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When things go awry

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A lot has been going on and my writing to chronicle it is way behind, so I’m chipping away, one idea at a time. Here we are with post #4 on work-life balance. If you want to catch up on #1-3, you can read:

Today I’m gonna reflect on a moment when Life Came at Me the way Life does. While the situation was specific, it seems like it could take many forms at many times, with each form somehow providing not only a moment (or several gzillion moments) of stress but also an impetus for reflection, assessment, possible change.

Before the storm

Once I submitted my textbook manuscript, I actually did take initial steps to address personal, institutional, and cultural issues and begin restoring balance to my life.

  • I rescheduled a doctor’s appointment (one I had cancelled because I had booked a work event at the same time).
  • I called the hairdresser and got my hair cut.
  • I began cleaning out my closet and worked with my daughter on cleaning out and organizing her room and closet.
  • I got a book by Marie Kondo out of the library. Several of my friends had read and recommended The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the latest recommendation came from Prof Emily Orlando. I ended up with Spark Joy because it’s what was available at my local library. I’ll write more about this and other books in separate posts.
  • I met with my associate dean to discuss the time-work challenges I was facing.
  • My associate dean recommended me stepping down from a university committee, and I immediately did. That felt great! Four hours or more each month had been going to that committee, and I honestly was not very effective because I was stretched thin with overcommitment, so stepping down also exorcised the guilt.

I had begun writing a blog post to chronicle ways I was setting myself up to restore sane working hours that would include the above and more. That’s the post that I eventually published in an unfinished version.

Then, Life came at me. The way Life does. No time is a good time, and we’re never fully prepared, yet still: Life comes.

The storm and its aftermath

I arrived home on Thursday evening, March 1, and said my Friday work commitments had been cancelled. My husband, Scot, thus decided to leave Thursday night to visit his mom about four hours away, knowing that I would be home to care for the dog on Friday.

Friday school was cancelled for my teen kids, Callie and Jace, because of the impending nor’easter, so the three of us were home with Lilly, our lovely elderly dog. When the snow and winds came, they really came. The power first went out at about 11:30am. It went off and on a few times. We gathered a collection of candles and flashlights, though it was still daylight, and I felt some pride that we were so on top of things.

We shoveled our drive and the neighbor’s drive in mid-afternoon while the power was out. It was wet heavy snow, but the winds were the force to be reckoned with. We were exhausted and damp and hungry when we finished (though snow was still falling). The power came back on as we got out of wet clothes, so we gave a cheer and tossed a pizza in the oven.

Then the power went out again. We hoped it would come back on. We didn’t even remove the pizza from the oven because our hope was so strong.

Apparently it takes more than blind faith to restore electricity.

We played cards and read aloud by flashlight. I got out the thermal sleeping bag and we gathered blankets. We decided we would all sleep downstairs. Jace said we were like caterpillars, each of us in a cocoon of sorts, and we laughed and laughed because somehow we really were like wriggling caterpillars and it cracked us up to think about it.

We slept, more or less.

The basketball hoop fell down across our driveway. I called a guy to come help move it Saturday, and he showed up before most people are even awake. He was awesome.

Saturday morning arrived, and I left to find coffee. I gave the kids money to go find hot breakfast. I left before they did and saw a line of cars waiting to get gas, I saw flares where Route 6 was closed, I saw downed wires and downed trees and detours. I drove 15 minutes or more to find an open Panera, where I stood in line for coffee and made small talk with other customers about storms and the importance of workers willing to make coffee.

I knew it was bad. I knew the power was not coming back right away.

from the electric company website; at times the number of customers affected was much higher

I headed home, fueled with coffee, and considered the options. The house was too cold and the hours too long and empty to keep the kids at home.

A hotel? I could check in and have the kids stay, but I couldn’t bring the elderly / high-maintenance dog because none of us would get any sleep with her there. And if I did check in and leave the kids to their devices, what would they actually do in a hotel room for all the hours that did not involve sleep? Not a great setting for normal life of any sort.

