Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Muscle through midterms: faculty survival tips

There are many things that I love about university life. I appreciate the ability to have a new, fresh group of students every semester. I love the interaction we can share in the classroom and the growth I see at the end of a term. Researching various areas of interest and sharing new ideas can be the best part of a busy day. Yes, even the (often laborious, somewhat thankless) service is on my "pro" list of university  life. Knowing that your voice has a place in shaping the university through committee contributions can be incredibly rewarding. There are many joys in this career. Midterms, however, are not one of them.

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Let's face it. As midterm week approaches everyone on campus has lost their shiny outlook on the new semester. We are all holding on, tenaciously, to stay on task. Most of us start to feel overwhelmed and productivity can stall. Our students, staff, faculty, and administrators can fall victim to the midterm slump. The students start getting sick, they start missing classes, they start sending you a million emails such as the one I got this week:  "wat did we do 2day? i was sick." You may start to wish you could copy and paste "It is on the syllabus" into every correspondence you have. As the midterm week gets nearer, students' tones start to become more frantic. Students you haven't seen for weeks start to show back up in class. Your committee load gets heavier. And, it never fails, something happens to derail your productivity such as the news that you will be moving offices or the appointment to a search committee (or two!).  Despite life's attempts to pull you away from your productivity, you can muscle through midterms. Here are some tips:

  1. Plan early for midterms. Now, unless you have a time machine (if you do, PLEASE let me share that resource!), this may not be applicable to you at THIS point in the semester, but you can work it in your course preps for next term. To plan effectively, try to stagger the timing or your assignments in your courses (or the types of assignments (essays, multiple-choice exams, projects, presentations) so you don't experience a flood of grading 200 essays in less than a week.
  2. Approach midterm week with a plan. I schedule the most time-consuming or mentally draining grading first thing each morning of midterm week. Then, my tasks get easier as the day goes on AND I can move more efficiently first thing in the morning, so I am actually working faster with a higher quality response process. 
  3. Beware the time eaters! Emails, tweets, IMs, phone calls and drop-ins can all whittle away at the entire week! If you are not in office hours, don't have your email open or your hand hovering near your phone. Schedule appropriate DAILY time to manage the increased communication from your students. Doing this will allow you to keep on task and not find yourself drawn away on a 20-minute time suck answering a student email. You will answer it effectively and within 24-hours, but it won't derail your grading/writing/research if you schedule it in. 
  4. Of course, this does not mean you become unavailable. You are prioritizing and protecting your time, so stay focused and keep that office door wide open during office hours. Stay on IM during office hours. Have your email in-box ready during office hours. But don't spend an entire day on the small tasks while falling even further behind on the big tasks.
  5. Bribe yourself! "When I finish my midterm grading, I will _____ (sleep for the entire weekend, wear pajamas and watch my favorite movie, get a nice dinner out with friends, get a weekend in the garden, explore a local museum display, etc.)" I find a little carrot dangling in front of me can often be JUST enough to power through a few more essays or emails and stay on target for the week.

You can muscle through the midterm slump! Stay focused, work diligently, and the balance to this sometimes hectic week WILL come. 

See also Tools to Avoid the Midterm Slump from last fall's midterm season.

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