Thursday, May 31, 2012

Time management - and the persistent topic of "balance" in faculty lfie

Over the years, the issues of balancing the multiple demands of faculty life is a recurring theme. Today, I read "The Importance of Time Management" by Nate Kreuter on the Inside Higher Ed site (access the essay directly at I found myself nodding my head during the entire read. Of course, this meant that I simply had to share this essay with Communication and Higher Education readers.

There were many insightful comments, but my favorite comments included,

  • "If you’re lucky, when you begin an academic appointment your expected contributions within each category will be clearly articulated in writing, possibly in your contract, in your department’s tenure requirements, or in college and university policies."
  •  "Ideally, tenure-track faculty members are shielded by their departments from oppressively large service responsibilities."
  • "Departments that require too much service from faculty members too early in a career are setting those individuals up for failure."

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My ultimate favorite thought from Kreuter was the reminder that "time management should also include more than teaching, scholarship, and service. Effective time management also means reserving time for recover, and time for fun, time for family, and time for friends."

Remember to read more great essays like this one at Inside Higher Ed.

See former posts about balancing faculty life (NOTE: these are only a FEW of the mentions we've had on this issue):

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Space, work, and energy

Throughout the years our university has worked to rebuild from the massive impact of Hurricane Katrina. I began my time at our university in 2007 when we inhabited FEMA trailers with library study carrels as "desks" -- half of the FEMA trailer building was shared by two departments and over 20 faculty members with one common phone line. It was cramped, loud, and always busy.

29-B...the half nearer the phone pole, was the former home for 23 faculty in Arts and Humanities and my first "office" location

During the next three and a half years, faculty were slowly moved out of the cramped spaces to a variety of available locations across campus. Our department was split across three buildings and struggled with connecting. These locations were not always ideal, but they were often followed by the thought, "It's better than those trailers!" Eventually, all of our department was relocated to actual buildings with semi-shared office spaces. My next space housed six faculty members with semi-private walls (did not reach the ceiling), but which seemed so wonderful!

Semi-private offices on the second floor of a rehabilitated building on campus - slightly cramped, but better than before!

Today, we see the exciting removal of those original temporary FEMA buildings. We also experience a remarkably regular pattern of moving on this campus. We are constantly shifting as one building gets torn down, a floor gets remodeled, or space is reallocated.

This past semester, I was marked for another relocation (my third in five years). After several successful grants, a new minor to run, and additional years to accumulate STUFF, this move was not met with the same excitement as my last move (out of the FEMA building). My last move (described in "Communicating through and with our work environment"--see link below) was a year and a half ago. It was exciting since we could feel the positive growth and recovery all around us. I stated then, "My excitement over the move has startled me. I didn't realize how much my work space impacted the feelings I had when I went to work or as I tried to tackle certain elements of work." However, with this latest move (and my 10 boxes of grant equipment/materials), I couldn't muster up any excitement. I was, after all, told we would probably only be in the new locations for about six months before moving again as another construction problem would push us out of that space.

So, I fought off my ennui with caffeine. Pulled my hair into a pony tail, donned my old blue jeans, and came into campus during "break" to unpack my office. Six hours of moving and unpacking later, I can gladly say that there IS still a fun energy that comes from a new space. Even when that space is temporary, even when that space will be shared with at least one other faculty member, even when covered in dust and wondering if the air conditioner will work at all this summer.

The latest location. Nice windows and more space, though it will be shared with at least one other faculty member (no walls or dividers).
More grant equipment and materials means the space is GREATLY appreciated. This newest location is on the second floor of a different rehabilitated building on campus. We will be here until at least December 2012 before we move again.
We are making it. We are recovering. We are building back a university that was brought to its knees a few short years ago. In short, we are willing to face the temporary discomforts and the occasional stress to have the honor to work with our amazing students and to help, even in a small way, with our institutional mission. 

Ponder your work space. Consider a small move. Reposition your desk, bring in new artwork, shift around your shelves, or bring in lamps instead of always using the overhead lights. Try to absorb all of the positive energy from your space that you can--even if it is only YOUR space for a short while.

Consider also:
"Communicating through and with our work environment" - November 2010
"Hurricane preparedness through technology" - June 2011

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Planning for break

After a semester ends, I sit and look over the list of "to do" items that must get done before the next semester begins (and these are items that, in some cases, were pushed to the background throughout the busy semester). Like many academics, I teach in the summer. Since I am at a smaller institution, that means I am on summer rotation every year, teaching two to three courses. This schedule can easily lead to some burnout. I try my best to stave off the lack of energy that can defeat the potential productivity of my "break" times.

I have almost two weeks before the summer classes begin and a list of items to tackle BEFORE another group of new students file into their desks. These items are almost always related to research, writing, and grants. I do tend to prioritize my teaching and classroom work throughout the semester. This need to write (generally while facing deadlines) can lead to a mental meltdown when I am already exhausted at the end of a term.

I am trying to embrace a few days of complete down time before tackling the writing. I used to avoid a transition time and just dive right into the next deadline. These days, I am finding I need a bit of a mental reprieve AND that a few days away from my "to do" list really can help me to be more productive.

Around my household, we have dubbed these days "off" as "anti-academic" days. At the end of term, I avoid my email (hey, it is only for two days!), I read only "fun" fiction or biographies that I can't find time for during the semester (this break it is going to be The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova -- I loved her book, The Historian), I garden, I watch my favorite movies (though they do clearly mark me as a nerd as these include "Lord of the Rings," "Star Trek," "Sweeney Todd," and, of course, all things super-hero!), and I spend hours skating at the park. In short, I get as mentally far away from the task lists and the oppressive deadlines as I can--even if it is just for a few short days.

