Review of _Square Peg_ by L. Todd Rose

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8-198x300Square Peg

L. Todd Rose

with Katherine Ellison


Book drawing here.


ADHDer’s have trouble fitting into an executive functioning world. L. Todd Rose makes this point throughout his book Square Peg: My Story and What it Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, & Out-of-the-Box Thinkers. Readers of this blog will know my own experience in illfittedness. But, being it’s my blog and all, I shall explicate.

How about a top ten list? Too many? Five, then.

1. I grade papers well sitting down with a student. On my own: procrastination followed by panicked overwork.

2. Bills never get paid on time if I have to write a check and mail something.  Even when there’s plenty of money.

3. I am good at developing basic competence in many new endeavors.  I am terrible at actually accomplishing anything with said competence.

4. I am extremely good at finding time to work, performing maintenance, and managing money and possessions . . . in a video game. My executive function is legion in Borderlands. (Photo below)

5. Being successful in the line of work and life I’ve chosen requires steady effort over the long term.  My work habits are cyclical, intensive, and frequently abortive.

Rose’s book is framed around his story of a rise from a near-dropout to a Harvard professor. Yep, Harvard, it’s true:  I had to check, I’ve been duped before, like that one time with that job offer from Havrad Univresity (Nigerian emails are so creative).

Like many people who work in the ADHD field, Rose has lived with it himself (even his ghostwriter/cowriter Katherine Ellison has ADHD; I can only imagine the Hyperion editors pulling their hair out [it’s really hard to write a book when you have ADHD; I’ve tried at least a dozen times]).  I used to wonder about ADHD coaches who themselves live with ADHD, but then I remembered my own writing practice;  I am good at helping students with writing processes, with talking through different strategies, with coaching them, so to speak.  My own practice? See #5 above.

Rose’s research, practice, and theory stem from the idea of “complex systems.”  When applied to behavior, the theory is that “all behavior emerges from the constant interaction between a person’s biology, past experiences, and the immediate environment, or context.”  His advice (for parents and/or adults dealing with ADHD) echoes my own concept about the disorder, which goes like this:  if a person is languishing and can’t perform, there are three things that can be altered: change the person, change the task, or change the environment.  They can be altered in combination, of course. In fact, I think that a good program of therapy addresses all of them.

My own plan of attack, for example, is

  • Medication, supplements, and nutrition
  • Yoga, meditation, and exercise
  • Picking projects that increase the chances of my success (lots of face time and accountability)
  • Creative outlet (defined broadly: can be anything from poetry to gaming)

When I can get all these things going and when the creative output happens to coincide with something that I honestly feel is productive, especially in a professional sense, I perform very well and have peace of mind and fulfillment.  When some things start to slip, then my life tends to get stuck. I completely agree with Rose’s position on medication—used carefully it can be a tool to help. Ritalin has helped me in many regards, but without the other pieces of my plan, I might as well be downing Tic Tacs.  The surest sign of a downward trend is when I get preoccupied (okay, obsessed) with my “creative outlet” of the moment (which has included guitar playing, woodworking, cartooning, blogging, writing, gaming, running, bike-building, reading, photography, job hunting) and start to neglect basic responsibilities (sleeping, eating, email, being a father in any sense beyond legal).  To use Buddhist terms, I start to “take refuge” in my hobby of the moment because all the regular stuff of life is either too boring or too stressful.

Rose heavily emphasizes context.  I’ve seen it in my own work and could never understand why I could work brilliantly and with ease one day and like a drooling inebriated cowering fool the next.  But it’s easy to understand with my own “plank” example (I really should write about the book more in a book review . . . sigh).

Take a plank of wood.  Say it is twelve feet long and a foot wide.  Put it on the ground.  Walk from one end to the other, without stepping off.  Easy, right?  Now, string that plank between two adjacent buildings, say, fifty stories up.  I’ll even give you a nice, calm day.  Okay, now walk. Go ahead, just toodle across there.  What’s wrong with you?  You did the same exact task down there on the ground!  You’re just not trying hard enough.

Back to the book, another key concept from Rose is “variability,” meaning the many variations in human brains.  A prime example: the relationship between stress and learning: “A little stress can help someone learn, while too much stress prevents it. The optimal amount of stress varies from person to person.”

It’s a simple idea, but what great insight!  In my many years as a college professor (yes, I managed to hang on to this job, despite my significant deficits) I have seen this in action.  Many students respond well to the “stress” of the traditional classroom: due dates, having to show up and explain yourself if you don’t perform, the pressure of grades and such.  But by “many” I’m not even sure I mean “most.”  I’ve often taught people on the fringes.  I started by teaching “remedial” writing at a time when our institution was flagging and we had open admissions.  Most of my students were struggling, not just as writers, but as college students.  As such, they had widely varied responses to stress: ignore it, resent it, negotiate, panic.  I had bad advice from a former colleague: you’ve got to show them who’s boss and lay down the law. After two months of trying that and meeting chaos in return, I started just to listen and talk honestly.  World of difference!  Even though they all struggled, they all struggled differently.  Understanding them as individuals helped enormously.

Likewise, today I teach a literature class for students whose primary interest is definitely not literature.  After trying many things, the simple solution was to learn about them, take their concerns and points of view seriously, and help them figure out how to meet the course goals in their own way.

Through all my trials of different ways of going about teaching (mostly because I was never satisfied with my own performance) I’ve seen students respond to varying policies.  Hard and fast due dates with severe penalties makes some students successful, some resentful, and some doomed from the start.  Extremely flexible or even self-made due dates makes, well, some students successful, some resentful, and some doomed from the start, just different students in each model.  A successful learning environment strikes a balance between what students want and what they need.  It’s different for everybody, which is why I like doing as much one-on-one teaching as possible.

In the book I especially like the epilogue, where Rose explores the changing role of technology in education and advocates for using such technology in a meaningful, individualized way, and not for more standardization and cost savings.

Overall, though, I have to admit feeling lukewarm about this book.  Usually I can plow through a book in a day or two, but this one has been sitting around for awhile.  I think it’s that much of this I’ve encountered before.  Had I read it not knowing anything about my ADHD, though, I would have probably read it in a single sitting.