A relative or friend? Perhaps. I contacted my sister Janet and thought about Pennsylvania possibilities. Either way, Callie could drive and the kids could be in a safe setting (let’s be honest: a safe setting with TV and wifi) so I would have less to worry about.

The kids arrived home and I reviewed the options. We all agreed Aunt Janet’s house would be a reasonable get-away for them. Callie hesitated:

Mom, I feel bad about leaving you here, in the cold, without electricity.

I answered her:

Don’t feel bad. Knowing that you and Jace are okay is a bigger relief than you can imagine. Life becomes immediately easier once I know you are all right.

Later, after they returned home, Callie told her it made her think of the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe who were sent to their uncle’s house when London was being bombed. Yup. A very mild version of that.

The kids left. I stayed with the dog. I ate 2 ice cream cones before throwing the rest of the ice cream away and filling coolers with other items from the freezer. I cleaned out closets and DVDs and kept slightly busy. I wore a single outfit for at least 48 hours (it may have been longer) because I was too cold to take anything off. I got in the car and found hot food and drink as needed. I wore a jacket and stocking cap both while awake and when I went to sleep. I visited my friend Michael to use his shower and didn’t want to turn the water off and end the delicious warmth. Scot offered to return home from visiting his mom and I told him there was no reason to; there was nothing he could do.

I got a headache from scented candles and learned I could only burn one at a time. The whole house smelled like a Yankee candle shop. One of my candlesticks caught on fire on Sunday. I caught it in time and brought it, smoking, outside, where I dipped it into the snow.

candle holder
burnt candle holder

Sunday, late in the day, the power came back on. Scot was on his way home. I went to the basement to think about laundry. Water was on the floor by the washing machine. I cannot explain the sequence of events, but suffice it to say: I had dealt with a small fire earlier in the day, and now I was faced with a small but overwhelming flood.

Water gushed from a hose onto the basement floor as if it had been waiting its whole life for this moment, for this freedom, for this reckless and utter abandonment. And I moved with the speed of a banshee, legs and arms moving to buckets and hose and mop and spigot with the fury of a woman who has had a fucking nuff.

You know what I’m saying.

Scot arrived home and he helped me mop up and clean up and put the feckin hose where the feckin hose belongs (I’m in Ireland now as I write this, and I appreciate the humor often associated with “feckin,” though there was little to no humor in that moment, on that night).

We told the kids to return home the next day, Monday, March 5. On that Monday, I had a department meeting. I needed to grade student papers that I hadn’t been able to access all weekend on wifi because wifi doesn’t exist without power. I had student conferences planned for Tuesday and Thursday. My birthday was Wednesday, as was a doctor appointment (and, eventually, Wednesday involved the cancellation of the doctor appointment and another nor’easter, and I didn’t care because it was my birthday). I would be leaving for Ireland on Friday to help chaperone a study abroad trip.

What could go wrong?

The aftermath of the aftermath

It turns out, being out of a normal routine is exhausting. Experiencing lack of power from Friday through Sunday taxed me in a way I cannot rationally explain.

I was over twenty minutes late for my Monday department meeting—you know, for the department I chair, the meeting I had scheduled, the meeting I’m supposed to run…yeah, that meeting. I was so full of stress and adrenaline from trying to get there and being thwarted that I literally had trouble talking at first. Thankfully, my department colleagues are a supportive group. They offered me water and let me breathe and allowed me time to regain my composure.

I talked with Maureen, the administrative assistant in my department, who was also without power. She was similarly exhausted. She went even longer before her power was back. We validated one another’s experiences. We were taxed and undone in a way we could not explain. We were struggling to hold things together.

On Tuesday I published my unfinished blog post. I knew I had to leave it. I had to let it be. I had to show the way some things are too much, at least temporarily. I had to let something go because I could not go forward as if nothing had happened.