Do you plan for a true "break" in academia? If not, you might give it a try. Those true breaks allow for a calmness and a focus in your writing and course design.

And now, I'm swapping out this keyboard and mouse for a garden trowel and book.

Consider also: "Vacation on the tenure track" and "Our work during our breaks"

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Working through deadline distress

 You feel it coming. That slow throb in the back of your mind. It grows to a low rumble, a background noise that sounds like a subway swooshing along below your feet as you walk from place to place. Soon, though, that subterranean speeding sounds inch closer to the front of your brain. The low tone begins a steady, pulsating metamorphosis until it changes entirely. It is no longer a sound, a throb, or a background noise. It is all you can think about. It emerges completely with a roar, clawing its way to the front of your mind and to the top of your "priorities" list. This beast, this deadline, lives and grows throughout its life-cycle.

One of the best parts of faculty life is the ability to move through different types of projects and tasks. Each day can be different. But there are times where this variability can create stress. In fact, as soon as I embrace a large project I tend to have only a few moments of pure excitement about that project before that low throb begins way in the back of my mind. It won't be long, I now know, before the deadline distress emerges.

How do we balance the need to put our whole focus on one project while others are clamoring for our attention (seemingly) all of the time? I usually feel some level of guilt while working on Project A when I know Project B is waiting or Task A is waiting. This leads to distress about meeting ALL of the deadlines and they all start clawing and pushing their way to the front of my mind. It becomes exhausting.

To stave of the hordes of deadline-dragons, I am always on the lookout for organizational strategies and try every productivity app, program, and book that comes out. I admit it, I am mildly obsessed with personal productivity and find books like "Eat that frog!" constantly living on my e-reader. I have a few tried and true strategies that work well for me. Here's how I juggle some of these tasks as these crazy end of the semester deadlines all screech for attention at the same time.
  • Get organized. No surprise here, if you're a long-time reader. I love to organizing everything. I have a master folder of all of my publication calls, grants, and any "to do" items like submissions to conferences. Keeping these short descriptions all in one place helps me focus and forces me to avoid stacking too many things on my plate at once. I typically put these in order by which item would gain me the most points in my tenure/promotion/annual review packet. This gives me a feeling of control over the tasks.
  • Mark on a master calendar (digital or paper, the idea is to note the deadline date) the last day of submission (for grades, publication, revisions, etc.) and then work my way to an earlier deadline, several days (if possible, I will work two weeks ahead) in advance of the actual deadline. This is my deadline. Yes, I basically lie to myself to get going! It is like setting your alarm clock's time forward so you feel more rushed and supposedly get out the door faster. It is a lie, but it always works well for me.
  • Break the task/project down. Again, this can be done digitally or on paper. I list the major elements that relate to this task and give them each a mini-deadline well in advance of my actual deadline (if possible, some emergency items do come up). I try to also note any thoughts about each part of the project, brainstorm ideas, and revisit this little calendar for each project as I start working so I can track where I am and where I need to be. This also allows me to note that some things just take more time or simply fall off of my radar all together. 
  • Let some things fall off the calendar. Some things won't get done. This is a hard reality for the uber-organized. A search committee duty is sprung on you or you get called to serve in the stead of your Chair at a meeting. You get sick. An assignment flops and you have to spend unexpected time working with a class. Allow the lower-priority items to be the ones that fall off. Then, schedule a time (usually after the semester ends) to revisit the item, but if it is crunch time on a grant, a huge class grading cycle, and a conference is taking place, then sometimes I have to table a lower-priority item. I am working on NOT feeling guilty about this, but admittedly struggle with a feeling of failure when this happens. This is currently the case on a collaborative project that is incredibly interesting, but that I just can't get to it among higher level priorities. 
    • Get it back! When something does fall off, I work diligently to create a plan to pull it back together and communicate with any interested parties. I also try to ignore the low rumble of the deadline that was shoved forcefully behind all other deadlines. This is an ongoing challenge for me. It is related to "saying no" and learning boundaries, which was written about in the earlier blog, "The super power of productive faculty" - Sept. 2011. 
    • Figure it out! Why did ProjectXYZ fall off? Did you lose interest? Was the semester too busy at that point? If so, this knowledge allows us to avoid scheduling during that time in the future--block those dates in the calendar and protect them. Tracking your lack of productivity is as important as tracking your productivity. It informs us about our work cycles, energy levels, and options for the future.   
  • Make the deadlines mean something. Rewards. Bribery. Self-delusion. 
    • Rewards. When I meet a mini-deadline or major deadline, I get a new e-book or a few hours wandering around my amazing city playing "tourist" and absorbing the culture. 
    • Bribery. I am not ashamed to bribe myself, "finish writing this last page and you can go sit outside with a cup of tea and a new novel." When we're weary, a little bribe can go a long way.
    • Self-delusion. One of my most effective techniques is to tell myself how the future will be better once the task is accomplished, "Think how much easier it will be once ItemX is off my mind!" or "I'll have so much more time when I finish ItemX." As if there aren't 20 other items to take ItemX's place. Strange, but somehow it works every time...
  • Remember the goal. Check back (often) with your TENURE and PROMOTION requirements as you organize, prioritize, and focus in on certain projects. Explore what your institution considers "progress" and consider re-prioritizing what may or may not be allowed to "fall off" the calendar. Ask a mentor or senior faculty that you trust to help you prioritize if you are struggling in your first years.
Yes, it is the end of the semester, but you do not have to fall prey to the demons that emerge during deadline distress. Slow down, plan, prioritize, and focus on the bigger goals.
Happy end of the semester!

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