As with all things, I try to discern what I can learn from the experience and what may help others. So here's my, "Top Ten Things I Learned as a First Year Assistant Professor":
I moved to Flagstaff in July to start my first position as an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University. It seems time has flown and it is already the end of the semester. I have often thought of blog posts to write, but unfortunately I have not taken the time. The semester started off with a severe case of imposter syndrome - a feeling that I didn't actually have the knowledge or ability to be here as a professor. It was quite overwhelming to be handed a course, curriculum, and students and be told go for it. Yet, as the semester progressed, my confidence grew and I felt less and less like an imposter. I think what helped the most was the opportunity to have my own students again. For me, interacting with the students and getting to know them put me at ease, it helped me to relax into the classroom.
I think what has been most surprising this semester, though it probably should not be, is how little time there is for anything besides courses. As you teach and develop a new course, you not only are assigning and grading work, you are also having to do the work yourself. You've got to re-read the texts you assign, you've got to think about the way you're going to grade the assignment before you hand it out, and even think about the content you want students to focus on before they read. All of this I should have expected having taught science for 9 years before getting my doctorate, but for some reason it felt harder this go around. I think the difficulty was all the other aspects of the job pulling on my time. Writing grants, trying to get papers out and published, Mondays full of meetings, supervising student teachers, serving on committees, finding ways to do community service, and preparing for conferences. Figuring out how to do all of this and still have some semblance of balance in my life has been extraordinarily difficult. I definitely have not figured it out, but I am learning.
One thing I have done all semester is play tennis. Fortunately, I was able to find tennis groups quickly here and was able to play 2-4 times a week. Having this time for something that was just for me was so critical to not getting burned out this semester. Another thing that has helped is still being connected to my research group at UVA. It has been so wonderful to still have those individuals to talk, plan, and process next steps. Finally, my new colleagues here have been a huge help. They are constantly answering questions and acting as sounding boards. They are caring, compassionate, and always willing to lend a hand.
So, I am sitting here giving my last final of the semester. And, I have to say overall I think it was successful. I've taught two new classes, written or been a part of writing four grants, published two articles and had a third accepted, had seven papers accepted for conferences, been assigned my first university committee, and started to learn how the system functions at NAU. It's been an overwhelming, frustrating, exciting, scary, and ultimately joyful learning experience.
I have written this post so many times in my head but just haven't made time to sit down and write it for real. I'M DONE! In the past three months I finished my dissertation, bought a new house in Arizona, and graduated with my Ph.D! I must admit that it still feels a bit surreal. I'm not sure when it will start to feel real but not even putting on that robe and celebrating with everyone made it feel real. Perhaps it's all that comes next that makes it feel surreal - the summer work, the packing, the moving, the goodbyes - but for whatever reason it just doesn't seem real yet.
Completing a doctorate is an exercise in perseverance, jumping through all the hoops you are given takes determination and endurance. Preliminary exams, qualifying paper, completing coursework, comprehensive exams, proposal defense, and finally defending your dissertation. In the midst of it, you just move from one hoop to the next, staying focused and completing the task. You apply for jobs while you're hoop jumping, but your mind is still consumed with all you still have to complete. Once you get a job you rejoice, but you still have to finish that dissertation and graduate. There's just always one more thing to get done, but then finally it's DONE. I guess like many things in life it's hard to believe when you've finally walked across the finish line, but the marathon is complete and you've earned your doctorate!
It's been a long journey and I am so grateful for all I've learned, for the people I've met, and for the time I've had here in Virginia. I am most grateful for all the family and friends who prayed, supported, and encouraged me during this process. It was so wonderful to have my grandparents and uncle from Missouri here for graduation and to celebrate with friends in Charlottesville and Richmond. I'm excited for my move to Arizona, but I am not ready to say goodbye and I am not ready for another transition period. I leave 4 weeks from Saturday. Time to start saying good goodbyes so I can say good hellos.
The past couple of years I have worked hard to find balance in my life: to sleep well, exercise well, eat well, and play well. It has been a journey and a few weeks ago I wrote about finally finding balance in my life and feeling healthy. After walking the marathon with my mom, that feeling quickly ended and I entered a season of unbalance.
