Disaster Planning and the Academic Career

disaster[This is a guest post by Courtney Danforth, an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada who tweets as @csdanforth. Courtney previously wrote The Academic Wardrobe: Planning for ProfHacker.]

What would you do if it was announced that your entire department was to be eliminated as a response to a campus budget crisis?

What if your significant other were suddenly incapacitated by a stroke and required your care?

What if you suffered a major head injury during the middle of a semester?

We’ve recently noted the anniversaries of Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attack. We spent the summer watching or assisting with responses to the Gulf oil spill and recovery from Haiti’s earthquake. We have little trouble recognizing that each of these four events, whether man-made or natural in origin, constitutes a disaster, but the disasters that we experience personally tend to grab fewer headlines. Of course, I certainly make no claim that career disaster is as devastating as the events we typically call “disaster,” but, unfortunately, many of us are both less prepared for the effects of personal disaster and more likely to experience them.

A disaster is any sudden event from which we experience major damage, loss, destruction, or failure. The events themselves make good headlines (and what better time of year to note this than wildfire and hurricane season here in the US), but it is the losses that define a disaster. In terms of career disaster, losses would be inabilities to continue the career. For academics, these losses might include the inability to engage deep thinking, the inability to be present in a classroom, the inability to produce knowledge, and the inability to fulfill service obligations.

Disaster planning is the preparation for all phases of disaster experience, including: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Disaster planning for community-sized events (fire/flood/earthquake/hurricane/tsunami/civil unrest/etc.) is both a long-standing and a growing field. Planners for these disasters work on issues of survival such as food, water, shelter, medicine, and security. Enterprise-level disaster planning, increasingly common, is led by technology service organizations and cultural heritage institutions. At this level, disaster planning is often concerned with continuity of service and preservation of collections.

The topic of this post, disaster planning at the career level in academia, is more closely aligned with enterprise concerns, but I hope that most of us are fortunate enough never to need to draw on disaster planning at any level. Nevertheless, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Perhaps you want to devote some energy to planning for your own potential disasters—they happen. As with most things, the better prepared you are, the more likely you are to make good decisions at critical moments.

A comprehensive disaster plan includes four phases. The first, disaster mitigation, is the taking of measures to identify disaster hazards and minimize their effects. What hazards exist for academics? Do you make your living primarily through a university appointment? If so, then losing that paycheck and benefits through losing that appointment probably constitutes a career disaster. If your career depends largely on research and publication, then loss of data or reputation may constitute a disaster. To minimize the effects of these hazards, you might prioritize your understanding of and adherence to the policies on and conditions of your appointment (if tenable), establish protocols for redundant offsite backup, and nurture respectful and close relationships with publishers. There are many other hazards for academics. Which hazards are you likely to face?

Disaster preparedness is the capacity to respond effectively to disaster. Preparedness includes resource identification, training, awareness, insurance, and rehearsal. If you have an earthquake or hurricane kit at home, for example, then you are already partially prepared for these disasters. These kits often include supplies for survival (food, water), medical needs (first aid, medications, and sanitation), communication (radio, batteries, phone numbers), travel (maps, fuel), and security (flashlights, insurance and identification documents, cash). Some of those supplies are also useful in an academic career disaster kit. With luck, you won’t need desalination gear or a flare gun, but you could well require an emergency fund, copies of insurance policies, and a bottle of aspirin.

Probably the most useful element of a career disaster kit is contact information for colleagues (both within and beyond your current institution), payroll and benefits personnel, administration (union rep, chair, editors, dean, provost), and maybe students. Storing and maintaining this information inside your organizational networks facilitates assistance, should you need it, from campus colleagues, and duplicating that data store through some outside system permits easier access for assistance from someone outside the institution (such as a family member). Depending on the disaster, you might need one access point instead of the other.

Disaster response is actions taken to minimize disaster damages and losses. A rule of thumb for officials is that, during a disaster, 80% of people will do nothing, 10% will panic (act badly), and 10% of people will start to put things to rights. Preparation makes the difference in how you are able to react.

Disaster recovery, usually a long-term undertaking, is actions taken to return everything to “normal” or “tolerable.” After a flood, this might mean drying out furniture and replacing drywall. After a medical crisis, it means treatment and therapy. In many disasters, the recovery period is a chance to improve on previous conditions. In New Orleans and Greensburg, disaster recovery has included environmentally sustainable rebuilding initiatives. For a career, disaster recovery may mean finding a new job or pursuing a different career, either of which may be a return to normalcy or an opportunity for improvement.

The career disaster you experience may not be your own. You might call it “karma” or “collegiality” or maybe “reciprocal altruism”, but (I believe that) planning to respond to disasters around you is an important part of disaster preparedness. When you pitch in to cover classes for a colleague with a family member in the hospital or otherwise react to someone else’s disaster, you not only buy good will, you also have an opportunity to rehearse your own disaster plan and test your protocols.

Most importantly, you can enact the sort of response you want to occur for any disaster and build a community that is capable of and willing to respond to a disaster of any size. Can you assist with disasters in your communities? Will you grade a batch of essays if your grad student is hospitalized after a wreck? Does your department need a plan to staff courses if someone suddenly died? Can you pitch in if your library floods or a blizzard snows in the dorms? If you can imagine someday needing disaster assistance, you should probably consider participating in other people’s disaster recovery when you’re able.

Have you witnessed or experienced an academic career disaster? How did you or others respond? What do you wish had happened instead? What hazards should academics beware? Do you have a disaster plan?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by millzero]

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