Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Writing and Time

"Write first."

That's the advice that one always gets when one talks about the struggle to make one's research a priority and to be a productive researcher. It's advice one gets from the time one begins teaching in graduate school, and it's advice that recurs as one enters a position as an assistant professor. The collective wisdom is that one must privilege one's writing time and that the best way to do that is to put writing before all else. If one waits until later in the day, those wise ones might say, the day will get away from one and one will make excuses and the research and the writing won't get done.

At various times, I've tried to follow this advice. In my experience, it does not work. Similarly, the advice to exercise first thing in the morning does not work for me. When I wake up in the morning, I am barely able to get my coffee and get in the shower. If I'm really in a bind, I can grade. Or maybe do a little class prep. But any task that requires significant motivation will not get done and done well first thing in the morning except for on a fluke. (And even then, only if the writing/research work is merely making editing sorts of changes that are pretty mindless.)

So how does one make time for research? Time for writing? If one just can't write first? And if one's course load is such that it's really not easy to work a schedule where one has to teach only two or three days a week?

It was funny: when I was talking to a good friend of mine who has a t-t job at a Very Prestigious University at the Very Fancy Conference I attended this summer, he was astonished at my productivity over the past three years. (That said, he is very productive himself, and he's one of those people I admire and even envy a bit for their productivity and accomplishments.) What this made me think about is how people talk about a 4-4 load as if it's a death sentence for a research agenda. I know I worried that it would be when I got this job. But it hasn't been, even though I can't do the whole "write first" thing. So perhaps this is a good time (as I'm taking a little break from the book proposal) to write about how I work in the research/writing aspect of things in spite of my heavy teaching and service loads.

First of all, I think rather than following prescriptions about how to fit writing in, one has to go with one's natural inclinations. All of my writing life, I've tended to write and to think and to do all of those complex things in the afternoon and at night. If that is one's natural rhythm, trying to go against that can actually hurt productivity. I always tell my writing students that there is no one right way to write a paper - and that's good advice for us as scholars to take as well. Things I know about myself:

1) I tend not to be able to write in silence. (Unless I've already begun writing and the cd ends or something, which of course never happens now that the iPod has been invented. I also tend to write with the TV on, if I'm not listening to music. I need background noise in order to focus.)
2) I often need to start any writing I do long-hand. I think this comes from the fact that I didn't have a computer until I started my PhD program. My process developed with long-hand as the first step of all writing, and so getting going often requires that I start with writing by hand. I can compose on the computer now, but if I get stuck, or if I'm just getting started, I need to bust out a pen and paper.
3) I need to edit on paper, not on the screen.
4) I need to allow myself to write when I feel like writing. That is not the same thing as waiting for inspiration to write, but it does mean that I need to write at night if necessary, even if it means napping for two hours when I get home from work (which I did today).
5) Try as I might, I can't write in the morning. I can teach in the morning. I can grade in the morning. But if I have a schedule where I'm meant to be accomplishing writing things in the morning, it will not happen. and if I teach late in the day, I will not write at night.

Other factors to consider:
I have a 4/4 load. Now, technically this year I've got a 3/3 load, but the course reduction is filled up with the quasi-admin position, which really is as much work as a fourth course. It is not a true 3/3 load. At my institution, teaching is number one, with service coming a close second. Research and publication runs a distant third, in terms of what my institution values. It is very easy to let teaching and service eat away at one's time.

The response of many to this problem is not to do research during the academic year. Research is what happens when one is "free" in the summer. This does not work for me. Unless I have an ongoing research agenda, I don't do crap when I'm "free" when the academic year is done. It's too hard to switch gears. I need to have an ongoing research agenda in order to produce. But how does one have an "ongoing research agenda" when one teaches five days a week?

I do not relegate research to weekends. Often, on weekends, I do no work whatsoever. I may not have a life, but I do have leisure time, and I protect that leisure time.

So how do I do it?