It’s also part of this genre of self help/memoir mashup.  Again, probably my standards are too high on the memoir side being a teacher of writing (and having read thousands of personal essays over the years).  The help part is good, and each chapter ends with a summary both of main points and action items, which seems a plus.

I guess my personal issue is with the subtitle.  I feel like a square peg in a round hole world, but I do not want to be a visionary, out-of-the-box thinker.  I have plenty of visions.  My thinking could benefit from some containment in a box or box-like container.  I just want to settle down and get my work done.


Professor Pain: master of marksmanship and falconry.
“If I had email, I’d kick its arse.”

Professor Expert Syndrome

I’ve become more involved in the workplace the last two months.  As a professor, I decide my degree of service: which committees I get involved in and what work I do toward administrative work.

I had withdrawn a bit the last two years. Prior to my realization and diagnosis of my AD(H)D, I was very involved in teaching-with-technology work, running training sessions, workshops, and serving on committees that help guide the university’s decisions on software and policies, etc.  I got weary of the work, especially because it seemed ever-more demanding of my time with fewer benefits. On a whim in 2008 I applied for a writing sabbatical and got it.  I took it as a sign to focus on my own writing and let the university take care of itself.

I had also reached my limit of back-biting, grousing, and negativity, so I theorized a condition: Professor Expert syndrome.  I have met Professor Experts on my own campus, but also far and wide at the dozens of conferences I’ve travelled to through the years.

Here’s my theory:

After many years of being in a classroom, on committees, and publishing and presenting research, a professor gets used to being the expert. The entire endeavor of teaching and curriculum is structured to defer to the expertise of the professor. While that is as it should be, there is a certain kind of person who after decades of being the expert most of the time starts to believe that he is the expert all of the time. (Professor Expert syndrome correlates strongly with gender.)  Add to that the fact that people gifted in certain areas (intellect) often have deficits in other areas (understanding social cues) and you have conditions for Professor Expert. Here are the symptoms:

  • Willingness to opine at length untempered by actual working knowledge of the subject at hand
  • Interest in talking, but not conversation
  • A great storehouse of opinions on the administration of everything
  • Little actual interest in helping to improve the administration of anything
  • Stunning lack of audience awareness
  • A tendency to conspiracy theories
  • Low tolerance for frustration

If I had to summarize it in a single phrase it would be recreational bitterness mixed with a strong sense of entitlement. (For a description of recreational bitterness, see

The behavior that astounds me most is the compartmentalized thinking: professors who fight against discrimination, stereotyping, essentializing, and overgeneralization in the classroom and the social sphere but are perfectly willing to rail against coworkers and administrators using the very same logical errors.  In other words, engaging in the sort of behavior they constantly condemn in their students, administrators, and politicians.

This syndrome becomes especially virulent when trying to implement new technology on campus. What Professor Expert especially does not like is being exposed as inexpert.  Since there is a strong correlation between years on campus and syndrome pathology, Professor Experts tend not to be as facile with technology as younger faculty.  Getting Professor Experts to come to training sessions or workshops is like getting Donald Trump to agree to a hair makeover.   In order to walk into a training session, workshop, or help session, one has to admit deficiency.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This kind of behavior is discouraging for other faculty to endure. If you know that for every new project you work on there will be strong voices carping behind your back with little relationship between depth of criticism and possession of the facts, you are understandably hesitant to move forward. So, the irony is that the kind of problems Professor Expert likes to complain about are actually perpetuated by his own behavior.

I used to think if I could fix the problems highlighted by Professor Expert, then I could cure the syndrome. But that does not take into account the deeper workings of the syndrome.  You see, Professor Expert does not actually want most problems to be fixed.  The existence of unsolvable problems, particularly those which highlight the incompetence others, is what gives Professor Expert his entire raison detre.  Just like all serial complainers, the act of complaining gives Professor Expert a sense of control and ownership in an uncertain world.

 *     *     *

Most anyone would be frustrated by the existence of these people.  But I try to be able to work with anyone. I try to go beyond “these people” kind of thinking.  I try to understand the layers of what seems like unreasonable behavior.  I try to be mindful, and understand my own reactions.  Why does this kind of behavior get to me?

This kind of person does two things that push my buttons: unending complaint and unfair criticism. It bugs me when people complain about things when there are simple solutions to the problems or the complaint is made in such a way that it is impossible to resolve. For instance, some technology complainers don’t want technology problems to happen and simultaneously do not want technology to change; the only actual solution to that pair of desires is an alternate timeline in which a technological problem did not happen in the first place.  It also bugs me when people criticize based on wrong information.

These tender spots in my personality belie a deeper desire: to make people happy.  This impulse is not altruism, however.  It’s people pleasing, which results from insecurity.  The people-pleasing inner narrative runs like this: I worry that people will not like me.  I must do everything I can to make them like me. If people don’t like me, that will be terrible.  The corollary here is that if I do everything reasonably possible to make people like me and they don’t, then life is pointless because life will be terrible no matter what.  And that makes me angry.  I’ve had most of my life a nagging feeling that I’m going to fail.  People who are never happy are signs that no amount of work on my part may ever be enough.

 *     *     *

So the reason I understand Professor Expert syndrome so well is that I was at real risk of becoming one. When I became a teacher at age 25, I had real doubts about my ability.  I responded by demanding respect.  When I became a young professor, I had a strong sense of entitlement. I could carp as loudly as anyone about minor grievances. And when I didn’t have the answer to a question I speculated (read: I bullshat).  When my odd work habits started to overtake me, I shut down.  My AD(H)D meant that I grew steadily worse at meeting deadlines and managing classes.  I grew ever more evasive and withdrawn and defensive. When the stress of life grew to great to manage, I looked around and saw that I was a homeowner and a new parent, a Ph.D. candidate and a professor and a long-distance commuter, and that I had thought that piling all these things on myself was the only way to redeem myself.

My saving grace is that I actually failed.  I did not finish my Ph.D. I found my limit.  It took me a decade to recover, but now I have discovered the right combination of therapies and work habits so that I can feel confident. I don’t entirely blame my disorder.  It certainly made my chances of success lower, but not facing certain problems early enough and not learning from failures were equally to blame.  Having failed and learned and changed makes me confident.

