Taking Back My Happy Place

I get to teach Judicial Process and Politics this Fall and I am over the moon!! This may seem a bit ridiculous, but let me see if I can explain why it's such a big deal.

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The last time I taught JPP was at American University, where I was denied tenure. I loved this class. It was truly my happy place. My PhD is in judicial politics and this class was a fundamental part of my teaching arsenal for nearly two decades. I taught other courses like civil liberties and constitutional law when I was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky, but JPP was the only court-related undergraduate course I was allowed to teach at AU because a senior colleague taught the others. I spent a lot of time on it — even co-edited a textbook for it — and enjoyed every minute; it was interesting and challenging, and my students learned a ton and had fun doing it.

After I was denied and during the first semester of my terminal year, I accepted another job but delayed my start date until the semester was over; I wouldn’t have left any of my students in the lurch at mid-term, but I had a particular soft spot for this course and the students in it.

Many years later, when I returned to teaching in my current position, I wasn’t offered a judicial course. But I didn’t care. I was overjoyed to be back in the classroom after 5 years, but relieved to not be asked to step back into old shoes. Even teaching my favorite course unappealing. For the first time since being fired, I didn’t have to think about political science or political scientists if I didn’t want to. And I really didn’t want to.

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When I began looking for another job, it didn’t occur to me that it might be healthy to distance myself from the profession after being denied tenure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t be pursuing another tenure track job. I didn’t even look to see if there were open positions in my subfield. I was sure I’d be seen as damaged goods. In my early 40s with two small children, I’d just been fired — and from a pretty average program, especially compared to others in the area. I didn’t think I’d be competitive in a very tight academic job market. And even if I was, there was no way I was going through the tenure process again.

Still, I felt uneasy walking away from a career for which I’d worked so hard. So when a friend sent me a job listing for the American Political Science Association, I applied immediately. I had no idea what it meant to work for a nonprofit membership association, but staying connected to my field was appealing. And, well, beggars can’t be choosers, a bird in the hand, and <<insert your proverb of choice here>>. I was lucky to get such a good job.

But it came with some serious unanticipated costs.

I didn’t realize at the time how much of my self-worth was connected to the academy, and it surprised me. It’s not like being a professor was my childhood dream and losing my job was the end of some long-held ambition. It wasn’t. And it’s not like I couldn’t imagine a different career. I could. What really weighed on me — and came to a head a few years into my stint at APSA — was that I might not be capable of doing anything. Forget political science. I mean anything at all.

For decades, I honed tools that I relied on to overcome the setbacks I experienced in all parts of my life. Focus, commitment, persistence — these were keys to a work ethic that gave me confidence when I didn’t succeed. Yet, after I left AU for APSA, it became clear that those tools were the primary casualties of losing my job. Without them, I lost my moorings and my way.

At first I thought I might have a bad case of imposter syndrome, but the truth is that I never felt like a fraud because I had no illusions and made no pretenses about my abilities. I wasn’t one of the “cream of the crop,” not as a student or a professor. I wasn’t in advanced classes in high school and didn’t graduate at the top of my class, I earned As but as many Bs (and a C I remember rather well) in college; I did ok on the GRE, winged my way through a few of my grad school classes, and nearly lost my funding after the first year. There were many times when I felt—painfully—that I wasn’t capable of competing and worried that I wouldn’t get my degree, wouldn’t get my work published, wouldn’t be a good teacher, or earn tenure. Or earn tenure again. These feelings were par for the course for me.

The antidote for my insecurities and shortcomings has always been to push myself, do my best, and not give up easily. What’s the worst that could happen, I always ask myself before taking a new step; falling on my face isn’t usually reason not to try. I’m ambitious and want to do well, but experience tells me that not succeeding is always possible (even likely, at times). Through this prism, it made sense when I didn’t get As, was rejected from grad schools, struggled in my classes, had manuscripts and grant proposals rejected, was overlooked for jobs. Hurdles and setbacks like these don’t feel like failure. They feel like normal and necessary — however disappointing and sometimes discouraging — parts of a life-long learning curve that served me well as an academic.

Being denied tenure should have been the same, I thought. Another — albeit pretty substantial — setback. But it wasn’t. And not because of claims that my research wasn’t good enough, or plentiful enough, or whatever.

What I had a lot more trouble overcoming was the assertion that I was on a “downward” trajectory, the doubt that I would be productive in the future, and the judgment that this constituted a failure on my part. They questioned my focus, my commitment, my persistence — the very tools in my kit that had been anchors when I struggled, that I needed to combat my insecurities. With the implication that I’d let my work slide, that I wasn’t dedicated enough to the job, that I didn’t work hard enough to earn my place — that I was knowingly and even deliberately a slacker — they dismantled my defenses.

