Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Working for the Weekend

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.


Shaun Huston said...

I was discussing work schedules with a colleague the other day, and one of the difficulties I have imagining being able to pull off something like a 9-5 work schedule is that you, or, at least I, never really stop being an academic. Even if I make a point of, say, not grading after 5:00 or before 9:00, that isn't going to keep my brain from latching onto something about an article or a course I'm teaching while watching TV or at a film. While there certainly are jobs that one can just leave at the office, "academic" doesn't seem like one that's so easily turned on and off.

I would also second your comments on the particularities of different situations. For both personal and institutional reasons, I almost always teach at least one course every term that starts at 5:00. I also tend not to teach my first class of the day until mid-morning. I schedule my film classes for one day a week, and those tend to start late-ish because of room availability. In short, it's difficult for me to envision my work schedule settling into a "normal" pattern anytime soon.

And, honestly, I'm not sure I would want it to. Irregularity and a certain amount of freedom are, for me at least, advantages of the faculty life. I do understand the desire to bracket work, it is very easy for this job to infiltrate your every waking hour if you let it, and I tend to apply my limits Friday-Saturday, though they are hardly absolute. I also design my classes so that grading tends to be ongoing more than bottlenecked at certain times in the term. This is a tradeoff, but I feel pretty good about it during finals weeks.

Damn this turned out to be long.

hypatia said...

I also have something of a response to this (it might be kind of long, but since I don't have my own blog I'm jut going to hijack your comments... There's several things.

One is both in grad school and now, sometimes I feel like people get into a competition of who works more. I specifically think this is unhealthy because somehow it seems like you're a slacker if you don't work as much as the next person. I think that task oriented work, not time oriented work is healthier. I also think its really! worth acknowledging that different people work differently.

As far as working 8-5 or so... I sort of do this. Actually, it's more like 9-6 plus 1 half day (12-4) on the weekends. I do very little work in the evenings and I consciously leave 1 weekend day completely free of work. If I'm under deadline I actually get up earlier and earlier (think 3 or 4 am) to carve out writing time. The flip side of that is I rarely take more than 20 min for lunch and I don't work out or do other things during the day, in part because I don't want to make that time up in the evenings. I know other people talk about running midmorning or taking exercise classes before 5 in the afternoon or Crazy mentions naps and I do very little of that.

Grad Student vs. Professor - I think that Dr. Crazy hit on one big thing about the shift.... you get better/more efficient about doing what you do. Course Prep reduces as you teach a repeat prep, but also just because you become a better teacher so even new preps are more manageable. Over time you learn to manage the things you ask TAs and RAs to do so that the ramping up time is less and the output is greater. In time the research, even things that aren't outgrowths of the dissertation, become more obvious and self-evident. In short, our job is a skill and it gets easier as you become more of an expert.

There's another factor though. As a professor I'm in control of how much or how little I do and can maximize my time in unique ways that a grad student can't. Now there are consequences for doing too little (like no tenure), but I can decide to submit to two conferences instead of four. Or to take posters that highly overlap because I am working on them with two different students (as opposed to students who, when working with two different profs probably are doing very different things). I can choose to make readings for the occassional seminar I teach centered around my own research or around a new line that I want to explore instead of randomly scattered over a variety of topics. I can decline to take on another collaboration or to participate in an invited book chapter (journal articles are what count for me). For me, this is one of the things that I actually do as a part of keeping my life managable. I think saying 'no' and knowing how fast/hard you are able or willing to work matters. This makes me sound like a total slacker, but I say 'yes' to quite a number of things. But not everything, and not when I'm already overcommitted.

Oh and I'm in the behavioral sciences, so part of my life is seeing subjects - which never happens at 3am, but sometimes does happen on weekends and between 7-9pm.

Anonymous said...

i think anybody who does the kind of work that can be done at home runs the risk of working beyond the 9-5 hours. not just academics. my husband is a software engineer and if he suddenly gets an idea about how to fix a bug when he's in the shower at 10pm, he may end up working for 45 or an hour to see if he can make it work. granted, he works at home, but even if he didn't, chances are he'd have a work laptop at home anyway and would still end up working. even if he didn't, he may still make some notes, spend some time thinking about the problem, that kind of thing. I have a friend who manages a bank and she brings work home, too. point being, unless you've got a job that 100% requires you to be at work to complete it--that means virtually no thinking!--then you're potentially going to have a hard time leaving stuff at home. either you'll bring stuff home intentionally or your mind will drift back to work unintentionally.

Anonymous said...

leaving stuff at work. not at home. grrr.

"Maude Lebowski" said...

i really want to comment on this, but i'll wait and formulate my answer and post on my blog (a little shameless pimping for maude, here. sorry).

what i'd like to immediately comment on is the blackboard idea. i did this in one of my classes a while back and found it successful. i used many of their discussion points that they posted as springboards into class discussion. we had the technology that i could bring up blackboard and project it onto the white board and we could all read the comments and use them to discuss the texts. and to make sure every one commented, i required that they make a certain number of posts/replies before midterm and then between midterm and the final. it sounds a bit tedious, but it was better than grading response papers.

i also assigned each student a text (like 2-4 students a story or novel section) and they were responsible for posting a thread started prior to the day we were reading the text. and then I'd pull those up and if conversation lagged, then the students who posted the starters were responsible for talking about their questions to get the conversation going.

most of the time it works really well. and you can read/count posts in class as you use them for discussion. though i always scanned through them briefly before class just to know what was up.

Dr. Medusa said...

For me, the 9-5 schedule is only a summer option. At my job (and because the person in charge of our scheduling is The Devil), we have little control over our teaching schedules and we rarely get the opportunity to teach the same schedule from semester to semester. I think that's why 9-5ing it this summer feels like such a luxury. I am not working nights on this day and mornings on these two, and there's no guilt involved with not squeezing some kind of work into any and every free block of time. I also tend to have more success with my writing and research, in terms of getting more done in a shorter period of time, when I can keep a steady day-to-day routine.

I think keeping the kind of regular schedule during the school year that you describe is key to being productive and staying sane in this profession. Oops, look at me reading and commenting on blogs while on the clock. Back to it . . .=)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I definitely agree with the comments about getting more efficient the more that one does this. Even though I think I was a good teacher and knew what I was doing when I was a grad student - and I think most grad students *are* good teachers and *do* know what they're doing - it's still nothing compared to the comfort level I have now. Sure, there's always grading to contend with, but one gets more efficient.

I think one difficulty with the 9-5 schedule for me is that I am not a morning person and getting up early kills me (I know, 9's not really early, but to be ready to start work at 9, I'd have to get up at 7, and while that's not really early either, I hate hate HATE to have to get up at a certain time just to make it to a certain place, even if that place would be my own desk at 9. I realize that doesn't make sense and I'm not explaining it well, sorry!). I prefer to teach in the afternoon (ideally it would be around 1 or 2, but life being what it is, complete with the need to fill unpleasant timeslots, I'd much rather teach at 4 or 5 than at 8. KILL ME if I teach at 8 again!), especially because I prefer to prep right before class, and doing that with early morning classes sucks. (For me.)

Thing is, since I will actually be living with my husband again this year, and he has a (roughly) 9-5 schedule, I don't want to live on a schedule completely opposite to his, as that would defeat the purpose of living together! So I'm going to have to adjust somewhat.

I should also point out that I'm pretty much crap at scheduling my time in general anyway - I can do it from day to day but not any further ahead than that. I suck, basically.