Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The NMDS Archive: Anticipating and Planning Your Career at SCCC, Part I

Editor’s Note:  This following is the first of the presentations from the second FA New Member Discussion Series event, hosted in cooperation with the Office of Faculty and Professional Advancement (and written by yours truly), titled "The Long View: Anticipating and Planning Your Career at SCCC," on November 14, 2014. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting the text and talking points from the other presenters, too, so that even if you weren't able to attend the session, you'll still have access to some of the insight and advice offered at this professional development workshop. -- SKG

The Long View: Anticipating and Planning Your Career at SCCC

by Sarah Kain Gutowski, Associate Professor of English, Eastern Campus, Department of Humanities

I’m good at dreaming and planning. I come up with marvelous ideas. Putting these ideas into action, however, is another less-easy and more-challenging feat.

That’s really the impetus for this workshop today. It’s one thing to anticipate a career: to hold its opportunity, to hope, to imagine the depth and breadth of its possibility. It’s another to plan a career, which requires action in the form of decisions. Choices must be made.

One thing my career at Suffolk has made clear is the connection between choice and perspective. There’s a lot of literature out there about higher education, and about being part of the machine of higher education: it’s easy to become lost in it. A link to one article leads to another leads to a rabbit-hole of research and opinion about “shaping our nation.” But it’s almost impossible to sincerely, whole-heartedly subscribe to a belief in the system of higher education and its role in the lives of our fellow citizens unless one feels real satisfaction with, and honest acceptance for, the choices one has made within that system.
Plotting, I mean, preparing, before the presentation.

I’m a poet by trade. I write from a visceral, intuitive place inside my psyche. But systems – inorganic, exterior constructs -- are what I’m here to praise. They are not, by any means, intuitive; but the best ones allow for intuition, for choices based on gut-feelings, and for forgiveness if that intuition proves false.

Today, I’d like to help you come up with your own system, or plan, for your career at SCCC.

Your Ten Year-Plan (Or, A Letter to Yourself in Ten Years’ Time)

When you were younger, you may have been asked to write a letter to your future self. You were encouraged to ask questions of this future self, all along imagining this person and their likes, dislikes, and accomplishments.

Because no one – ever – is likely to ask you to do this again during your time here, please take a few minutes to pause and do something similar to that elementary school project. Before you groan, remember that I said similar, not the same. Ditch the “Dear Future Self” greeting. Don’t waste time with the questions about your predilections and peccadilloes. Instead, pick up one of the pens at the table, and a notepad, and with your most concise and no-nonsense words, create a verbal sketch of where you see yourself, in terms of your career, in ten years time. What is it that you want to do with your next decade?

Congratulations on what you’ve just done. It takes imagination and critical thinking skills to conceptualize one’s projected career. To use your imagination and critical thinking skills after the semester has beaten all your working brain cells into a fine pulp is no small accomplishment. You should feel a tiny sense of pride. Good job by you!

What you hold in your hand or lap, or on the table before you, however, isn’t a plan. It’s anticipation. Planning requires steps. Tiers of action. So now, let’s talk about those.

Tiers of Action (Or, Buckets of Service)

Years ago, a rather hapless administrator stumbled into a department meeting with thirty faculty members who trade in metaphor and symbols for a living, and reduced our promotion process to a series of “buckets” into which one could drop the ephemera of one’s job here. Imagine, he said, that each area of service to the college (Department, Campus, and College) was a bucket. When it came time for promotion, no one bucket should be more full than another. You could win a Nobel Prize, he said, and if your “campus” bucket was empty, there wasn’t much he could do to promote you.

You are right to laugh. Said hapless administrator was rightly mocked (not to his face, of course) for his oversimplification, which was devoid of lyricism and nuance and akin to that other elementary-school preoccupation with do-goodery, “Bucket-Filling.” Also, his allusion to buckets and a balance between them had the misfortune of producing the image of a yoke, reducing faculty to peasants – or worse – servants – or even worse -- oxen.

Sadly, the clumsiness of his words masked a more-or-less realistic view of our promotion process here. He was, in fact, on to something. Balance. (And by the way, he eventually took back what he said about the Nobel Prize. I’m not sure anyone on the Board could argue with giving that person promotion.)

Go to the FA’s website, and visit the “Professional Life” tab and scroll down to the “Promotion Information” link. Download the “A” form, which you’ll need to fill out in order to be promoted, and scroll through it. Note that on this form you’ll be describing yourself – and evaluating your own performance -- in the following areas:

  • Teaching and Other Duties (Other duties being the rather poor term to describe the daily lives of those who don’t teach)
  • Service to the College and Community (which is described, in the paragraph that follows, as encompassing your department/area, campus, college and community. We often forget this last one. Community Service isn’t widely stressed, but it’s important!)
  • Personal and Professional Growth (Or, in other words, Research and Scholarship)

Now hold up that “Future Self” sketch. Compare it to the form here. Do they look anything alike?

Probably not. But they probably should.
Sharing (hopefully) useful tips for creating balance

Practicing What We Preach: Revision and Reflection

First, Revision: 

Be patient with me, please, and take another sheet of paper out. Now, revise that original “Future Self” sketch by breaking it down into the following categories:

Daily Duties (Teaching/Non-Teaching)
Departmental Service
Campus Service
College Service
Community Service
Professional Development

Six areas. Our jobs here at SCCC are not simple – they are multi-faceted and complex, sometimes overlapping and working in tandem and sometimes in opposition to one another.

