The First 90 Days: Academic Edition

I hate the first day of school. All of the school-supply shopping, the outfit-choosing, the intricate arrangements to meet up with friends to discuss our lofty goals for the year? Hate it. Even as a professor.

Especially as a professor.

I prefer the groove of mid-term – the place where I’ve got a handle on my schedule, know what the typical demands will be and have adjusted my outlook to reflect my reality. It’s a lesson I’ve learned from 23 returns of the First Day of School, and the hundreds of days of hard work required in between.

In teaching undergrads, you quickly come to learn that there low – dare I say no — expectations for the first day. No one cares about your vision for the class, your attitude toward course readings, your passion for pedagogy or desire to lead the kind of class debates and discussions immortalized in movies from Stand and Deliver to Mona Lisa Smile. The only thing students want is to secure their seat, get a copy of the syllabus, and find out how to make an A.

Read more…Work-wise, the U.S. standard for measuring productivity in a new venture is 90 days. In academia, I’d say the test is 30 days; maybe even 15. As an early-career teacher who’ll soon be transitioning out of academia, I’m writing from the space in between grad school and the professional world. My current quest is to figure out how leading students will translate when I’m leading a small team. It many ways, it doesn’t. I don’t have three months to make quantifiable gains. At best, I’ve got three days.

I’ve only skimmed over a few pages in The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins’ strategy book for new managers, but I find myself working in two key pieces of his advice as I attempt to translate classroom leadership into business acumen. My first objectives are to observe and learn the culture before making any major changes, and to “secure early wins.”

Once I begin work, I’ll spend the first 30 days fitting into the routines of the news team I’ve been hired to lead. But since I’m still in the classroom, I adapted Watkins’ first suggestions by reassessing what worked and what tanked the first time I taught this class (many lessons that I’m saving for another post). As for early wins, I built them in with additional structure and strategic approaches to peer-to-peer learning.  I cut down on lecture time by turning over case presentation to small groups; weekly individual blog posts will be used to help students connect current events to the principles introduced in the text.

But I still found myself restless the night before classes began at UNC. I’d forfeited my summer goal of having all my lessons planned out when I realized 1) my time was best spent working on my dissertation proposal, and 2) the road to perfectionist hell is paved with ironclad semester plans. And since I didn’t have everything together, it was hard to feel comfortable striding to the front of the room as a leader. After all, I try to live by wisdom from tennis icon and activist Arthur Ashe that I chose as the ubiquitous quote line in my email.

Ultimately, I was prepared for the first day of class. To keep from panicking about the semester, I try to remind myself that I’ve got the culture portion nailed down after teaching for four semesters in our j-school. The small wins, both now and when I return to work, will be a test of leadership – a challenge be nimble enough to keep both groups productive, curious and maintaining a sense of relevance in modern media.

Resurrecting the “f-word”

I literally just walked in the door, put up my groceries and was about to take a nap when I scrolled across a tweet from Luvvie about use of the word “female.” The tweet was a sentiment I agree with, so I RT’d, added and arrow, and went to check my other Twitter account.

Read more…Bad move. I saw that someone I follow and like (in the way that you like the people you tweet with) had some foolishness to say about it. Whatevs. I went back to my professional account, tweeted a bit more about the topic, including a mention of a column I wrote about it a while back, RT’d myself into my personal account timeline, and left.

And then someone asked to read the column.

I was a columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat, the daily newspaper in Tallahassee, Fla., from 2007-2010.

But I stand by the work that I’ve done. I became a columnist in my adopted hometown of Tallahassee in 2007, a year after I’d finished my master’s and fresh off a stint living and teaching abroad. I wrote some things that I’m ashamed of, including a weight-loss journey that went no where (but up!) and a lot of errors. But I have no regrets about the themes of my work – empowerment of women, particularly black women; mental health awareness; sexual and reproductive health, social justice and plain ol’ living.

So I went back to the Tallahassee Democrat archives and dug up the column (which cost me $3.95; the only copy was on my old laptop, which died in 2010). And now I’m posting it here.

I caught hell when I wrote this column. People said I was stupid, a bad writer, an idiot for not wanting to be called what I am – a female. In retrospect, I realize that in writing for a general audience, even if I offered up the context in which my comments were made, I had a huge audience that just could not relate to the strife of relationships and respect among black men and black women.

And that’s OK. It didn’t mean I shouldn’t speak my truth. I didn’t stop then, and I will continue to uphold that truth now.

Because six years later, worn by the grind of daily journalism and wiser through additional years of social science research and scholarship, my opinion hasn’t changed. I still abhor the use of the term “female” as a noun instead of an adjective. I hold it as a shibboleth among those who understand language, are mindful of its evolution and respect its power.

I am still a daughter, a sister, a student, a soprano. I have since become an aunt, a teacher, Delta, a partner and a wiser human being. Those are the descriptions that matter most to me, the ones that I am denied when someone, as I said in my column, ignores my humanity by referring to me as my gender. It may not matter to some, but it does to me.

Every woman is so much more than just a “female.”