1. I teach in the morning. My teaching day is done at noon. The idea is that I will then (in an ideal world) get the hell out of work by 2 PM at the latest. This doesn't always happen, but it's always the aim. I'd say that I manage to leave by 2 PM or before 2 PM 2-3 days a week.
2. I spend as little time on teaching as I can do while still doing a good job. One thing I've noticed about my colleagues who've never taught at teaching-intensive universities is that they spend FAR more time on grading and preparation than I now spend. I realized very early on in this job that this use of time did not make sense. When I taught in grad school, I spent a HUGE amount of time on grading and prep, and I think it actually was because I taught less. Teaching more, I've learned how to streamline a lot of what I do as a teacher. The thing to remember is that as the professor, one is better prepared than the students by definition. There is no reason to let that suck one's time away. (Now, I care a lot about teaching, and I do spend a lot of time on it. But I'd argue that I spend much less time per student, per course, than many of my peers who teach fewer courses. The point is to make every bit of time that one spends "count.")
3. Service is a time-suck, and I need to learn how better to manage my service load. That said, I do try to do service that is high-visibility/low time-commitment. I think this is good advice for any junior faculty member.
4. I send out proposals for things. And I don't fret too much about them. Without deadlines, it is really hard to motivate oneself, and conferences are a great way to self-motivate. And if something gets rejected, so what? If one never sent something out, then one would never get an acceptance.
5. I make sure that I do new work by doing "variations on a theme" conference proposals, which means that three or four presentations equals roughly one article. Those presentations that are not moving toward an article are still variations on the same theme, and those will be part of the Next Book.
6. I teach what I'm working on research-wise, and I research what I'm teaching. Research is not "my work" separate from my teaching, but rather the two are intimately related. I do not have the luxury of working on things that I do not teach. There are not enough hours in a day.
7. I have no problem letting things like laundry, cleaning the bathroom, etc. go. Luckily, my cat does not mind my filth, and I don't tend to procrastinate by cleaning. (Though clearly I procrastinate by blogging. But at least I'm writing, right?)

I suppose my point here is that a research agenda is possible when one has a job like mine. No, you won't produce as much as people at research universities. My book is not already under contract, and I've only done two full-length articles, two shorter articles, and about two (sometimes three) conference presentations per year. I say "only" but I think that's actually probably a lot, considering.

This is one of the reasons that I'm on the market. I wonder what I could do, with the experience I now have behind me, if I were at an institution that valued research more. (But then I also fear that I'm one of those people who does better when she doesn't have adequate time to do things.) I also know that I can't keep up this pace if I stay in this job. I'll need to make a choice: research or a more vibrant personal life, as research is the least valued thing that I do, so obviously it will have to be the first thing to go. I suppose as I hear back from places to which I've applied, I'm both motivated to do research right now, and I'm afraid of how things will change, whether I get an offer or not. I know how to do this thing in this job as things now stand. How will I do if I'm somewhere else? How will I do if I need to cut back in the service of other important things (like someday having a family)? And if I have to cut back, is that a compromise I really can make, as research and writing is really the primary thing that made me choose this profession - more than teaching, more than anything else?

But for now, I'll start doing my research work around 9 PM. And I'll keep juggling all of my projects, and I'll keep hoping for the best.


Anonymous said...

i agree, you gotta write when its good for you. write first has never worked for me.

and on you doing "only" 2:2:2 pubs, umm, that is really good.

Greg said...

Great post--it's all about time management, which has to be tailored to each personality.

Hilaire said...

You're so impressive!

Dr. Crazy said...

Shucks, Hilaire, I'm not really impressive. I'm just a workaholic with no friends in my location. (And I suppose I am good at making plans and sticking to doing them.)

Anyway, thanks for the comments, everybody. And Greg, you're right: it is about time management, ultimately. Does anybody else find, though, that as soon as somebody utters the words "time management" one immediately feels the need not to manage one's time? This is true for me, anyway :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, I was just reading back over the comments/post, and I think I was confusing justme. Let me clarify:
Over three years I've published just two articles (total) and two short articles (total).

The conferences are 2 per year, though. I think this is pretty good, but not nearly as impressive as if I were doing 2/2/2 each and every year. (But if I were doing that, I would probably be in a loony bin.)

Greg said...

Maybe part of time management is not managing all your time...

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is an excellent post, and I totally agree - if working at night works best for you, that's what you should do. I used to work much more at night. Now, I'm turning into an old fart, and can't. Really, I'm best between about 10 and 3. Unfortunately, that's when the rest of the world usually wants a piece of you, too... Opposite to you, I find that teaching later in the day and working earlier is working better for me. But that's not because it's a "better" system - just that it's "my" system. I think you're still amazingly productive.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I totally agree with you on issues of when to write and limiting class prep. If I have any hope of finishing a disseration with a 5/5 load, these things must work :).

So far this semester it actually IS working... slowly but surely, it is getting done.

A couple of addtional bits of advise....1) Be very slow to change texts for a class. Each new text requires new prep. Since I've gone to a system of writing powerpoints, I don't even do new lecture notes anymore and just teach from the prompts I've given myself and the class on the slides. That way I only have to review the next set of slides before every class to make adjustments for new addtions and my class prep is done. 2) Start doing student presentations -- then they are doing the talking and you are doing the supervising. It also is an 'active learning' opportunity... which makes the buzz-word people happy.

Dr. Crazy said...

Great additional suggestions, IPF! And I agree with them whole-heartedly - especially about student presentations, which have saved me MOUNTAINS of time.