Friday, January 06, 2006

The Professorial Balancing Act - Some Thoughts on Self-Scheduling

Dr. B just posted about her (as yet not going that great) attempt to fulfill her New Year's Resolution to write something (other than a blog post) every day, and rather than hog her comments, I decided to post over here in response. I also thought I might do this to get those in on the conversation who might not visit Dr. B, or who might not comment over there, or whatever. So, before I begin, I want to encourage others to post in response to the following: What is the shape of your day usually like? How or when do you fit in writing time that is not blog-related? Do you tend to write in big blocks of time or in smaller intervals? What role does blogging play in your productivity as a writer? How do you balance writing/research with other obligations?

Ok, so here it goes. First of all, I've been out of the groove with (non-blogging, non-syllabus, non-assignments-for-students) writing lately - and by "writing" I suppose I mean the expanded definition, which is researching and writing. In part, this is because I was pretty much fried and I needed a break. What was I fried from? Well, I finished my dissertation in 2003 (defending it in August) and started my job here in August 2003. Yes, this means that I was revising my dissertation while I was on the market. Then, I started this job and fell into another research project on non-diss-related stuff, that resulted in three conference papers and an article that will come out this year. After all of that? Well, I decided to take some time off to rejuvenate. Which means that I haven't really been in a solid writing groove since May 2005. But now it's time to get back in the saddle.

As Dr. B. mentioned in her post, we all have heard the "write first" motto. Guess what? I have never in the history of time been able to do that. I am no good in the morning. I can't do sophisticated, deep thinking in the morning, and that's what academic writing requires for me. Can I teach in the morning? Sure. Can I grade in the morning? Depending on the assignment, yes. But no, I cannot write in the morning. And so I don't.

During the academic year, the shape of my days has been pretty much the following:

6-7 AM - wake up, futz around, feed Man-Kitty, drink coffee, etc.

9AM-12 Noon - teach/office hours/etc.

12 Noon- 5 PM - futz around, waste time, blog, deal with email, go to a meeting if I've got one, think about all of the crap I'm not doing, grade, nap, etc.

You will notice that there is no time built in for writing in that regimen. This is the thing that I'm trying to rectify this semester. I have always been most successful at getting research/writing done when I have a plan. If I've got tiny goals to achieve, and if I schedule time in which to achieve them, I get what I need to get done done. Also, I need to have a regular schedule. One of the things that I think is hardest about this profession is the level of self-motivation that it requires. On the one hand it's difficult to prioritize, but the other piece of the puzzle is that after one has chosen one's priorities one actually has to do everything to get those things achieved without (any) guidance or support. Thus, I've got to be a slave-driver to myself in order to be a productive academic.

It's so easy to let research/writing fall by the wayside because 1) unlike with teaching, where students will bitch if you don't fulfill your end of the bargain, nobody really cares whether you research/write or not; 2) unlike with service, the machinery of the university or department or whatever doesn't immediately fall apart if you don't research/write; 3) unlike with blogging, you have no (immediate) audience to please by researching/writing. [Aside: #3 had a lot to do with why I moved blogs - I really want to write about the research/writing I'm doing outside of the blog in my blogspace, something I wasn't comfortable doing before. And so, in that vein, let me just say that I got one of those conference proposals that I was talking about in my first post done this afternoon! Yippee! It might be a piece of crap, but I am interested in pursuing the topic, and I'd argue that it's better done than simmering - and how much can a girl really say in approximately 200 words anyway? God, I hope I'm not rejected....]

The times when I've been most productive with researching/writing I've blocked off time each day to work on things related to the writing. I've not finalized my schedule for this semester yet, but I suspect the shape of my days is going to look something like the following:


7 - wake up

9-11 - teach

11 - lunch

12-2 - time for reading/research

2-3 - notes on plans for reading/research accomplished

3-5 - go to the gym (not for two hours, but in that two hour window. I may be on a health kick, but I'm not insane)

Tuesday and Wednesday: (Primarily teaching days/meeting days, so I won't do research/writing, though I will make notes in my research journal should I have ideas and I will think about what I'll do with my time on Thursday and Friday)


7 - wake up

10:30-12 - teach

12 - lunch

1-3 - outline, related to work done on Mondays, read necessary material to fill in gaps of Monday's work, make plans for Friday, which is the big writing day

3-5 - gym


7 - wake up

9-11 - teach

12-5 - WRITE (but not just willy-nilly; in relation to the plans that I've made throughout the rest of the week. And if I finish those plans before 5, then I'm allowed to stop or I can use the time to write in my research journal about plans for the coming week.)

And you'll notice I've mentioned my research journal a couple of times. Yes, I keep one. Yes, I rarely actually go back to the research journal once I've written anything in it, but at the same time it's been a good technique for me to use writing-as-thinking and to start writing when I feel like I don't have anything to say. I would never blog what I write in the research journal because it's very fragmentary and often takes the form of crude drawings (and I'm no artist) to try to sketch out the shape of my ideas and argument. I cannot recommend the research journal idea enough to those of you who've not tried it.

