess when you are on the verge of being overcommitted and then unforeseen events occur, it can devastate the most well-intentioned plans. Sometimes, in the academic sense, not slipping backwards can be an amount of progress in its own right.

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