Setting limits in academic life

Short of having a heart attack while working at one’s desk, how do faculty members convey to higher administrators (chairs, deans, etc.) when we are at (or beyond) the limits of what we can take on?  This is an especially pertinent issue as the ratio of regular faculty members to contingent faculty decreases, as the paperwork of so-called accountability increases, as funds for public higher education shrink, and as events outside the academy also call for our time and involvement.

What follows comes from a wikipage which was (and still is) open to all to contribute to. The idea in creating the wikipage was that colleagues would add ideas or respond underneath an idea already posted. (They could identify themselves or not.)  The hope was that this could be a clarifying contribution to being careful and strategic about what we take on and what we ask others to take on.[1]

Clear Priorities

For each priority below in turn, take stock with colleagues[2] in our units of whether we are fulfilling this well and plan what we need to improve.[3] One way to convey our limits is to communicate that we are not ready to move on to the next priority whenever we are not yet able to give ourselves a green light on the priorities that come before it:

* (1st priority) supporting students’ intellectual & professional development

* (2nd) supporting others as colleagues in doing #1

* (3rd) the research, writing, teaching, and organizational development activities that excite us (i.e., that led us to be academics)

* (4th) the operating, planning, and ongoing development of the graduate & undergraduate programs/tracks we’re affiliated with

* (5th) dealing with administrative & other mandates/opportunities (e.g., accreditation reviews, licensure, becoming a Research 1 university…) in ways that don’t detract from #1-4.

Well-designed meetings

Do not attend any meeting without a clear agenda and pre-circulated materials to prepare for efficient use of the face2face time together. (In this spirit, do not convene a meeting unless you have time to define a clear agenda and pre-circulate materials so participants can prepare for efficient use of the time together.)


[1] Nothing much has happened on the wiki yet because it has not been publicized.  To make sure a certain administrator did not construe this as a behind-the-scenes campaign against them, I emailed inviting her comment.  No response came, and, until I had time to follow up, I held off publicizing it to my university colleagues.

[2] If we can find time to do this!

[3] And whether we can do this within a balanced profile of 1/3 research-1/3 teaching-1/3 service (and 1/3 the rest of our lives!) and whether the staff and other resources are there to help.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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