For four weeks, I traveled every week for either a conference or a campus interview. The trips all required flying and everywhere I landed there was snow. Luckily, I was always able to make my connections and I didn't get stuck anywhere. But each trip also necessitated stressful preparation, for either a presentation, a lesson to teach, or research about the school where I was interviewing. During this time I was also chairing the Curry Research Conference committee, planning and preparing for the conference. Unfortunately, the snow that week caused the conference to be postponed and the need to reschedule all of our preparations. And of course, there was the need to finish writing my dissertation.
These past two months it has been a huge struggle to finish the writing, the editing, the re-editing of my dissertation. I have worked 10 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, struggled with sleeping and making time to exercise and basically felt like life was out of whack. I realize this is all based on my desire to graduate in three years and completely self-inflicted. However, I made the commitment to do it and so I have pushed to complete my dissertation and graduate.
At some point in the midst of all of this I realized I had to let go and just be unbalanced for awhile, I needed a season of unbalance. Having just found balance and feeling like I was at a healthy place, this was really hard for me. I was concerned I wouldn't be able to get the balance back, but there was no way I could do everything I needed to do and stay balanced. So, I gave myself permission to experience a season of unbalance, to be a little out of whack, and to not beat myself up for it. At times we all need a season of unbalance in our lives and we just have to get through it. I am still experiencing this season, it's a struggle, but I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. My dissertation is due March 14th and I defend on the 28th so the end is near. I accepted a job offer at Northern Arizona University and I am looking forward to getting through this snowy season of unbalance and enjoying some spring time planning as I figure out what the future holds.
It's official...my mom and I can put a 26.2 sticker on our cars! We finished our marathon in 7 hours and 12 minutes. We kept a steady pace and finished! For the most part it was pretty straight forward and easy to complete. But then there were the growing blisters on the bottom of my feet. Around mile 14 I realized I was getting blisters on the bottom of my feet and it was starting to get a little painful. At mile 16, we paused, switched socks and I put a baggie in my shoe to try and minimize the friction. At mile 20, our race director (aka dad) had gone to get moleskin and affixed it to the bottoms of my feet. The blisters on the bottom of my feet were so bad, they told me not to look at them till I was done. I also had blisters around my heels but we decided not to put mole skin on them because given where they were it might make it worse. At mile 22, one of the blisters that did not get mole skin popped, and it hurt so much I might have screamed a little bit, maybe. But, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, and moved through it. Our race director surprised us with some motivation at mile 23 by getting on his megaphone and encouraging us to walk faster. By mile 25 we were so close to home we jogged the last half mile because it hurt less than walking on my feet. AND at mile 26.2, my favorite words from the RunKeeper app was spoken "Workout Complete". We did it!
It was so much fun to do this walk and not near as boring or hard as either of us were expecting. Yes, it was hard, but what made it hard was the blisters. I trained for 15 weeks, learned how to care for my feet, and did everything I was supposed to do the day of the marathon. I wore the same socks and shoes I had worn on my long walks without incident. I didn't change my gait or pace. And yet, I still got these massive, painful blisters. It reminded me that no matter how well I plan or lay out what I want in life, I am still not in control. I can train, take precautions, and still things are not always going to go the way I want. And yet, I have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Lately I have been feeling like I am never going to finish my dissertation. I feel like I'm at mile 22 and a blister has popped and I want to quit. I know I have to keep moving and that if I do so I can finish jogging. But, right now it really hurts and I'm not quite sure how I'm going to finish it, but I know my mom can't carry me so I've got to keep going one step at a time as fast as I am able.
I am still in a little state of disbelief that I actually completed a marathon, but I did! We did! And I am so grateful to have had the health and ability to do so and even more grateful to have done it with my mom! I'm hoping after the next two months I can say the same about my dissertation.
My dissertation defense date is set...March 28th at 1:00pm. I have been writing away on my dissertation all year, and yet I am not finished. It seems with every two steps forward, I take one step back. I finish one chapter and realize I have to edit another one, or I look at my results and find something new that has to be addressed in the discussion, or the abstract, or the literature review. I was hoping to have at least a full rough draft of my dissertation when I walked my marathon, but it is looking like that is not going to happen and I must admit that I am extremely disappointed. However, with two steps forward and one step back, I'm still one step ahead of where I was before.