 *     *     *

The one antidote to Professor Expert syndrome is confidence. The syndrome is about arrogance, not confidence. True confidence comes not from avoiding mistakes and worry and criticism, but from managing your responses. Arrogance, in some forms, is a cover for a lack of confidence.

Confidence is the social antidote as well to Professor Experts.  They often turn into bullies. They expect people to placate them, to be sympathetic to their vitriol. But I’ve found directness and honesty penetrates the haze.  If someone writes something unfairly negative online or through other indirect channels, providing evidence and writing in a direct but not mean tone, or even meeting directly with the source has a calming effect.

The greatest gift of Professor Experts is my opportunity to practice mindfulness.  As a point of comparison, I meet with my students all the time individually for conferences. In addition to giving them feedback, I’m able to better understand their points of view, and better able to be honest and direct with them. If a paper turns out badly, we’re able to talk about why and try to figure out what to do to make it better.  It doesn’t always turn out better, but they’re better for the experience. Some of my colleagues said they are too scared to grade student papers in person.  I know that student responses to grades are unrelated to how high they are.  I’ve had students thank me for a D and storm out of my office in disgust with a B+.

With my students, then, I’m not afraid of making mistakes anymore.  It’s a good thing; I make them all the time.  I’m able to own my past, and own my weaknesses.  It’s liberating to say at the beginning of a semester: I have ADHD.  I’m really good at helping you with writing, but I can be forgetful and mix up some details.  If I make a mistake, please tell me because that’s helpful. I’m also able to meet students with complaints on their terms and address complaints easily. My belief is that most professor/student conflicts arise out of misunderstanding.

I’ve begun to apply that to my work outside of the classroom.  I’m working on things now that cause conflict with other professors. When the conflict arises, though, I talk to people directly. It’s simple, really.  One of two things results; the conflict is diffused or the other person withdraws further. I used to be angry about the second response, the person who criticizes me indirectly but is not willing to talk to me directly. I realized that sort of person is not actually interested in conversation anyway, so there is nothing I could do to prevent that behavior, and I don’t need to try.

 *     *     *

I discussed this syndrome at length with a friend at another institution who is experiencing the same sort of behavior and is at a similar stage of his career. He agreed with everything I said and at the end offered this sage question: “We’ve got a good twenty five years left in our careers.  How do we not become them?”

I thought about it, and opined, “Maybe we already have.”

A great post from a college student’s perspective. I struggled with college and what pulled me out of it was a creative writing teacher who took lots of extra time to work with me and talk about direction in life. Many ADHD coaches recommend college students have a mentor, especially the first year.

Living and Learning Under Pressure

Dear Teachers,

Here is what might help a student with ADD and ADHD from the student’s perspective.  I know that it might be difficult and hard to deal with us but bear with it. I had really good luck with teachers who knew how to help me as well as directing me toward resources that might help me further down the line.

If you can help a student towards what they love to do get them involved in something. The best thing that happen to me in my school carrier was when a family friend and also one of the best teachers I ever had told me to go try technical theater. It turned everything around for me. I had a reason to do well in school and started to do a little better.

Also if they are like me they might not have the easiest social life. It took…

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The Power of One: Coming to terms with my inner T-Paw

Here I am on semester break, the week between the regular school year and my summer teaching.  (Due to my ineptitude at managing money, I always have to reach summers to get by).

It’s, of course, a time of reflection, having decompressed from a semester put to rest and gearing up for a new one starting next week. It’s my first full semester on the ADHD medication, so that’s a further reason to reflect.

One thing that stands out for me is a particularly difficult student I had that thwarted my confidence in my recent teaching innovations. (Some of which, I discovered recently, were not so new after all.)  My biggest breakthrough was the grading conference, where I grade student papers together with the student.  With online students, I do this via web conferencing software.

Using this method, I’ve been able to reach more students than I have otherwise and teaching had become far less of an adversarial endeavor.  But there’s always one.

I had a student I couldn’t reach.  He actually was an exceptional writer.  The difficult students in the online class conference are the ones who don’t give me much effort toward interaction when we talk.  We start the conference, and I say “How are you doing today?”  and the answer is fine.  I ask them how the paper or the class is going, and they say good.  I ask them if there are any questions, and the answer is no.

Usually, I can attribute this to nervousness or personality, but I can usually draw them out.

This student was a hard nut to crack.  His work was very good, but he never wanted to take any of my advice to make them better.  I did not think this was arrogance, but I could never get through to him.

Half way through the semester, he informed me that he no longer was going to do any rough drafts because he could do well without them, and by my syllabus, they weren’t technically mandatory.  He would just take the point reduction.  I tried different strategies to figure out what was going on, first being curious, and then trying to provoke him a bit by saying that it seemed arrogant and unprofessional.  He didn’t return calls and only replied with polite, cursory emails, but never changed his mind.

Of course this made me angry.  I take the approach of giving students a lot of flexibility, and nearly all of them are appreciative and professional.  Some of them are not able to finish the course, but probably would not otherwise.

On rare occasion, a student tries to “game” the syllabus by trying to get maximum points with minimal effort.  I don’t think this student was trying to do that, but it seemed he was deliberately self destructing.  Most students understand that grading writing is subjective and try to remain on good terms with me.  Not only did this student try not to do that, he didn’t see the point of working the whole process to earn the A he could easily obtain.  The assignments for which he did all the steps earned her A’s, and the ones that he did without the steps earned her B’s, and with the penalties for not doing the steps, the overall average slipped into B- or C+ territory.

I looked at her transcript, and saw that despite being the most talented writer I had that semester, he earned a C in her previous writing classes, despite being otherwise an A student.  The most frustrating thing was that I didn’t know what was going on and this student would never tell me.

Some of my colleagues attributed this to that off-campus site, saying, all those students in ——– are jerks. I had other students from there who were fine.  But I never knew what was the case with this student. He was actually not a jerk, which was confusing and enraging by turns.

Now, through the years, teaching thousands of students, I’ve had a hundred kinds of crazy. Usually crazy student behavior is perfectly understandable once I find out what’s going on. For instance, I overheard a colleague talking to a student who was going to file a formal complaint for being marked off three points for printing her final paper on used paper that had other thing printed on the back. Her defense was that it wasn’t in the syllabus and she was a poor student who couldn’t afford six sheets of paper. My colleague told me that she had all sorts of problems in the class and had just fixated on that.

