Today is the start of December, which is typically a time for me to spend at home working on either class preparation for the winter quarter, research, or both. As a result I usually love December, even when I routinely fail to complete my rather long to-do list. But unfortunately I’ve started this December in a funk. We had a two-hour faculty meeting yesterday, something that should never occur during the winter break. To add insult to injury it was frustrating, with an agenda full of controversial and upsetting topics, which led to unhappy discussion with my colleagues. Then this morning I looked at my course evaluations to discover that my ratings for the introductory Python course, the one that was a part of the linked-courses learning community for which I worked so hard, were the lowest I’ve had in years. While I recognize that neither of these things are the end of the world, it’s left me feeling down.

Part of the problem is that this was a good, if exhausting, quarter for me. I started the quarter by receiving a research award. Then the conference organization for SIGITE/RIIT 2015 went well. At the end of the quarter I was honored as one of the 2015 Women of Spirit and Action. The public kudos this quarter were far more frequent than during any quarter in the recent past, and I’m grateful for that.

But the past few days also remind me that the kudos are enjoyable precisely because they are so infrequent. Most of the time I go about my job with almost no feedback. Positive comments are for the most part few and far between, although to be fair, complaints are also unusual. It’s not that I think my students, colleagues, and administrators are callous. I just think that most people, myself included, simply don’t think to share positive comments with each other. You’re much more likely to get feedback about something when you fail in some way than when you succeed.

The dearth of positive feedback is precisely what makes intrinsic motivation so important. You have to do your job because you want to, not because you hope to get some external reward for it. In some ways, although certainly not all, academia is particularly bad in this respect. Sometimes you don’t even get a cost-of-living raise for your work, typically due to financial circumstances rather than merit considerations. So I plan to spend part of December reminding myself why I do what I do and that external praise is nice but also fleeting.

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