So yes. This is what I'm hoping my schedule will look like this semester. If I can stick to it even 60% of the time, I'll be entirely happy (and probably the most productive I've been since writing the dissertation).


Dr. Lisa said...

That's awesome!!!

I don't schedule my writing time, actually. I shoot for 1,500 words a day and exist in fear and self-loathing when I don't make it, which I usually don't. Some days I get 500, others I get 2000. And then there's the inevitable editing that eats up my word count. But neurotic though that is, it's my process.

I don't like to scheudle writing, nor do I like the "write first" mantra because then that means if I've flaked off the morning, it sort of gives me a built in excuse not to write the rest of the day. Oh, shoot, I missed my writing time, I suck, looks like I'll have to try again tomorrow. Ditto with the schedule thing. Oh, I was supposed to write from 2 to 3, but I didn't, screwed up my day

But if the goal is 1500 words a day, then that's the goal, and if I still haven't done it at 10 o'clock at night, I still ain't done it, and if there's life in the old girl, I'll still settle down with the legal pad and write and write until I can't anymore (which is sometimes 2-3 a.m.). If I only get 200 words, that's all I get--but that 1,500 is a nice motivator and it's a big ding-dong day when I get it.

bitchphd said...

I did a research journal with the diss; need to get back to it, as I agree it's invaluable even though I, too, seldom revisit it when I'm actually doing formal writing.

I love the idea of just jotting down ideas about "what to do next" on the teaching days. I always find it easier to dive in if I have a clear marker of what the first step is (I like leaving sentences unfinished), and this seems a clever compromise between not-writing on teaching days and trying to do *something* every day: undemanding enough to do, but still keeping the motor running.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comment, Lisa. I just added you to my blogroll - you somehow weren't on there!

At any rate, I think the thing is really just finding something that works for you and that makes the process a priority for you. The problem for me is that if I do the # of words thing then I often end up doing a number of words that are garbage. As you see, I'm rarely at a loss for words:) The thing about scheduling time for me (and that it's not so regimented as YOU MUST WRITE AND DO NOTHING ELSE FOR X AMOUNT OF TIME but rather that it includes doing pre-writing and reading and thinking) is that it ensures that it's a priority in my day. And if I miss the block I've scheduled off, as I sometimes do, I do allow myself the "cheat" of working for those couple of hours at night, or of extending one of my other days longer, or of making them up on a non-work day (because, as you notice, I do not intend to write every single day, according to the schedule, and weekends are left free).

Whew! What a long-winded comment from me! I'll stop now :)

Dr. Crazy said...

B - yeah, that's the thing I had to come to accept with the research journal - that it really will never (though of course I still hope for a miracle) turn into "real" writing ;)

And yes, I'm all in favor of planning on heavy teaching days. It's all about expanding the definition of what "counts" as writing, I think. This is what I tell my students in writing classes, and I think it's good advice, especially because it's much less anxiety-producing if one thinks about all of the activities required for actual writing AS writing.... there's a more fluid transition between the pre- and actual writing then, I think.

Dr. Lisa said...

It occured to me after I posted this that it makes it sound like I just write 1,500 a day. Actually, I am pretty picky about pre-writing, so by the time I sit down to compose the paper, I have the entire thing storyboarded.

Every day when I am done, I print off the paper. There it sits on my printer until the next day. Then I pick it up and edit the previous day's writing--which is an incentive to avoid inflating your word count. If you are just going to cut words (which I always do anyway), you know you're just going to end up editing more, which I hate just as much as writing). Then I put the edits into the computer and start writing where I left off the day before, using the storyboard as the guide. Then when I'm done, I take today's print off, turn it upside-down, and print the paper again. The next day, I begin editing from the beginning. This keeps me on a narrative thread.

And yeah, it means the beginnning is *really* sharp because I've gone over it and over it. And it means that as a paper gets bigger, I spend more of my day editing it. With really long things, I sometimes have to say "no" to the editing monster and just begin reading from a previous section.

CharlieAmra said...

I used to prefer to write at night. Now, since my non-academic job is ultimately that of a science writer, I have had to learn how to write in my 9-5 type day. It is amazing how hard deadlines and fears of lost accounts (or your job) can motivate you to write everyday. It has been a big change, but it has taught me to be a more efficient writer (which is not obvious by my meandering comments). Of course, I do not have to deal with the issues of teaching or service like faculty do, and that helps. But many times I am force to write about topics I am not always familiar with, and I must produce quality work (from a client point of view) in a short period of time.

When I collaborate with my colleagues, the writing/editing of research manuscripts must be done at night. Usually I do this after dinner a few hours a night.

Kristiface said...

Well, right now I'm not writing very much-- just reading! I really wish that I could "schedule" writig time-- and I've tried. But I seem to need a deadline and so when I do write, I just can't seem to do it in a scheduled way. I try, but it doesn't work. Essentially, I have to clear entire days from my schedule. I can then wake up early, write, drink coffee, write, walk around, write. Do what I haven't been able to clear from my schedule, come back, fiddle around, write.

It's not very conducive to a normal lifestyle... and it will probably have to change when I'm writing the diss/actually an academic... but that's at least how I prefer to write.

