DIY College Metrics

The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week.

My head began to hurt.  I’m a humanist.  I’m not terribly comfortable with numbers, and I don’t like it when things that should be evaluated qualitatively are transformed into numbers.

Still, I felt I needed to educate myself about university metrics, and particularly about my university’s metrics.  I went digging.  I found, once again, that numbers are slippery, particularly when we’re talking about “costs” (what counts toward the cost? what doesn’t?), and not at all easy to interpret. Despite these liabilities, numbers are persuasive, and they can be marshaled to tell stories, factual or not, true or not.  Often they are, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, truthy, in that they “cherry pick” numbers that seem to back up our gut feelings.

I know many of my fellow public university faculty are, like me, in an allegedly data-driven boat navigating the waters of a (real or fabricated) budget crisis. I’ve also discovered, locally and elsewhere, that despite a plethora of internal and external sources that provide university data, many faculty and even administrators remain unaware of the actual metrics of their universities; they’re believing spin and myth rather than looking at the data themselves.

I thought, then, I would highlight a few of the places where faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders can find university metrics.  Chances are your university has a data warehouse for employees, but even if you don’t have access to it, there are plenty of external places to find data.

As a model, I’ll share some metrics and findings from my own university that I think are important, but that may get overlooked in our discussions during program prioritization. I’m sharing these numbers because they emerge from a familiar context for me. While some of them may seem damning, I’m not highlighting them to reveal corruption or the failure of any one individual, office, or program.

That said, taken collectively, as you will see, these data can tell a story about priorities—if you’re open to hearing that kind of narrative.

I encourage you to follow along with my steps and discover some information about the colleges or universities of which you are an employee, student, parent or spouse of a student, donor, or community member.

But first, three caveats:

1. I’m a humanist, not a social scientist or mathematician, so I won’t be doing any fancy statistical analysis—rather, we’ll be relying on some basic arithmetic.

2. I know all institutions and organizations “cherry pick” data to tell a particular story, and I suspect that some universities go through the program prioritization process with an end goal in mind.  They collect only the data that matter to the story they want to tell, manipulate the data, and interpret it in ways that confirm their top administrators’ perspective. I, of course, have my biases and priorities, too.

3. In every case here, I’m working with the latest reported data rather than the raw data or queries from an internal data warehouse.  Some numbers may be slightly out of date, and of course a university’s self-reported data, as one reader reminds me, must be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m unaware of any major shifts locally in the numbers I’m discussing, though I have heard rumors our six-year graduation rate is on the rise.

Undergraduate education

Governing bodies in higher ed, as well as state funding agencies, are, of course, all about graduation rates, retention rates, and career outcomes.  The last of these is perhaps hardest to capture, though student loan default rates can give us a glimpse of success or failure in the workforce. Fortunately, the first two are relatively easy to track, especially if you adhere to a relatively narrow definition of “graduation rate.” Let’s take a look at them.

Graduation rates

One goldmine of student information is the IPEDS Data Center, which anyone can access at the National Center for Education Statistics website. IPEDS allows you to examine individual institutions’ metrics, as well as compare institutions. If you poke around the site for a while, you’ll also find some interesting projections, like this one estimating the numbers of U.S. high school graduates, by race/ethnicity, through 2021, and some useful tables and figures, including this list of tables about financial aid.  If you’re more stats-savvy than I am, you can download data sets and play with them in the software of your choice.  (Prospective students looking for the right college “fit” should access the data via the NCES College Navigator.)

I’m always surprised that more faculty at my institution are unaware of Boise State’s four-year graduation rate. Here’s Boise State’s graduation rate data from IPEDS:


That’s a screen capture I took when I first conceived of this post a few months ago.  Sadly, the most recent data available shows a 3% decline in the overall graduation rate, and a decline in the 4-year graduation rate:


Blink as much as you must—your eyes don’t deceive you. Boise State’s most recently-reported four-year graduation rate is 7 percent.  Now, administrators everywhere will tell you that graduation rates are calculated unfairly, in particular because transfer students aren’t included—only “full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates.” That’s a fair criticism. However, it’s not fair to ignore entirely the 7 percent figure, as it indicates that for every 100 first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates that begin their college careers at Boise State, 93 won’t graduate from that university in four years–and 71 won’t graduate within six. That’s deeply troubling.  (The national 6-year graduation rate is 59 percent, and 57 percent at public institutions—considerably higher than Boise State’s 29 percent.)

Funding undergraduate education

Let’s move on to funding for undergraduate education. I’ve observed some of Boise State’s administrators like to use the term “lean” rather than “underfunded” to describe the university’s programs. “Lean” not only suggests an efficient use of muscle/resources, but it also evokes the “lean start-up” paradigm so beloved by many business schools at the moment. I’m using “underfunded” instead of “lean” because I want to emphasize not how programs are performing with few resources, but rather make clear how little the state and university are investing in our students.

Unfortunately, the only current Boise State budget I was able to find is broken down by major categories; we can’t learn much from it. (Worse, it collapses student loans into the category “Scholarships & Fellowships.” Gah!) Fortunately, we aren’t constrained by the university’s lack of budgetary transparency online.  (Update: a friendly Boise State librarian tells me paper copies of the budget can be checked out for two hours at a time, so check to see if your university’s library keeps a copy of the budget available.)

Thanks to the site College Measures, we can discover, to the dollar, how much the university declares it spends educating each undergraduate student per year: $9,571, which puts it in the 7th percentile overall among all colleges and the 11th percentile among public institutions.  I’m glad to see the university ranks in the 36th percentile in instructional spending per student among all colleges, and 38th in academic support—not great numbers, but far better than its overall ranking.

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A year’s in-state fees (charged in lieu of tuition) cost each undergraduate $6,292.  (A brochure released yesterday by the university includes an asterisk that explains students are also charged $2,088 in “health insurance fees” (see page 10), but we won’t include those in our analysis.)

Here’s where I’ll refer you to a post about colleges’ discount rates I wrote on my admissions blog.  To sum up: the discount rate is typically calculated as the difference between the full-fare cost of enrollment and what the average student and his or her family actually pay.  The New York Times recently reported that small colleges are trying to get out of the discounting game, but I don’t think any institution will ever escape it, as there will always be a difference between what the student pays and the true cost of educating a student.  I call this the “actual discount rate.” So, as I explain in my post at the admissions blog:

Just how generous is the actual tuition discounting at some colleges?  Here’s a slide from a 2011 presentation Grinnell College made to its alumni and other stakeholders:


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 The chart reveals the college’s actual per-student costs varied from $50,600 to more than $58,000 per year, while the comprehensive fee hovered under $40,000.  Even if all students paid the full fee, Grinnell was eating up to $20,000 per year per student!  Even more astonishing, very few students pay the full fare at Grinnell, so the college was “losing” even more revenue per student.  If you look at the blue portion of the bars, you’ll discover that revenue from students and their families covered on average only 36.5 to 38.5 percent of the college’s total cost. (Currently, about 85 percent of Grinnell’s students receive financial aid.)

Of course, $40,000 a year is still a lot of money for most families, but if you click through to that post, you’ll discover that the typical Grinnell student is expected to contribute $7,500 out of her own pocket and racks up only $12,350 in loans, meaning that, not counting student loan interest, she gets a college education worth at least $224,000 for less than $20,000. And that amount includes not only tuition and fees, but also room and board.

