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.