It’s the end of the year and I suppose it’s also a time for traditional reflection on all the things that we learned over the previous 12 months. I obviously learned academic stuff and archaeological stuff and even some historical stuff, but I also think that I have a better grasp on practical stuff. Here are the top four things I learned about living the academic life.
1. The Mixed Blessing of Sabbatical. I consider myself very fortunate to have a year of sabbatical last year and I pushed a bunch of material into the academic pipeline over the 9 months without teaching or university service. This was great and I finished sabbatical with very few regrets and a number of surprising, new, spontaneous projects that appear poised to pay dividends.
The downside is that I am now completely swamped as all those little projects pushed into the pipeline (articles, book reviews, book manuscripts, conference papers) are coming home to roost when I have far less time to bring them to completion. David Pettegrew and I have a term for this kind of overwhelmed feeling: blow out. The biggest symptom of blow out is an inability to focus on any task and a deep fatigue. This Christmastime, I found myself simply overwhelmed and crushed, but this did not stop the relentless flow of responsibilities and projects flooding my inbox. Last night, I had a stress dream involving a project that my wife was working on!
Like so many things at the modern university, the institutional structure of annual budgets, the annual academic year, and annual review structures the system of pressures and rewards. These annual pressures and rewards are somewhat incompatible with the long game most of us play with our scholarship. In my experience, the frantic pace of work over a sabbatical will yield a mixed bag of results over the coming year or two as projects come together.
2. Democratic Doesn’t Mean Good. Over the last year, Richard Rothaus and I have embraced enthusiastically the medium of podcasting and have both recognized its origins as a tool to democratize audio broadcasting. At the same time, we’ve both recognized that podcasting as a medium requires more attention to production than perhaps we anticipated. An echoey, static-filled podcast, with irregular levels embraces the amateur punk-rock aesthetic, but do little for overall listenability. We keep on improving our sound and editing skills and I think that most recent podcasts sound better than our first.
At the same time, I think we’ve both recognized that presenting a recorded conversation involves a good bit more patience and choreography than I expected. Richard is already better than me at letting our guests talk and taking turns in conversation, but I’m learning that conversations on the podcast are a series of small set pieces that respond to each other. To allow these to develop, I need to keep practicing being patient and setting up our guests and Richard.
3. The Power of a Brand. One of the most amazing things I’ve encountered this year is how important having a recognized brand is for visibility on the web. In the past 3 months, I’ve been editing North Dakota Quarterly’s much expanded web presence and the response has been remarkable. We already are averaging well over 150 page views per day even during the traditionally slow month of December. As we introduce a range of new content across the website, it is hard to deny that the power of NDQ brand will ensure a baseline audience for our digital growth.
I also learned, after a couple of missteps, that a long-standing brand like NDQ has very committed stakeholders. Expanding our digital presence has not been without some teething pains and things like the extent and character of editorial review and guidance are still being hashed out. Negotiating the balance between the speed of collaboration and the speed needed to maintain an interesting body of web content will be our challenge over the next month.
4. We’re All Busy. I have lots of irons in the fire right now and many of them require collaboration with folks. Generally, I’m an impatient collaborator who expects every project to be everyone’s top priority. I have to get better at working with my collaborators and managing my workflow around their priorities as much as mine. In other words, I have to do better realizing that other people are every bit as busy as I am. Saying that I’m not busy just isn’t enough.