Now, you may think it unfair to compare an elite liberal arts college’s real discount rate with a practically open-admissions regional public university, but I’m going to do so anyway, as I’ve made the comparison for some of my students, and they find it enlightening. (They also often regret their choice of institution because they find themselves with a lot of debt.) If an in-state traditional student is one of the lucky ones who graduates from Boise State within six years, and she lives in the cheapest on-campus residence for two of those and uses her parents’ health insurance, according to Boise State’s own cost attendance calculator, her tuition, fees, room and board would look like this (if costs remain stable, which of course they won’t):

  • First year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $6064 room and board = $12,356
  • Second year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + 5000 room and board = $11,292
  • Third year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fourth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fifth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Sixth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908

The total the student pays, then, is $79,280 for an education that costs the state $57,426.  That means Boise State students don’t actually get a discount rate if we count off-campus room and board.  We’ll no longer be comparing apples to apples, as Grinnell students tend to live on campus for four years, but let’s subtract the off-campus room and board from that figure because the university isn’t seeing any of that money.  Even then, the total the student pays to the university is $48,816, though the student of course still has to pay to live somewhere.  If we remove this amount, then the student does indeed get a discount—$48,816 for a $57,426 education. (Of course, this is a hypothetical ideal; I’ve met Boise State graduates with $100,000 in student loan debt.)

Of course, I’m using a mishmash of Boise State’s and Grinnell’s own data, along with data from College Measures, in these examples.  Let’s compare the cost of an undergraduate education at each institution using only College Measures data.

Here’s Grinnell’s:

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And Boise State’s:
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Click either image to enlarge it.

But wait–here the Boise State cost-per-degree is lower than I’ve estimated it to be–but that’s because the College Measures site assumes a five-year graduation rate, but as we’ve learned, the typical student, if she’s lucky, will graduate from Boise State in six years, whereas almost all Grinnell students graduate in four.  Yes, Grinnell’s students are significantly different from Boise State’s students, but the question remains: what would happen if the university invested more per year in each student; would the four-year graduation rate increase? Would the six-year? What about the attrition rate, and, post-graduation, the student loan default rate? It’s worth investigating.

And what of retention, attrition, and the cost to the university of losing students? Thanks also to College Measures, we discover that in 2011, 31 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates did not return to the university for their sophomore year.  The university spent $6.8 million educating students it did not retain.

Again, I want to emphasize that I know it’s not entirely fair to compare an elite private college with a regional public university; doing so, however, allows us to see the kind of choices universities make, or are forced to make, based on their funding models. Everyone, including state legislators who set higher ed budgets, should be aware of the repercussions of these choices.  And remember, once we have a sense the spectrum of choices, we can perhaps better begin to understand the choices being made at “peer institutions”—and we’ll look at those in the next section.

Faculty compensation

Maybe improving faculty morale might help retain faculty and therefore students? Many of my teaching readers have undoubtedly had the experience where a student (for me it’s usually a graduate student) admits she is returning the following year just because you’re there to support her. Few faculty are truly irreplaceable, but often students view individual faculty as essential to their success.

Of course, one great way to improve faculty morale (or at least retain some faculty) is to pay faculty fairly. We know about the adjunct crisis, and it needs to be addressed in a huge way, and quickly.  (Although, oddly, Boise State’s pay rate for full-time, non-tenure-line instructors is above average, though  I suspect there may be a few fantastically paid outliers who are messing up that particular curve.  The state salary database shows that one of our local celebrities, for example, gets paid $150,000 per year despite the title “adjunct faculty” and a highest degree of B.A.)  The size of the adjunct issue—76 percent of faculty nationwide are now contingent—can easily obscure the fact that tenure-line faculty income has been stagnating.

In a previous post, I compared my own salary, as well as my take-home pay, to the cost of living in Boise.  You can use the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator to determine the cost of living in your city or town.

This year, our dean announced the college would make one-time salary adjustments, so that full profs would earn 84.5 percent of the median CUPA salaries for their rank—so, they’re still 15.5% below median, but, hey, it’s an improvement.  Still, faculty in our History department make far less than those in, say, the business school.

If you’re not sure what your colleagues make, you can ask them if you’re comfortable doing so (yes, I know most people aren’t, and in higher ed we need to get over this etiquette roadblock for the sake of solidarity), or, if you’re at a public institution, chances are the salaries are already available online; simply search for the name of your state plus “state employee salaries.” Sometimes this information is made available by the state itself; other times, newspapers have made it available. Idaho’s state salary database, for example, is hosted by the Idaho Statesman, and California’s can be found at the Sacramento Bee.  You can, of course, look up the average salaries for your discipline at the CUPA site.

To find out the average faculty salaries from your institution, use the Chronicle’s faculty salary tool.  Here’s where Boise State stands:


The Chronicle tool also allows you to compare data across institutions.  It autofills the comparison fields with “several similar institutions.”


I suggest you take a look at that data, but then also look at your college’s peer institutions. Some colleges post this information on their own websites—here’s Boise State’s list—but if that’s not the case for your institution, you can find the colleges and universities your institution considers its peer using this slick peer institution tool at the Chronicle.  (It also lets you see which schools believe your institution to be their peer; in Boise State’s case, that list includes a variety of public universities around the U.S., as well as one DeVry and three University of Phoenix campuses.)



And here are Boise State’s “aspirational” peers:


The tl;dr version of those tables: Boise State pays its faculty less—in some cases significantly less—than its peer institutions, regardless of whether they’re current or aspirational peers.  Yesterday the governor’s state-of-the-state address for 2014 made clear there won’t be any pay raises for state employees this year, unless someone is being promoted. In my time at Boise State—this is my fourth year—faculty have received one raise of 2 percent.  If this pattern persists, I know many of us will be unable to afford to keep our jobs, as cost of living has already outpaced our salaries. Perhaps you have observed this to be the case at your institution as well.

As the Chronicle explains below the tables, these figures represent only “full-time staff whose primary role is instruction, regardless of whether they have formal ‘faculty status.’ That includes tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Left out are any part-time instructional staff, which can include adjunct faculty.”

To see, then, how many teaching faculty are made invisible by this survey, return to the IPEDS Data Center, find your institution, and then click on “Financial and Human Resources.” Finally, click on the + next to the items “Number of staff by primary function” and “number of full-time instruction/research/public service staff.”  Here’s Boise State’s information:

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Even more information from IPEDS

Note that you can also look at data from previous years by searching for your institution, then clicking on “Reported Data”:

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There’s a lot of relatively fine-grained information in that archived data about various aspects of the university.  I find the student financial aid info particularly interesting.  You can also download any of this reported data as a PDF. For example, here is the PDF I downloaded about 2011-12 financial aid at Boise State. It’s not the easiest thing to decipher, especially because the formatting of the reported data has changed over the years, but if you’re an inquisitive or investigative type, you’ll probably find it’s worth poring over.

Administration and athletics

It’s common for columnists and other armchair accountants outside of higher ed to blame faculty salaries for the quickly rising costs of a college education. Chances are very good that the data you’ve found about your college or university shows faculty salaries aren’t driving increasing costs.

If we aren’t investing a ton of money into student and faculty retention, then where are we spending it?  All over, really. But two places where costs have been rising in the past decade or two are athletics and administration.  In fact, according to a brochure released this week, Boise State employs 260 more full-time “professional staff” than it does full-time faculty.  (That speaks volumes about faculty, or even shared, governance, doesn’t it?) The “professional staff” category, which typically includes salaried, non-academic staff exempt from overtime laws, does not include classified staff; there are an additional 529 full-time classified employees at Boise State.