EmmaNadine said...

I replied over at my blog so as not to hijack your comments section, but I just wanted to ask for a post on how you get motivated to workout. I have huge problems getting myself active.

phd me said...

I'm in complete agreement regarding the "write first" mandate. I'm useless before noon for most anything. I'm at my best for writing between 4:00 and 8:00, usually because it takes that long to convince myself to get started.

I really like the idea of a research journal. Thanks for that idea!

Robert Talbert said...

Have you considered shifting your workout to the mornings, and then trying to do writing afterwards? Perhaps the workout will get your energy going, and then you'll have the attention you need to get intellectual/creative work done.

As for me, well, I have a 2-year old and so my day begins at 5:00 AM assuming that she doesn't wake up before then. But I actually like the really really early mornings.

Cats & Dogma said...

I am more effective with an approach that sets aside writing days. I then don't bother writing on other days, and so don't feel the creeping guilt. I also know that I can rarely write for a whole day, so I don't mind if it takes me a few minor tasks to get the day rolling. This semester, I thought I'd have two whole writing days a week, but now it looks like I'll have to to do two and a half, with the half shared with toddler time.

academic coach said...

I'm fascinated by how different your 'voice' is on this reassigned blog.

I wish that I could write in the afternoons - but kids make it difficult.

Dr. Crazy said...

Some quick responses:

1) I've tried to work out in the mornings, and it's just not for me. I'm far too bleary-eyed to do anything that requires physical coordination. The earliest I find I can be physically coordinated is around 10 AM - which is a shame for my classes that I teach at 9AM, but I find that I can pretend I'm in my body in the classroom in a way that I can't on a treadmill. Also, I find I need the energy-boost for early evening. It helps with making sure that I cook real food for myself, and it also helps with either planning for my next day or with knocking grading out in a quick fashion in the evening.

2) I don't want to give the impression that I don't need deadlines to work. I SO need deadlines. But I suppose I'm good at making myself believe in self-imposed deadlines (a) and in imagining people being utterly disappointed in me if I don't do research (b) which makes me work. Still, though, there's a reason why all of the theory (well, most) that I read during grad school has flown from my brain. It's because nobody will know if I don't remember it. And THAT's where I fall apart - with any scholarly task that I think nobody else will notice me not doing. I'm all about working well under the idea of surveillance - not necessarily the reality of it. I suppose I haven't forgotten all theory, now that I think about it: I've just described thriving in a panopticon ;)

3. Re: getting motivated to work out. I may do a post about this soon, but with the first week of classes underway, I might forget so I'll respond briefly here. First, I've never been a natural worker-outer. But since hitting my late 20s I've come to realize that I need to work out if I want to eat the way that I want to eat. I'm finding the gym to be motivating - in seeing people who are in shape and wanting to be like them (I'm especially motivated by the little old ladies who lift weights at my gym), in having a variety of activities at my disposal regardless of weather, and in that I'm paying for it. Also, it's easier now that I'm not smoking. Other than that? Well, I feel a lot more relaxed and energized (simultaneously) on the days that I work out, and I sleep better. Basically, I think it's that I'm ready to make it a priority right now. I'm not sure that there's much beyond that that really makes a huge difference.

4. I'm not sure what to say about the voice thing - I'm still developing what I want it to be in the new space, so it's possible it will become more like the old blog as I go? I'm not sure. But I am being fairly conscious of creating a different voice here. I hope it's not alienating to my readers, though! (But then, my old voice was alienating to my readers quite often, so maybe that doesn't matter....)

Jill said...

I love seeing a real life potential academic schedule - but when do you prepare teaching?? I seem to need quite a bit of time to think about teaching - and for now I have a lot of administrative stuff to do. I've decided to forget about research for a few months, which may be risky, but I was really good last year and I'm totally uninspired now, so...

Love your rearranged blog.

Dr. Crazy said...

Jill, you caught me! I did leave teaching stuff off of the schedule. Here's why: because I will do the teaching stuff whether I schedule it or not. The stuff that I've put on the schedule will not get done if it doesn't get a slot. Generally, I tend to grade between 8 and 9 AM on days that I teach (or I'll wake up earlier if necessary) and/or during my office hours. In terms of prepping the material that I will teach, this will be a pretty light prep semester in that I a) am not teaching an upper-division course and b) I've taught both courses (although I have changed them some) that I am teaching before. So, even in the writing course, for which many of the readings are new, the assignments are all written and the basic way I teach the course is routine to me now. For my other course (intro to lit) I've changed a couple of texts, but they are mostly texts that i taught multiple times in grad school that I've added in and so they won't require massive prep.

The trick to limiting prep time for me is a) taking good TEACHING-ORIENTED notes in the books that I teach (I can't emphasize the teaching-oriented part of this enough) and in typing up all notes with EASY TO RECOGNIZE FILE NAMES so that I have them in my computer and I just need to print them up and glance at them before class. I spent a lot more time on teaching prep in my first year on the job because i did these two things, but now I spend maybe 30 minutes on prep (if it's material I've done before) per class period, which is totally manageable. If I'm doing new material, obviously that time is longer.