Medusa has been trying a whole "I'm treating this (academic work) like a 9-5 job" thing, and apparently there's something in the water, because Profgrrrl posted about maybe experimenting with such a plan, and Manorama considers the possibility (or impossibility) of such a course of action as well. I think it's often this time of year that professorial types start getting grand ideas about changing our schedules and trying to work more efficiently. Or maybe not everybody does this, but I know this is the time of year when I traditionally come up with such grand ideas. For me I think it has a lot to do with the unstructured time that the summer brings, and it's usually around this point that I begin wondering what I've done with the months that have been relatively free of an imposed schedule. Also, usually, it has to do with a looming fear that when the grind of the academic year starts up again that I won't be able to get done all of the things that need to be done that exceed the bounds of teaching and service.
Now, I think a lot of how one thinks about scheduling has to do with demands of particular jobs (and I suspect that this is broken down by discipline and even subfield as well) in particular institutional settings (is one at a teaching-intensive or research-intensive institution). And I do think that, at least for me, I've been able to think more objectively about scheduling since landing on the tenure track, and I've been able to compartmentalize a bit better than I was able to do in graduate school. I absolutely feel much less pressure to give a hundred percent of my energy to all parts of the job at all times.*
But so anyway, my yearly hopes for more efficient work habits usually take a couple of different forms. First, let's talk about time.
I'm not terribly good with rigid, set-in-stone sorts of schedules, particularly in the summer or on the weekends. I'm not the sort who can ever stick to a plan to "write first" in the morning, and if I vow to work for 8 hours straight, with just a break for lunch, I inevitably don't do any work at all. What tends to work best for me is to block out time each day that I will spend doing whatever tasks I must accomplish in a fairly loose way. So I tend to block things out in terms of "I'll spend two hours on x, one hour on y, etc." and I might have times sketched in for when I will do these things, but if I don't stick to a rigid hour-by-hour schedule, that's ok. I also tend to try to overestimate how much time a task will take, and then I have an alternate list of things that need to be done but not immediately, and I'll turn to that list if I feel like procrastinating or if I finish one of the "must-be-done" tasks ahead of schedule. This is if I'm in a serious though not Red Alert** work zone, as I have been lately. When I'm in a serious work zone, I tend to finish up with work by dinner time, and I leave my evenings free for whatever else I feel like doing. I'm also a huge proponent of afternoon naps, so if I'm sleepy in the afternoon, I do sometimes take a nap and then make up for that time in the hour or so after dinner. My last task of the workday is usually to make the schedule for the next day and to revamp the supplementary to-do list.
This is pretty much my method for scheduling during the academic year as well, though of course it's tweaked for teaching. A couple of ways that shifts things is that I always teach in the morning so that I'm done by noon each day. This means I have a 5-day a week teaching schedule, which for me is better than loading teaching on two or three days a week and then having free days. Teaching is exhausting, and if I load the teaching into a 2 or 3-day schedule, I inevitably crash on the off days and I actually accomplish less. Another rule that I have with teaching stuff that I try to stick to is to confine teaching-related tasks (prep, grading) to the days that I teach. In other words, unless I've got a novel to read or something, it is RARE for me to do any teaching stuff on the weekends, and I try not to do teaching stuff at night on weekdays. So I teach my classes in the morning, and I do prep/grading in the afternoons.
But so I suppose, when I'm serious about getting work done, that I'm pretty good with managing my time and getting things accomplished. So I don't tend to consider switching up how I schedule myself anymore. I know when I do certain kinds of work best, and since I don't have the demands of a partner or kids, I can pretty much go with what works best for me and it all works itself out. And really, unless it's a Red Alert sort of situation, I'm not usually terribly stressed out once I've figured out exactly what it is that I need to get done. That's not to say that I don't get overwhelmed, but I don't let being overwhelmed get in the way of things like watching America's Next Top Model or talking on the phone or going to the movies, etc.
Thus, the thing that really preoccupies me when I think about working efficiently is not the details of daily scheduling but rather the big picture of syllabus design, grading techniques, and assignment design. I am constantly in search of the holy grail that is the perfect assignment that takes absolutely no time to grade and that still teaches students something. I'm constantly in search of the perfect structure for a course - and, in fact, the perfect interplay between the three or four courses that I teach - so that I feel constantly on top of things. Sadly, I have yet to achieve these lofty goals, but each year around this time, I realize that hope springs eternal and I see myself tweaking and fiddling with all of my courses, revamping and reconsidering, all in the hope that I can somehow whittle down the time that I spend on teaching even further.
