How to Keep Doing What You Do when the World is Burning

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As I said recently on Twitter, “bad news abounds.” And that was before I saw the news that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is going to lead a federal task force on higher education in the United States. Frankly, the bad news is coming at us at a rate that is giving me some sort of cognitive concussion from the repetitive blows to my sense of right in the world.

What with “alternative facts” and constant contradictions and disagreements emanating from DC, a researcher/scholar/teacher could get a wee bit discouraged that the critical thinking skills s/he teaches and the assessment strategies s/he uses are relics of a past era we can soon refer to as “the good old days.” So how to stay motivated and, if possible, buoyant on these troubled waters?

There are resources out there to assist faculty members in developing critical thinking skills in their students (the Faculty Innovation Center at the University of Texas has good materials). Teen Vogue, for pete’s sake, has pieces on how to spot fake news. Obviously I don’t need to step on their turf. As a coach for academics and researchers, I work at the intersection of the skills people bring to their jobs and the people they are while they’re doing their jobs. So, instead of telling you how to work with the student contact hours you have in order to equip them for the media environment in which they live, I want to invite you to work with all the contact hours you have with yourself to become radiantly clear on what motivates you to research, teach, engage in service, and share your ideas.

When I work on “values” (a laden term for some, I know) with my clients, we talk about the moments in their lives, whether work-related or personal, when things felt perfect. What qualities were in the air? Who was with you? What feelings predominated? Which skills were you using? Which itches were being scratched? This is one way of starting on a list of core values. These values need to have specific context and meaning for you. “Freedom” comes up on a lot of people’s lists of values but, to my mind, it represents vagueness at its worst. Freedom TO what? Freedom FROM what? What does freedom allow or give you? THAT is the value you hold. (Independence from a paycheck? Ability to live singly, without attachment?) Sometimes what we value is best represented by a metaphor or image. A scene from a backwoods trip can represent self-sufficiency, for example. For me, I picture the energy of a specific conference moment to represent what I find best about collaboration and intellectual rigor.

Knowing what you stand for and what motivates you and–on the flip side–what irritates you and rubs your fur the wrong way is useful, if not critical, as a basis for making career decisions. If recognition is one of your motivators (over here!), then moving into a role where you do all the background work on projects and get none of the credit is going to end in frustration for you. The project might build your CV, but it will not contribute to your career satisfaction or, likely, to your performance. If novelty is key to your satisfaction, then having a position in which you teach the same 5 courses year after year isn’t a great fit, either.

What about values that conflict? What if being an activist around a key social justice issue is important for you, but you don’t crave attention or conflict? Knowing that these two impulses could potentially battle for your allegiance, you can take the time to ask yourself: how can I preserve my agenda as an activist but do that from a place that respects my need for peace? Maybe you find a support role, or you write and contribute materials that others deliver, or you host meetings that others lead, etc.

And if you, like many people, look around you at your university or college or archive or cultural institution and think: what is the point? why am I still here?, then clarity around your values gives you a solid foundation for charting Path A or Path B (or C, or whatever) to a future that resonates more with you and who you want to be in the world. And that path doesn’t have to mean leaving where you are and re-inventing yourself as a party planner or getting that certificate in equine therapy you’ve always wanted. Maybe your path is to stay where you are, seize the opportunities you have, bloom where you’re planted, and so on. Knowing what it is about your current situation that you want to continue to nurture and have grow, versus those things in your professional life that get in the way can bring vital intel to your career planning. And if party planning or equine therapy really is in the cards, clarity around what about those paths resonates for you can help you make the call to change from a place of optimism and confidence, rather than frustration.

Who can say what changes may lie ahead for the industry of academia under the new administration. Current indications are that it is unlikely to be anything good. Providing yourself with a clearly articulated list of why you do what you do gives you a north star to chart your own way through what comes.

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