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Knowing when less is more

For a professor, there’s always more to be done than you feel capable of doing.

By ALAN MACEACHERN | July 29, 2015

My first ever teaching day at Western was a beautiful fall Tuesday in the first year of the new millennium. I held an early-morning introductory seminar in a bunker of a classroom, wandered over to the library and browsed the shelves just because I could, and then, walking back to my office, stopped in the student centre to see what everyone was watching on TV. I was carrying a blank yellow pad of paper and, particularly since I’d been hired to direct our Public History program, I knew that I should walk among the students and faculty and ask them to write down whatever they felt like writing down. It seemed obvious that something like what became the 9/11 Digital Archive would come into being, and it made sense, from a historical and a teaching perspective, to bear witness. But I didn’t have the heart to. The pad stayed blank. My first lesson as a professor: there is always more to be done than you feel capable of doing.

In some ways I’ve changed a lot since then, in others not at all. I teach some of the very same courses, hold much the same teaching philosophy, and am still prone to making late 20th-century cultural references. But I have a much better sense now of what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, and in the university. My lectures are more visual, I read and grade electronically, and I can tell a “gudly” from a “mook.”

And for whatever reason, I am much more driven. Whereas I once was able to convince myself that reading the 21 Patrick O’Brian novels was a wise use of time, I’m now always itching to research, write, teach and even administer. For a while, that seemed to be externally motivated, but in recent years it’s been increasingly autotelic, satisfying in itself. I just want to do good work and lots of it, and don’t really care who notices. Surprisingly, this has made me more understanding of students whose drive seems missing: I know that it can come late, and I try to help it along.

Yet I can’t pretend that this newfound drive has been entirely healthy. I more or less skipped my first sabbatical, letting myself get sucked back into the university every day while setting up a big project. In retrospect, for me to try to outdo God, who worked for six units of time and on the seventh rested, seems a little obsessive.

As of July, I am now enjoying my second sabbatical, and making sure it’s more balanced and relaxing than the previous one. (It’s an ABBAtical, actually. My ABBA cover band, Mama Mimics, is currently touring. I’m kinda famous for doing a mean Agnetha.)

The Associate column was born of the premise that I was “mid-career” in the two, contradictory senses of the term: fixed firmly – mostly happily – at the halfway point of this long institutional incarceration, and yet feeling on occasion as if I were riding madly off in all directions. I wanted to be more deliberate going forward, so for the past two years I have written about reinvention as a means of defining my own. It has been fun to describe revising courses, learning how to program, and getting in shape, and generally to act like a latter-day George Plimpton (a late 20th-century reference).

But the column may unintentionally have reinforced a notion that to improve as an academic always means doing more. If anything, that’s the opposite of what I’ve learned in recent years. I’m getting better at respecting the time for contemplation and dialogue that the university offers, and passing that discovery on to students whose lives can feel as hectic as mine. Sometimes less is more.

Also as of July, I am no longer an Associate. I applied for promotion last fall, in part because I savored the idea of this potentially being the last time I would ever need to make an extended effort explaining how great I am. I plan to be a great professor until the day I retire, but I won’t judge that on what my performance evaluations say, and I won’t prove that by taking on more and more. We constantly have to reinvent, but we also have to understand what is working and the limits of what can be achieved. There is no benefit to overflowing. And I am Full.

Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at Western University. With this, his tenth entry, The Associate column comes to an end. We hope that Dr. MacEachern will occasionally write for University Affairs in the future.

Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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