My life was completely disrupted because I spent a few days without power.

I hope you’re thinking, as I am, that my complaint sounds ridiculous because so many people deal with situations that are so much worse. This point is valid. I say to myself and to you, however:

If it was this bad for me with so many resources at my disposal, how much worse must it be for others who have fewer resources?

The corollary is:

What can I do to help?

The truth is, I’m barely asking never mind answering this second question. I am not proud of that fact. It’s more of a confession. I am struggling to help myself. My equilibrium is gradually returning, thank goodness. I have a lot to give others, mostly through my work in higher education as a teacher, a researcher, a chair.

But I must also take care of myself.

The resolution

I’m allowing (encouraging) myself to refuse guilt associated with all that went undone during the blackout, with the ways I’m behind in some work tasks now, with my exhaustion in reaction to that situation.

Whatever. I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Sue me.

I am not letting go of my quest for work-life balance, however. I experienced a minor setback in that I was coping mostly with the power outage rather than further progress, but, believe me, the process of addressing work-life balance continues.

The lesson, if there is one, is that we all face interruptions. They require a different kind of energy and attention. We need to give ourselves a pass for all that is not accomplished in the face of such events. And we need to be gentle with ourselves and temper our expectations.

Life happens. It comes at us in different ways, with a variety of storms, and sometimes all we can do is hang on. And hanging on is enough.




Facing the demons: Initial steps

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I’m heading into post #3 of a series on work-life balance in academia. So far I looked at the signs that something is wrong and the personal, institutional, and cultural factors that lead to extreme and unhealthy over-work.

NOTE: I wrote the above and the following about 6 days ago, before a whole bunch of things went haywire. I still feel a bit out of control, but I’m posting this anyhow. It’s a glimpse of reality, unfinished and honest, hopeful and ambitious but also disappointed and disappointing. Ultimately, this post reflects my initial steps in that they are TO BE CONTINUED….

As I powered my way through completing and submitting a textbook manuscript, I was already planning small changes. I have implemented some of these, and I’m in the process of thinking about more.

So here ya go. Some initial steps I’ve taken and some plans I have to move forward.

Before—personal habits After—personal habits
Check email and social media immediately when I wake up. Charge my phone downstairs. Check email etc while eating breakfast (I know I can put it off longer, but I’m taking small steps here, so give me some credit 🙂
Check email and social media immediately before going to sleep. Read before going to sleep. I love to read.
Lack of exercise. Walking outdoors? This is my plan because it combines exercise with being outdoors. I haven’t implemented this one yet except for one walk, today. But I got a FitBit for Valentine’s Day (good for the heart!), so that helps me keep track.
Avoid household work. Contribute to making meals.
Also spend time cleaning out my closet, helping my daughter clean out her room. More on this below

In terms of institutional change, I’m at the stage of educating myself. To that end, I’ve

  1. reviewed the department bylaws used in another one of my university’s departments to better understand


Legit. That’s it. I actually did more, I’ve definitely thought more, and yet I’ve already failed at a good bit of these basic plans. So I’ll be back. Next time, if you’re lucky, you may hear about being careful what you wish for and the reality of exhaustion. Or maybe I’ll just be full of wisdom and good advice.

Hey! stop laughing! I was serious! I sometimes have wisdom. Ask my kids. They’ll tell you that I was the one who taught them that the best way to deal with a bad break up is to make a playlist. That’s some good advice right there. 

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that’s me (on the left) stretching and training but not quite mannequin-flexible yet


Why? Why am I overwhelmed with work?

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This is the second blog post focused on a personal and institutional shift I’m committed to. The first post noted the signs that a shift needs to happen. This one will look at how overdetermined my situation is.

I’m going to start with myself, but I am not all about self-help or positive thinking or grit or anything that suggests my situation is mine alone. I am partly about all of those things, but always with the recognition that I am part of a bigger picture, and as I think about how I want to shift, I am committed to thinking about shifting my work structures (and perhaps other structures?) as well.