The point of all this is not to bash students.  Usually, as I said, there’s something else going on.  The point is that in past years I would really let one or two badly behaving students get me down.  It would make me want to give up teaching, or redesign my whole course, or something, despite ten times the number of students telling me they like the course and are grateful for my help.

Furthermore, with distance, I can remember that I have subjected my students to my own ten kinds of crazy through the years: my inconsistency, my excuses, my under-performance, my withdrawing. These two things would often feed on one another.  When I would think of difficult students, I would get a sinking/anxious feeling, hot around the ears and neck, but weary at the same time.

This student was one out of eighty that I had.  Letting him get to me is emblematic of my larger problem with perfectionism and taking criticism. I am the polar opposite from someone like Scott Walker or Rod Blagojevich, who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, believe they are both right and popular.  I’m more of the Tim Pawlenty presidential primary candidate: oh, one state doesn’t like me?  I’ll just quit, then.

However, I am not ready to quit, now armed with pharmaceuticals and strategies.  I dare say I have elevated my attitude to mildly confident.  This whole past six months has been about learning and finally accepting what I am good at and what I am not.  I am slowly remaking my life to play to my strengths.

On the positive side, I had three students this semester self-identify as ADHD, and all three successfully completed the course, in one manner or another.  Interestingly, all of them sought out extra help, and none of them asked for special consideration or accommodation.  Each required patience, though.  Two students had trouble remembering appointments.  One student’s strategy was to take the first available appointment and often show up on the wrong day—a day or two early.   In fact, he knew he had trouble remembering to turn in assignments and so he would turn them in early and often.  I would often get three copies of each assignment: one on the course web page, and one to each of my two email addresses!  All three of them finished the course through extraordinary effort, just not always at the right time.

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN).

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Busy, Busy, Busy

I have lately been blessed by the ADHD diety with hyperfocus on a relevant task.  I am in charge of our campus writing contest, and last year the person who did the layout for our annual print journal moved on to a new job.  Last summer, then, I took it upon myself to learn about layout and typography.  Besides being fun to learn something new and a creative endeavor to boot, it had practical purposes.  I had started teaching more sections of technical writing and so needed to learn more about design.

The new layout looks fantastic, and I am proud of the work.  I’ve been able over the last two weeks to invest many hours in the editing of the journal as we near publication (though, by all rights, it should have been done last fall . . .).  I realized, as I spent at least fifteen hours over the weekend working on it, that I was in hyperfocus/new toy/slightly obsessive realm.  The work gave me a strong sense of calm engagement, though, and I came out of the weekend feeling renewed and refreshed. In fact, Monday was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time.

While that’s great, it shows me that my inner values say to me that I must have worked to my full potential before I am allowed to relax.  This semester has been enormously busy with extra committee work (which I agreed to).  I’ve had more than a few fifteen-hour days since January.  If I can fill up a day with meetings (conferences with students, classes, and long committee meetings) the day is actually pretty exhilarating. I also give myself permission to stoke up on caffeine and sugar to keep going.  On those days, I have a lot of face-time, which is stimulating as well (along the same lines as the body double strategy for getting work done).

At the end of a day like that, I am exhausted, but not depressed.  Usually, tiredness gives me a creeping sense of doom.  I feel my own mortality most deeply right before bed after a day of bad procrastination.  After a full day of meetings, I am in happy exhaustion mode, sort of like after finishing a long run.

There’s another word for this habit: workaholism. It stands to reason that if a brain gets a certain kind of stimulation from filling up a day like this, that a person would continue to fill days up like this.  I need accomplishment (at least I think I do).  That became part of my identity early in school.  I have enormous difficulty doing something in a mediocre fashion (and that perfectionism ironically creates mediocrity).

For a short period, right before I had children, I managed to live the workaholic life.  I taught full time in one city, lived in a second, and was doing Ph.D. coursework in a third.  I often got up at 5:00 in the morning and would spend ten hours a week on the road.  It was the only time in my life prior to using ADHD strategies that I could keep up with grading papers.  I felt fully engaged.

It was, however, enormously unhealthy.  I had a serious lack of sleep.  I often ate two drive-thru meals a day in the car. My caffeine consumption was record high.  I never exercised. I gained weight.  I’m sure, if I had bothered to go to the doctor, that my blood-pressure was too high.   The strangest thing, though, was that it all felt so normal.  I got praise for the hard work I was doing, and eventually a tenure-line job, the job I hold today.  And I never thought about my own mortality.

It turned out not to be sustainable, thankfully.  We decided to have children and buy a house, and the added pressure made this shaky artifice crumble.  Soon after, I sought therapy for the first time.

It is so very easy to get caught up in the busyness and drama of a professor’s job, at least here.  Someone is always outraged at something.  The rumor mill is worse than middle school.  At some point, I cross over from the instinct of wanting to do good, meaningful work into a competitive, perfectionistic mode where I want to be the best at anything I do, which means insulating myself from criticism.  That’s not good.  When I’m at my best, I am focused, principled, and open.  When I’m at the other pole, I’m that overly ambitious child who gets caught up in all that mess.



The Absent-Minded Professor

It’s inevitable, this subject, this joke.

One of the questions I address in my FAQ is “How did you ever become a professor with AD(H)D?”

I started teaching in graduate school, as a graduate assistant, at the ripe old age of 23, barely older than my students.  I taught three sections of freshman composition the first year and it was exhausting.  The first time I sat down to grade papers it took me five hours to grade five papers, and not for lack of focus.  You see, a myth about English professors is that we spring from the womb with a fully developed understanding of grammar, right down to the participles and appositions.  Not true.  In fact, I earned a C in my News Editing class as an undergraduate.

My first semester, I would read a paper, and know how I would change it to make it better, but I would be at a loss on how to explain that to a student in a way that wouldn’t be longer than the paper itself. I have a knack for language, but it’s a knack for imitation, not a knack for studying grammar books.  My only real grammar instruction was seventh grade English, taught by Mrs. Grettum, who would would accuse us of stealing her glasses when they were on top of her head.  I’ve taught myself about grammar and style through the years.  I’m still learning.

