29 December 2011

(In)flexibility

An interesting discussion is going on towards the end of the comments to my last post, about whether academic schedules are flexible, how flexible one should be in scheduling oneself outside of what one's college requires ("mindful inflexibility," in Sitzfleisch's marvelous phrase, is one possibility), and similar topics, so let's haul it out into a post of its own.

Here are my thoughts, probably rather jumbled:

Academic schedules are in some ways completely inflexible. When you're scheduled to teach a class, you have to show up. Sure, it's possible to get a sub every now and again, or show a movie, but at the college level, who is going to substitute? A professor, by definition, is the ranking expert on a topic in a department. In larger departments, you may actually have three or four people who cover the Renaissance and can substitute for each other (even if one really specializes in religious prose, s/he can probably manage a Shakespeare course for one day), and in smaller departments, you may have a larger proportion of generalists, but by and large, if you're teaching in your area, then it's you who needs to show up, and if you don't, you'd better be pretty damned sick or pretty damned well required to be elsewhere. (Graduate students may be another option to cover a course, but again, you have to both be in a department that teaches grads and have a grad who knows enough to teach a class on the scheduled topic.)

Thus, everything else in your life works around your course schedule. You don't take half a sick day to go to the dentist unless you're in agony. If you're scheduled to teach at 8:00 a.m. or 7:00 p.m. or whatever other time, you have to be there. Sometimes, as in my first semester in my job, you're scheduled for 6-9 one evening followed by 9-10 the next morning, which can be rough, as Dr. Crazy recently attested. Of course there are people outside of academia who do night work, or work rotating shifts, as nurses and firefighters, for example, sometimes have to. But mostly people with office jobs work something like 9-5, maybe 8-6 or some other minor variation.

There are some schools that require so many office hours that you're going to be on campus effectively 9-5, M-F. There are some departments with control-freak chairs who insist that their faculty be on campus 9-5, M-F (I'm told that there was one such in LRU's English department, before my time; the night owls were profoundly relieved when he stepped down). If you're in the sciences, then you may need to be in the lab for long and regular hours.

But in the humanities, you don't need a lab or special equipment. You really just need books, paper, and something to write with; or maybe you need a computer, but we (academics) nearly all have our own personal computers and/or laptops and/or tablet computers, these days. And that means we can work anywhere, anytime.

Therein lie both problems and opportunities. If people are always dropping into your office to shoot the breeze when you're trying to grade or do research, then of course you want to go to the library, the coffeeshop, or your home office so you can get something done. If you're a night owl then you want to work noon to nine, or even six p.m. to three a.m.; if you're a lark, you may long for a five a.m. to one p.m. schedule and be totally done in by those night classes. If (like me) you dislike shopping in crowds, then you want to get your errands done early when the stores are quiet, even though that ruins a morning's work time, because shopping on a busy Saturday afternoon is such a nerve-shattering experience. And so there you are working on Saturday afternoon because you need to make up for the morning you spent on important Life Maintenance tasks.

I have observed that people who spent two-three years in the office world, working 9-5 (or similar) really are better at organizing their time and sticking to schedules than a lot of the career-academic types. Shorter periods don't tend to be so instructive. In the year I took between undergrad and grad school, I did have a 9-5 job. I also had two other part-time jobs, one Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, and one that was MWTh evenings and sometimes weekend afternoons, and on my lunch breaks and on the bus I studied Latin. After that, my grad school schedule was a breeze.

So if you're an organized academic, then you work out your mindfully inflexible plan: Monday 7-9, 1-7; Tuesday 7-8, 10-5; Wednesday 7-8, 1-10; Thursday 1-5; whatever it may happen to be that gets you to your classes, your meetings, your research time, your grading time, your dentist appointment, your grocery shopping, and your exercise time. (What exercise time? some of you say. Well, some of us would be incapable of work if we didn't work out, so we find it. Here again, there can be flexibility: I've read a lot of academic books and articles on the elliptical trainer or exercise bike, though the treadmill doesn't work so well for reading and the pool is right out.)

If you're not so organized, or if life circumstances conspire to ruin your plan, then there you are, working at midnight on Saturday to make whatever deadline it is this time.

So, go ahead: are you flexible, inflexible, rolling with the punches, powering through on caffeine, forced by health considerations to look after yourself, sandwiched between your small children and your aged parents so that you get your work done in doctors' waiting rooms and on planes, early-career working 80 hours a week to get your prep and research done, late-career and able to say No and focus on your own priorities? What do you do, what would you like to do, what do you observe your colleagues doing, what advice would you give others?

10 comments:

Ink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ink said...

