Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Not to Bear

True confessions time. I've gotten oddly addicted to What Not to Wear (American version), a tv makeover show in which the victim of the week (usually female) has her wardrobe mocked and thrown away before getting fashion rules and being sent off to buy a new wardrobe, hair style and makeup routine (financed by the sponsors). I'd have expected to hate a show like this -- too much focus on consumerism, appearances, and body image. Like many tech/science people, I place higher value on internal than external qualities. Yet I keep watching this show. Why?

Time and time again, the victim emerges from the week sporting a whole new level of confidence and more positive self-image (including body image). The external transformation produces some nontrivial internal transformation. The internal transformation gets me every time, probably because as a professor I'm always on the lookout for ways to help students gain confidence and develop their potential (no fear to my students: we're not about to add fashion interventions to intro programming). I'm always on the lookout for ways to achieve these same ends in myself.

Tenure and sabbatical were a big surprise on this front. When I got tenure, I didn't feel relief. The call hit about as hard as one from the mechanic saying the car was ready for pickup (glad to have it done, call my husband to pass along the news). I tried replaying the call in my head several times to see if I'd get excited or relieved. No go. Instead, I fell under an overwhelming sense of responsibility: I had been given lifetime job security, and now it was time to actually live up to it.

Enter sabbatical: a year to figure out how to live up to the incredible job benefit that is tenure. A year ago, I headed off into that year firmly resolved to come back with an exciting new research program focused on some important problem, complete with vision statement and corresponding web page. And I've largely gotten there, minus the web page.

But something deeper comes back with me: an enhanced respect for myself and more importantly, my time. Being given a year of control over my time made me realize how much of it I give away to issues I don't care about, to activities that don't work towards personal goals, to other people who are happy to waste it on my behalf. I return resolved to fight for time, both my own and others (the latter in speaking out against things we do that waste collective faculty time). Behind the unfinished web page lies a researcher who doesn't want to waste time on problems that don't matter, a professor who wants to squeeze more learning out of every assignment, a committee member who wants to make meetings worth their while (especially as I'm on bigger service tasks post-tenure). And someone happy to idle away a bit of time writing a blog.

Like the show participants, I return renewed, revised, and with a stronger sense of self. I don't yet have the papers, grants, and talks that dress an academic career, but I have my fashion guidelines through my newly identified research area. The sabbatical year has been a fabulous experience, and I look forward to seeing how the next year plays out. Tune in for updates!

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