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Yeah, yeah, thank you, John Donne. Seriously, though, often when I discuss overwork, people respond by suggesting how I change as an individual. While I appreciate the advice (for real! you’ll see me apply your advice in later posts), it’s limited if it ignores the way individuals are parts of systems, and individual choices have consequences within those systems.

In my particular case, because I am a chair and teacher and have other university service commitments, my responsibilities affect a lot of my colleagues and a lot of students. I’m not excited about the prospect of messing up other people’s lives as I strive for a more manageable workload. I could sacrifice my own writing, but as I said in my prior blog post (linked in the first para above), I’m not willing to sacrifice my own well-being to serve others.

I therefore seek reasonable responsibilities (that include my writing) so I won’t have a negative effect on other people or on myself. I’m willing to make individual shifts, but that will not be enough.

Enough context. Now two lists—what’s up with me and what’s up with the systems to which I belong.

Things about me that have led me to a condition of unhealthy overwork:

  1. I grew up in Massachusetts with its Puritan heritage.  If you don’t know what I mean, read The Protestant [Work!] Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in your spare time.
  2. The importance of a work ethic was especially strong to my dad when I was growing up. I tend to equate hard work with goodness, or with character at the very least.
  3. I love my work. I feel like I could say a lot more about what I love and all the different parts of it, but for now I’m just going to say this in general.
  4. My work affects other people. If I don’t do my work, it has negative effects. Sometimes the negative effects are minimal, and sometimes they are severe or far-reaching.
  5. I care a lot about what other people think of me.
  6. I tend to do that martyr thing to some degree at work, where I take on too much and then I fuss about it and say “woe is me” (I’m purposely making this behavior super-unattractive so I’ll be less likely to do it).
  7. More on that martyr thing: When I see other people in need, my instinct is to save them. That’s a good instinct to a certain degree. The problem is that sometimes people don’t need to be saved, and sometimes it’s not my job to do the saving.
  8. I don’t think I have Imposter Syndrome to a huge degree because I tend to feel more comfortable with folks on college campuses than anywhere else, but I do have some feeling that I need to prove myself as worthy.
  9. I enjoy solving problems, taking care of things, making to-do lists and crossing things off.
  10. I get sucked into screen time far too easily.
  11. I begin and end the day with my cell phone.
  12. I know this one is unusual, but my spouse is retired and my kids are teens, so I’m not as needed at home as I used to be. That means I am available to work more!

My friend Emily (who is an academic) just observed that moms seem to be more overburdened than others. She may be right. Still, having pets or human children (shout out to Jasmine Lee for that phrasing!) is a way of turning away from professional work in order to do interpersonal care / domestic work. That’s not always a bad thing.

Things about the culture that lead many of us to an unhealthy condition of overwork:

  1. Technology makes it possible for workers to always be connected to their work. My brother-in-law Lance wrote about this dynamic:

I don’t know if this is as specific to women, or even academics […]. I think in the last 20 years a more regimented on/off work environment is being replaced by a more flexible arrangement for many professions, much of which is aided by technology. That’s a double-edged sword, because that flexibility is great, but also leads to a tendency to always be “on”. Add to that the same “always on” that tech gives our personal lives and it’s no wonder we have stress. I suppose it’s better than the “always on” that cavepeople had with hunt or be hunted though.

2. Some students expect faculty to always be available. When I told my students I was thinking of limiting my screen time to 7:30 am through 7:30 pm, a student asked, “But what if there was an emergency?”
I said, “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
I didn’t get a laugh. Students are stressed about grades and want support.

3. The actual workload for full-time faculty is never described in terms of hours/week. I’m wishing it were. Are you ready for some fun with math? Excellent. Here we go.

