Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crazy's Workload, Day 7 and the Week in Review

2 hours - prep, email, deep thoughts. home
2.5 hours - teaching, designed a grading comment sheet, met with a colleague.
4 hours - grading, email. home
1 hour - commented on a student's thesis draft home
1 hour - looked over article and made decisions about incorporating notes (because no, I've not yet sent it - I felt it needed to "age." Fake deadlines are the bomb.) home
10.5 hours

Which brings me to a grand total for the week of..... (drumroll, please).... 38.5 hours.

Totally reasonable, yeah?

Now, is this a "typical" week? This was a question Curmudgeon asked in a comment to yesterday's tally. Well, what I'd say is that it's a "typical" light week. I doubt any week goes by during the semester that I work fewer hours than this. Now, heavy weeks, like the ones preceding this one.... They probably come in around at 60-70, and there are more of those than of these light sort of weeks (I estimate that I have about 5 of these in a 16 week semester). He also asked me about the shift in my workload that's happened this semester. To be honest, I don't think that the shift has really lessened or increased the tally in a demonstrable way - it's just changed the rhythm of the work that I do. So, for example, were I teaching 2 sections of intro to lit right now instead of doing the admin thing, I also would have registered no work this week for that course, as the prep is done and there would have been no grading. The admin thing was almost non-existent time-wise this week because it's been really heavy in recent weeks. So it all balances out.

But so anyway, I do have some closing thoughts on this experiment.

First, on the experiment itself: When in doubt, I chose to underestimate (esp. on things like email and meetings). I did this intentionally because as we all know it's easy to moan in a proportion that far exceeds the actual work that we do. Hell, I've done that at times on this here blog. The point for me was not to justify the profession by crying about the many, many hours I spend working. Or to get people to feel sorry for me (which sometimes is my intention, for it makes me feel better). But honestly, I don't think that the profession needs that justification, or that I need the pity. I think that the work that we do is valuable - however many hours it takes or doesn't take. I also think, however, that it's really valuable to give an estimate of how much time that all of the parts of the job take, as it gives a much more real sense of the work that is involved in educating people. It's not just a matter of talking about shit we love, or of hanging out with students and colleagues. It's a lot of the time a huge amount of bureaucracy (an amount I never could have anticipated even though I taught throughout grad school), a huge amount of busy-work, in addition to the normal teaching, grading, research part of the equation that is most visible. And it does require one to manage one's own time and to be very self-motivated.

One thing that I noticed about my own habits from the experiment is that I've totally internalized my new 3-day-a-week schedule. I get more done when I've got stuff to do, and so this semester, as opposed to in one's previous, I've loaded the bulk of my work into that 3-day period, and the other days are much more slack-filled. When I was on the 5-day-a-week schedule, I was much more inclined to work in shorter bursts - so each workday would be, in a light week like this, about 5-6 hours, and then the weekend would be free. What I see here, though, is that I'm really good at protecting what I conceive of as "my" time. I've kept Mondays and Fridays sacred in all but the rarest of cases (four times over 15 weeks, if I recall correctly), and even if it means working like a dog on the days when I teach, I'd rather do that than make work for myself on my "free" days by going into the office. (This is not to say that I don't work on Mon. and Fri., but it is to say that I don't go to campus and don't do work that always seems to extend for hours and hours and does very little for me).

In general, though, I'd say that what makes the work that I described here different from a "real job" in the "real world" is that every hour clocked was one in which I actively was working. Indeed, the one little block of time where I wasn't I penalized myself. I think back to my hours doing administrative assistant type work in grad school and over summers in undergrad, and I'd estimate that I spent maybe 25 of a 40 hour week (and that's generous) actively working and mentally focused on my work. A workweek was tallied not by time spent productively laboring but rather by hours with one's butt in a cubicle. Now, admittedly, I didn't care about those jobs and none of them was terribly challenging or competitive or meaningful. I was a cog in the machine. But, I'd argue, in looking at what friends not in the profession describe about their lives, that they do not actively work during the entirety of their 40-hour weeks. And so that's where my 38.5 tally doesn't really tell the truth. Because the reality is that if this were a "regular" job, that 38.5 would probably translate into a 45-50 hour week. And so, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that claiming a 60-hour week for academic jobs is probably totally sensible, as even in the light weeks, we're actively working much more than regular folks actually work at work. (At least in office jobs.) And the truth is that in heavy weeks we should probably clock our time in not at 60-70 hours but rather at like 80-90. Because work that requires a lot of focus and concentration is hard. And if that's all we're clocking, is the time spent, then we're fools.