I also picked up some classes to teach at the community college while still in my master’s program.  That’s when I developed my complex relationship with grading papers, in that I have a complex about grading papers, in that I do not like to grade them.  The greater the number of papers, the harder it got to get started. (It turns out, as I recently discovered, it’s best to grade them together with the students.)  I eventually got hired at my current institution, first as a part-timer (meaning “temporary,” because I actually worked overtime), then as visiting professor (even though I wanted to stay), and finally as tenure track.  I earned tenure in 2005 (not a life-long guarantee of employment; there are plenty of ways to get fired and I’ve worried about them all).  My current rank is Associate Professor, and I can apply for full Professor in a couple years.

I have had a lot of difficulty with my relationship with work, mostly stemming from this automatic resistance to grading papers. It’s pretty common among writing teachers; it’s our burden, and we always lend each other a sympathetic ear, but I made avoiding it into a high art form.

One interesting thing I’ve noted throughout the years is that it is easy to be mediocre, if you’re okay with that (I’m not).  For an average teacher, just getting by, it’s true that students won’t be happy and that person won’t get promotions, but no one is going to fire this person for being mediocre or even mildly incompetent.  If I really wanted to, I could get by on minimum work: using the same syllabi and assignments every term, putting minimal effort into grading, doing as little committee work as possible.  If I did not want to get promoted, I could easily become complacent, somewhat invisible to the administration.

Beyond promotion, though, I have always wanted to do good work.  When I was younger, I wanted to do the best work, but now I will settle for highly competent.  Nearly all of my colleagues have at least some degree of professional interest and most of them have a high degree of interest and competence.  In fact, the cases of incompetence I’ve known about were largely due to secondary issues: senility, mental illness, other illness that reduces a person’s ability to work.

I have never borne my failings very well.  The way AD(H)D plays out in my professional life is clear to see: trouble following through on projects, trouble sustaining interest in projects long-term, trouble with routine work and meeting deadlines.  These habits mean there’s a wide gulf between what I see myself capable of and what I accomplish.  My life requires some degree of regular, consistent effort on my part, and if there’s one thing I’m consistent about it’s inconsistency.

The persona that emerged from these symptoms was someone I did not wish to be.  He did things at the last minute, often arriving at class unprepared and just winging it, or giving out handouts that had last semester’s dates on them, or just letting students go early.  He let papers pile up ungraded for weeks and then graded them in a rush, with limited or sometimes no feedback.  He would promise too many things to too many people, get involved in too many projects, and get things done very late or abandon them until someone else did them.  He became expert at crafting convincing excuses. When life got really overwhelming, he hid out in dark rooms alone for hours at a time.

Back then I could not understand my behavior.  I would have to make excuses because I didn’t know the real reason for my procrastination.  I could not explain it.  I could not imagine telling my students or colleagues the real situation:  I wanted to do the work, I thought about it the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

I stayed employed.  I honestly think that part of the reason is that when I came to my current university, the school was in the final throes of a long downtrend due to mismanagement, and there was little accountability for professors.  As long as no one complained too loudly, I was left alone to do my work.  When students did complain, the authorities usually gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Some of my colleagues tell me that I was not all that bad back then anyway, but I have a hard time believing it. I knew I was doing sloppy work.

This semester I tried something new.  Armed with my new ADHD diagnosis, I just put it out there to students.  I told them on the first day that I have ADHD and that it’s not an excuse, but I have some quirks.  I told them that I forget names, so not to be offended, and that I forget to do things that I say I’m going to do, so they should remind me.  I spend lots of time working individually with students, and that sort of narrows the distance between us.  I ask them about their degrees and what they’re doing, and for the most part they are grateful for the time and attention, that I take them seriously.  I find, too, that I do take them seriously when I know something about them.  (Otherwise, their quirks just seem annoying to me.)

They’ve taken it in stride.  They laugh when I stop in the middle of a sentence to say “Look, it’s snowing!”  They do remind me of things I forgot (which are fewer and fewer) and I am thankful for the reminders.  A couple of students have told me they have ADHD as well, and we’ve talked about strategies together.  Contrary to a popular myth, no one has asked to “get away” with not doing work because of ADHD, though.  Through the years, I have probably structured my courses to be ADHD-friendly, because I teach them the way I would like to learn—things that make it good for most students, though: a clear structure and schedule, things presented visually as much as possible, one-on-one meetings, varying class activities that get students involved.

So, the big question.  How did I ever get to be a professor?  No one else would have me.

Don’t Hire Me, I’ll Hire You

So with all my AD(H)D idiosyncrasies, I’m a sketchy employee sometimes.  For those just joining us, here’s the short list:

  • May or may not return email and phone calls
  • Will tell you I’ll do something and then forget all about it
  • Does work at the last minute
  • Not great at small details
  • Often overwhelmed by large projects
  • Sometimes just doesn’t do the work at all
  • Often will not remember names, dates, appointments, meeting locations . . .

[nervous laughter, crickets chirping]

Somehow, though, a few years ago, fully aware of  all these problems (but not knowing about adult AD(H)D) I got myself elected to the hiring committee for my department.  And not just any old hiring committee—it turned out we would hire four tenure-line positions.

Now, this is higher education at a state university (in the U.S.).  That means we had to do a national search, and that all of our work had to be reviewed  by human resources to satisfy EEOC requirements.  The work involved sorting through all the applications that came in, narrowing the big list to a dozen or so, conducting phone interviews with that group, then bringing three or four candidates from each group for two-day campus visits including meal interviews, teaching demos, open sessions with the department, etc., etc., all multiplied by four.

I don’t even know why I put myself on the ballot for this committee.  I have to do some committee work (to count toward promotion) and the work I had been doing elsewhere on campus didn’t pan out in that they didn’t ask me to come back.  In true bureaucratic fashion, I wasn’t asked to leave, just showed up one day and was told that the funding for that particular project had, uh, been redirected and by the way we need your laptop back and there’s someone else in your office already, so could you clean that out too?

Hiring and doing human resources stuff runs really against my nature.  I teach business writing well enough (I love teaching and thinking about how language creates tone, for example), but my rebellious streak runs against that sort of stuff.  I’m anxious enough to know and generally follow the rules, but independent-minded enough to wear jeans to work most days and manage to avoid ever wearing a necktie.  My main thing is poetry, after all.  And if I could get a degree or two in writing poetry and make a living some way related to that, I thought that would be a good joke on everyone who had such practical aspirations for me.