The recommended ratio for teaching||research || service at my university is 40: 40: 20. The typical teaching load is 9 credit hours/semester. For each credit hour, 2 hours of work (at least) will be spent on prep and grading. That means 27 hours/week for teaching, which means 27 more are spent on research and 13 1/2 on service.

The total hours/week = 27 + 27 + 13.5 = 67.5 hours/week.

You may not know this, but most faculty don’t make high salaries (especially in the humanities). While being expected to work 67.5 hours/week.

Even if we pretend that faculty don’t work during the summer and multiply 67.5 hours x 39 weeks, we end up with 2632 hours. If we divide that total number of hours over 52 weeks, we end up with 51 hours/week. That’s actual work, no lunch time or breaks or goof-off time included, no weeks off, and it’s a minimum for faculty earning tenure and promotion.

My work responsibilities are somewhat different because I teach 6 credits/semester and have a 3-credit course release for administrative work (chairing) and another 3-credit course release for research each semester. But it’s supposed to be somewhat similar in terms of time, with a small stipend to provide compensation for summer chair responsibilities.

Something is not adding up.

4. One of my former colleagues, Connie, describes her experience of growing demands on faculty:

Over my 32 years as an academic I saw the workload slowly getting more and more unmanageable–more committee work, more advising, more damn meetings, more students with more problems. […] I finished my Ph.D. in 1995, got tenure […] when publications weren’t the “be all and end all.” When I retired this past August I was struck by the fact that I probably wouldn’t get hired now–not enough publications.
Forget that undergraduate education has become what high school used to be–a required level of education only this one has a very high price tag. All the classroom management issues that drove me away from becoming a high school math teacher […] started showing up in my college classrooms. So now teaching was more of a challenge at a time when committee work, research, and just plain survival was more of a challenge.

5. Work is divided unevenly. As my former colleague and current friend Helen explains,

…when I step back, I see (among other things) a brutal conjunction of growing job description/expectations creep and a diminishing number of people to share in the collective work within a system that depends on a completely unregulated and unmonitored mix of voluntary and “voluntary” contributions and a distribution of labor that is governed by a totally dysfunctional “honor system”—which is to say, not at all.

6. In my department, work responsibilities are not clear so it’s tough to make it even.

7. If I try to do less, the people most likely to take it on are people like me who are already doing more than their share.

8. One of my hard-working colleagues pointed out that if I delegate responsibilities to people who don’t do good work, their responsibilities will eventually end up back on my plate, except it will probably be on my plate in such a way that the work will be more overwhelming than it would’ve been if I had taken it on to begin with.

9. In my past workplace, the overall structures were less healthy, and I felt like my friend Laura:

I also think there’s a feeling of futility. It used to be the faculty opinions and involvement was valued by administration. At least at the institution I was at, one of the last straws for me was working on a Dean’s search committee and realizing later that the result was already determined and we were being kept busy with the illusion that our opinions mattered. There was something so demoralizing for me in that.

I include Laura’s observations because I think they are often accurate, and they definitely have been for me at times in my past. I’m incredibly grateful that I have supportive structures in terms of my current administration and many fantastic colleagues. 

10. Many people believe faculty are lazy, don’t work hard, and don’t care.I get this. A lot of my work is done from home, and most people think being a professor is mostly about teaching, so it’s confusing.I also know that part of what I’m complaining about is a certain percentage of my faculty colleagues who don’t work hard. Really, though, this kind of dynamic (20% of the people doing 80% of the work) happens in all sorts of positions, not just with faculty, so it’s a bummer when professors as a whole are viewed as lazy.

My friend Christine writes about the denigration of faculty:

…much of this resonates with my experience. It’s made all the more hurtful when those we care about but who are outside the academy make comments that imply that we don’t work hard or contribute in important ways…

11. Money drives universities. How/why does this matter? It means faculty are pressured to recruit and retain students, both through our teaching and through other work with students and with other parts of the university; and we are encouraged to receive grants (that is, money); and our publishing records contribute to the reputation of the university. The better the reputation, the better the students, and the better the alumni, and the better chance to have donors, and so on. My friend Laura writes:

I think that academia has been taken over by a professionalized corporate administration that has turned faculty into workers who are in continual anxiety over the fact that they don’t actually “produce” anything. Except students of course. There are some things that should not be under the corporate model: education, prisons, health care.

