Tuesday, April 21, 2020

3 Tips for Women Faculty to Get Through #WFH, #socialdistancing, and #stayingwell

By Vicki L. Baker

Recently, my opinion piece titled, "How Colleges Can Better Help Faculty during the Pandemic", appeared in Inside HigherEd*. I felt called to write that article as both a faculty member who is looking for support and as someone who is deeply engaged in faculty development research and practice. We, as academics and everyday citizens, find ourselves in strange times that can be described as chaotic, yet oddly calming at the same time. I say that as we see the first signs of spring surface (at least in the Midwest) letting us know that the world around us continues to move on as we compel ourselves to do the same. Yet, we are finding ourselves in unchartered waters, seeking to survive and make sense of our new normal, professional and personal, while trying to guess what life may look like moving forward.

As a woman academic, with two school-aged children now at home, I am faced with (1) supporting my students at Albion College academically and emotionally at a distance (2) fulfilling my professional roles and responsibilities to the best of my abilities, (3) supporting my kids’ educational achievement (with school closed for the remainder of the year) (4) contributing to my scholarly endeavors (many with looming deadlines), and (5) managing the emotional labor that accompanies all of these responsibilities at work and home. Oh, and don’t forget the need to be active and maintain some semblance of health in the process. I am fortunate to have a spouse who can help manage some of this (though he is still physically going to work during this time with flexible hours). But I know many women academics who are doing this alone with no childcare assistance. To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement. To that end, I offer the below advice and recommendations that are helping me and my fellow academic women peers.

Establish your communities (or re-engage in them)

In times of social distancing, we are missing that much needed social interaction. We entered academe because of the connections and relationships we forge with students, peers, and colleagues. I thrive when I am with my students and colleagues, laughing with each other, and sharing in our inside jokes and regular banter. While I have feelings of “being over” Zoom meetings, I feel a sense of peace seeing that my students and peers are OK. But I work to engage with my communities with regularity as a way for me to feel engaged beyond the confines of my house.

For me, those communities include: Albion College, my professional network of friends and collaborators across the country (and globe for that matter), fellow women academics on Facebook, neighbors and local community members, and FLEXcity (my workout community-owned and managed by two fierce women keeping us healthy and active away from the studio). I make a point to reach out to community members to stay engaged in related happenings, to benefit from their lessons learned, and commiserate. That engagement also exposes me to resources to support my own scholarly activity, introduces me to new online pedagogies and related tools I can use in my courses, and also helps me identify activities to help homeschool my children (thank goodness for the K-12 teachers in my personal communities). Communities are important for all of us, but especially for our underrepresented women academic peers in the academy whose communities are potentially much smaller.

Enjoy the solitude

My recommendation to enjoy the solitude may appear to contradict my first about establishing or re-engaging in your communities. But our current situation also affords you time at home like never before. I have found that this situation has facilitated time for reflection and an accounting of the tasks and activities that appear on my TO DO list (hint – some have been removed entirely).

I was in the Netherlands as a Fulbright Specialist just as our current situation was characterized as a pandemic. Travel bans were instituted, and US citizens began to scramble booking flights home. There was a real concern about my ability to return to the States. Fortunately, I was able to return, and I remained in the confines of my home for the duration of my 14-day quarantine before the Governor of Michigan executed her Stay-at-Home orders. During that time, I engaged in a re-evaluation of my priorities, personal and professional – determining what was, and was not, important as well as what was, and was not, possible. I set new goals for myself and re-established expectations that were more commensurate with my current reality.

I asked myself – what do I need the next two to three months to look like to be of benefit to myself, my family, and my students? Are there activities or tasks that are no longer in service to the growth and health of those for whom I am most responsible, including myself? What do I want my contributions to be during this time, and does my current TO DO list and associated activities facilitate those contributions or serve as a roadblock? Then I realized this is how I should be managing my career and personal roles in non-pandemic times; refocusing on what is most important to me. For me, that is the health and safety of my family (and myself), and an appreciation for a job in which I can work from home that comes with a steady paycheck.

As a mother of two (7 and 5 years old), finding this time for solitude does not come easy, mind you, especially when my husband still leaves the house for work five days a week. I wake up early in the morning to get some time to myself; I have always done my best writing and thinking at that time of the day. My research assistant and I also joke about our brilliance that accompanies showering – some of my best ideas and “ah-ha” moments have surfaced while in the shower. I am also fortunate that my kids are good at occupying themselves for periods of time playing, reading, crafting, and watching TV (yes, they do get screen time which we still try to keep to a reasonable amount of time) so I take advantage of these moments throughout the date. Lastly, our family walk times provide me an opportunity to clear my head and prioritize.

I think settling into the solitude is an important recommendation for women academics – take time to think, reflect, and reassess the priorities of your work and personal lives to determine if your priorities are in service to your intended contributions. We now have time to tune out the noise of everyday life that seeps in despite our best efforts. I am grateful to have this time to think and re-evaluate what is most important to me and the career I hope to forge in the short and long term. While I hope some of our current realities fade in the not too distant future, I hope my current focus on priorities and taking time to re-evaluate those priorities with more regularity becomes core to my new normal moving forward.

Reestablish Boundaries

I don’t know about you, but for a long time, I felt that the boundaries between work and home became blurred due to technology and changing student expectations. It became so easy to check and respond to emails from my phone. I do share my cell phone number with students to use in an emergency which means responding to texts happens with some regularity as well given my definition of emergency differs from my students at times. Now in my 13th year as a tenure-track faculty member, I finally noted on my syllabi that I don’t check or respond to emails on Sundays given that is my family day. For the first time last summer, I created an auto-response email that ran from July 1 through August 15th noting now that summer grades had been posted, I was taking the remainder of the summer to enjoy with my family. I was finally getting a handle on setting boundaries between work and family and being more deliberate with how I scheduled my time and tasks.

Well, here we are, and those boundaries are nonexistent as I sit at my table responding to discussion forum posts from my students while I wait for the kids’ toaster waffles to pop up for breakfast. The first two weeks of our move to online I felt like I was working non-stop whether work-related or family-related. Now four weeks into our current situation, I have set some new boundaries.

  • I said no to a grant meeting scheduled for a Sunday late afternoon to get back to my “Sunday is family day” mantra. I might physically be with my family now more than ever, but it’s not quality time, and quality time is a priority of mine. Not to mention, there is no need to have work meetings on a Sunday afternoon.
  • I stopped responding to emails after 6:00p Monday through Thursday, and 3:00p on Fridays. I want to enjoy dinner with my family, go on a walk (weather permitting), play games, or watch a movie.
  • I give myself more time to attend to low priority items (work and home). If I receive an email request that does not require immediate attention, I confirm receipt of that email and provide a timeframe of when the sender can expect a more detailed response.

I know many are feeling overwhelmed and feelings of anxiousness are at an all-time high. But I have been able to manage by relying on my communities, re-establishing priorities, and setting boundaries. My engagement in these tasks is not only a benefit to me, but to the individuals with whom I love and care for the most.

*The original article can be found at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/25/recommendations-how-colleges-can-better-support-their-faculty-during-covid-19.

Vicki L. Baker, MBA, MS, PhD is a professor of economics and management at Albion College. She is the co-author of 70 articles and books exploring the faculty experience, career development, and liberal arts colleges. Her most recent book, Charting Your Path to Full: A Guide for Women Associate Professors, (Rutgers University Press) is in print this month.

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