So when I met the committee for the first time, I was not feeling too confident about my ability to do the work, and the chair informed us that we had three positions to hire for (a fourth added later).  She let us know that the department could form additional committees for the work or we could just do all the work ourselves.  Everyone went along with the decision to do all the searches ourselves, so I did too.

In reality I was terrified.  I imagined letting all of them down.  I worried that I would get overwhelmed with my part and screw up, and they would have to pick up all the slack and I would be exposed as the fraud I am.  He’s a good ideas person, but totally unreliable.   I had to do a good job because I was applying for promotion the next year (because we need the money) and I needed the chair’s recommendation and there was a good chance that someone else on this committee would be on the promotion committee as well.

When the applications came rolling in, the news was bad.  For one of our positions, we had more than eighty applications, and there was a reasonable number for the rest, too.

So, what happened?  To my surprise, I did a really good job.

How the hell did that happen?  I didn’t know at the time,  but it makes sense in retrospect.

The simple answers: I was accountable to other people, the deadlines were real, and I found the work interesting.

Let me repeat that last clause:  I found the work interesting.  I thought that it would be more likely for me to grow extra fingers than to find human resources kind of work interesting, but I did (find it interesting; I still have only ten fingers).  I never thought, being that I have to slog through piles and piles of student papers every year that a committee assignment that would require me to slog through even morepiles of papers could be interesting.  (And for the record, no I won’t help you edit your book because after a day, week, month, and year reading student papers the last thing I want to do is more editing work!)

Paper Weaving

But I did find reading all the applications and vitae interesting.  Here were people who might be my future colleagues, and I got to know everything about them.  It was almost voyeuristic seeing everybody’s business like that.

Plus, there’s a bit of ego involved.  Doing phone interviews, the candidates were the nervous ones, mostly.  And I really liked doing all the in-person stuff: going to meals, walking around campus, driving around Big Rapids.  I got to be the tour guide, and I got to see people experience for the first time what I see every day.   Some of them lived in warm states and were excited to see snow during their January visits.  “Look at those icicles!” one candidate exclaimed.  Pretty cool for a Californian.  Four months of icicles, kind of boring for me.

Did I mention meals!  Oh, I got to eat to.  I loves to eat.

This committee involved countless hours of work, and even though I struggled with all my other responsibilities (like teaching) during this time, I looked forward to these meetings, and I was always prepared.

Here’s why:  when I have to do work during a meeting, I do really well.  I find it easiest to answer all my email in the computer lab when my students are there working on something for example.  It’s called the “body double” effect in the AD(H)D literature.

Also, the applications I reviewed could not be removed from the main office for confidentiality sake.  They set aside time and a conference room for us to go through the applications.  I really had no other choice during those times; I just had to go do the work, and there really wasn’t any other work I could do at those times.  Pair that with my curiosity at peeking in all these files, and the work seemed fun.  I got a rush from being so engaged in the work, from being so productive.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I like being productive.  I enjoy having done a good body of work, especially when I can do it in a calm, focused manner.  Often, though, it’s hard to create the conditions where I can achieve that.

And the deadlines were real for this committee.  In general, there is so much permissiveness for my job, too much for me.  I generally set my own deadlines.  Even when I get a form to fill out for the book request, for example, the deadline is on the sheet, but I know that’s not the real deadline.  Or that if I say that I’ll grade papers by Monday, and I show up on Monday and haven’t started them and say “I’m still working on them,” that most of my students will shrug and go back to texting.   But this committee had real deadlines that were non-negotiable.

I responded positively to three things: structure, presence of others, and intrinsic interest in the topic.  When my interest waned, the structure or the others kept me going.  And I like a long, productive meeting. (But not any sort of unproductive meeting; I’ve been to plenty of those where we spent 48 minutes of a 50-minute meeting trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing.) Plus there’s food involved.  I think I have an oral fixation, but I work best when I am eating or drinking or even chewing on a straw.


When I look back at that time, I don’t have many feelings of regret either, which I usually do for most projects I’m involved in (dysthymia, anyone?).  The only negativity I feel is about some of the scheduling faux pas that happened when the candidates were here, but that had nothing to do with my effort.  It also helped that our committee got along very well and that we were indeed successful in hiring four good professors.

Since then, I’ve learned that the sort of committee work I’m good at is the kind where the task is well defined and there’s a lot of in person work.  Someone nominated me to work on another search committee, to hire a dean of the library.  That ended up being unsuccessful, but I felt good about the effort I put in.  Likewise, I got myself on the promotion committee for my college.  Some people told me “I don’t know how you could do that; it’s so much work and people get so wound up about it.” (Unlike some universities, our promotion process is competitive; we only get a certain number of promotions per college each year.)  Again, though, I found it easy to get started on the work and sustain my effort and do a good job.  The task is so well defined that there is a preexisting rubric we use for scoring the applications.  Again, a lot of work, but work I can apparently do.

This experience began an inkling in my brain that eventually led to my seeking a diagnosis:  it wasn’t the work itself that I had trouble with.  Grading papers is not too far off from ranking applications.  It was the conditions of the work that mattered more.  The in-person bit seemed especially important, so I started doing conference grading with my students, even the online ones.  It has transformed the work for me.

And now I am on another dean search committee, again nominated to do so by someone in my department.  And again, I look forward to the work.  And the food.

Reading on the go

I read voraciously.  I read as if I need it to get through the day.  Because of my reading habits, I never thought that I had an attention problem, until I learned about hyperfocus.  If anything, I have attention to spare,  at least when it comes to reading. (Being able to direct focus is a different story.)

In any given day, I’ll read political blogs, surf Wikipedia, read poems,  work through one of the three or four books I’m usually reading, and none of that includes the reading I have to do for my job.  I estimate that I read and comment on about 2,500 student papers a year.  (Grading is my scourge.)