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That’s me being overwhelmed with my work (from a video probably filmed by Lindsey Wotanis)

These lists are the end of today’s post because I’m trying to break things down, taking time to notice what the problem looks like and what many of the contributing factors are.

Rest assured, I am doing more to think through all this and to address the contributing factors at both individual and institutional levels. So please stay tuned.

And those of you who have been reaching out to me with resources, I really appreciate it! I will be sharing them here before long. And if any of you are reading and want to comment here so others can read your smart advice right away, please feel free.


Radical revision*: When you realize something has gotta change

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The truth is, if I wasn’t trying to publish more than an article every 18 months or so, I would’ve been okay continuing my teaching, chairing, and service obligations at 50-60 hours a week for ten months during the academic year and 30-40 hours a week during two months of the summer.

What is rewarded at my university, however, is publishing. I was hired a couple years ago as department chair at the associate professor level—a rank I’ve occupied for ten years now—and I want to be promoted to full professor and make more money.

I deserve to make more money.** I work hard in ways that meaningfully contribute to the university.

In addition, I like to write and publish. It’s good for me, good for my students, good for the university. I also hope my publishing has some kind of positive effect on people who read it, but who knows.

Several years ago, my therapist Michelle helped me recognize that I take on a martyr role at work with my colleagues, even though I don’t occupy that role in my household or my classroom. I also know from therapy my warning signs that something is wrong:

  1. I “don’t have time” for a haircut
  2. I “don’t have time” to use the bathroom
  3. I find myself running through a building or across campus to my car to avoid being late picking up one of my kids
  4. I’m angry
  5. I’m really angry

My warning signs shifted this time, with some overlap:

  1. I “don’t have time” for a haircut.
  2. A medical doctor told me I needed to take care of myself (she suggested regular sleep and meditation, and therapist Michelle had also suggested the latter way back when).***
  3. I missed a publication deadline for a textbook I’m writing. Yes, I procrastinated on it more than I should have. Still, I should have been able to complete it even with procrastination, but I couldn’t prioritize it without really negative effects on a heck of a lot of people, so I didn’t get it done on time. (Note: The manuscript is in now. That’s the reason I’m ready for blogging!)
  4. I’m sometimes angry. I’m not angry the way I used to be because I’m in a healthier work environment, but still. I’m angry.
  5. I don’t know the last time I had a day completely off from work. I probably checked and answered emails and worked on my textbook on Christmas day, so it was likely mid December. It’s Feb 23 now.
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My friends’ comments help me see more clearly.

I recently shared an article on Facebook: A professor wrote about physically collapsing after working too hard. I added my own comment about my inability to heal myself, about the unsustainability of how I’m living.

Many people responded. Many expressed concern and support, many said they were in a similar place, and many offered insights into the systemic problems—for women, for academics, for many of us in our tech-driven always-on world.

As I’ve continued to work overly long days, in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about personal changes and how they are unbelievably important but not enough. Structural / systemic changes need to happen at the same time.

I am going to plan some personal shifts and figure out systemic shifts with people I work with. I will be writing my way into this and through this. I’m old enough to know that it is likely to be an ongoing challenge for me, so I’m approaching it the way I’d approach a diet: It’s about making choices for long-term sustainable healthy ways of life, not for dramatic short-term weight loss.

I have more to say, but I’ll stop here for now. I’ll be back with initial thoughts and with strategies for thinking about, planning, and implementing change. I see a series of posts, not a one-off.


*I borrow the phrase “radical revision” from Wendy Bishop, who used it to describe the work of transforming ideas presented in a traditional paper into a new genre, with a new audience and a shift in purpose.