The university pays its vice presidents between $206,000 and $220,000 per year, and its president roughly $400,000. For comparison, that’s in line with recent salaries for chancellors at the University of California—campuses I’m guessing most faculty would consider far more successful as research and teaching institutions. Some people might point out that university presidents make far less than CEOs of comparably-sized private-sector companies, so the salary is reasonable. I might point out that faculty—yea, even in the arts and humanities—also make less than they would as employees in the private sector.

But what of athletics? What kind of money is your institution spending there? Here you might have to do some digging in your local newspaper’s online archives.

The football coach who left Boise State at the end of this season made $1,898,000 per year and licensed his likeness to the university for a quarter million dollars per year.

Some of you will say I’m comparing apples to oranges with the next comparison, but it’s important to look at these two numbers together, as once again, the difference in the numbers throws institutional priorities into high relief.

The football coach made more than $2 million per year, plus myriad benefits. Discussion leaders for courses in the university’s new general ed/core Foundations program are paid only $1,000 per semester.

But let’s look beyond employees. What does the university say it spends on student athletes?

In 2010, Boise State spent $13,018 in operating expenses per football player.  This is lower than the NCAA Division I average, but it’s also just slightly less than half of my take-home salary each year. It’s also $3,500 higher than the university spends educating an undergraduate for a year. The university spends 27 percent more on outfitting and training its football players than it does supporting students’ education.

You can find a thumbnail of major college athletic teams’ financial information at USA Today.  Here’s what the site shares about Boise State; I encourage you to see if your institution is on this list and take a hard look at its figures as well.




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Be sure to check out the report authors’ methodology and category definitions.  Pay particular attention to the definition of “subsidy”—”the sum of students fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state money”—as in the main list of universities, you can see that Boise State athletics are subsidized by this kind of support—again, these are state appropriations and student fees—at 24.96 percent.

According to the Idaho Statesman, the Boise State athletics budget for this past year was $33.4 million, which represents a $1 million shortfall from its projected revenues.  According to NCAA figures, the university actually spent $43,172,225 on athletics, with $43,440,905  in revenue–nearly $11 million of which was subsidized by the state or student fees.  Despite what is suggested by the “total revenue” vs. “total expenses” numbers in the charts above, athletics are a long, long way from paying for themselves because they are subsidized.

 . . .which is funny, because we’re always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

(And even if they once were on a trajectory to increase revenue, football ticket sales are declining.)


One of the liabilities of having researchers and teachers as employees is that we undertake research, investigating the subjects and following the leads that most interest us, and then share our findings with students and the public. That’s what I’ve done in this post. And yes, I’m cherry-picking from the available data in choosing what to share here, but it’s the data that concerns what matters most to me: the undergraduate educational experience and its outcomes.

I’m sure some university officials are going to contest the data I have shared, suggesting I’ve crunched it wrong or used out-of-date information. Perhaps I have. Yet by highlighting this reported data, asking some questions, and encouraging my readers to mine the data themselves, I’m trying to start a broader and deeper conversation among faculty, students, staff, and other stakeholders.

State governments and universities talk a good deal about transparency, and this post is offered in that spirit.

That said, I try to include in all my teaching and public outreach a critical thinking activity, and this post will not be an exception.

Let’s think critically for a moment

To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to look at these figures and not editorialize extensively about campus and state priorities, and I worry more than a little bit that even highlighting the straight numbers for the public will make me unpopular on campus and elsewhere.  I’m going to let you, therefore, construct various narratives around the data I’ve presented.

I can’t, however, finish this post without asking a few pointed, leading questions.

1. Why is a purportedly academic, intellectual institution investing so much money in a sport that does this to its players’ brains? Beyond brand awareness for admissions—the benefit faculty and administrators alike cite to me as the major benefit of the football program—what does the university get from placing students in danger of lifelong brain injury? And, as a faculty member, to what extent am I complicit in the destruction of these students’ futures?


Guess which brain belonged to a football player, aged only 42?

2. What if we invested into student and faculty retention the $11 million of state appropriations and student fees currently going to athletic subsidies, plus some of the inflated salaries of the ever-proliferating associate vice presidents?  Our football players’ graduation rate over six years—67 or 91 percent, depending on how you calculate it (see info below from the NCAA graduation rate tool)—is far better than the overall university’s, so why not offer non-athletes the same kinds of academic support athletes receive?

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3. Why is there only one tenure-line faculty member on the program prioritization committee that will be making important decisions about how the university invests its resources?

We often hear that universities should be run “like businesses,” and indeed, faculty have noted the business-speak (strategic dynamism!) and capitalist imperatives (disguised as an embrace of entrepreneurial thinking and institutional efficiency, e.g., MOOCs) that have seeped into the rhetoric and decision-making at the university in recent decades. I’d argue that universities have been trying for some time to become more like businesses—behavior driven not just by trends, but by declining state revenues—and they’re failing pretty miserably. Perhaps they’re not running the right cost-benefit scenarios or SWOT analyses, so I encourage you to undertake your own for those institutions that matter to you.

Still, let’s play along for a minute, and consider students as the university’s “customers” or its “products”:

4. How might we shift our investment of limited resources so that we can increase both retention and graduation rates for our student “customers”? Should we be investing in instruction, academic support, student life, academic technology, or upper administration to produce better “products” for our communities and economy?

5. How will these metrics be translated into analytics for the purposes of program prioritization, at Boise State or elsewhere? That process has not been as transparent as it might be here. (In case this is all mumbo-jumbo to you, as it was to me, here are metrics vs. analytics, explained.)

These questions have no easy answers, and probably not comfortable or comforting ones, either. The data itself is complicated, and determining cause-and-effect even more so.

Please use this information

My challenge to you: Using the resources to which I’ve linked here, as well as others available to you locally, go through the exercise of finding the data that matters to you, share it publicly, and, if you’re comfortable with it, offer your interpretation of it—or ask questions about how we might use it, as I’ve done.  If you’re a faculty member, this kind of research, driven by you or by students, also might form the base of an activity or assignment  in some undergraduate or graduate courses.

If readers are interested, I’d be happy to create and share a downloadable list of data sources and other resources for this kind of research.  Let me know if you’d find that useful.

Idaho is waiting. . .

The Boise Convention and Visitors’ Bureau recently commissioned a video about Boise:

When I first saw it posted by a friend on Facebook, I commented, “This has not been my experience of Boise.”  The response was basically, “You should get out more.”

Ah, I would. . . if only I could afford skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, a nice road bike, hanging out in wine bars. . .or even tickets to cultural or athletic events.  (A bit of good news: the Boise Art Museum is excellent and affordable, and BSU faculty have been admitted free for the past couple of years.)

But the truth is, even as a professor, I can’t.  (Spoiler alert: My neighborhood and its environs aren’t featured anywhere in that video.)

I joined the professoriate not just because I love ideas and teaching, but because I had seen the comfortable lives my undergraduate professors led, and the relatively comfortable socioeconomics of my grad school profs.  My parents were high school teachers, and I figured I could take a step up from there.

I know it’s gauche to talk specifics about income, but it’s important here, and my salary is public information anyway, so I’m laying it all out on the table.

My salary is $50,000 a year, plus usually a stipend of $3,000 in recognition of overload work I’ve undertaken (managing the department’s internships), which sounds comfortable, especially in Idaho, where the median household income is $45,500.  In fact, my income is close to the average per capita income in Idaho’s wealthiest enclave, Sun Valley.   And in fact, when you look at the median income numbers on that Wikipedia page, things don’t seem that bad in terms of income inequality.

