Dr. Mary Savina

Carleton College, Northfield, MN

Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on March 23, 2006.

Mary Savina is a professor in the Department of Geology at Carleton College, in Northfield, MN, and is also the Coordinator of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching. Her work time is split approximately half and half between these two duties. As a professor, she teaches three classes per year (labs count as half of a class) in geology, environmental studies, and archeology. She also supervises, on average, several senior research theses each year. Because geology students at Carleton choose their own research topics, these projects may or may not be related to Mary's research. As the Coordinator of the Learning and Teaching Center, she organizes programs, workshops, and conferences (setting dates, topics, and choosing panelists, not doing the logistical organization); mentors new faculty, especially in visiting positions; is a resource for any faculty members on campus who want to discuss teaching and learning (sometimes as many as 4 or 5 in a week); and meets with several campus groups when they are planning campus events.

Outside of work, Mary has an equally diverse and fulfilling life, revolving primarily around involvement in the local community, her church, and music. She attends Northfield City Council meetings (3 times per month) and serves on the City Charter Commission, the County Extension Committee, and the Wellhead Protection Committee. She attends the city council meetings as an observer for the League of Women Voters, making sure that meetings and records remain open to the public. The Charter Commission works to bring the city council actions and its charter into line with each other. The County Extension Committee (which meets only a few times a year) gives direction to the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Rice County. The Wellhead Protection Committee meets a couple of times a year and advises the city on protecting its water supply. Mary also helps lead the junior high Sunday school/youth group (for seventh and eighth graders) at her church and sings in the choir. She sings in a community choir in New Prague, plays cello in a string quartet, and takes voice lessons.

Taking stock

Mary's life has not always been like this. It's only in the last decade or so, she says, that she has made the time for a richer life outside of work. In her first year, she says, she spent many nights at the office, never going home at all, even though she'd never 'pulled an all-nighter' as a student. There were a couple of pivotal events that precipitated changes in her approach to work and life. The first was working in New Zealand for three years, from 1987-1990. There, although she was in a vibrant academic setting, she noticed that her colleagues generally did not work the same kinds of long hours in the office that many of her colleagues at Carleton do. It was an eye-opener for her. When she returned to the U.S., she stopped working in her office on most evenings and weekends; she still takes work home with her, but is only at the office during (more or less) normal business hours.

In 1995, Mary's father passed away. She spent the next couple of summers with her mother, helping her get ready to move, and moved her to Northfield in 1997. Spending time with her mother became a new priority for Mary. At about the same time, she was diagnosed with depression. Fortunately, medication and therapy worked well for her. With the help of her therapist, Mary took stock of her life, especially her relationship to her work. One thing she did was make a list of how much time she spent in job-related activities, including her day-to-day work, but also figuring in the time she spent on things like field trips (Carleton's entire geology department takes two five to six day field trips each year). On average, she spent about 75 hours per week working. Then she did a second inventory, of how much time she thought she would need to spend to do as good a job as she wanted to. That would have been 104 hours per week. "Obviously," she says, "I needed to cut back my expectations, and get over the guilt about not doing enough."

New priorities

Changing her priorities, and even more so her behavior, did not come easily to Mary. Several strategies have been helpful for her, along the way. First, she makes time for (and blocks out on her calendar, well in advance) the things that are important to her. To spend time with her mother, she takes her on trips 4-5 times a year, for up to a week at a time; her mother still loves to travel, and otherwise doesn't get to. Since her parents used to go to an Elderhostel program at Peabody Conservatory, Mary offered to do that with her, too. After one or two trips, Mary realized that music is really important to her, so now she makes time for that, too. Adding musical activities to her life feels great, and gives her energy. Because she's an opera buff (and enjoys the symphony, too), she has season tickets. This, too, helps her to make time for what she loves—because she buys her season ticket well in advance, and blocks out the dates on her calendar, she is less likely to miss a performance. Similarly, being a member of performing groups makes it harder to 'cut' music out of her life when she is busy; Mary knows that her fellow musicians are counting on her to be there.

Another big help for Mary was the 'senior faculty review' process that Carleton offers. A kind of post-tenure review, this evaluation is a way for senior faculty to get feedback from their peers and key administrators about their professional activities. Mary took advantage of this about eight or ten years ago. One of her questions, at the time, was whether her colleagues felt her scholarly activities were valuable. Mary explains that she does not have a typical, nationally-funded research program. Instead, she involves her students in research projects that serve the local community. For example, they investigated stream bank erosion on Spring Creek and evaluated whether the college should do anything about it, or leave it as is. They reported their findings to the College facilities staff, who then passed along the information to the Board of Trustees. Hearing from her colleagues that what she was doing is valuable to the college, and that they did not expect her to also be doing cutting edge research, has made it easier for Mary to accept that she is, in fact, doing enough. While this has been invaluable for Mary, she cautions pre-tenure faculty members against assuming that their institutions will feel the same way -- you have to find out what your institution expects of you, and meet those expectations.

Finally, Mary has learned that she need not be (or feel) directly responsible for everything going on around her. While she feels she is still not a master of this, Mary tries to delegate tasks to other people as much as possible—to her students, to the lab assistants, or to the department secretary. Anything she can delegate is something she doesn't have to do herself, and that frees up some valuable time. On the other hand, Mary recognizes that other people are ultimately responsible for their own work. When a student is struggling with a research project or with a class, Mary is happy to help, but she knows she doesn't have to fix the problem herself.

Advice for new faculty members

Mary has several pieces of advice for new faculty members, based on her own experiences and on her work in mentoring new faculty members at Carleton:
  • Figure out what gives you energy, and make time for it. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do to stay healthy and happy.
  • Ask for, and listen to, feedback from your colleagues about how to fulfill your teaching responsibilities without working yourself, and your students, to the bone. Seek advice about how to develop assignments that you won't spend all of your time creating and then grading.
  • Realize that you know more than your students do, and that it's okay to walk into a classroom not knowing everything there is to know about the topic of the day. In fact, pedagogically, it's better not to drown your students in facts.
  • Recognize that it's also okay not to be perfect in other ways. Mary points out that she does not do cutting edge research, but that she brings other strengths to the geology program at Carleton. For example, her practical, community-based (service learning) class research projects offer students the opportunity to apply their geological knowledge and skills to real-world problems.
  • Check the reward system where you work, and do what you need to do to earn those rewards.
  • Know that it's okay to say "no." If you're not sure whether it's a good idea to do something you're asked to do, get advice from your chair or other trusted mentor about whether to do it. (You can always ask to think it over before you respond, and go get advice in the meantime.)
  • Many new faculty members seem to want their students to see them as "friends." While developing a rapport with your students is quite valuable, there are times when you'll need to be the "adult" instead of the "friend." For instance, you need to set the ground rules for assignments, for times and ways you are available to students (expectations for 24/7 access are unreasonable), and for types of help and support you give students (unless you are a trained counselor, take distraught students to your campus health center when they have personal crises).