** I don’t do my job for the money. If money was my motivator, I wouldn’t be a professor and I wouldn’t work so hard. I’m grateful to be a professor. I love what I do. I love almost all aspects of my work. It’s just that there’s too much of it and there’s never a stopping point.

***She was referencing mild health concerns, not anything debilitating; at the same time, she was implicitly pointing out an unhealthy way of life, and that’s the sort of thing that eventually leads to major health concerns.

from the classroom: initial thoughts on writing & social identity

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I’m going to blog some of the ideas that arise in my writing class this semester so that I can be blogging along with my students.

Today, we had our first meeting of ENG 120 Critical Writing and we did some in-class writing about how writing connects with social identity. Here are some of the recurring ideas.

  • we use writing to express feelings
  • sometimes we can say more in writing than in real life, either because we are afraid to say certain things in real life, or we worry that we might offend someone if we talk about politics or religion and such subjects, or we can be more clear in writing
  • writing can show how a person is unique; it can be “a thumbprint” for the person; it can present a perspective that no one else completely shares; it can tell a personal story that connects with readers
  • what and how a person writes can say a lot about the person—whether they share a lot publicly or are private, whether they organize themselves or use writing to help with forgetfulness, whether they are open to other ways of thinking or not; we can notice a person’s personality in the ways they approach a written conversation
  • we can build meaningful connections with other through writing (especially texting, messaging, and social media)
  • writing we have inherited from the past (for example, scientists and philosophers) shapes our current lives
  • we probably change the way we write depending on whether we are writing for friends, family, teachers, people we don’t know, and so forth
  • we need to be smart and careful about what we write on social media
  • when we write to people who belong to the same social group we belong to or who have a similar background (in terms of race/ethnicity or religion, for example), we may be more open
  • our social identity might lead us to write for a particular group, and it might connect us to things going on in the world that affect us and people who are similar to us
  • we use writing to express ourselves creatively, to tell our stories, to connect with readers
  • being open to other’s perspectives is social and leads to more effective writing
  • our identity can shape/influence our writing and can also be shaped by (or reinforced by) our writing
  • our social identity also shapes what we choose to read

I have to say, this thinking about writing and social identity during the very first class of the semester is puh-retty impressive, yes?


Please comment—tell us what you think of these ideas or add connections of your own. I will be sure to share with the students. Thank you!

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Miller Hall, where good thinking happens (from the Pace University website)

Developing a Writing Major

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The following material was prepared to complement my remarks at MLA 2018 as part of a panel titled Writing in the English Department: Models for Success.

Please find:

  1. Presentation slides
  2. A downloadable version of the presentation (to access hyperlinks and notes)
  3. Some helpful sources to consult while developing a writing major

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’d like to view the above presentation with access to hyperlinks and notes, it’s available for download:
Developing a Writing Major MLA 2018




Step One: Getting started thinking about the writing major

Giberson, Greg A., and Thomas A. Moriarty, editors. What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors. Utah State U P, 2010.

This edited collection considers a variety of institutional contexts for writing majors and offers models for writing curricula and specific courses. A couple chapters offer cautionary tales, but most offer designs that have worked at particular institutions.

Everett, Justin, and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, editors. A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs. The WAC Clearinghouse and UP of Colorado, 2016.

This volume focuses on writing programs that are housed outside the English Department, so I just dipped into it here and there, but it might fit others’ situations better.

Lalicker, William B. “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program within a Department of English”.  A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs, edited by Justin Everett and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, WAC Clearinghouse and UP of Colorado, 2017.  

This chapter (by one of my co-panelists!) is a helpful resource for writing programs  housed in the English department. Offers clear criteria that can be used to guide departmental change and growth, with full explanations that can help literature faculty understand what equity means for writing faculty.