After taxes and various deductions from my paycheck, I bring home about $31,000.  The basic cost of living for a family of four in Boise is $56,491 per year. (Note: I used that site’s number-cruncher and discovered it calculates the cost of living for a family of two parents and one child to be $49,000, but it doesn’t include student loan payments.) When we moved here, Fang had to become a contractor and freelancer instead of an employee for the primary company he works for; the company cut back his hours, and now, of course, he has to pay self-employment taxes on that lowered income.  He ended up working as the front-desk person in the History department for a couple of months, but he was working almost full-time and bringing home around $600 a month; he decided to find additional freelance work instead.

Fang’s experience with low-wage work in Idaho is not unusual.  Idaho’s wages are the worst in the nation; the Spokesman-Review reports that “The Famous Potatoes state ranks 50th for average annual wage, per-capita income, and for wage increases since 2007. It also has the greatest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America.” Amen to the wage increases; this is my fourth year here, and my salary has increased a whopping 2 percent.

So yes, when I see the video “Boise is Waiting,” I’m thinking it’s waiting for people with far more disposable income than what I have, even though I’m clearly the demographic the video targets: a white, 30-something, culturally literate person, with kids, who has some leisure time.  All those lists that suggest Boise is a great place to live typically only discuss the amenities in a part of Boise that constitutes less than 20 percent of the city’s area. Worse, urban planners here don’t talk about the rest of the city when they write articles about the city’s future; the vast majority of us, those who live in unfashionable neighborhoods, are largely invisible in city boosterism.

I shared my concerns with another junior faculty member at Boise State, and ze confessed ze had to go into forbearance because ze couldn’t pay hir student loans. Worse, ze has a serious, costly medical condition that isn’t adequately covered by the state employee insurance plan. Last year, Fang and I spent more than $10,000 on healthcare costs—only a small part of that total constitutes pre-tax employer-subsidized premiums—and we’re pretty healthy.

It’s not just junior faculty thusly challenged: I have a full professor colleague who can’t afford any internet but dial-up because hir partner can’t find a job—and hir partner doesn’t qualify for benefits at the university because theirs is not a “traditional” marriage. To use the iPad the university gave hir, my colleague has to go to McDonald’s to use the wifi.

I had to explain to a classified employee on campus today, someone new to higher ed, that while faculty spend our summers undertaking research and writing, which is required for our jobs, we don’t actually get paid for those three months.  She looked at me as if I was crazy.  Maybe I am.

It’s not as if the state and university don’t have the funds to compensate faculty appropriately.  Like every other university, we have a recent proliferation of pricey vice presidents. Plus, look at these NCAA stats from USA Today: In 2012, Boise State spent $11 million in state appropriations and student tuition on athletics.  Bonus: even with all this money, athletics doesn’t break even at Boise State, with a shortfall in 2012 of $1 million.

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As you can imagine, it’s pretty demoralizing, especially considering we faculty are always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

It’s not just hurting Fang and me, of course; we send our kid to school in a state that ranks 50th in per-pupil spending. We’re definitely seeing the effects of that—and not just academically. Today, when I dropped the boy off at school, because it was 20°F or above (it was 21°), the kids had to stay outside.  That’s school district policy, and our school has decided not to institute a more compassionate policy, even though children don’t thermoregulate well, and after a few minutes on the playground, the children become wan kidsicles. I’m guessing this decision to keep the kids outside stems partly from the school’s and district’s insufficient funds to hire child-minders for densely populated indoor play.

And yes, I understand these are all First World problems, and I’m luckier than most. (After all, I won the tenure-track lottery after only five years on the job market. And no, I’m not being sarcastic when I say that.) Still, within the U.S. and academic context, these remain problems that need to be addressed. We’re not just hurting faculty and students; we’re causing long-term damage to the state’s culture and economy.

But I’m confounded at the particular perfect storm of politics and culture that has engendered the situation here in Idaho.  Lots of people are hurting, in the academy and beyond.  Today I’m depressed because it’s the first day of the state’s legislative session, and I don’t expect anything to change this year.

Comment Zen

I know some of my readers are going to have anecdotes of being outside at colder temperatures (as do I), and stories of working for lower wages (as have I), and tales of their partners struggling to find meaningful or reasonably remunerated work (waves hand). I, too, have adjuncted, and I, too, have worked with my hands and body, and I know first-hand the financial struggles of contingent academic labor and minimum-wage work. I sympathize—nay, empathize—with all these experiences. I read the higher-ed horror stories on blogs and in IHE and the Chronicle.

Some who read this will undoubtedly call me a complainer, but I offer up this information in the spirit of critique and hope that people will realize the myths they cling to—that there’s a low cost of living in Idaho, and that the BSU football team generates revenue, for example—are in need of some serious reappraisal.  We must reconsider where we’re putting our resources.

If you leave a comment, then, I’d like to hear not just how well I have it relative to others—I already know that, and I’m grateful for what I do have, though I also know things could be much, much better for me and for others.  Rather, I’d like to hear your experiences, particularly similar ones, and ideas for better investing our resources in Idaho and elsewhere.

Some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit


To make it clear that Lucas is not their cause, Fang and I try to explain our occasional bouts of depression to him as “bad brain chemicals.”

It’s been a week of bad brain chemicals for me, with the situation becoming critical on Friday, Saturday, and today. I alternated rest with long walks, conversation with inner monologues. These things usually help, but the bad chemicals persisted.

A revelation startled me from my nap this afternoon; I fetched the pill bottle from the bathroom and realized I had accidentally consolidated two different kinds of visually similar pills into the same bottle.  I typed the imprint number of one of them into a web-based pill identifier and realized I’d been taking an anti-nausea drug (prescribed to me during my epic bout with pneumonia early this year) instead of an antidepressant.  Worse, the anti-nausea pills tempered the first and most obvious withdrawal symptom I experience when I forget to take an antidepressant: nausea.

I popped a generic Prozac into my mouth at 3 p.m. today, my first dose in two weeks.


Tonight I began reading, for the first time—I begin teaching it in my history survey tomorrow—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale.  Ulrich interprets the life of Martha Ballard, a New England midwife who kept a journal from 1789 to 1812.  Ulrich uses additional sources to enrich and extrapolate from Ballard’s journal.

It’s one thing, I imagine, to read Ulrich’s book, and Ballard’s entries quoted within it, when one is healthy.

It’s another experience entirely when one is ill.  I’ve been feeling quiet gratitude all evening for the accident of being born into an era of antibiotics, vaccines, and—yes—pharmacological mental health care.


Ballard’s diary features an extensive cast of characters, but we only ever get fleeting glimpses of them. Undoubtedly Ballard knew her neighbors well—she delivered more than 800 of their children—but I can’t claim the same about my own neighborhood.  A casual 21st-century reader of Ballard’s diary probably learns more about her neighbors than I know of mine.


One of the things I worried about when I first started taking antidepressants more than a dozen years ago was that the remnant darknesses in my brain were the source of my creative writing.  I worried that if I messed with the serotonin bouncing between receptors, I’d be disinclined to write.  My therapist poo-pooed this fear.

But I was correct.  My creative output dropped immediately and precipitously when I started taking the pills.

I’m amused, therefore, that despite the irritability and impaired function that marked the past several days, while I’ve been off my prescription my brain has, unbidden by any conscious desire on my part, been formulating scraps of poetry, little scenes, and character sketches.


When alienated suburbanites discover their neighbors have committed some horrifying crime, a common response is, “but he seemed like such a nice man, quiet. . .kept to himself.”  If such were the case with one of my neighbors—he keeps to himself, so I don’t know his name, but let’s go with John—my reaction would be different.