One of the more difficult things about writing my dissertation is finding time to work on it. It seems like everything else pulls on my time - research assistant work, conference preparations and planning, job interviews, meetings with advisors. All of these things are important, but bottom line my dissertation has to be done by March 14th. So, I'm starting to realize I'm going to have to carve out time in my schedule and protect it. Sadly this is something I've been trying to do since I got back from the beach with little success. So, how am I going to get it done? How do I keep all these balls in the air and still finish on time? I think the first step is to give myself some grace and not be too disappointed that I didn't finish by my self-appointed deadline. The second step is to focus on my dissertation at the beginning of the week rather than the end. The past few weeks I've been marking off Thursdays and Fridays for dissertation work, but inevitably something comes up to intrude on that time. So, I'm hoping if I focus on my dissertation during the first days of the week I might be able to guard that time more effectively. Sounds silly, but it's worth a try! The third step is to just buckle down and write. I know what is left, I just need to break it down into manageable pieces and get it written.
So, the date is set, the plan is there, and all is left is to finish writing.... wish me luck.
Last night, as my family celebrated New Year's Eve in a low-key, go for a walk, grab some dinner, and watch a football game kind of way, my father handed me the December 23rd, 2013 Sports Illustrated. In it is an extensive article about Peyton Manning who was selected as Sportsman of the Year. (If you haven't read it yet, READ IT.) During the commercials of the game, while my dad was in constant CS (Channel Surfing) mode, I ignored the COPS channel it continually landed on, and read the article. The article brilliantly describes Peyton's way of doing things, his character, his integrity, his empathy, his life as a football player. In the article Jon Torine is quoted as saying, "When Peyton Manning dies, this is what they ought to write on his gravestone: IT ALL MATTERED TO ME." The training, the practices, the minute details have all mattered and worked to make Peyton the player he is today. But not just the football, the people it involved as well - the trainers, the sports writers, the coaches, the equipment managers, the fans. They all mattered.
Today, as the new year begins, this quote - IT ALL MATTERS - has been resonating with my soul, and causing me to reflect. Does it all matter to me? Do I attend to life with the same discipline and focus? Do I care for others around me in a way that lets them know I see them and love them? As I reflected on the answers to these questions, I thought about the fact that I was a Whitworth. My family has given me a "Whitworth Way" of doing things. There is the Grandma standard of praying, cleaning, and ironing to be followed, the Grandpa way of wisdom, listening, telling stories, and being active, my father's method of cleaning cars, mowing a yard, packing, and organizing just about anything, and my mother's way of hosting an event, writing a note, or loving on someone. For whatever reason, I have always felt the Whitworth name carried this expectation, this idea that you would live as if IT ALL MATTERS and I am so grateful for it. So this year, I hope to continue to live the Whitworth way, to live as if IT ALL MATTERS, to think more deeply and carefully about how this reality may play out in my own life. If it all matters, what should my life look like? And how do I make that a reality? So on the start of this new year, I am thankful for this reminder that came through an article about a football player and prayerful that I will not forget that IT ALL MATTERS - especially, the people around me.
Last year I worked with three high school science student teachers who were hard working, disciplined, and focused. As with most student teachers they often became overwhelmed with planning their lessons, grading papers, and figuring out how to manage student behavior. When you are student teaching it is very difficult to figure out how to manage your time and be effective with your students. You can spend hours creating a lab or a worksheet because you want to try something new for the next day. Or spend days trying to get through the grading of projects because you didn’t think about how you could efficiently grade them before you assigned it to 130 of your students.
No matter what difficulties student teachers encounter, I think they all struggle with wanting to find a way to engage their students and help them learn. There is so much to consider when you are new to the classroom. What are you going to teach tomorrow? How are you going to teach it? How are you going to take attendance? How are you going to pass out and collect papers? When are you going to test? Are you going to ask students to raise their hands or let them speak out on their own? How are you going to handle students who aren’t listening or are off-task? What work are you going to count for a grade? How are you going to grade it? How much is each question going to be worth? The list goes on and on. There are so many decisions to be made and you never want to make a mistake.