Step Two: Begin assembling career trajectory information that will help you create a rationale for the new major

Step Three: Figure out what a writing major might look like

Balzhiser, Deborah, and Susan H. McLeod. “The Undergraduate Writing Major: What Is It? What Should It Be?” CCC, vol. 61, no. 3, 2010, pp. 415-433.

This analysis of data collected from 68 institutions categorizes writing programs as falling into either a “liberal arts” or a “professional/rhetorical” design. The authors offer details of “model programs” in each category and suggest that an effective major will include a gateway course, a series of disciplinary required courses, a capstone course, and learning outcomes that suit the major requirements (417-18). The authors also offer a chronicle of courses offered in writing majors, an analysis of why there seems to be little coherence to the writing major, and suggestions for a writing major. Specifically, Balzhiser and McLeod offer criteria for a gateway course, a capstone course, and a requirement in history, theory, and research.

Campbell, Lee, and Debra Jacobs. “Toward a Description of Undergraduate Writing Majors.”  What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, edited by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Utah State UP, 2010.

This chapter chronicles trends in undergraduate writing majors, using an approach that I mimic to some extent. Campbell and Jacobs note that programs tend to differ along two axes: liberal to technical and general to specific. The authors explain each axis in terms of gradations and examples, and they suggest some ways their categorization of courses might be used. They end with a table of courses they have found in writing majors across institutions (p. 286):

Table of writing courses
from Lee and Jacobs


 If you have questions or comments, please reply to this post or email me at
I’d love to hear from you!


Intention: World peace

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I was with seven women I admire last night, sharing a holiday celebration that included incredible food and drink—

I originally kept writing, but in rereading and remembering the food and drink, I decided I need to say a bit more.

Some people take food and drink to the level of an art form. The processes of adding the pomegranate seeds, massaging the kale, assembling the sweet potato or the cucumber appetizers, shaping the crab cake—each movement bears witness to the care these women bring to the worlds they inhabit.

As we raised our glasses, sampled each offering, passed one dish after another around the table, we were fed in body and spirit. We kept saying how delicious everything was, and as we said it we knew that we couldn’t fully say it because the words sound empty when we use them over and over, but, still, we needed to say them over and over because as we each made our way through our plates of food, we were grateful and needed to speak our enjoyment, even if the words stop working. But the words probably did work after all because they were said with love and they were received with love.

—and our night included a small pile of small gifts we chose for one another, clustered at each place setting.

I don’t want to overpaint the picture as some kind of utopia of utter peace and beauty and joy. I don’t want to make this group of women into people who are perfect as individuals or who are perfect when we are together.

Let me be clear.

We sit at the lovely table with amazing food and a small exchange of gifts and we ask about one another’s families and struggles and successes. We ask about movies and tv shows and books. We forget words and names and entire sentences, and we help each other remember. We laugh. We bring our imperfect human selves to the table.

Sherry’s daughter Kiernan appears to say hello, a young woman who is home for the holidays. I see my friends look at her the way they might look at their own children. They are full of pride and love and hope. They have seen Kiernan grow up. This is what it means to be friends.

We are ordinary.


Janet says she has been reading a book called The Power of Eight by Lynne McTaggart. She says it is amazing. She says a group of eight has tremendous power.

Angela has given each of us a nutcracker she decorated. Each one is different. Angela has transformed each tiny wooden figure into a wild and wonderful woman. They make us smile as we each appreciate our own and then turn to admire the others. On the bottom of each nutcracker, Angela has written:

‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

–Maya Angelou

Today we all exchange emails. These are also gifts. Janet suggests an intention for us. She reminds us that we are powerful. We are a group of eight. Still, perhaps we should start small. She suggests


(those exclamation points are from Janet’s email! I hope they make you smile as they do to me!)

I write back to say I’m on board. I feel something within me shift.

We are on the cusp of 2018. It seems like a good time for intentions. It seems like a good time for ordinary women to experience the powerful gift of a group of eight. It seems like a good time for something to shift.