Perhaps: He seemed like such a fastidious man. Not only did he mow his lawn more than once each week, but he used a leaf blower to chase off any stray cut blades that hid in the monotonous green expanse.  When he finally committed to the potential messiness of a narrow garden along the foundation of the house, he spent four days arranging and rearranging topiary and potted ornamental grasses before planting them in the completely level ground.

It would be easy to dismiss him, I suppose, as a shallow suburbanite.  After all, John looks the part; at a glance, he reminds me of one of the brunette men Fang found interchangeable on Battlestar Gallactica. And his choice of plantings is predictable.

Still, I’m sure the other neighbors appreciate his zen-like dedication to removing the tiniest weeds from the sidewalk cracks, his careful stacking of gray pavers to create a tiny retaining wall at the corner of his yard.

I pretend that because of my generosity of interpretation—John’s behavior is zen, not obsessive-compulsive; he is fastidious rather than shallow—he looks across the street at our yard, shakes his head, and instead of calling our lawn—uneven in grass color, species, and length, and bordered by an untamed profusion of perennials of questionable appeal—trashy, he mutters, That is some serious Dorothy Wordsworth shit.

On professional development

In my post earlier this week, I wrote,

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.”

Jonathan Rees commented,

I find mandatory administration-imposed course design institutes absolutely terrifying. You’re the expert on how to design a successful history course, not some “learning scientist” or, even worse, a Deanlet. Professors are trained professionals. We should be allowed to do our jobs however we see fit. Allowing vagueness is just the first salvo in a campaign that will end with complete deprofessionalization if all of us aren’t careful.

I have mixed feelings about mandatory professional development exercises around teaching.

On the one hand, I certainly don’t like being told I have to go to them.  Like most faculty, I chafe at the idea of any kind of mandatory “training,” especially since so much training at universities leaves something to be desired.

On the other hand, having worked in a teaching center, I definitely see the utility to some faculty of course design tutorials.  While those of us in the humanities usually have had plenty of hands-on experience in teaching and even course development by the time we hit the post-Ph.D. adjunct or tenure-track (I designed and taught my first course in 1999, and started on the tenure track in 2010, for example), faculty in the sciences often have had no experience in the classroom.  Junior science faculty often arrive on campus after years of lab- or fieldwork, and they were hired—at least at universities with particular kinds of aspirations—because of their research experience.  At UC Davis, I regularly had tenure-line science faculty approach me in their third quarter (after two quarters of course releases), asking me how to teach all kinds of courses or manage TAs.  Our semester-long Seminar in College Teaching was always packed with science grad students and postdocs.

However, we weren’t reaching all the science faculty with our various offerings, and I know there were many who would have benefited from even the briefest orientation to college teaching.

So do I think teaching workshops should be required for some faculty?  Yes.  (In an ideal world, departments would be the ones insisting on such training and ensuring people are teaching well.) I think faculty who haven’t acquired teaching experience during grad school, when they have access to mentors or supervisors, need to be introduced to basic concepts in teaching, such as the relationship of course objectives to activities to assessment. Should the university be deciding for faculty what those objectives, activities, and assessments should be?  No.  But from talking to new science faculty and interviewing their undergraduate students (at the faculty’s request), I learned there needs to be some kind of professional development for teaching.  I’m sure there are some social scientists, artists, and humanists who have also managed to dodge teaching prior to being hired to a full-time job.

I’ve noticed that at many campuses, there’s a good deal of ill will toward the “center for excellence in teaching and learning” or whatever the fashionable name for such centers is these days.  I think a lot of that ill will comes from the teaching centers colluding with administrators on professional development opportunities that are mandatory for all faculty regardless of the individual instructors’ experiences.  At UC Davis, we tried to steer clear of such mandates, and we tried our damnedest to make ourselves useful to the local faculty rather than just preach best practices based on what we read in some journal.

A survey of what?

As my university goes through program prioritization and redesigns its undergraduate core curriculum to feature all the right buzzwords, I’m once again reminded of how broken the history survey course has become.  I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but the thought woke me up again at 3:30 this morning, so I’m writing about it here.

English departments figured this out a while ago.  They wrestled with the canon, yet–in my experience at least, as an English major and a former lit and comp instructor–they settled on a wide variety of representative works in their lower-division survey courses rather than pretending to cover literature comprehensively. In the broadest surveys that serve more non-majors than majors, there’s some poetry, drama (often Shakespeare), short fiction, and a novel or two.  Maybe some creative nonfiction.  But no one is pretending to offer any kind of coverage beyond “hey, here are some samples of a few genres that have proven particularly significant over time.”

I’m noticing the opposite is the case in many history surveys.  Textbooks purport to share a comprehensive narrative. Publishers’ supplementary materials (ugh) offer quizzes that are more about fact acquisition than any skills listed on the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy–as if the point of the history survey is to ensure students know what caused the Panic of 1837, or what happened during the Salem witch trials, or that Gettysburg is often seen as the turning point of the Civil War.

Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.” Recently, however, the people who run that program appear to have added another wrinkle: formative and summative assessments.  Quantitative formative and summative assessments, across course sections.

And so one of my colleagues took the initiative to develop a proposed assessment for one of the survey courses we moved into the new core.  It was a 10- to 15-question quiz that asked students to demonstrate some basic knowledge that any eighth grader who has just finished a (very) traditional Western Civ class should be able to pass.  The idea is that students would take the exact same multiple-choice quiz at the beginning and end of the course, and voilà! We can measure and document learning with the quiz scores.


The gap between the university’s assumptions about teaching and what I think works grows ever wider.

I’m teaching the first “half” (Pleistocene to 1877) of the U.S. history survey this semester.  It’s my third time teaching this course, and I struggle with it every damn time, particularly in the first six weeks or so of the semester, when I’m trying to adjust students’ expectations of what a history course is and their understanding of what a history course does.

The course schedule looks fairly traditional: readings from a textbook (I know, I know–I vacillate on this; I didn’t use one last time, and next time I’ll drop it again), punctuated by fairly formal writing assignments, a midterm (an in-class essay), and final exam (also an essay).  But a glance at the syllabus does not reveal at all–at all–what happens in class.

So, for example, for yesterday’s class, we read Chapter 5 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty.  It’s dry, it’s boring–think Stamp Act–but when I ask students here what most interests them about history, the Revolutionary War ranks right up there with the Civil War, so I feel compelled to give a nominal nod toward coverage of the subject.

Once we were in class, I asked students to summarize what the colonists who were protesting the various British acts wanted.  After the students discussed this briefly in small groups, we made a list on the board.

I passed out a press release on the current-day Tea Party’s platform, and I thumbnailed for students Tea Party demographics.

I then asked students if today’s Tea Party adherents, who claim the Revolutionary era as their intellectual and political legacy, are actually in line, ideologically speaking, with the original Tea Party.  My students agreed that, at first glance and even with some reflection, they did, if we’re looking at their political planks. We also discussed what today’s Tea Partiers find attractive, politically and culturally, in that historical moment, at least as it’s traditionally chronicled.

But, as I said to my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s that when someone is drawing conclusions from history for political ends, you say, ‘It’s actually more complicated than that.'”

So, my next question for students was, “How does today’s Tea Party perceive and use Revolutionary-era history? And why does it matter how Tea Partiers represent history?”

We watched two videos that feature history as told by Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:


The first is an easy one for students to analyze, Colbert’s enjoyable theatrics aside: Sarah Palin is a big Second Amendment rights advocate, and she tells a popular story in a way that emphasizes her concerns and inflates their importance.

The second is more complicated. Glenn Beck talking about black history in early America? And taking a vaguely art historical approach?  What the hell rabbit hole have we fallen into here? On the surface, he’s asking for the same thing Clarence Walker does in Mongrel Nation, which we read last week: that Africans and African Americans be fully integrated into our stories of the founding of the American republic because it will change how we understand American history and race relations.