I didn’t always love reading in and of itself.  In middle school and high school, English was my least favorite subject. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, what was the point of all that nonsense?  To me, reading was instrumental, something I did to learn something useful or satisfy curiosity, and it only seemed, based on the way many of my teachers taught, that the point of reading dusty old literary stuff was to answer questions on quizzes, like this:

Ophelia is to Hamlet as
A) Peanut butter is to jelly
B) Peanut butter is to tuna
C) Peanut butter is to anaphylaxis
D) MacGyver is to bubble gum

That kind of read reading you did to get the right answer from a poem or whatever so you could learn something that somehow was supposed to be good for you.  I’ve written more poems than anything else since high school, but did not learn to love them until later.

The reading I liked then was the JC Penny Christmas catalog, model railroading magazines, computer magazines, photography books, and strange tales/science fiction writing.  For example, when I visited my grandmother in her drafty old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, I would terrify myself by reading a book she had,  Haunted Wisconsin.  I would stay up all night hearing all the creaks in the house and the animals outside and imagining the worst.  I’d hear the twang of the frogs in the marsh and the clunk of cowbells and imagine whatever the rural Wisconsin version of the ghost of Christmas yet to come might be.  It didn’t help that my great uncle kept a pelt from his favorite deceased goat in my room, stuffed head and all.

I read that book every time I visited and would not sleep and go back home exhausted.  I couldn’t help myself.  I loved getting freaked out by the book during the day.  If I had some sort of interest in something, I could read it all day, damn the consequences.

I had always read easily.  Like my sons have today, I taught myself to read even before kindergarten.  In the first grade, a teacher thought I was just looking at pictures because I would page through the books so fast, but she quizzed me and found out that I indeed read them.  Through most of my primary and secondary education, I breezed through anything, unless I thought it wasn’t all that important, in which case I just listened to the class lecture.

When I first got to college, however, I had trouble reading.  I would have trouble sitting down long enough to focus to get through a chapter of a textbook.  There was so much fun to be had instead.  If I had to read something difficult, I would read the words much faster than I would comprehend them.  The reading was markedly more difficult than high school, and I couldn’t just skim stuff and retain it like before, and I didn’t have the patience or focus to slog through it.

After a couple of years of struggling, I learned to read with a highlighter or pencil in my hand.  I underline important concepts, sometimes write questions and comments in the margin.  I still do that for difficult reading.  The pen in my hand sliding across the page helps me slow down and stick with something difficult.  I focus, temporarily, on making really straight lines when I mark, and then the words stay clear to me.  That’s why I love the Kindle today, you can highlight as you read, and it stores all the highlights together.  And the lines are perfectly straight!

I got serious about reading after my first year of college.  After a disastrous start at the university, I took a writing class at a community college, having changed my major to English.  I told the professor, a calm fellow with small glasses and a big beard, that I wanted to be a writer.  He asked me what I read.  Mostly I read a lot of Reader’s Digest, because they were lying around my parents’ house as I was lying around my parents’ house at the time.  He told me I needed to get more serious about reading if I was serious about writing.

From then on, I’ve always read like a writer, focusing on how something is written in addition to what it says.  I can’t separate the two.  And always I read for comparison: could I write like this?  Should I?

This habit has led to some difficulties.  First, if I read a novel or something that’s in an genre that I might be interested in writing, I get angry if I feel it’s not written well.  Second, I often get seduced by what I read.  I read a science fiction novel; I want to write science fiction novels. I read a good poem, then I want to write poems.  I read Edward Abbey; I want to go live in the woods.  It’s frustrating that I know I could write a similar book only if I could sustain the interest long enough.

I often don’t have a strong sense of self and lose perspective once I’m “in” to some new book (the same goes for new hobbies).  There’s an overall pattern of inconsistency in my life.  That pattern appears in the piles of papers, tools, boxes, and other stuff I leave sitting around to take care of later.  That pattern is in my whims and fancies: Pen turning! Kayak building! Photography! Kitchen remodeling! Seventeen different writing projects! Or in scholarship: Literacy studies! Critical pedagogy! Faculty development! Contemplative education!

I’m always molding myself to the present, seeing how I can fit in to what’s going on around me.  It’s only very recently I’ve learned to start saying “no” at work to new projects and committee invitations unless they are core to my vision of what I do.  Only recently I am able to stick to that original vision of my professional self: I teach and write.

As I said above, reading is seductive.  Great writers create a new state of mind and they take me along for the ride.  Even merely good writers draw me in.  And when I’m reading something great, I dwell in possibility.  A portion of experience opens up to me, even a new way of seeing myself and the world, which is exhilarating and uplifting.  Until I find the new best thing next week.

I have been reading like a writer for a long time now.  It’s been twenty years since that teacher told me to read more like a professional.  And, for that long, I have been living mostly in possibility.  That is, reading and thinking like a writer, but not so much writing as one.  Missing is the important step: publishing!

*   *   *

That seemed like a tidy place to end the post, but there is one more, um, experience I did not yet include.  I am a bathroom reader, and I don’t mean while soaking in the tub.

Upon the throne is a great place to read.  One is not supposed to be doing anything, uh, productive with one’s time. So there’s no I should be paying bills thinking going on.  I can’t quite remember when I started taking reading into the W.C., but I remember taking in magazines and catalogs when I was a kid. My parents keep stacks of Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker in their bathrooms.

I read somewhere (probably in the same room) that reading helps one, ah, relax in that situation, stimulates the limbic system or some such system.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel I have to read to go.  Yes, I take books or a newspaper with me into the men’s room at work.  If, for some reason, I have no reading when I need it, I’ll even read a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube and analyze the sentence structure.  (Shampoo bottles love active voice and imperative mood: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)   I’ll admit to hiding out in the bathroom once in awhile just for some reading.  And while my discovery that I’m gluten intolerant has made my digestion and overall health much better, I find that it seriously cuts into my reading time.

The other issue there is the safety of my Kindle.  I’ve had to try hard not to drop it in the toilet.  And while this piece of technology is wonderful, I have also admit that, yes, I have purchased a book wirelessly from the bathroom and yes, that does seem a little strange.

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

Image via Wikipedia

toilet wc

Image via Wikipedia

First Failure

I gave every sign of being the perfect college candidate.  I earned a high GPA and graduated third in my class (out of 90 students, but still!).  I had high ACT and SAT scores and I got into every college I applied to.  I earned two scholarships, not full ride, but enough, with a little bit of student loan money, to pay for college on my own.  I had been responsible with money, saving half of what I made working since my middle school paper route.  I had never even tried a drink.  I earned seven varsity letters (mostly due, I thought, to the small size of my high school; most warm bodies with at least three out of four limbs attached could earn a varsity letter in something.)

