Mid-Career Mentoring

This past week, I got a seemingly innocent survey asking me about my research productivity. It was circulated by our Vice President of Research and asked a series of question about what it is that we do as humanities scholars in terms of our research and creative activities. I suspect that some of this has to do with our current budget crisis at the University of North Dakota, and a renewed desire to distribute resources in a way that has the greatest impact. 

[For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3, and part 4.]

One of the final questions in the survey asked broadly about obstacles that have impeded my work. I responded that the distance between North Dakota to Greece and Cyprus slowed my research, and my limited and diminishing pool of energy. I simply can’t work they way that I worked as a graduate student or early career faculty member. I suspect that anyone who does work in a foreign country and, you know, is getting older experiences these same obstacles. At the same time, I was struck by my inability to adapt to these problems and, perhaps more importantly, not really knowing what to do to move forward professionally.

To be clear, I have plenty of ideas, projects, and academic hobbies. I even suspect that many of them are “impactful,” but I also realize that everyone has ideas, priorities, and projects and some faculty are simply more effective than others at managing competing priorities of their discipline, university, and department. I think that the current budget crisis is adding even a greater level of complication to those of us struggling to chart our paths forward professionally. Most of us at UND will have to change what we do and how we do it both in terms of research expectations and productivity and teaching and service strategies.

As mid-career faculty, we’re in a particular bind. On the one hand, we’ve invested in particular paths that usually carried us through tenure. Maybe we’re working on our second major project or setting out lines in several different directions to see what is the most productive moving forward. Generally speaking we know our craft better than when we started our jobs and we’re capable of handling more teaching, research, and service challenges. On the other hand, we have more pressures and temptations and distractions from opportunities from disciplinary or campus leadership, collaborations with other scholars, and we’re often laden with ideas for projects, methods, and approaches. While this should make us more nimble and adaptable, I wonder whether if that kind of dynamism is designed to thrive in stable environments where a certain amount of wasted diffusion of energy can be accommodated within the system as productive and creative waste. (As an example from the corporate world, when times were fat, Google could offer their famous 20% program where employees with a certain level of seniority could invest one day a week into some experimental project. As the company has felt more and more pressures (and greater expectations of profits), this program has been curtailed). So things like budget pressures, strategical planning, and instability across campus which ripple outward to affect disruptions to funding, to departmental life, and even to university culture, impact mid-career faculty in certain ways. They push us to be more narrowly productive and focused (with less productive waste) and they challenge professional habits and tendencies toward risk taking developed under certain expectations. So, at a time when campus needs innovation, faculty feel pressure to fail less and take fewer risks. 

This is a complicated place to be and one that would benefit from a kind of campus wide mentoring program to help faculty feeling this bind to refocus and find the most productive way to adapt to new professional realities.

To be clear, I’m not asking for some kind of professional hand-holding. I get that we’re hired because we can do our jobs. I also think, however, that we are living in a very dynamic period in higher education filled with opportunities and challenges that did not exist even just a few year earlier. The temptations of the digital age, the pressures to collaborate, changing expectations from administrators, legislators, and students, and a rapidly evolving funding landscape have have complicated our work. Moreover, our digitally mediated professional lives have increasingly pulled us away from our on-campus colleagues. For example, I work largely from home on days when I don’t have classes, meetings, or office hours and many of my colleagues do the same thing. The opportunities for casual conversations in the hallways have diminished and most of our conversations are less about long term professional issues and more about “shooting the wolf closest to the sled.” 

As the university looks forward to doing more with less, there remains real questions about how to best do this. Some of the responsibilities will fall to administrators who have to identify priorities and distribute remaining resources in a strategic way. Some of it will fall to faculty to sort their situations out, chart their own way, and take advantage of the new situation. But if we really want to do things differently, this is something that has to happen from both ends (administrative and faculty) toward the middle and we both need to working toward these new approaches.

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