Drifting, v.
1. (Acad. Interdis.) The slow process through
which academic workers become figuratively
covered in work, making it difficult to
get out from under it all.

Like most people in my department, I've been thinking a lot about Dale Bauer lately. Dale is one of Those Amazing Colleagues you're sometimes fortunate enough to work with, the kind of person you can't quite believe you're talking with around the copier. When I first got to campus, I bumped into Dale in the hallway, asked her what she was up to, and remember her saying "Oh, you know, heading off to write one of the 48 letters of recommendation I have to finish this semester."

As a new assistant professor, and this was like week one on the job, I was struck by this. How could it happen that one could go from writing the two or three letters I was used to writing, to 48? At that point, a few months out of grad school, my job seemed pretty set and contained: teach, write, and go to a few meetings. Over the years, little things have been added to little things. Drifting has occurred.

Last night I walked into campus with Chooch!, locked myself in my office, and read undergraduate honors essays. I had two to read, each about thirty pages, and after reading each one I wrote the required letter of response. Now, don't get me wrong: this was a real treat. It was welllll over a decade ago that I submitted my own honors thesis at the University of Colorado, so reading these final projects was both a kind of nostalgia trip and a chance to see what students here at UIUC can put together. At 9:00 pm, with Chooch! asleep in the chair and two honors essays read and responded to (plus an annotated bibliography), it was time to walk home.

The response to being drifted over with work is characteristically different from being caught in an avalanche. In an avalanche, one panics, digs, thrashes, tries to form an air pocket, and wants nothing more than to get free. But the drift forms bit-by-bit, slowly accumulating and growing and spreading. The letters of recommendation. The special projects. The meetings. The committees. And with promotion, when and if it comes, more duties in terms of reviews.

Now, this is not to say that people like Dale flounder under these drifts of work. Quite the contrary, drifters seem to thrive on the action, prioritize, work efficiently, and get things done. The drift is slow enough to allow for responsive strategies. A senior colleague I work with mentioned the other night (as part of a very funny joke) that he more-or-less has a law-school template for letters of rec down to a science.

Out West we know that drifts respond well to snow fences, and successful drifters must erect them all over the place.

And the thing is, walking home last night after reading those honors essays, I had a lot to think about. The essays were engaging, interesting, challenging, and fun. But it's the additive nature of the drift that threatens to subsume. Mantras like "you've gotta learn to say no" perhaps help successful drifters, as well as templates and plenty of practice. Snow fence. No. Efficient. The drift.


  1. Anonymous5:19 PM

    Interesting, thoughtful post!

    A professor of mine in college was happy to write letters of recommendation, but only if the recommendee wrote the letter him- or herself. He'd give you a couple sheets of letterhead and tell you to do a spell-check and submit it for signing at the next class. I always thought that was a great solution, honestly--didactic in a work-evasive way.


  2. Such an approach to letter writing deserves an old-fashioned rubber-stamp signature, I think. Time saving measures! ;)

  3. Oof. I think asking others to do letters is b-a-d, not to mention unethical! I'm so glad no one made me do that.

    And yesterday I think I finally hit on the law school template to which the sr colleague referred. I did two of them in 30 minutes. Job recs in academia, however, continue to take me hours and hours, as they probably should.

    The drifting thing is a really nice metaphor. And I will tell you that the perfect antidote to a week of recommending is coming home and bagging leaves. If it were snowing, it would be shoveling snow.

  4. Anonymous10:52 PM

    I personally think using a template is probably just as bad, if not worse, than having the student write the recommendation him- or herself...