In our student teaching seminar the answers to these questions were often the focus of our discussions. The student teachers were frequently consumed with doing things right and wanting to be perfect. Dr. Mintz, the professor for the course, made a wonderfully simple, but profound statement in response to one student teacher saying she wanted her lesson to be perfect. Dr. Mintz said, “Perfection is a ridiculous goal.” This simple truth became a theme in our conversations for the rest of the semester. There is no sense in trying to be perfect – we should strive for excellence, but perfection is a ridiculous goal because it will never come, especially in teaching. Teaching is a journey – you are never done becoming a teacher. Your students will change, or your textbook, or the courses you teach, and you’ll be back at square one trying to figure out what works or how you can make it better. This quote became such a part of our discussions that I painted canvases for each of the student teachers to take with them when they graduated.
I hope this quote helped my student teachers. I know it would have helped me in my student teaching and first few years of teaching. Growing up, for whatever reason, I expected myself to be perfect. It wasn’t my parents - they continuously told me to get B’s – but something made me feel like I had to be perfect, whether it was getting straight A’s, making the varsity team, or writing the perfect lesson plan. Over the years and through some very painful lessons, I learned I would never be perfect. I could strive for excellence, but perfection would never come. I think for this reason, this quote has become somewhat of a mantra in my own life. The world would like to convince us that there is a perfect body, a perfect friend, a perfect house, a perfect car, a perfect meal, a perfect outfit, a perfect job out there. The truth is, there is nothing perfect out there except God and His love. Nothing else. His love is perfect – it never fails, never gives up, it never runs out, and it never ends. And something about recognizing that perfection, for me, on this Earth, is a ridiculous goal is a freeing, liberating notion and a wonderful reminder that I don’t have to be perfect because Christ has already done it for me. He perfects me and nothing else. Any work I do to be perfect on my own will fail. So whether it is teaching, cooking dinner for friends, or keeping the house clean, I now frequently remind myself that perfection is a ridiculous goal.
When my dad was 25 he wrote a life list - those things he hoped he would accomplish in his wildest dreams. His list included things like learn to play a musical instrument, own a truck, run a marathon, and many more. At age 50 he had accomplished everything on the list. It was at this point I asked him if he was going to write another list or not. His response? My life has already exceeded my wildest dreams, so no. He now gives himself challenges - like running the Grand Canyon (35 miles in one day), or building a boat - but no more adding to his life list.
At the age of 28 I followed in my dad's footsteps and wrote my own life list. It was harder than I thought, but it was fun to think about what I wanted to accomplish and what my deepest, wildest dreams for my life were. Some I have already accomplished - like learning to bake cakes, owning a convertible, learning to surf and hula dance. Some I am working on - becoming a better tennis player, walking a marathon, earning a third degree. And some will come in future years. Each year I take out the list and think about what one or two things I want to work on for the year. It's fun to see what I've accomplished and to think about what I want to try to do for the present year.
I think I went through my early 20s feeling a little lost. I graduated college, I got my Masters, I started my career, and then I didn't know what came next. I wanted there to be more, not just this is my job and this is it, but more. A more abundant life - not just work, church, home. The making of this list has given me that, an abundant life full of adventures and new learning experiences. I have been reminded this week how short life is and I am so grateful for the experiences I have already had and hopeful for the ones yet to come. I think what I've learned from my dad is how important it is to live an intentional life. To think about those things that you would love to be, or do, or learn, or the places you would like to go. It's worth pondering, worth writing down, and worth going after.
What are the wildest dreams you have for YOUR life?
About six months ago I bought an UP band - it tracks your sleep, exercise, eating, and mood as you go through your days. Being a data junkie I thought it would help me to analyze patterns in my life and help me move towards making my lifestyle more healthy. Over the years I have struggled with being healthy in all four of these areas at once, especially when I was in college and graduate school. The last two and half years, as I've pursued my doctorate in science education, have resulted in just as much struggle as before. This past year I have been finishing up course work, completing comprehensive exams, writing my dissertation proposal, collecting data, and now trying to finish my dissertation. The stress has been constant and the struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle ever present. So, I bought an UP band, and thought it might be worth a try.
