Tidal Shifts: Co-Mentoring and Collaborative Graduate Work

I don't give myself much time to reflect, though I'm a hypocrite. I'll always advise my students to "let the paper get cold" and give themselves "time to think and breathe" post-project.

So this weekend, I went to the beach. In the moments when I am both physically and electronically unplugged from work, the purpose of my work becomes clearer. That is to say that the daily stress of completing tasks often obscures their importance. Some time away from them can help me reprioritize and more efficiently approach them when I return.

It's important that I unplug in every way I can for at least a couple days a month. This weekend, we visited Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. My parents had taken me to Wilmington, the Outer Banks, and Kill Devil Hills when I was a kid, so I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the territory, though I had never paddled there. I found the beaches to be quiet and clean, the water choppy, and the wildlife abundant. (Wild dolphins! Lots and lots of them!)

We paddled up the intracoastal waterway just ahead of a big storm. What's strange about the trip was this: though the waterway wasn't secluded (it was about 4 p.m., during a sunny break in an otherwise rainy Saturday), the experience felt very muffled, like the storm clouds had pressed out all the sounds. The paddling wasn't technically demanding, but it did require some brute force. The tide was coming back in, but the channels we explore are unpredictable in terms of riptides, so it's always a gamble. It was the right scenario for reflection for me. When I rely on my body alone, my mind's free to wander.

This time my mind wandered to consider my great good fortune. Since I entered college in 1998 (wow), I've had at least one mentor who has not only guided my education but has offered valuable learning-the-ropes kinds of stuff. I might get line-length help or analytic frame help or advice on jobs alongside consolation or amusement or a recipe for oatmeal cookies (or a real oatmeal cookie. Food is love.). The tacit lessons on collegiality are what I considered as I paddled yesterday. Where did I learn how to be a good faculty member? Certainly by watching bad examples and vowing never to replicate. But it's more than that. I won't call out my mentors by name. (First, there are many, and second, just because I like being associated with them doesn't mean they enjoy being publically connected to me.) I will say that each of these mentors taught me lessons about how to be collegial, how to interact with my peers in a way that is both co-mentoring and academically productive. These professors made themselves vulnerable to me and, by allowing me into their lives, invited me to practice co-mentoring.

I see this co-mentoring as part of my current job, so I've been reading up on collaborative/co-mentoring approaches to writing program administration. But the question I keep returning to is the one about graduate students and collegiality. How do we, as WPAs, promote the kind of relationships our students will be expected to fill when they are junior faculty? Individual advisors can contribute a great deal, but everyone knows someone whose advisor left them in the dust. (A sad but true fact of working with academics: They're busy people with busy schedules, and sometimes things get left behind.) I think Graduate Student organizations can help scaffold experiences to improve collegiality, but my sense is that these organizations focus most heavily on the social over the professional.

I see moves in my current program to support grad student professionalism in innovative and risky ways: students are organizing national conferences, co-authoring articles, co-presenting on conference panels, and are genuinely engaged in program administration. They are practicing the very moves they'll be expected (without any sort of protocol) to enact when they enter their first job. How, then, can I draw forth these relationships in productive ways? What are the most useful (I hesitate to say market-desirable) traits in a new colleague? Knowing these points will help me better craft my graduate student training and better address pre-professional relationship building.


Sweat Equity

My friend Tori posted this to me today: "It's never too soon to start building sweat equity." She's right, and the thought stuck with me.

My Knoxville house was my first. It was small and old and very affordable (code: cheap and in need of repairs). Both J. and I entered into the deal with enthusiasm. In the first month, we had ripped up the dirty tan carpet in the living room and refinished the 60-year-old original oak flooring. It was a lot of room for the two of us, considering that our Ohio apartment offered 400 square feet (total, all the rooms included) of living space. Our first Knoxville apartment was bigger, but still tiny, at around 600 square feet. The Hillside house came in at just over 1700 square feet over two floors and half an acre of land in city limits. It was like shabby-neighborhood heaven.

But somewhere, that enthusiasm wore off. Or more accurately, it was replaced with stress, exhaustion, limited free time, and limited disposable income. I finished the MA and started the PhD, and J. switched jobs. We started to think of Hillside as temporary, as a money pit that wasn't worth our investment in either time or money. The sweat equity stopped, and while we still maintained the house, we didn't bother to make many upgrades and many of the irritating repairs just lingered. It wasn't until this year, in January, that the state of our neglect became an issue: We'd have to sell this place, and it was far from being market-ready. Realtor assessments supported this sinking feeling: That our lack of attention had quantifiable real-world implications. We interviewed three realtors, who all priced the house around $10,000 less than comparable properties. They cited the lack of maintenance and upgrades as the reason. Two weeks of steady work--painting all the upstairs rooms "Sahara," a color J. started to call "Rent-Me Beige"; moving out most of the furniture; steam cleaning the carpets; and completely renovating the bathroom--and the fourth realtor priced the home at $10,000 above the others, right on target for a home that size, that age, in that area. The differences seemed very surface, but they added up. We spruced up downstairs over the following three weeks--new hanging tiles, new floors, paint--and we started getting showings almost daily. The value of the surface renovations transcended their monetary and labor cost.

