Happy New Year! Today I’m reflecting on another new year – 1982. As the 1982 spring semester began, I started my job search in earnest. We did it so differently then. I bought my first subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education and each week of that spring semester found me poring over position announcements from all across the country. (Notice how we don’t call them ‘want ads’?) Each time I found something that looked interesting, I sat down and typed a letter of interest -several times if my typing was off that day – and mailed it and a precious copy of my resumé as directed. (The copy of my resumé was ‘precious’ because it had been typeset and printed, not photocopied and was therefore expensive. Photocopies were not acceptable yet.)
Clearly a lot has changed since I began my career and this new year opens up on a semester that’s, yet again, like no other. That means it’s important that I acknowledge I’ve never worked on a campus during a pandemic, however, like any career that spans decades, I have experienced ups and downs. There have been moments when I wondered if I could make it through a difficult year. There were times when I wondered if I was in the wrong job or on the wrong campus. There were times when I had to stop and think about my ethics because I needed to be clear on what I would and would not do, though I never reached the point that I believed my ethics had been compromised. All this to say, like each of you, my career wasn’t simpler or easier because it started a long time ago. Any body of work that spans, well, almost any length of time, will have challenges, cause you to doubt yourself, present difficult choices, and sometimes just plain wear you down.
I know you each know this, but I also know that none of us have ever faced anything like this pandemic when the challenge is not just at work, but encompasses home and family too. If anyone ever believed in keeping work and every other part of life separate, surely these past two years have taught us how unrealistic this idea is.
And yet, there is good all around us and we need to look for it, share it, and remember this too is part of our reality. Many of you have heard me say this – on those really hard days, during those weeks that I struggled, when I found myself wondering if it was time to do something different, one thing never wavered. I believe that working in higher education is inherently valuable. No matter how difficult any particular campus, colleague, or circumstance, I have always believed in the purpose of higher education. And that purpose has always been important to me which made it possible for me to keep showing up. I’ve always believed higher education was a place I could do good work and that there was, and is, good work to be done here.
Now, I’ve also understood that this was my work, not my identity. No matter how many hours and how much energy goes into a day, it’s never been the only important part of my life and I’ve always made time for the other important aspects. But it is true that one of the great joys of my life has always been that I’ve been lucky enough to work with amazing people doing good work that I believe matters.
In 1992, I was three years married, leading two high-profile departments (student conduct and services for students with disabilities), serving as President of TACUPSA, taking doctoral classes, and wondering if, perhaps, I had taken on too much. A colleague looked me straight the eye and said, “Gage, you can make a B in class.” Shocking idea. This past year, I’ve looked at several colleagues, through Zoom, and said, you can do B work. Shocking idea, I know. But I suspect your B work is actually very good work. Give yourself permission to do good work, not perfect work.
I tell you all this to today to remind you, as you begin this new year tired, challenged as never before, with COVID necessitating changes and more changes, that one thing doesn’t change – there is good work to be done and that you are there doing it. Maybe not to the standard you would like, maybe not on the tasks you signed up for (no one joined this field to be a COVID tracer), but still good work that you can do. At the same time, as important as this work is, it’s not the only important thing in your life and if you can’t find good work that you can do where you are, take that seriously.
Hang in there, take care of yourself and know that you are doing good work every day.
Best wishes for this to be a Happy New Year!