I encourage you to watch the video; it’s a very rich text that, on close reading, yields all kinds of insights into the hopes and fears–but mostly fears–of the Tea Party.

The first thing I highlight for students is that Beck is arguing for less emphasis on slavery as central to the black experience in the United States. As he explicates various paintings, Beck (along with everyone’s favorite early American historian, David Barton) names the African-American men depicted in them, then asks why we focus so much on slavery in telling the stories of black lives.

(Hint: Every single African American Beck names in that clip was a slave.)

My students and I talked about why Beck wants to downplay slavery, why Beck might believe the Tea Party should take an interest in black history at this time, and why this black history instead of the history Beck dismisses rather casually (Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement). It was a lively discussion among students from a broad political spectrum.

If this course were in the university’s new core–which many are arguing it should be, if only to keep enrollment up–how would we assess these students, formatively and summatively, in a quantitative way?  Hell, I struggle to assess such learning qualitatively.

I feel just as some of us were beginning to push back successfully against the content coverage model that keeps student learning low–very low–on Bloom’s taxonomy, university administrators and the state board of ed (which, alas, controls all public education in Idaho, not just K-12) once again demonstrate they have no idea whatsoever what the humanities are or what they do for students.

Idaho in particular needs students who can engage in informed, reflective civic discourse, not students who can parrot information from a textbook or lecture. (Our statehouse is filled with party-line parrots.) My students would do miserably on formative and summative assessments like those proposed by my colleague.  But which kind of person would you rather have participating in our democracy–a student who shows one-semester improvement on a quiz, or one who can thoughtfully evaluate politicians’ and pundits’ motivations for deploying history in political discourse?

A matter of fit


This week in our upper-division U.S. women’s history course, my 40 students and I are reading and discussing Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 I’m really enjoying the book because I’m learning a ton from it, but it’s clear some students have already given up on it. Last class, one student commented that she found the writing terrible, and I said it takes time to learn to read an academic book like this one, and that I found it an easy read, but that’s only because I’ve paged through thousands such tomes.

I then asked students for whom the book was written.  Several answered “for us”—by which they meant students in a history course at a regional four-year university.

I explained it’s unlikely the author ever imagined undergraduates at Boise State would constitute the book’s primary audience, or even its secondary or tertiary one.  Students seemed surprised.

“Well, then, who’s it written for?” one asked.

“Other academic historians.”

Students seemed puzzled.  Why would anyone write for such a small audience, and why would they use such dense language?



I don’t lecture in my classes.  It’s not my style.  Years ago, when I would attend humanities conferences where I was expected to present my research, I might prepare a paper, thinking I would play by the rules, but I’d end up speaking off the cuff, often in front of the podium instead of behind it.  When I do conferences now, I prefer roundtables and discussion over panels and presentations, and I like to talk about the state of the field rather than my own work.

But recently I’ve been invited to give more formal presentations on my work.  I’m even keynoting at an unconference.  (And yes, I get the irony.)

While I’m happy there’s interest in my work, I feel uneasy with the medium of the research presentation.

The last time I read part of my work aloud was during my job talk for my current job, when I was extremely nervous and pretending not to read.  When I was finished, the assembled faculty asked me to have a seat.  The chair fell apart under me.

Honestly, that’s how I feel after any formal presentation.  Disoriented and slightly embarrassed.



I was talking with a friend today who was trying to figure out if she should stay in her current (exceptionally sought-after and rare) job in a field she loves but in a context she finds challenging.  Her alternative was a pink-collar job with great benefits and just-about-guaranteed raises every year, but which would likely be brain-deadening.  She wasn’t sure if brain-deadening was better than soul-killing.

I asked if there was a third path.

She moved on to talk about the land mines at work, which may or may not be metaphorical.



It’s all a matter of fit.

It’s no secret to longtime blog readers that I have a slippery academic and professional identity.  I move across fields, degrees, departments, and programs.  I switch sides, from staff to faculty and back again.

And back again?

Perhaps.  There’s been a lot of bloggy soul-searching recently–even more than usual, it seems–about how the dysfunctions of academia, and faculty life in particular, are beginning to snowball in earnest.  Work-life balance is more off-kilter than ever.  Faculty governance is disappearing along with the tenure track.  MOOC-thinking—education driven by efficiency rather than pedagogy—has widely infiltrated university administration. Pay is stagnating, with many faculty barely maintaining a fingerhold on the middle class.

If I were a single person without a kid, I would be counting my blessings. I adore my colleagues and my students.  My teaching load is ideal, and I have a good deal of autonomy in choosing what I teach.  I get course releases (although they’re never enough, are they?).  I find sufficient small grants to fund whatever project I might have at hand.  I’ve grown so much here in confidence and in skill, thanks to the supportive environment of my department.  (It’s entirely non-pathological, a rare beast!) And–again, if I were single–I might be happy with only a small apartment to maintain in a city whose scale is, if not walkable or bikeable (for me, at least), entirely reasonable.

But I’m not single.  I have a family, and accordingly my current position is not financially sustainable.  On paper, the salary is below median.  Once taxes and retirement savings and whatever else are taken out of it, my take-home salary is less than half what experts estimate it costs to maintain a family here in Boise.  Yes, Fang works, but he’s self-employed in the newspaper industry; I’m grateful for what he brings in (more grateful than ever), but we don’t know how long it will last.

Two clear paths forward:

1) Go up for tenure next year.  That would increase my pre-tax salary by around 14 percent starting roughly fall 2015, and would bring me almost back–in three more years–to where I was in my staff job in Davis.  It would likely be my last raise until I went up for full professor, however.  Make up the difference between my salary and our needs by doing some college admissions consulting with wealthy families.  Keep my fingers crossed that newspapers don’t disappear during our lifetime.  (Ha!)

2) Seek sustainable employment elsewhere—a tenure-line faculty position, an academic staff position, an alt-ac job in industry, etc.  Or start my own thing, which isn’t immediately realistic because while living in Boise we’ve spent down our savings to a point where I can’t justify striking out on my own.



Some people think I’m crazy to be discussing this in the open, under my real name.  And yet when I burst into my department chair’s office on the first day of classes this fall and ranted that the HR folks from a top university where I applied for a fabulous staff job way back in early July chose that day to get back to me, she merely told me, “Of course you’re available. Immediately, if need be.  Take the interview.”



And so I’ve been thinking about fit.  Do I serve a community better as faculty or in another role?  Am I happier with the relatively autonomous but always-on faculty life or in a staff position where I don’t typically have to take work home every evening and work on weekends?  Which is more important to me–the prestige of a tenure-line position or something resembling financial security?  What’s best for my spouse and son?

Must it be either/or?  Because I spend an awful lot of my faculty job doing things that don’t cleanly fit into teaching, research, outreach, or service, but which are sometimes all four simultaneously.  And when I was on the staff side of academia, I engaged with more intellectually challenging and paradigm-shifting material at conferences than I ever have as a faculty member.

I’m thinking a research institute would be a really good fit, inside or outside a university—but probably inside would be better.  If the job’s primary mission was conveying complex information to a public audience, that would be awesome.

It ends up that the job for which I have a second interview on Monday is at a research institute in a terrific interdisciplinary field of study, and it involves lots of interpretation of research and social issues for the public. Without discussing exact numbers, the HR rep who conducted the first interview said the salary would be “comfortably above” my current one.  (I’ve done my research, and “comfortably above” is a euphemism for “a hell of a lot more.”)  On top of it all, I find the university’s location very attractive.