Now, finally, you may be wondering how you, too, can achieve a 38.5 hour week. Because many would claim that they've never experienced such a thing, even if they've got a lighter teaching load than I typically do (and I've had similar weeks when doing the full 4-4). So here are the tips I've got:

  1. Protect your time. Confine meetings and other such stuff to days that you teach whenever possible. (Obviously sometimes this can't be helped. But if a meeting is scheduled on a non-teaching day, then deal with other meetings and administrative crap on that day, too.)
  2. Grading expands to fill the time that you allot for it. Don't allot so much time. That batch of 5-7 page papers I graded in 4 hours? I spent no longer than 15 minutes per paper. And I give a good many comments. This is where I've got to say that having some sort of sheet with comments that you'd give to everybody helps a TON. It also helps with quality control to have such a sheet. The curve - with no tweaking? 2 A's, 4 B's, 4 C's, 4 D's, 2 F's.
  3. Figure out what works and keep doing it. Got a course you had great success with? Teach it semester after semester. Only change one or two things if you get bored or if one or two things didn't work great. See that you can't really accomplish brand new research projects during the academic year? Reserve your "breaks" for that and give yourself permission to slack during the semester.
  4. Teach similar stuff across all of your courses. Maybe not identical, but let's say that you deal with Concept A in a survey. Develop an upper level course that is a more focused look at Concept A. All of your background prep is then done.
  5. Develop a stable of teaching activities and assignments that work across all courses that you can draw on for all courses with very little tweaking.
  6. When students are doing group-work or peer review, do your own shit. I know, this is against all of the Tenets of Good Pedagogy. But interrupting them just makes group stuff take longer and it doesn't necessarily help. Really: you can just make a trip around the room once, and it's fine. Otherwise, you can eavesdrop and do your own shit and it will be fine. That said, I always reconvene after group stuff, and I collect some written record of it, so it's not like there's no accountability. It's just that I use the time I've got as efficiently as possible.
  7. Forgive yourself when you cut corners. Make your priorities and stick to them, and if something at the bottom of the list doesn't get done, well, then, fuck it.
I'm sure I could come up with more, but I'll tell you, these are the ones that immediately come to mind that have served me well and have made my life on the tenure track in a not-so-cushy job totally tenable. That said? My first three years were BRUTAL. Never a week under 40 hours in that first 3 years.


Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Nice series. And for the record, I don't know that there is an easy way to do a 'typical' week - maybe just lots of ways to construct weeks that hopefully aren't completely atypical.

In any case, I've enjoyed following this, and I think it might be a useful thing for a lot of to think about. When I'm done whining about my sunshine v. workload issues, I might post about that later.

Liz Kleinfeld said...

Regarding #6: one of the smartest things I started doing as a teacher is leaving the room for the first 5 minutes of any group activity and then laying low when I come back in. Students are more independent when the teacher isn't around to direct them. They go deeper faster, they do the heavy lifting rather than relying on me to do it. So I wholeheartedly agree with your advice and actually think following it can IMPROVE one's teaching.

Shaun Huston said...

Thanks for doing this exercise. I thought about trying it out as well, but this year is so atypical for me - I'm serving as department chair and Faculty Senate President - I decided it wouldn't tell me much about my work life (and, honestly, I'm not sure I want to know how much time I'm having to devote to meetings, administrative functions, signing paper work, etc.) I most appreciate your observation on how the work week in academia ebbs and flows. For a long time I carried around the idea that I needed to mirror "normal" work to justify my pay, and my time. I've finally become comfortable with the idea that this work doesn't, well, work that way. And, as your log shows, I've realized that one important difference is that being faculty is, essentially, a seven day a week job and one that you carry with you. The first thing I do when I get home each day is check my e-mail. Partly for my personal messages, but also, of course, I check my work e-mail, too. And so I may end up using my first half hour or so "after work" responding to students, colleagues, and so on. Nothing is "typical" about this job.

Limon de Campo said...

If I could just incorporate your advice, I think I could rule the world. This post is exactly what I needed--thank you.

gwinne said...

Really interesting to read the results of your experiment. I've tried logging hours and ultimately found it impossible to do so, because of the way that work bleeds into life, esp. when working from home. To give a concrete example, I just took a 15 minute walk as a "break" from work. But during that 15 minutes I figured out something I needed to figure out on a writing project, that hours of sitting at my desk couldn't accomplish. So is thinking "work" only if I do it at my desk?