133 Letter from Alana Dillette
Throughout my years, first as a graduate student, and now as a budding early career (soon to be mid-career) academic, I have gravitated towards certain quotes and pieces of advice that have stuck with me. Some of these may resonate with you and some may not. That is the beauty of the human experience. I share with you those that have helped me to stay grounded while continuing to pursue productivity driven by my curiosity and to take care of my well being.
Practical advice for the early years
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When I first started my role as an Assistant Professor, this was the advice given to me by my Department Chair about navigating the classes I was set to teach. Simple enough, right? Not always. Oftentimes when we begin a new role, we have the urge to “make our mark” – change up course assignments, syllabi, develop new courses or material etc. What he told me was to give it a full year and teach my courses exactly as they were passed down to me, then, reflect on what I wanted to change. For me, this advice was invaluable. First, it took off any pressure I felt to make significant change right out of the gate, and allowed me the room to truly settle in and find my footing in a new setting. This in turn allowed me more time to develop a writing routine, get to know the campus and my new colleagues. In the years to come I went on to make big changes in the classroom and beyond, but only after I had evaluated the landscape first.
Write every (week)day. This is NOT something I did in graduate school, but early on in my tenure track, I felt completely overwhelmed trying to transition from the PhD dissertation mindset (i.e. binge writing) into the life of a professor. Daily writing is something I learned about from a workshop put on by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD). The suggestion was to set aside 30 minutes every day to write. For me, this worked. Of course, there were some weeks I would get off schedule, but by and large, this is how I spent the five years leading up to submitting my tenure packet. Every day, before checking email or doing anything else, I sat down in my chair, set my timer for 30-60 minutes and did something related to writing. This might have been reading, working on a table for a manuscript, coding data, conducting an interview etc. Anything that contributed to the writing process could count. It helped relieve worries around productivity tremendously and allowed me to achieve balance in other areas of my life, which brings me to my next piece of advice – don’t check your email on the weekend.
Do not check your email on the weekend. Yes, I am serious, don’t do it! It’s really not that serious. Also, turn off email phone notifications, because it is impossible to achieve this if you do not do that. Whether it’s weekends, or another day of the week – you need to create clear boundaries between your work and personal life. With the world becoming so globalized and much of our work living on a computer screen within a digital space, it is very easy to fall into the mindset of thinking you can work anywhere anytime. While in theory this seems like it allows freedom, if left unchecked, it can make you feel continuously tethered to your work. The great thing about tourism research is – it is not life or death, hence, you really don’t need to answer emails on the weekends. Make this expectation clear to your students, colleagues and research partners and turn off every Friday at 5! You can thank me later 🙂
Make a plan and come back to it often. I am a visual person, so in addition to my journaling I also love to include visuals in the form of pictures, charts, diagrams etc. I carried this over to my work and it served me well. Early on in my career, I wrote a research plan and came back to it every semester after that. Of course, it changed over time – but it always served as a checkpoint for me to see if I was veering too far off course to reach my goals, and – let’s face it, my checklist for tenure. For me this was in the form of a research “mind map” and an excel document. Figure out what works for you, but make a plan and revisit it often.
Quotes I live by
I write to understand as much as to be understood – Elie Wisel. Prior to pursuing a career in academia, I was a writer, and by writer, I mean I have a myriad of journals dating back to childhood filled with musings of my life at the time. Sometimes, I sit down and read through the pages of these books and reflect back on what I was going through at the time, and it is always clear. Academic writing is obviously very different from writing in a journal no one else may ever read, but the concept is the same – write to understand as much as to be understood.
Everything you need, you have inside of yourself. For me, this quote speaks for itself and is useful in all parts of life. Try your best to stay away from constantly seeking validation outside of yourself. What you need to make your mark on the world is already inside of you.
Shitty first drafts. This is something my qualitative research Professor Dr. Carey Andrzejewski always used to say in class. It’s taken from writings by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. For a while, I had it framed in the corner of my office as a reminder that we must simply start the process. Start where you are. So often we feel like we must write the perfect academic sentence before moving onto the next. This is a recipe for never finishing. Write the draft, then walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Experience and repetition will eventually coincide and your work WILL find the right home.
Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth – Helene Cixous. This is the final quote I will leave you with and it can be interpreted in many ways, but for me – it reminds me to continue seeking balance of both mental stimulation through my work and stimulation of the body, mind and spirit in my personal life. If we show up every day to our writing desk without having taken care of the other parts of ourselves, we will feel censored, stuck or blocked. All parts of our being are connected and we must take care of them in order to bring our holistic selves forward, which I think is what makes for the best ‘work’. Really, the best ‘work’ is when it no longer feels like work but simply an extension of who we are.
That is my hope for you reading this, that you find a way to embed who YOU are into WHAT you to do. I look forward to connecting with many of you as the years come to pass.
San Diego State University, United States