I started with my sleep. It's amazing to me how much sleep effects EVERYTHING else. It effects your desire to exercise, your eating choices, and your moods. So here's what I did:
1. I stopped setting my alarm clock if at all possible. I wanted to see what it felt like to let my body sleep till it woke up on it's own. It's AMAZING.
2. I started trying to go to bed at the same time (or near the same time) every night. It's hard to do, but it gets your body in a rhythm.
3. If I knew I didn't get a lot of deep sleep the night before (the UP band keeps track of the time you are in deep sleep vs. light sleep), I went to bed a little earlier, or made sure I had time to sleep in a little later the next day.
4. I stopped working at least two hours before bed time. I tried to spend the last two hours before bed putting my mind in neutral, not looking at email, looking at facebook, or playing games. I basically tried to find activities that relaxed my mind rather than engaged it in deep thought.
5. Critically, I stopped drinking caffeine after lunch. An obvious step, but I think it affected my ability to fall asleep more than I realized.
The results of doing these five things...a well rested Brooke...finally. And, a feeling like I could try and address other health issues in my life. So my next step, eating. I downloaded the MyFitnessPal app which syncs to the UP band app to track my food and calorie consumption. I started daily tracking what I ate. At first I didn't worry about sticking to a calorie goal, I just got in the habit of entering exactly what I ate, even if it was 800 calories more than it said I was supposed to have (it's hard to enter what you actually eat - you want to lie to it sometimes). Gradually, over time, entering my food made me more aware of what I was eating and I started to make some changes in my eating habits. Unlike other times in my life when I've gone or crash diets or tried to lose a bunch of weight at once, this time I just focused on maintaining accountability for what I was eating. I didn't restrict myself, I didn't get obsessive about only eating certain types of food, I just stayed accountable, and entered the information. Today marks a 148-day streak of consistently entering my food consumption into the app. I feel healthier now. I feel like I eat with more portion control and more awareness of what types of foods are going to make me feel full and what is going to leave me still hungry.
After entering my food consistently for several weeks, and feeling like I had some healthy habits established, I moved on to exercise. I downloaded the RunKeeper app which syncs to MyFitnessPal and the UP band apps. I don't think I knew what I was getting into with that download. At first it was just a fun tool and something cool to keep track of my walks, but about 10 weeks ago I noticed the Training section in the app. At first I just looked at this section - it has different training plans you can pick from, training for a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, etc. I kind of browsed these options and thought..."Interesting, but I don't really have time for that right now." Then in talking with my dad about the work I was doing on my dissertation and passing my dissertation proposal and the struggle afterwards, I changed my mind. He said in reference to passing my proposal, "It's kind of like you've run to the top of a really big hill in the middle of a marathon. You've reached the half-way point, but you realize you're only half-way done, it hurts, and you've still got a lot of hills and road to go." I realized I already was in a marathon in pursing my doctorate, so while I was writing one, I might as well walk one. So began my 16 weeks of training to walk a marathon.
We are in week 10 and I haven't skipped a training workout. That is a near first for me to have - ten weeks of disciplined, consistent, not just when I feel like it, not just when a coach says I have to, workouts. I don't like to run, so I am choosing to walk the marathon. And I don't like to walk with a bunch of people so I'm not going to actually do a race, but rather at the end of the 16 weeks just walk 26.2 miles. It's a little crazy, but it has given me focus and discipline in my life. I am grateful for the time it has given me to connect with friends, many have joined me on shorter walks, and family. My mom has never completed a marathon so at age 59, she decided to join me. My dad has done a couple so he is going to be our Race Director. But both have been nothing but supportive and the opportunities to do our long training walks together and talk has been wonderful.
So now I am in "Dissertation Seclusion" - spending 3 weeks trying to write the first draft of my dissertation - and all I really do is eat, walk, sleep, and write. I'm doing my long walks by myself and what I've realized is how much this process of walking and writing a marathon has allowed me to find balance. Doing both together has really allowed me thinking time, processing time, and both have required me to be disciplined and focused. For the first time in my life, instead of allowing stress to throw my life out of whack, I am sleeping well, eating well, and exercising well. I think the key has been to make changes one at a time and not all at once, and to make it about being healthy and not about losing weight. For the first time, in a very long time, I can say without a doubt, "I feel healthy" and that feels pretty amazing.
Now, back to that dissertation writing....