Steward your Aspiration

Comments to New Faculty

August 16, 2021

Dr. Ryan McEwan, Professor of Biology and Schuellein Endowed Chair


Hi everyone,

So this is quite surreal for me… the last time I spoke to a large room of people, in person, was March 9, 2020.  On March 10, President Spina sent an email suspending classes, and since then it has been a long, strange, and difficult experience here at UD.  Wherever you come from, I would venture to guess that this has likely been a hellacious year and a half for you as well.  Regardless of what comes next, at least we made it to this moment- New Faculty arriving on campus and the start of a new academic year.

We are here together now- > Let’s take a deep breath.

I urge you to allow yourself the peace of knowing that you, professionally speaking, are in a relatively safe harbor.  UD will likely face challenges over upcoming weeks, and I imagine that you have other stressors; however, I urge you to allow yourself some satisfaction that your professional journey has allowed you to land a place that can be a platform of opportunity.  This, in and of itself, is a wonderful outcome for your professional journey.  Please allow yourself a sense of victory.

My name is Ryan McEwan and I am Professor, Coordinator of the Environmental Biology Program, and Schuellein Endowed Chair in the Biology Department.  As the winner of the Faculty Service award, I am honored to be given this opportunity to speak with you about my experiences, and share my perspective. 

The main idea that I want you to take away from these remarks is this:

Each of you carries within you a fountain of creative energy– which I will call aspiration– that has allowed you to be astonishingly successful in your area of expertise. This unique, creative, energy is the single most important resource at the University of Dayton.  Your first and most important task as a faculty member at UD is to Steward Your Aspiration in the presence of the many complex demands that will be placed on you as a faculty member. 

During this upcoming semester, I urge you to remember that your email signature does not read “Assistant Professor of Answering Niggling Emails” or “Lecturer in Working Through Persnickety Administrative Processes Where the Person Who Use to Do It Has Retired and the Online System Has Inexplicably Changed.”  If you fail to Steward your Creative Energy you can easily wind up feeling this way, and find yourself exhausted from the rigmarole. Bob Marley has a lyric: “Every day the bucket goes to the well, one day the bottom will drop out.”  The buckets are the niggling emails, and what will drop out is the very spirit that allowed you to land the position in the first place. 

So, I say again, Stewarding your Aspiration is your first and most sacred responsibility.

Here are some idea that may help you accomplish this:

First, emphasize your own physical and mental health. “Wellness” is an increasingly important topic at UD; however, this conversation is usually focused on caring for our students and much less emphasis has been placed on wellbeing of faculty.  I encourage you to engage in whatever campus wellness initiatives you may learn about and, beyond that, I urge you to prioritize activities that make you happy and well: Physical activities, recreation, hobbies, family, etc. This will be extremely challenging in the tumult of the semester (watch out for late October and early November!); however, I urge you to be forceful about continuing happiness-generating activities throughout the year.

Second, I encourage you to guard the time needed to continue to express your expertise.  If you are a cellist: Have you played your cello today?  This week? This Month?  Do you know where your cello is at this point?  You need to understand that by default, and in the absence of resistance, the “system” would have Yo-Yo Ma (who is a famous cellist) spend his life as a faculty member answering emails, sitting through meetings, working through trainings, and navigating fiddly forms, with no cello playing at all.  This system will have you pulled away from your area of expertise, or have you so drained that your fountain of creative energy-> the most important resource at UD<- is totally depleted. I encourage you to resist this by setting up and ferociously guarding blocks of time during which you can express your unique expertise.

Third, I encourage you to create personal connections at the University of Dayton.  We are a small enough university that there is opportunity for you to forge personal relationships with folks from departments outside your area of expertise. I have found that reaching out to folks for a “no agenda” lunch, or coffee, is a key mechanism of success and happiness at UD.  There is an idea at UD called “the Marianist Charism”.  When I first came to UD, I thought that was a geological formation!  It is not a landform, and instead I take it to mean a kind of empathetic approach to community- an openheartedness in engagement with others.  I believe if you approach engagement with colleagues at UD from this perspective you will find yourself enmeshed in a supportive community, and that will help you sustain your fountain of aspiration.

Finally, with regards to service, I encourage you to say “no” early and often. And approach Service intentionally, not as a distraction from the other areas of your career, namely, Research and Teaching, but instead as mutualistic with those activities.  I would encourage you to intentionally pursue service opportunities that will have positive effects on other areas of your life.  As an example, when I first came to UD, I joined what was then called the SEE committee, which was focused on sustainability education at UD. This committee did some wonderful service work, that is still unfolding more than a decade later. Also, through this committee, I met many individuals who became friends and mentors. One fellow I met, named Bob Brecha, became a friend and mentor and we wrote a peer-reviewed scientific journal article together that is still one of my favorite papers (and was part of my tenure portfolio).  I also met a wonderful person named Leslie King, who helped build a program at UD called the River Stewards. Because of my relationship with Leslie I was able to take ecological labs I was teaching on kayaking trips, resulting in transformational student experiences in my teaching.

In summary, I believe if you are intentional, you can find ways to engage in service that replenishes, rather than evaporates your creative energy, and advances, rather than detracts, from other aspects of your career.

Bob Marley has another lyric “In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.”  That fountain of aspiration, the most important resource at this university, offers you abundance and I think you can protect it:

(a) prioritize your mental health and wellness

(b) make time to express your expertise

(c) create community through open-hearted connections with campus colleagues

(d) intentionally pursue service that creates mutualist connection with other components of your work life.

In closing, thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit with you, good luck, and please feel free to reach out to me if you want to meet sometime- with or without an agenda- I am easy to find at UD!

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