Wish me luck?


On September 11, 2001, Fang and I had just moved to Davis. We only had rabbit ears on the TV and we were using our old dial-up internet access from Southern California. We were watching NBC, and when we saw, through the static, the first WTC tower fall, Fang said, “This country is about to go screaming to the right.”

He was, alas, correct, and I regret all the pain countless U.S. Americans and others around the globe have experienced on that day and since. I see my students who are veterans struggle with PTSD and physical pain, and I think about all the first-responder and war widows and widowers, as well as the vast suffering and loss of life of civilians in the Middle East.

I’m tired of Islamophobia, which I still see not only in the media but also in my Facebook stream from people I respect and trust and love.

I’m tired of jingoism and shallow, flag-waving patriotism and end times rhetoric. I’m tired of the profiteering of American companies in the Middle East and North Africa.

I’m tired of it all.

Can we please, today and always, speak and act with love and compassion and generosity rather than fear and violence?

The Leslie multiverse

When I returned home from the final day of my short, grossly underpaid stint as a staff writer for a newspaper named for a fish that climbs out of the water to mate, Fang–then the art director of the paper—sent me an e-mail in which he expressed his delight in working with me and announced that “in a parallel universe, we made a terrific couple!”

My first thought—after shit shit shit! (because I had harbored a crush on him for a couple months, and in ten days I would move from Long Beach to Iowa City)—was, “Wait a minute; I live in a parallel universe.”

That sentiment emerged from my experience as someone who was socially awkward and thus lived intellectually and psychologically on the margins of my world even as I seemed to bodily inhabit it.  I like to think I’ve overcome most of my social awkwardness (ha! more like embraced it), so in recent years I’ve seen myself as on a sometimes unconventional path through Earth Prime.


But then, suddenly, this summer has been all about parallel universes.

I’ve spent almost as much time outside Boise as I have in it: a dozen days or so in the Bay Area and Davis, California for a women-in-technology unconference and archival research; two weeks in a village just north of New York City for my internship with Seth; and ten days in Long Beach visiting family and trying to recover from what turned into a summer in which I worked a lot and accomplished much, but none of it what I projected in my faculty activity plan.

I stayed in Davis long enough to feel as if I had moved right back into the town. My evenings and weekends were packed with visits with friends and former colleagues, and it was downright charming—perfect, in fact, except for the absence of Lucas, Fang, and a bicycle. And indeed, in a parallel universe, I never left Davis, never landed a job in the ultra-collegial history department at Boise State, never met all the funny and awesome Boiseans whose friendships I treasure.

Then there was the internship with Seth Godin. As you know, I’m still processing it. But for two weeks I inhabited a parallel universe in which I wasn’t an academic, in which people valued my expertise and skills differently (more highly! more openly!) than in my everyday professorial life.

And Long Beach. Honestly, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with this city. It would take a lot of therapy, and a lot more writing, for me to distill what exactly it is I believe about Long Beach—typical, I suppose, of any place where one’s family has lived for nearly a century. But this trip has been delightful thus far. I’ve spent lots of time with my sister, helping her with her business, but more importantly hanging out with her mercurial two-year-old daughter and absolutely charming three-month-old son.

Today, for example, I breakfasted with Lucas and my parents, then headed down to a local saltwater lagoon because my parents said with its restoration, it’s possible to stand on the pier that runs across it and see jellyfish.  Lucas and I saw huge moon jellies, yes, but also lots of fish, an egret, crabs, a skate, and an octopus that put on quite a show of locomotion and camouflage. Then we went down to Newport Beach, where, just as I settled into my beach chair, a pod of dolphins swam near shore and stayed for a while to play and feed.  I headed out into the waves with Lucas and my parents, and we took turns body boarding in the excellent surf. We were amused by the biggest, fastest fish I’ve ever seen in such shallow waters—maybe three feet long and six to eight inches tall. I finished out the day with my sister and her family at a concert in a park featuring a really fun 1980s cover band.  We dined on some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.


It would be easy to dismiss such relaxing, delightful experiences as a vacationer’s indulgence. And for me, at the moment they are. And the story I’ve been telling myself all these years is that Long Beach is too expensive a place to live on an academic’s salary—hell, Boise is, too—yet millions of people manage to live in Southern California, and probably hundreds of thousands of them end up at the beach each day during the summer, even on a weekday. The secondary narrative is that even if I did see an academic job advertised here that paid sufficiently, the applicant pool is too competitive because the weather is nice and the cultural resources are plentiful.

With these thoughts running through my head, I count down the days—three, now—before I must return to Boise for the new semester (at a job, remember, I love—but whose salary is insufficient). I look at the news and see that much of the country immediately outside Boise is on fire, which means horrifying air quality (Lucas and I both have asthma). I think about how unhappy Fang has been in Boise, and how few connections we’ve been able to make in the city because everyone else at Lucas’s school seems to have deep family roots in town and established social networks that can be difficult to penetrate.*  And I wonder why the hell I’m going back there.

Because despite my mild-mannered academic life, the truth is, I fully inhabit a parallel universe—one in which as a professor I apply for stuff that seems crazy, like two weeks of 7 a.m.-to-1 a.m. days as an intern for a mystery project with a marketing genius on the other side of the country.


During that internship, Seth dedicated the last couple days to not only tying up loose ends, but to having individual conversations with each of us about where we’re headed next.  My private meeting with Seth lasted only a few minutes, but what emerged was this: I’m way too intelligent and talented to feel underappreciated, and I’m too smart to stay somewhere I’m not adequately financially compensated for my work.

As I mentioned in a previous post, later that day, during the business brainstorming session, I tossed out an idea I had no intention of following up on myself, but which a room full of frighteningly bright people seemed to think was a perfect fit for me.  I began reading the websites of other people in this professional niche, and I realized—I admit, to as much horror as delight—I would very likely succeed in it.

I pulled Seth aside and asked him what he would do if he were me, in an academic culture that (a) expects us to give 110% of our waking hours to the job and (b) doesn’t usually smile upon professorial entrepreneurialism unless it directly benefits the university.  As I remember the conversation, Seth pressed me: Was I worried people wouldn’t like me if I took on a side project that had a high financial return on a small investment of my time?  Yes, I said, I was.  Then he asked which was more important to me: making six figures or being liked by my colleagues. I averted my eyes and said, “Making enough to fully support my family.”  To which he added quickly, “They’re going to like you anyway.”

I ran this conversation by a friend and colleague, and she confirmed that yes, indeed, this narrative of doom-and-gloom was mostly in my head, and not based in reality.  The university, she says, wants faculty to be out in the community, and now that she knew about this potential side hustle, she’d think I was crazy not to pursue it.

And it is crazy not to at least give it a try. It shouldn’t prove much of a distraction from my university duties, nor a conflict with them. So I’m spending the final evenings of summer researching the field, creating a website, and filing the appropriate paperwork with the state to make everything above-board.

Worst-case scenario?  I fail, and I learn to survive on a professorial gig I love and at which by all accounts I’m excelling. Somehow, I find ways to make Idaho life less corrosive on my family’s individual and collective psyches.

Best-case scenario?  I try this for a couple of years, I’m crazy successful at it, and I get to pick which path to take: an intellectually rich but financially unstable life as a tenured historian in a state for which I’ll never be a booster, or this other thing—I promise not to be coy about it much longer—that would allow me to live wherever I want (read: near my extended family).

So here’s to parallel universes, as confusing as they can be when they become less-than-parallel and intersect.  This should be fun.