At the same time as all of this house renovation, I was defending and revising the diss, teaching, and prepping to move. J. was freelancing and prepping the house for our eventual flight. We fell into a strenuous but predictable routine, and much was accomplished. After two months on the market, the house sold, and we feel very grateful.

We vowed to be more engaged with making our Raleigh house a home. It's not a temporary space, and there's no good reason to not make it exactly the way we'd like it. We started building sweat equity the week we moved in, and we try to devote at least 10 hours a week to improvements. This weekend, we dismantled the pool deck and sorted the reclaimed materials for what will be the cat habitat. (Think something like this, only more like a sunroom/greenhouse and less like an open-air exhibit.) We have a few big projects in the pipeline: a two-storey screened porch, a portico where the koi pond was, an honest-to-goodness workshop, new paint, new floors, updated electrical.

And then my mind started to crack.

Because that's a LOT of stuff to do.

Rough segue: At my job, I am expected to write books. When I think about WRITING A BOOK, I get nervous and a little phobic. So much thinking. So many words. I'm tired. I need to nap now.

I've had to frame the house improvements in much the same way as my book plan. One chapter at a time. Nibbles. Focus on completing something, even if it's a small victory. It will get done. I have a plan. I'm keeping to that plan. "Slow down. Calm down. Don't hurry. Don't worry. Trust the process." So much wisdom for a coffee cup.

The parallels between home improvement and career building are rough at best, but today, as I rushed to pull out corroded screws and stack lumber, I wasn't thinking about the end result, about the screen porch that will eventually sit where the ugly scar of the pool is now. I was only trying to beat the storm coming in over the crepe myrtles. I'll try to do just that tomorrow, as I sit down to work on my article. I'll not worry about the book, its role in my career, or even its final shape. I'll enjoy the words, the process, and not wish away the time.


Who Told You It Would Be Easy?

Everyone, that's who.

I've been reading a lot lately about America's "Culture of Praise," and while it's not a new term, it is one that's finally enjoying parlance beyond academics. I first became familiar with the term via Zaslow's "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work" (which you can read here), but I had witnessed many manifestations in my classrooms and even in colleagues. I routinely distributed this article beside the NYT's "It's All About Me" piece and had students analyze both for audience, purpose, and appeals. I found that they couldn't get past resenting the message to really frame the argument. Most times, their feelings were hurt or they felt particularly persecuted, both of which the articles say is a typical response from a member of the Praise Generation. (Edit: Here's an additional article from The Atlanta on "The Indulgent Age." Very apt.)

Every time I start a new semester--no matter the level of course I'm teaching--I have to have the "Who Told You It Would Be Easy?" talk. Alternately titled the "You are Not Really a Unique Snowflake" talk and the "College is the Last Place Anyone is Fully Invested in Your Success" talk, these few class days usually center around professionalism and language (the typical "how to send an email" thing, but also rhetorical listening, nonverbals, all that). I can see the students cycle from anxiety to frustration to disbelief to anger to boredom. I can't say I blame them. What they're coding as harshness or condescension on my part, I'm coding as empowerment. I figure knowing the map is half of the battle, right? But most of them don't want to know, and when they do know, they figure that they're certainly not one of the poor kids laden with false praise. All of their praise was rightly earned. This is an awkward talk to have.

I fall prey to the same Magical Thinking, though. Sometimes when I struggle, I am too quick to place responsibility outside myself. Because it could never be the way I approached this specific task or that particular project that was the problem. It couldn't be my planning (or lack), my time management (or lack), my irritability (no lack). I should pause to say that I'm actually a pretty great time manager, and I'm not really irritable, which makes these events seem very bad when they do occur.

Today, I struggled for a few hours writing a proposal. No big deal, just 500 words, but I've been working on it for a solid week, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better (longer, but not better). I had a moment of, "Geez, why is this SO HARD FOR ME? Stupid proposal." See? I'm not so different from my students.

Turns out, I wasn't done thinking about my idea. I hadn't fully considered all the frameworks I claimed to invoke. Twenty minutes of research and sketching, and I was able to move past the irritation and blame-laying to produce a few hard-fought paragraphs. What I had coded as a lack of viability on my proposal's part turned out to be a lack of preparation on my part. I am working on getting better at troubleshooting my affective responses to stress. It's a process.

I'm so sick of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" signs. I want someone to start producing the "Who Told You It Would Be Easy?" sign. My office walls are pretty bare, and I seem to need the reminder.