Now you might think from the above that I don't like teaching or that I'd rather be at a more research-intensive university. Hmmm. I'm not sure that would make a difference, though. I think that the reason that I focus on whittling down the time that I spend on teaching is because I realize that for me, teaching can become a crutch that sucks away my time. One can spend 12 hours or 12 minutes on prepping a class, for example, and I'm not convinced (and in fact often see evidence to the contrary) that the 12-minute prep can be as or more effective. One can spend hours commenting on student writing, only to see them continue to make the same mistakes, or one can spend 10 minutes a paper, and students improve. More time does not necessarily equal better teaching. For me, teaching can easily become busy-work that means I'm not really accomplishing as much as I have the potential to accomplish but that gives me an excuse not to do so - I mean, I'm busy and frazzled so I must not have time for anything else, right? So I tend to spend this time on the front end because what I'm interested in is finding good techniques and strategies that do not suck my life away. Because, really, I want a life. And I want a research agenda. And I can't have a life and research if I devote as much time as is possible to teaching.
So some things I'm experimenting with this semester include:
1) Instead of collecting informal writing assignments from my students in my writing classes, I'm going to have them submit those assignments to a blackboard discussion board and have the whole class give each other feedback and I'm going to comment only randomly on what students submit.
2) I'm trying out the group research project in my upper-level course, which means I will only collect and grade four projects - not 22.
3) I'm trying out a new weekly reaction paper assignment, which I will collect randomly throughout the semester and that will receive only one grade at the end (rather than 14 grades per student to tabulate).
4) In-class tests in my lit classes rather than take-home midterms. I usually have done the take-home midterm thing because I didn't want to take class time for tests when we could use that time to discuss more literature. But hey, maybe it will be good for them and for me to leave that one or two extra texts off the syllabus?
Now, I should probably admit that these strategies that I'm going to try out to save time will probably not save time at all. They never seem to. But sometimes they end up being cooler than the stuff that I normally do, so it's nice to try to change it up a little bit. And some of the things that I've tried out in the past have really been fantastic, and I've kept those things in place.
But so yes. It seems that the summer is drawing to its inevitable close and the new school year is just about upon us. School's back in session for me in just under 3 weeks. And I have a dream of working efficiently and of keeping work to it's rightful place: 40 hours in the week. Or, really, I'd be happy with 50 hours. And have I done everything this summer that I hoped to do? Eh, not really. But have I done everything I've absolutely needed to do plus a little extra? Yep, I sure have. And I suspect most of you have done as well.
* Mano wonders in her post about whether being a professor is actually less time-consuming than being a grad student, and I'll weigh in briefly, and I encourage others to do so as well. My short answer is yes. But that's not actually entirely true. Here's the thing: things that used to take a lot more time for me in graduate school (prepping for classes I teach, for example) now take much less time because I have certain courses that I teach regularly, so all of the prep is done. Also, the courses that I teach less frequently are in my field of specialty, and so those, too, take less time in the preparation. Even with new preps my course policies are set in stone, and I don't remember the last time I wrote a syllabus from beginning to end from scratch. While it's true that I have more administrative/service crap to deal with now, that stuff tends to be pretty localized in terms of time commitment. The biggest difference, though, is probably with the amount of time I spend on research. Unlike when I was in graduate school, my primary "new" research stuff has been confined to two conference papers per year. I am not writing a dissertation as well as trying to teach and do all of the other stuff. I'm not reading two or three novels a week plus theory and criticism as people still in coursework are doing. And yes, I've had to invest time in the book manuscript, but that's not a brand new book, it's developed out of the dissertation. The articles that I've written have been developed out of conference papers, and all of that "new" work grew out of the work that I did in the dissertation project, too, at least in a small way. I suppose what I'm saying is that when I was in graduate school I was doing everything for the first time - first seminar paper, first article, first dissertation, first conference paper. Firsts take a lot of time and they take a lot of mental and emotional energy. Now, well, I know how to do all of that stuff, and so it's less fraught and it has, I think, come to take less time. This may mean that I'm not as thorough a scholar as I was then. Or it may mean that I'm more confident and I know what I'm doing a bit more. I'm not sure. The thing is, though, I'd suspect that all of those who claim an 8-5 schedule would probably include the exception for being under deadline or for it being the end of the semester when everything comes due - in other words, I believe that the 8-5 is GENERALLY possible, but I think that in discrete situations people deviate. Again, I'd be interested in hearing what others think about this, but my short answer is that yes, I do feel like I devote less time to work than I did when I was in graduate school - or perhaps I'm just more in control of how I devote time to work, and so it seems like less? It's important to note here that I'm at a teaching-intensive, regional university, and I suspect that if I were at another type of university I might be singing a different tune.
** When I'm on "Red Alert" all bets about the schedule are off. "Red Alert" is pretty rare - for example, when I had to complete my book manuscript in the month of March, which included writing the introduction in just one week's time over my spring break. "Red Alert" time means everything goes to hell in a handbasket and the best one can hope for is to sleep periodically and to take semi-regular showers and one's house looks like a gang of hoodlums came in and ransacked the joint. At least in my world that is what "Red Alert" means, at any rate.
5 years ago