*When complaining thus, I need to acknowledge my gratitude for Lisa V. and Bert V., who have been so generous with their kindness and their Thanksgiving dinners. Without them, we’d feel completely alienated from non-university life in Boise.


Long days at the internship

I haven’t been this tired since those 15 months of sleepless nights after Lucas was born.

It’s enough, perhaps, to say that this internship has been, and will continue to be, transformative.  I’m working with 17 amazing people who set the bar higher every day.  Days are long, work is hard, and everyone is at once vulnerable and brave.  It’s absolutely, wonderfully crazy, and I can’t believe it will be over in a week.

Please don’t make me go back to grading papers.  This is far more fun.

Impostor syndrome and what I value

A few months ago, I wrote a post about impostor syndrome in academia.  Honestly, I don’t suffer from impostor syndrome much anymore, and I like to think this is because I’m confidently eccentric rather than arrogant.  But the journey to this point was long, peppered with lessons that sometimes were revelatory in the moment and sometimes only with hindsight.

This worry about being called out as a fraud is on my mind right now because I’m studying for my next project, a two-week internship with one of my favorite authors.  (It may surprise you that he’s among my faves.)  I’m not feeling so impostory about this opportunity, but it’s exactly the kind of opportunity that would have freaked out an earlier version of me, and there are people much younger than me participating, and some of what they’ve said suggests they might be feeling a bit out of their league. Hence, my thinking about impostor syndrome.

In particular, I’ve been recalling a couple moments from grad school. Even in the thick of my cultural studies degree, the language of that field, and the accompanying opacity of its concepts and paradigms, was a source of frustration and stress.  I suspected I needed to learn the lingo to communicate with future colleagues, but at the same time I resented the sheer incomprehensibility of many of the articles and books I read–especially since once I learned to translate the diction, syntax, and rhetoric into my own tongue, I realized they were unnecessarily inaccessible to laypeople, even as the authors often championed the democratization of knowledge and equitable distribution of resources.

So. . . We were reading something by Derrida–I think it was Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, though I may be misremembering.  Much of what we had read in our other seminars referenced Derrida, but I’m not certain how much of Derrida’s work itself had been assigned to us.  Still, people cited Derrida and his ilk in our wide-ranging seminar discussions, making allusions that passed far above my head, and I felt as if I had read all the wrong things. So when it came time to read Given Time, I pretty much just wrote off that week’s discussion, figuring I’d once again be dog paddling among much more accomplished swimmers in the deep, ever-churning pool of critical theory. Each week, the professor required us to write a two-page response to the readings, and despite my reservations, I took this one as seriously as the rest because I knew Derrida mattered quite a bit to the other students in the course.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ran into the professor before class, and she thanked me for my thoughtful response paper–not because my ideas on the book were especially worthwhile, but because I was the only one in the class, she said, who engaged with the book’s content.  The rest complained about the book’s abstractions and its opacity of language.

In this scenario, is there an impostor?  Some might say yes, and it’s the other students. One of my criticisms of cultural studies, at least as represented in the courses I took and the readings assigned in them, is that few people seemed to go to the source.  Lots of people would reference Derrida, but I realized after this experience that in our class discussions no one was actually citing any specific work by Derrida, only concepts they had probably gleaned from reading secondary works.  Does that render impostors of the students who lionized Derrida in discussions but crumpled in the face of a sustained piece of writing by the man?

I’m not so sure.  It’s been so long now that I can’t remember all the details of students’ resistance to Given Time, so perhaps they saw the work as a departure from Derrida’s best thinking, and that’s why they balked.  (From my current perspective as a professor, I suspect that’s probably a far too generous assessment of the situation.)

The lesson I gleaned from this experience–and it’s one I’ve had to learn again and again, though I think maybe (maybe) I’ve finally internalized it–is that as long as I put in a serious effort to do good, reflective work, I shouldn’t have any reservations about sharing my authentic intellectual or emotional response.

A few years earlier, in a different graduate program, I had to read The Black Atlantic, which I also found opaque, just as much because I found it poorly written as that I was ignorant of most of its allusions. Before the first of two classes in which we were to discuss the book, my fellow students complained about the work, finding similar faults with it. One student admitted throwing her copy of the book forcefully across the room. But when the professor asked us what we thought of the book, and I leapt in with my assessment, the other students didn’t back me up, which I found kind of humiliating, as they then went on to praise the book. I sat quietly the rest of that class and the next one, during which we also discussed The Black Atlantic.  It was only at the end of that second class meeting that the professor admitted he shared my view of the book.

Of course, I had already sat through six hours of class totally doubting not only my interpretation of the book, but also my entire education up to that point and my decision to pursue this degree.  But I ended up excelling in the course and came to find the field (American studies) particularly felicitous for someone with my academic training and perspective.

Similarly, when I took my current position in a history department, I was worried I would fall flat on my face because I didn’t have even the knowledge of the past that a junior history major might have, let alone the depth of understanding of a history Ph.D. Fortunately, we live in an age where  information about the past, including primary source documents and thoughtful interpretations of them, is often easily accessible. In the classroom, I admit my shortcomings to my students–I’m not a content expert–but I also emphasize that the practice of history is at heart an amalgamation of curiosity and interpretive chutzpah, tempered by available evidence.  I’ve come to focus on the process of doing history (not only in the classroom, but as a research topic in itself) because it’s where I am right now; I’m still learning the process myself and trying to model it for students. I don’t have a separate classroom persona who is an expert on the past, and I’m surprised as anyone to discover that being authentically myself in the history classroom and in other academic and quasi-academic contexts is really paying off.

Reflecting on values

Fortunately, there are ways to decrease feelings of impostor syndrome that don’t involve an emotionally punishing 15- to 20-year sojourn through academia. Earlier this summer, I attended AdaCamp San Francisco, which opened with an exercise to decrease feelings of impostorhood.  Basically, the premise is that if someone’s impostor feelings arise from stereotype threat–“the tendency of people to perform in ways that confirm stereotypes of groups they identify with, such as women performing worse on a math test if its mentioned that the test is looking for gender differences in performance”–writing about her values prior to the anxiety-producing event (a public discussion, a job interview, writing a résumé) will lead to “a more realistic, positive assessment of [her] own ability and achievements.”  You can download the exercise worksheet, which includes a sample list of values, to use on your own, in your courses, or at events you’re organizing.

Hiking trail sign on green hill

Partly because I’m naturally inclined to reflection, and partly because I’m participating in Marci Glass’s Starward project (my word is calling), I’ve been thinking about both values and the qualities I’d like to have more of in my professional life. Among the qualities I value are:

  • congruity between thought and action/a greater alignment between how I want to spend my working hours and how I’m actually working
  • synthesis of my various interests, and clarity in articulating them to others
  • experimentation with new knowledge and the fluency that comes from regular practice of emerging skills and vocabularies
  • receptivity to new opportunities
  • financial stability

I also want to share my gratitude for the qualities already abundant in my professional context, as they all contribute to my current freedom from impostor syndrome:

  • autonomy
  • supportiveness
  • collegiality (and especially humor)
  • enthusiasm

How far these are from what I valued–or thought I should be valuing–in my grad school years: competence, confidence, mastery, seriousness.  Every time I think I’m stagnating intellectually or professionally, I need only remember where I was a decade ago.  I’m grateful for the opportunities for personal and professional growth, and I’m committed to seeking out more of them.

And you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on or experiences with impostor syndrome and shifting (or deepening) values, regardless of where you do your best work (academia, industry, freelancing, art, parenthood, etc.).  Leave ’em in the comments, or write a blog post and link back to this one so we can continue the conversation.



image by Horia Varlan, and used under a Creative Commons license