I was ready to go. I had a strong sense of restlessness, which I called senioritis.  I couldn’t wait to leave behind little Vandercook Lake and its little ideas.  College seemed like the city upon a hill, a place where my intellect would be valued, where I would do real work, where we students would all sit raptly and nod sagely while our bearded professors would blow our minds with deep lectures.  I would possibly learn to smoke a pipe. My life would begin at Western Michigan University.

Stewart Clocktower, flanked by Waldo Library t...

The constant reminder of my failure. Also, visit WMU, it's pretty with the mixed media traffic barrier/garden thingy.

I had a couple of worries.  My girlfriend headed out to Eastern Michigan University on the other side of the state.  I had no car, so that would be problematic.  I had a little nagging worry about my procrastination habit.  All through school I got A’s and B’s, but constantly felt, as my guidance counselor would tell me, there was no reason I shouldn’t be getting all A’s.  Any B’s I attributed to laziness.  Most of the work of school seemed boring to me.  It was a waste of time to do a long list math problems after I understood the concepts, or study names and dates that I would forget later.   I did homework during breakfast, late on Sunday night, on the bus, during lunch, during the class before it was due.  My B’s were due to this habit.

In August of 1989 I moved into my dorm.  I shared a room with a good friend from high school .  My friend had been a workout partner in high school. We were on the cross country and track teams together, and rode bicycles competitively (I did triathlons).  We were so giddy with freedom when our parents finally left that we took off madly on our bikes that afternoon and got totally lost in Kalamazoo.

I began my classes with a little nervousness but a lot of enthusiasm.  In December, my grades came, and I got a 2.75 (barely a B-).  My parents gave me a pep talk in the garage and sent me back with the aim of earning a 4.0 the next semester.  (But without their $50 a week spending allowance.  They reasoned if I spent $978 on clothes in one semester, probably I didn’t need the extra money.) If I didn’t raise my overall GPA to 3.0, I would start losing scholarship money.  The next April I opened my report card to a 1.92 (a low C), mostly due to my earning an F in Digital Logic.  “What, are you on drugs?” my exasperated mother asked.

Now, having a tough first year of college ought not to rank in the great failures of the 20th century, like New Coke or the Clinton health care plan.  But to go from award-winning college-prep high school achiever to mediocre college student in one year required significant adjustment in self image.  The biggest failure, in my mind, was becoming average and insignificant.

I spent the summer in Germany as an exchange student and came back as an English major, transformed and ready to go, and did reasonably well the remaining three years of my B.A., though I never got that GPA above a 3.0.

What happened?  Here is the list of things I have told myself over the years:

  1. It was my professors’ fault.  Most of the freshman classes I took were “weeder” classes; big lecture halls, difficult material, designed to whittle down the true majors from the merely hopeful.  Or they were general education classes taught by disinterested professors waiting to get to their real work of research.  (I particularly remembered Heroes and Villains, a class in mythology, taught by a professor from the Medieval Institute who sat in front of 150 students and read from our book into a microphone with a monotone voice for two hours each week.)  No one was particularly interested in my failure or success.
  2. It was my parents’ fault.  They never prepared me for the rigors of living on my own and managing my own finances.  I didn’t know, for example, that one could take out a loan to buy a car or a house.  “Mortgage” was one of those big words old people used (you know, like, people in their thirties and forties).  And they never let me drink, so I never knew how to do so responsibly.  Plus they brainwashed me into the whole college/career conspiracy thing (see #4 below). And, and, and.
  3. It was alcohol’s fault.  You know, for being so fun and available.
  4. It was my girlfriend’s fault.  She spent an entire semester dumping me by increment, rather than letting me down quickly.  It was like having a band-aid pulled off my hairy leg over the course of three months.
  5. It was society’s fault.  My high school and American culture pushed me to pick a major that would earn me a good living.  I decided in my sophomore year in high school to major in engineering, specifically electrical engineering, with some vague plans to work on computers or other kinds of gadgetry.
  6. It was my friends’ fault.  I had the sort of friends where we looked out for each other in the sense of “perhaps it’s bad to lean out of a fourth story window to shout across the quad when you are roaring drunk,” not in the sense of “perhaps you should open a book if you want to continue being a college student.”  I thought college would be the great academy, and it turned out to be high school without parental supervision or accountability.
  7. It was Taco Grande’s fault.  With 39-cent tacos right next to campus, I gained 40 pounds in one semester.  That’ll sap your energy right there.

I went from the respectable and eminently practical electrical engineering field to the possibly subversive and definitely unemployable goal of being a poet.  (Ironically, my friends who stayed in engineering often bore the brunt of layoffs and downsizing these years since, and my career has been stable.)  I did reasonably well, good enough to get into and finish an MFA and get a job teaching.

But my freshman year more than twenty years ago shook my confidence severely.  Tainted, I no longer measured up to the idea of me.  No amount of success since then has erased the self-doubt that developed that year.  I was so sure I would succeed at whatever I decided to do, that I had to employ all sorts of mental gymnastics in order to explain my failure.

I never found a truly satisfactory explanation until I read about ADHD and the transition to college.  Particularly, I am thinking of Delivered from Distraction by Hallowell and Ratey:

[P]arents and teenagers alike should know in advance how different a college or university is from home.  The most glaring difference is that in most homes there is someone, like a mom or a dad, who deeply loves and checks up on the high school student every day.  No one loves you at college, and not many people check up on you ever, let alone every day.

In my dorm, the Resident Assistants kept the damage to a minimum, but no one was there to tell me to go to bed, to get up in the morning, to go to class, to consume in moderation, to exercise.  I imagine that telling my roommates that they needed to pay more attention to nutrition and sleep hygiene would have gotten me a kick in the balls.

What Hallowell and Ratey recommend is seeking a mentor, a senior faculty mentor if possible. I often say the reason I became a creative writing major was that there were no Friday classes, but it turns out the more potent reason was the professors I had.  A couple in particular took genuine interest in me, stayed after class to talk to me, took me seriously, did not see me as a mere distraction.