Of course, it was all code for having kids. They knew better than to say it out loud or in writing, but it’s what they meant.

Still, knowing this to be true — that the failure was theirs, not mine — didn’t make it easier to move on.

And working at APSA made it exponentially worse. Spending my days (and many of my nights and weekends) surrounded by political science and working in the service of political scientists was a constant reminder that I’d been found wanting in ways that were integral to my identify and self worth. I did my work with a smile on my face and even enthusiasm some days; I knew how to pull up my big girl panties.

But it took a lot of energy to continually push down the grief, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment that I often felt. I regularly compared myself to others, at once reassured that I was as good a political scientist as most of them were, and dejected that I’d been unable to get it done as they had. I forced myself to continue working on a couple of research projects, to review manuscripts and grants, to do other small things, to prove to myself — and others — that I was still dedicated, willing, and able to put in the time. But it made me feel worse. I felt diminished and ashamed for needing to validate myself, and guilty for not appreciating how lucky I was for everything else in my life, including this job. Self-doubt was a constant companion, creeping into every part of my life.

I had trouble sleeping well for years, a function of having babies and then small children, and medical issues. But when nightly panic attacks turned to sleepless nights that lasted for days, and then weeks, I knew I was becoming unmoored.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover from being fired.

Yet, after a long slog that included invaluable support from my family and the expertise of professionals, I eventually turned a corner. I reclaimed my tools and made (enough) peace with the past so that I could take baby steps forward.

Or back, as it were.

First, a return to the academy and the classroom, on my own terms.

Now, a new — or rather, an old — class! I’m ready to take back my happy place!

Advancement Through Narrative: Understanding and Navigating Success and Failure in the Academy

Last month, a phenomenal group of political scientists convened in Washington, DC for a NSF-funded workshop on success and failure in the academy. In attendance were current and former faculty from across the country, employed at private and public colleges and universities and outside the academy, with degrees from different types of programs in various subfields. They represented the discipline on many other personal and professional characteristics as well, such as sex, race, ethnicity, disability, age, stage of career, tenure and non-tenure track, and parental and other care responsibilities. They brought with them their experiences in the academy: the successes and the failures, the opportunities and the hurdles, the victories and the disappointments. They were -- they are -- a remarkable group of human beings who, through their personal narratives, laid it bare for two days so that we all might understand a bit more clearly and honestly how the academy works -- and, often, doesn’t work. As two of the three coPIs on the project, Susan Sterett (UMBC) and I wrote a brief summary of the workshop that includes the primary themes and a few of the common reflections that emerged from our two-day conversation. We’ve published it as a post on the WPSA’s New West blog. If you’re interested in contributing your own story about these or related topics, please drop me an email via Contact Me on this site. Also, please join the conversation on Twitter using #AdvancingNarratives and #ProfStories.

Infographics as Critical Thinking Assignments

I'm getting ready for a new semester to start next week and revising a few of my assignments. Several colleagues have asked about my infographic assignment, so I've posted last term's prompt and a few examples of student work from the last year or so in the Library. I still tweak the assignment based on issues I have in each class, and the examples are not perfect -- students are still learning how to collect and present evidence, and how to cite their sources -- but these illustrate their good, creative work and the fun they have doing this assignment.

My students are those who come to DC to do internships for academic credit, but they also take at least one course. The required courses are writing-intensive courses, something that most of them don't get on campus regularly due to the size of their classes. It's a great opportunity for them to do evidence-based research papers and other assignments that promote the development of critical thinking and empirical research skills.

Those who take my class write research papers on topics of their choosing related to the work they do in their internships. I want them to be thinking about and synthesizing the work they do at their "day jobs" with the work they do in class. Bringing theory to practice, and vice versa is important.

But after teaching for a couple terms here, I realized that I wanted them to think in different ways and develop various skills that will help them post-graduation. So I tried the infographic assignment. It's still a work in progress, but it gets rave reviews from students. They don't always like the additional work as they're finishing up long and difficult research projects, but it gives them something different to think about and exercises a different part of their brain as they continue to develop their research and presentation skills. And, importantly, they develop a new, very practical skill that they can add to their resumes. Not only do they learn to use new software, but they have a PDF of their work that they can print in color for a portfolio. For those who want to use them professionally, I edit and continue to give them access to the software until they have a product with which they're happy.

One technical note: I use Venngage and have been very happy with their product. I purchase a year subscription for about $100 for about 35 students at a time; I switch out the students each term. The paid version allows students to download their work as PDFs so that they can have hard copies and I can print them in color for them. I've been happy with their support team as well. There are other products that may be just as good if not better, but I'm familiar with Venngage and it's affordable so am sticking with it.

I appreciate constructive feedback, and would love to hear how (your version of) the assignment works for you if you do implement it in your class. Have fun!