Why I'm not waiting for tenure to change the world...

In less than a week, I'll be back on campus.  Or, more accurately, on one of the three different campuses where I've talked my way into classes.  Mostly, when I think about it, I feel stressed out.  

Of course, the summer just wasn't long enough.  I didn't have enough fun, didn't do enough scholarly work, didn't do enough paid consulting work, and failed to put in enough volunteer hours for issues I care about.  House projects remain undone.  And, I'm still not up to running a 5K.  (And, I never did just take a day to smoke pot and watch youtube kitten videos. I did think about it.) 

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to be happy this year -- and, through my doctoral program in general.  Finding Grollman's My 7-Year Experiment (inspired by Nagpal's Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc) opened my eyes and made me realize that I had my own guidelines to write and something to say about the doctoral student experience for those of us who live on and theorize from the margins.  

So, here are my own guidelines based on the work of Grollman and Nagpal:

  1. The goal is to change the world.  Getting a phd is a task with many doable subtasks. 
  2. I will be more selective about the advice I take.  
  3. I will (finally) create a "feel good" folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best "whole" person that I can be.
  6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.
  7.  I will have fun now.  

1.  The goal is to change the world.  Getting a phd is a task with many doable subtasks.   

So, this first guideline is my only strong departure from Grollman and Nagpal.  Both have a different goal -- surviving the pre-tenure years.  But Grollman wrote something that really made me sit up:  "My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities."  I'm 43 and don't have time to wait for the PhD to liberate me and give me a voice.

Before entering my doctoral program, I was a self-employed consultant working with public sector and nonprofit organizations.  I had gotten to the point where I could work 11 months a year, not worry about marketing, be a bit picky about my clients, and consistently include one pro-bono client in portfolio.  When approached by a potential client with a project, I would ask the following questions: 

  • Am I the right person to do this?
  • Is it good for me?  (Which really meant, do I have the capacity to do this and still be sane?)
  • Will it change the world?  

So, no surprise, my first year was filled with inner conflict.  My choices had been largely taken away from me and the faculty were strangely transparent about "socializing" us into the world of academia.  No longer could I reject tasks that I thought weren't going to bring about social justice.  (With that said, I love learning and it was and continues to remain a privilege to be paid to learn; I really hadn't "worked" so few hours since I was 15.) 

Being in a college of management (even a progressive college with a smattering of critical sociologists), means that I was surrounded by driven academics including a few dominant (male) voices who have a Tayloristic approach to publishing; and, as is the case for many in academic, they are evangelical about making the incoming doctoral students believe that their way is the right and only way.  

To be fair, there are a few more balanced folks in the department. The most simpatico are great classroom teachers, care deeply about their students, and have the goal of producing meaningful articles about social change both inside of and outside of the academic space.  However, few seem to share my deep passion for bringing about radical action directly through their writing and teaching.   

So I have decided to go back to what worked for me as a consultant.  The first priority becomes changing the world.  There will be times when I have academic "tasks" that don't fit the goal.  I'm a good, fast worker capable of doing the "tasks." (Yes, I'm in GTD recovery.)  From now on the "tasks"  go on a list and get done well, quickly, and without worry.  Learning and deep understanding are a top priority; satisfying the requirements of the rewards system will happen.   I need to go back to focusing on the urgent concerns concerns of the world -- racial, gender, economic, and social justice.  

2.  I will be more selective about the advice I take.
I'm not quite in the same place as Grollman when he writes:  "I stopped taking advice, especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations."  But I'm almost there.

Some of the advice I got before and during my first year caused me to (unnecessarily and repeatedly) bang my head against my desk.  Most of the bad advice came from folks with more privilege and less life experience than I have.  Some of it was just unrealistic -- (e.g. never say "no" because you are a doctoral student and need to take advantage of every opportunity, build all of the relationships that you can, etc.)  Some of it was coming from a place of fear about their own desires for socially-defined success (i.e. tenure).  Some of it was just anti-intellectual; multiple faculty advised us to deal with the workload by skimming the reading assignments.  (Really?  I count on faculty to curate our experience and assume that if it is on their syllabus that it is relevant and important.)  So this year, I better know where to tune in and where to tune out.  And, as important, I'll be better at asking from help from folks I trust to understand me and the change-the-world goal. 

3.  I will (finally) create a "feel good" folder.

I was told to do this in business school.  This "task" is going on the list and getting done NOW!  Thank you notes from clients, my program acceptance letter, the A+ paper I wrote first semester, my first conference paper acceptance => in the "feel good" folder.

4.  I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.

This is probably the hardest for me.  I kept a general schedule of Monday through Saturday, 9-6ish last year.  But, I often worked more.  I've always worked 6 days a week including two nonprofit leadership positions where I was on a beeper 24/7.  (But again, perspective.  Responding to an emergency at a domestic violence shelter is much different than meeting a R&R deadline.)  Overworking is a hard habit to break but I'm going to do my best to contain my work to M-F, 9-6ish this year.

5.  I try to be the best "whole" person that I can be.

I find what Grollman says about appearance so liberating:  "This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation. "  (I know some of my friends must be thinking: "if last year involved some effort, what are we in for now!")  If one thing business school teaches you, it is to "manage your self-presentation."  As I often say, we're trained to look "straight but not available."  Somewhere in this, I've lost myself.  Yep, I'm 43 and want to be "appropriate" (maybe) but I also want primary-colored hair.  I'll spend some time thinking (but not worrying) about this.  

And, when it is easy to do and gets the job done, I'll do it with my eyes wide open.  A quick Prezi presentation can sometimes get a more conservative faculty member to pay attention to my more radical agenda.  I'll reluctantly "use the master's tools" if I feel it can meet the change-the-world goal. 

The other "whole" person part for me has to do with spending meaningful time in the  non-academic world -- with activists, at protests, with white folks who care about doing anti-racist work, in low-income communities, with queers, and in communities of color.  I'm lucky to be at a public university that truly reflects the diversity of Boston -- but it still isn't enough for me.  I had a great conversation this summer with a practitioner friend about an essay I'm formulating.  A long time social justice activist has agreed to "keep me honest" while I embark on this career transition.   

The third component of the "whole me" involves travel.  Travel shakes up my thinking in a way that is unsettling and productive.  I truly feel alive when I am out of my comfort zone struggling to navigate a community that is not my own.  I want to better understand how travel shapes my thinking.  In order to do that, I need to, well, travel. 

6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.

For what I lack in a bio family, I make up for in a vibrant circle of incredibly supportive friends.  I have them and I'm going to spend time with them.  (My partner is among the best of those friends.)   And, I'm going to spend face-to-face, uninterrupted, cell-phone-turned-off time with them.

I've also started to make some great new friends.  Although I won't start writing my dissertation for a year, I already have an interdisciplinary dissertation writing group of lively feminists.  Perhaps assembling this group is the smartest thing I've done over the past few months.  I am looking forward to our 8am morning meetings (yikes!) and getting to know each of them better.   

7.  I will have fun now.  

I live in a great city and have great friends.  Enough said.