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Dear Kerry Ann: Time for the Scholar-Activist

Wednesday, October 26, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
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Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.

 Dear Kerry Ann,

I’m a scholar-activist in my third year on the tenure track. Do you have any concrete tips on balancing the work that counts for tenure with the work that matters to me? I’m currently working all the time, my colleagues are avoiding me, I’m exhausted and my body is hitting the breaking point. I’m unwilling to compromise my identity, but I’m having trouble holding it all together.


Tired Scholar-Activist

Dear Tired,

Thanks for your important question -- it’s one I’ve done a lot of coaching on this semester. I respect your clarity about being both a scholar and activist, and I understand why you’re struggling to figure out how to make this work on a day-to-day basis. I assume your goal is to find a way that allows you to experience success in your academic career, engage in meaningful work for change and have a full and healthy personal life.

Because I have worked with many scholar-activists facing the same question, I want to share with you the different models that other people have used to manage their time. For many asking this same question, the solution starts by choosing a mental model and then translating it to daily time management. Let me describe a range of possible models to stimulate your thought process, and I trust that you will choose whatever makes the most sense for you.

Model 1: Alternate Between a Nine-Month and a Summer Job. Some scholar-activists manage their time and identity by compartmentalizing their activities. To support this model, they use their nine-month faculty contract as a vehicle for compartmentalization. In other words, academics who choose this model make it work by being a professor in the traditional sense during the academic year and then using their summer months to focus on their activism.

While this model isn’t for everyone, I’m describing it because it works well for some faculty members. However, it does require mastery of time-management techniques in your academic life, like having a consistent daily writing practicealigning your time and your tenure criteria on a weekly basis, and intentionally cultivating internal sponsors for your work. The benefit of this model is that you can release yourself from guilt, shame or anxiety about not doing enough because each part of your identity gets full expression during specific time periods.

Model 2: Work Two Jobs. The most common model (and it sounds like this is the model you are currently operating on) is the one in which you work two jobs. You work your first job during the day (as a professor) and then spend your nights and weekend on your second job (your activism). This superman/superwoman approach is often the default for scholar-activists.

While this model is prevalent, it is extraordinarily difficult to sustain because it means working all the time. Scholars with abundant energy and minimal family commitments can keep it going for longer than others, but what I’ve seen repeatedly is that this model leads to exhaustion, burnout, stress-related illness and strained interpersonal relationships on the campus. It can work, but to do so, it requires doing what matters, engaging in radical self-care and having a rock-solid group of sponsors.

Model 3: Reframe Your Definition of Activism. Some scholar-activists realize that the problem isn’t one of time management but of how they conceptualize what qualifies as activism. Many people with whom I’ve worked don’t view their teaching and scholarship as part of their mental model of activism, despite the fact that knowledge production and dissemination are integral mechanisms of social change. Instead they have an unconscious definition of activism where the only thing that counts is being physically present for protests and/or nonstop posting on social media.

The main feature of this model is integrating the work you are hired to do as a faculty member with the changes you want to see in the world. This model works well for faculty members whose commitments are related to their research and teaching. For example, if you teach courses and conduct research on racial inequality, why doesn’t that fit into your definition of activism? This model works least well for faculty members whose teaching and research are completely separate from the social change they are passionate about.

Model 4: Bloom Where You Are Planted. For tenure-track faculty whose scholarship and teaching are wholly unrelated to the social changes they want to work toward, another model I’ve seen scholar-activists choose is to concentrate on making a particular change on their campus. This can be a powerful strategy for several reasons. First and foremost, it gets you focused on something specific, concrete and achievable. Second, it shifts the energy from critique to creation (or from problem identification to solutions). And third, it gets you in communication with campus-based allies who can collectively work for positive change, it expands the group of senior faculty who can serve as sponsors for you and it buffers any negative impact on you.

Model 5: Choose One. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that once some scholar-activists reflect on the challenges to holding a hybrid identity, they resolve it by choosing to focus on one (and only one) aspect of that identity for the near term. For some, that means focusing exclusively on being a scholar until they win tenure and promotion. For others, it means leaving their faculty position to take a job that allows them to work full time on the issues that matter most to them as an activist. Either way, their time management focuses 100 percent of the activity of their choosing.

Each of these mental models has its opportunities and constraints, but I think that you can see from my descriptions of each one that they result in different choices about how you spend your time and how you feel about your work. The advantage of consciously choosing a model is that you gain clarity and confidence about what you are doing and can release yourself from the continual feelings of not accomplishing enough.

My hope in describing the various mental models that people use -- and organize their time around -- is that they will encourage you to see that there is a wide range of ways to be a scholar-activist. It’s up to you to choose a model that fits best for your particular situation and commitments. But once you do, you’ll feel an extraordinary sense of freedom in that choice.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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