We’ll talk more about the latter in a moment. For now, let’s be positive: What – and try to be as concrete as possible – do you see yourself doing ten years from now? Think truly “big picture.” Be ambitious and idealistic. You have room to do that right now, and it will not serve you to think small.

Hint One: if you entered at the rank of Instructor, and you do everything “right” and “on time,” you will be nearing – but not quite at -- the end of your promotion cycle. If you enter at the rank of PA or Specialist, around 7 years from now you’ll be applying for your final promotion.

Hint Two: Under the “service” categories, you may find yourself a little stumped. You may not know what kind of service you CAN provide. You have lots of options, and this is also your chance to think bigger and better. Sure, most of us participate and contribute by being on committees. But you can contribute also by starting a department or campus newsletter or blog. You can contribute by leading a TLC presentation on your campus. You can contribute by organizing a professional development workshop for the college.  You can work with community partners inside and outside your classroom on unique, meaningful, and curricula-related projects. This is your moment to imagine lots and lots of options, so that you don’t feel limited when it comes to making a choice.

Now, Reflection, Part I:

After you’ve maybe taken that “Future Self” and divided him or her six different ways in this revision, sit back and reflect on what you’ve imagined. And take note – what area holds the most challenging or ambitious “Future Self”?

That most challenging or ambitious part should not be, necessarily, your highest priority – but it’s the area you want to be most conscious of and careful about. This is the area that will, most likely, lead to the highest amount of job satisfaction if you meet your goals.

And frankly, your highest goal should be to come out of this process without bitterness and resentment, or feeling cheated or roadblocked. How does one do that? Through a careful plan. Through pragmatic choices.

Then, Reflection, Part II:

This next part is not intended to be stressful or panic-inducing. Simply answer the question, where – in each of these areas – do I stand now?

I know you just arrived here. You may believe that you haven’t done more than attend department meetings and lead your classes competently, at best. But you may have done a tiny bit more than you realize. For instance: You’re attending this Professional Development Workshop. You know where that goes? Under Professional Development.  You may be a pack leader for your local boy scout troop. That’s Community Service, which really means demonstrating you’re an active and positive part of the local community.

If, after these past two months, you’ve got about two items to divide across this list – good. You’re right where you need to be. If you don’t have anything other than this workshop, you’re still right where you need to be, because where you need to be at this point is at the beginning -- but at the beginning with open eyes, with an awareness of where you’re headed.

Remember, too, that your timeline is your own timeline. You’re not racing anyone but yourself to that final promotion – and if you arrive at that finish line exhausted and depleted, feeling bitter and used, it will diminish your victory.  

Your Action Plan: Tips

1.    Make Rules for Yourself. Follow Them. Try Again if You Mess Up.

You are going to be asked to do lots of things. My advice, particularly if you’re enthusiastic about almost everything like someone else I know **cough ** . . .  is to give yourself a rule like: I must take a week to consider before beginning any new projects or commitments. If someone asks you to join a committee, say thanks, ask questions about the time commitment and the charges and tasks of the committee, and then take a few days to reflect. Answer only after you’ve taken stock of your other commitments and surveyed whether or not, realistically, you could handle the responsibility. If you can, great. If not, don’t feel bad saying no. There are lots of us at this college. They will find someone to do the work.

2.    Maybe You Have Two Careers, Not One. Plan Accordingly.

At a community college, research, publication, conference presentations, and other professional development is not the primary focus of faculty. In fact, in that list of six categories, taken directly from the A form, Personal and Professional Growth comes in last.

Some of us are just fine with that, and don’t feel a need to perform in this area beyond what’s required for our promotions. Most of us, though, came to higher education because we were interested in learning, and we specialized in very particular subject areas, and as scholars and true academics, we would like to continue to specialize, and publish, and excel, in our particular areas or fields.

For years now, I’ve answered the riddle of being a Teaching Artist at a community college by thinking of myself as having Two Careers. Two callings, intermingled at points, but that require their own separate focus. If I want to get anywhere with my writing, I need to give it time. And I have to give it time that is sacred, and set apart from my grading, my committee work, my email correspondence, office hours, and meetings.

For years now, it’s been in the mornings. Alternately – and ideally – I wake before my children and use the dark, quiet hours to write, read OR do the boring,  painful, necessary work of submitting to journals and book publishers. Since I began this practice of compartmentalizing my “twin careers,” I’ve seen a drastic increase in my productivity, as well as in my publications and presentations. Also, I’m just happier, because I’m one of those annoying people who’s happiest when I feel useful.

I try – emphasis on try – to keep these hours separate from everything else in my life, and sometimes it’s possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible. And sometimes it’s possible, but the other areas of my life suffer; I fall behind in my committee work, perhaps, or with my grading.

Generally, I forgive myself if this happens. It’s a necessary evil. If you perform perfectly in one of these areas, chances are you’re going to be failing (or flailing) in some or all of the others. There’s just too much to do, and too many demands on our time to do everything perfectly 100%, or even 25% of the time, frankly.

But as most therapists would agree – this is a good problem. There’s too much good stuff! Having a career as an academic, after all, is not a bad lot in life. What matters is that you’re being pulled in different directions by aspects of your life that you care about genuinely, and that you see the good and positive effects of your work on a regular basis, despite the chaos and stress of a fully-packed schedule.

This is, I hope, the key to a long and happy career at this college, or any college: ambition, a pragmatic approach, a willingness to forgive yourself for missteps, and the awareness that you can and will choose the direction and momentum of the events in your career. A career isn’t something that just happens to us. We build it.

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