The schedule itself is inflexible but I am always trying to be flexible in working around it. Which leads to working at odd times on a regular basis (e.g., from 10 pm to 2 am if that's the only window I can squeeze out after teaching, office hours, committee meetings, child wrangling, etc.).

Office hours are the LEAST productive time, in my humble opinion, due to the constant but necessary interruptions.

I don't have any advice for anyone else because I'm just barely managing to make it happen myself...felt good to think out loud here, though. ;)

Sisyphus said...

I really like that idea of "mindful inflexibility." The phrase for some reason put me in mind of the financial planning idea of "pay yourself first."

In the finance realm, it means to commit to paying into your investment and retirement accounts even before dealing with important stuff like rent and bills, instead of going from immediate bill to immediate bill and then discovering you have put off dealing with the big picture stuff until it happens. (So if you "pay yourself first" and have no money to spare for nice clothes or a vacation at the end of the month it is very different from always keeping up on your bills and trips and have nothing to retire on years later.)

I think the big arc of productivity for getting tenure (or getting that tt job) is a similar case of paying yourself first. What activities are the long-term investments in your career and what are the minor details you should make sure get cleaned up sometime before the end of the month? "Paying yourself first" doesn't mean literally getting it done first thing in the day (cause I know many people disagree with me about writing first thing in the am) but to make sure that what *really* matters gets absolute priority, despite all the little things that seem more immediately pressing or have an immediately gratifying payoff.

To tie this all back to flexibility, I think that yes, academic schedules are incredibly flexible, but this lack of structure can distract us from continually keeping our priorities in mind and "mindfully" cultivating a structure where we pay into what is most important first.

Anastasia said...

Yeah, I should clarify that it's not that I don't think you people work. I do. It's just how it sounds because the job is so dissimilar from other kinds of employment in so many ways.

Belle said...

Great topic. I'm one of those who worked outside of academia for a long time, so for me the flexibility of an academic life is just astonishingly wonderful. Having time to think and getting paid (even very poorly) for reading is cool.

I tend to over-commit my time, but as Sis said, I do pay myself first. Most times. There are office hours, which are dedicated to my students. If I get anything else done in those blocks, great. If not, well, the time is designated for students anyway, whether or not any show up. I schedule myself an afternoon away from campus - ideally research time, but that time is inviolable. It's off campus, no apologies. I noticed that I resent mightily anybody else trying to infringe on 'my' schedule. The relative lack of structure is what gets me; as Sis said, it's distracting.

anotherdamnedmedievalist said...

I really like the idea, and will try to incorporate that into my New Year's plans... must think how.

Janice said...

This year I went ahead and drafted a schedule that blocks out all of my weekday hours. Some are teaching hours. Some are office hours. Some are set aside for meetings. The rest are mealtimes and research/writing time.

That's made me a lot more careful about letting myself commit to anything else: if I see it infringing on my scheduled research time, it's much more of an imposition than if the new obligation just falls into nebulous "unscheduled time".

My other useful adjustment has been to close my office door when it isn't office hours! It's amazing how much more productive I can be if people think I'm not available for every random thing!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'm working on doing something like that for the spring, though I'm starting with planning the classes I'm teaching and working out how much time it will take to grade each assignment; then figuring out "3 hours grading on Wednesday, 3 on Friday, 1 on Saturday," and putting that on the calendar. After that I'll work out how many hours of research can be fitted into a week, and the last step will be the actual scheduling of which three hours go on grading, etc. It would help to have a schedule of meetings for one of my committees; traditionally spring is its lighter time, but I know we will have some work to do this term.

Sitzfleisch said...

I'm so glad to see this discussion. It's fun to see a phrase "take off," and I hope my writing can take off as quickly. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened much over the holidays. Now that the quarter is beginning, I think I'll do much better. I actually am much more efficient when I have more to do.

I've got one of *those* quarters, with class from 6-10 one night and from 7-11 the next morning. Ack! But, if I can, indeed, remain mindfully inflexible, I think it will all work out just fine.

Janice--you are so right about the importance of closing the office door. I was loathe to do this at first, as I wanted to "prove" that I was at work. Of course, I ended up getting nothing done, so while I was proving my presence day-to-day, I had nothing to show for it. Now, people might think I'm gone, but I'm actually producing work that shows up on the CV. So much more satisfying ... and, frankly, so much more useful in the end, since it's the CV that really matters for tenure and promotion. Maybe this is what you were getting at, Sisyphus. I just love your parallel of academic scheduling with financial planning.

The holidays were a wash for me, once my family returned on the 23rd. I hope you all are doing better!

Sitzfleisch said...

(posting to get email alerts)