Doing More by Doing Less

It is the start of the fall semester and I am already worried about my ability to keep up with the hundred tasks before me. The emerging list is so long that, as one of my favorite professors once said, “it’s a full-time job just updating my to-do list.” No! I cannot be tired before September. This will not do.

As always, whenever I feel this way, I reflect on the lives of my colleagues. Faculty are in that first exhilarating rush of the semester, when everything seems possible. Fresh syllabi, fresh faces, and hope are the order of the day. This will be the year when all that hard work of planning pays off in student engagement and professional growth.

Sort of.

The planning was probably a little more stressful this year as we tried to take all eventualities related to COVID into account. The research agendas are somewhat disjointed as we plan for travel but know that some is likely to be cancelled. And, those fresh faces are partially covered with masks (for now), dampening the sound and a little bit of the excitement ahead.

Colleagues not in the classroom are also happy(ish) to be back on campus. It is so good to see each other, to hear noise in the hallways, to have some direct interaction with peers and students. It is a refreshing change from those endless remote meetings of the last year. The possibility of the casual conversation, the collaborative events, and just being together feels good. But, it is moderated by that nagging sense that things could shift quickly, and we should be prepared.

Many students are looking forward to in-person experiences this fall. Some stayed in online courses, but most are here and ready for the things that just work better when we’re in the same room. They are looking forward to the conversations in classes and co-curricular activities that we once took for granted. Students who started college last fall are finally able to feel like they are in college, which is wonderful. This year’s first year students are here from the start. It is good, and as I watch them scurrying across campus I note that they are pretty good at the mask thing at this point. I am sorry that they have to be.

In the face of this quasi-normal life and the potential for disruptions, those wonderful aspirational feelings of a new year are just a little dampened. We find ourselves having to plan two options at every step, and, well it is a lot. Like my endless to-do list, it can make a person feel a little tired at this point when we are usually energized. So, considering our extra load, I am returning to a common theme in my writing… can we do just a little less?

Deep breaths, everyone. I know you just made your plans for the semester and that may be all you can do right now. Perhaps you don’t want to think about anything else until conditions change (if they change). Ok, do what you need to do for your own sanity. But, if you’re willing to think for a minute, with your students’ chaotic lives in mind in addition to your own, maybe there is some room to trim those plans just a little.

For courses, this means taking one more look at the readings and assignments and asking yourself about the goals for each. Is there a way to focus those goals a bit more and eliminate one thing? When I was still teaching, I found this question very helpful. At one point, it resulted in reducing assignments by 3 and gaining as many opportunities for learning. I cut some short papers in favor of more focused goals in those that remained. This made room for more detailed and timely feedback. The experience and the learning was better for everyone.

For co-curricular activities, how about just focusing on small opportunities for engagement. With most activities safest outdoors it seems like our outdoor recreational opportunities will serve us best this year. I’ll add that our students feel a great deal of reward when they have been of service to the community, so adding those events that foster community service (outdoors), will likely go a long way to just making us all feel a part of something. It is a welcome change from the dislocation of Zoom.

For the initiatives in departments and in governance, perhaps we can think just a little more strategically and lighten our load. I was recently reading about several Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives around the country, and I am struck by the smaller steps that can go a long way. Some universities have elected to look at the expertise and offerings already available on their campuses, and worked to bring those resources together into majors, minors, and certificates. This is more manageable than creating something entirely new and can often create interdisciplinary relationships that are invigorating. Others are looking at existing courses and programs for opportunities to revise from within. This generally involves a scan of topics and readings to find opportunities to include new voices in our favorite courses. This is easier to get our minds around than trying to think about re-imagining an entire major from a DEI perspective.

For my part, I’m looking at opportunities to draw on existing committees and departments to accomplish tasks. Most pressing right now is preparing to do a self-study of the university for our next accreditation visit. I’m trying not to build a new structure to figure out processes that members of our community are already doing. We’ve got most of what we need embedded in our normal practices, so why complicate things? In this case, I think we can accomplish more by doing just a little less.

I think there are more things I can do to simplify processes and projects and reduce all of our loads this year. Just thinking about this is bringing that energy and excitement back to this start of the semester. Hooray. Finding simplifications is now the most important part of my to-do list. I will be the champion of doing more by doing less. Maybe you will, too.

