When I went back to school after working in the “real world” for 4 years, one of the differences that struck me was differences in time in the organization. I have not studied time in organizations, which is an important area of research. What I want to talk about is differences in the time perspective/horizons of the different constituencies in academia and how I see it playing out, now that I’ve been a professor for, ahem, a few years.
One interesting difference in academia versus other organizations as far as time goes is how long constituencies stay in the organization and how that affects their organizational reality. As a student, the organization appears, essentially, to be a stable fixture while one is there. Through students’ eyes, there are a cohort of students before and after them, there are professors who teach the classes and conduct particular research, and there are stable policies about the degree and the program that follow them through their degree.
As a professor, though, the organization changes with each cohort. And in fact, we (as professors) see a relatively quickly changing organization every year. Further, we’ve been able to make radical policy changes in our program knowing that in a few years no students will remember the “way it used to be.”
I think that’s an interesting way to think of organizational change in academic institutions, and ironic since colleges and universities take forever to change many of their faculty policies (e.g., tenure). It is also, I believe, quite different from how corporations operate and I think that makes in “time” as an organizational construct even more interesting.
As I have become a mid-career academic, I am noticing a new dimension to this time issue that I had not fully anticipated. I started graduate school 20 years ago. I have a daily reminder of this number because I adopted a cat the same month I started graduate school. She is still alive. Indeed, it is time for her to “go to college” on her own. Yet she is healthy and lively though operating with a clear case of kitty dementia. So when I think of how old she is (every morning when she howls at the shower), I think of when I started graduate school.
I have about 13 years experience as a professor. But my students are all still coming in as novices. The disparity between what I know and have experienced and what my students know and want to experience grows every year–as it does with all established professors and new students. Things that seem obvious to me are still being figured out by my students. And I think this is a good thing: for me and I hope my students.
I still have to go back in my own experience and remember what it was like to be confused and stressed about learning new material and starting projects and writing my first big papers. I have to trust that my students can help each other with some of that day to day growth because they are just now figuring out how to do it for themselves. But I also hope that I can share some of the lessons I’ve learned in how to get through what feels like these overwhelming, ambiguous projects we have to do.
Two related maxims I’ve recently given my students are: 1) If you don’t know what the next step is in your project, the steps you’re thinking about are too big and 2) Today, you need to do the next right thing. The students all know where they want to go: submit the paper for publication, defend the thesis, get a job. But the steps to take to get there can be overwhelming. So we’ve been working this semester on having the students get more and more concrete about the steps they are going to take today to get to the ultimate goal months from now. The next right thing to do should be obvious and doable today. If it’s not, the path is still too abstract and unrealistically ambitious. I try to break down the steps to something concrete and easy to do today. I think it’s reducing their stress on how to get where they want to be.
And it helps me. It helps focus me, too, on what I am doing and reminds me to be fresh and excited about research. I recognize the growing difference between my level of experience and my students. And I hope that by continually traversing that gulf, we all gain and we all find our projects to be rewarding and fun.