, , ,

When classes began January 12th at my university, I was not there. I am on what is called a sabbatical, which is usually defined as a period of rest. And while I occasionally sleep in a little later than before, and certainly read a lot less email, I have not been idle.

For me, this brief period has become about embracing complexity and struggle. My research projects are pushing me to read widely and think deeply. I have writing deadlines, some self-imposed, that are demanding that I plan my time carefully and strategically. And I have signed up for classes where I can learn new things.

In one of these new classes, I am without a doubt the worst student in the class. No really—I am that bad. Later, I will write more about this experience because I am sticking with it and I am determined to improve. But what I am already taking away from this new challenge are things that will surely help me when I go back to my own classroom. This includes that feeling of not quite catching on to something as quickly as you feel others are mastering something. It also includes the powerful effect of having a teacher not give up on you, of someone sharing encouragement when you most need it, as my marvelous instructor has done. I think that everyone who teaches something should take a turn at learning something in unfamiliar terrain.

All of this is on the heels of a challenging job I just finished as director of the graduate program at the Gaylord College at OU. In my four-year tenure, 76 students from our combined Masters of Arts, Master of Professional Writing and Ph.D. programs completed their degrees. Five students I assigned in instructional support roles received top teaching awards from the university. On an annual basis, I oversaw the academic progress of anywhere from 73 to 92 students who could enroll in most of our programs on a rolling basis throughout the calendar year.  I also wrote about 274 petitions on behalf of my students, requesting a range of allowances for them, including anything from a missed paperwork deadline to the more serious issues involving personal struggles or death of family members.

One of my biggest challenges was finding out during my first semester on the job that the five-year probationary period the state granted us for our new Ph.D. degree was expiring, but we had not made our project enrollment and graduation goals. I took the lead on crafting a memo requesting an extension, and when it was granted in 2011, I got to work.

The biggest task was to get students in the program and out in a timely manner and with sufficient numbers to keep going. My efforts wound up helping all of our graduate students, including the creation of our first course rotation, an expanded roster of graduate faculty who could serve on committees, the launch our first online graduate class, an increase of our weekend/evening 1-credit class offerings, and the addition of graduate classes to our summer schedule.

This was definitely NOT sexy stuff. But by May 2014, we had confirmation that our program was off probation and tracking well. And when I passed the baton in December 2014, it was after co-chairing a small task force of faculty and staff members to help chart out future directions for our program. I left a short report of our ideas for new certificates, a combination undergraduate/graduate degree and new professional degrees that our amazing faculty had proposed. I am looking forward to seeing what exciting futures are in store for the graduate program.

For the past few days, I have once again been reminded to celebrate difficult things, as I watch OU President David Boren move swiftly and with conviction to counter the racism a viral video exposed. Students in a class I created, JMC 4853: Race, Gender and the Media were actively involved in supporting the student-led rallies but covering these events as fledgling journalists. My doctoral advisee, Amanda Kehrberg is teaching the class this semester and is doing a masterful job in fulfilling one of the goals of the class: to “provide a safe place” for students to grapple with current issues of social justice and make practical applications of that knowledge.

Doing what is right in public must be hard, because we seem to see so few people doing it, particularly under the glare of media attention. Kudos to President Boren for showing by example how it can be done. Cheers to the students of @OU_Unheard for organizing such a powerful call-to-action. And, a big salute must go to the students who had the courage to expose the video in the first place, in the hope that things would change for the better.

Imagine what could happen if we all took on something difficult. I’ve told you about some of my choices. What are yours?