Higher Education, Hope

The Magic of We

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I was very involved in all things music. I played flute in the band and in the pep band for football games. I was a mediocre flute player, but I loved being involved in it all. I also sang in everything – the madrigal singers, the chorus, and in the musicals. Part of all this activity meant auditioning for county and state choruses. I was a better singer than flute player, so I was routinely selected for these elite choral groups. What a lucky thing to go to a regular public school, not in a wealthy neighborhood, and have all of this available! But I digress.

Today, I am remembering a moment in All County Chorus when we were rehearsing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. We had been struggling to find our parts all morning, but finally we had it. We hit a particularly beautiful and robust chord and the conductor burst into tears. Since we were a bunch of awkward teenagers, he was quick to reassure us that they were tears of joy. There are moments when a particularly resonant note can send chills up the spine and move a person to weep. I understood him immediately. It happens to me all the time.

So, here we are at the start of a new academic year, and we are inching our way back to campus after a long year of remote, hybrid, and limited in person learning. I am very proud of all we accomplished last year. Students, faculty, and staff all worked valiantly through so much uncertainty and so many frustrations, navigating new technology and re-imagining ways to connect with our students. Some things were stellar, some just barely adequate, but everyone tried hard and learning continued. Most of all, everyone was kind. But we were also unsatisfied, so here we are, trying to return to something like a normal college environment.

Well, it is worth wondering why we are so eager to return. After all, the tools of instruction, with practice, do become easier to manage. The pedagogical innovations that online (and hybrid) learning offer are more fun as we have time to engage them repeatedly. Indeed, after the giant learning curve of moving all instruction online, we have the luxury of repetition to help us feel more in control of the environment. This is really a lot like what we do in the classroom. Teaching starts as a terrifying plunge, but with repetition, we develop our skills and learn how to play with learning. Online instruction turns out to be a nice component of the learning environments available to us.

We also learned that a lot of our processes are better online. Bureaucratic processes like registration, bill paying, and signing contracts are simpler in electronic format. It is also true that, for many of our students, tutoring support is better online. It is just easier to arrange schedules when you can meet virtually and the tools allow direct interaction, rather than back and forth of email. It isn’t good for everyone, but it is good for a lot of students. Students and faculty are finding that having the flexibility of online office hours is also a benefit. Again, not for everything and everyone, but we should keep some of that available. Yes, this being forced to move online has improved access to services and support in important ways.

But all in all, we were still missing something. We did our best to have guest lectures and workshops and presentations all year. People attended, people asked questions, and there was convenience to all of that. Still we missed the ease of the back and forth that happens when we’re in the room together. It’s that corner of your eye motion that clues you in to a question unasked or a comment unspoken that is just hard to spot on Zoom.

Performances, art shows, honors ceremonies, and Western Research Day all took place, but let’s face it, we all missed a little direct applause. In one instance the faculty hosting an awards ceremony tried to put some applause into the mix – a nice effort and we all enjoyed it – but it’s just not the same. Little boxes on screens just don’t make us feel like we are all together.

So, we’re making the effort to return to campus while still managing some uncertainty. Things are much better than they were last year, of course, and we’ve gotten very good at our safety protocols, but it is not quite normal, and we will be working hard. So, why are we doing it? Because we miss the We.

The We inspires us, connects us, and makes us feel alive. No matter how technologically advanced we get, there is still something magical about shared spaces and the immediacy of responses when we are together. Being together helps us feel alive; it helps us know that we exist. It isn’t about the measurable or the possible or the practical. It is about the excitement we feel when we start to understand something together. It is the feeling of exhilaration when we’re all in the same room celebrating the success of a colleague. It is even the aggravation of being stymied together and throwing up our hands in knowing despair.

The We tells us we are alive and it gives us meaning. It evokes a feeling of commonality and basic humanity. The We is magic. Let’s face it, magic is a necessary ingredient for education and for our lives. So, as I begin to make the rounds of welcoming everyone back, I won’t be surprised if, like that conductor so many years ago, I burst into tears. The magic of We is my perfect chord.