Time Sinks and Black Holes

by Leo Reynolds on Flickr:

About a week ago my husband pointed out to me, “Hey, you’re not coughing any more.” I hadn’t noticed, but yeah — he was right. After a three-week battle with bronchitis and terrible sleep, my cough had apparently subsided, finally. I’m still not back to 100% operating capacity, but I’m on the mend.

During those early weeks of the semester, while I hoped my sickness-induced exhaustion wasn’t as apparent to my students as it was to me (and while I wondered why I had gotten sick yet again), I was thinking a lot about “burnout” — about whether there is such a condition, what its symptoms might be, what causes it, and how one might treat it. I ask because I’m pretty sure I’ve got it. Or at least I had it, and I’m finally getting a second wind.

As I’ve written about before, I did some pretty intensive administrative work during the first five years of my academic career. I still felt compelled to try to keep on top of my work as a scholar, too, since these were the years I was supposed to be establishing myself in my field. I managed to publish — not as much as I would’ve liked, but enough, I hope. My service load today — both official appointments and unofficial, ad hoc “we’d really value your input!” situations (I was sucked into a few of these even while on sabbatical in Spring 2010) — is nothing like when I was our program director, but it’s still kind of weighty. I keep hoping that maybe someday I’ll get a break. But then, my colleagues kindly remind me, if I get tenure this year, I’ll be expected to serve on even more committees — reappointment and review committees, in particular — starting next year.

There’s a lot I wish I’d done differently during the first seven years on the tenure track. I realize how fortunate I am to have even had a chance to traverse the tenure track; that route is open to fewer and fewer folks these days. But I think a lot of what I’ve learned would apply just as much, if not more, to contingent faculty — of which we have a huge corps at my institution.

So here are some new rules I’m trying to train myself to live by:

Is your office a black hole of productivity? Via thebadastronomer on Flickr:

If you don’t have an ideal on-campus work space, watch out for all those in-between-appointment time sinks. I’ve had six different desks, in five different offices, in eight years. I’ve never had much in the way of on-campus storage space (and I was never eager to schlep all my crap from office to office as I moved each year), so I’ve always kept all my books and teaching notebooks at home. Except for those years when I was a program director, I shared my office with at least one other faculty member. And up until last year, our IT department was all PC (Mac exceptions were made only for faculty who taught design) — which meant that much of the software I used for my research wasn’t available for my work computer.

Long story short: the only work I’ve been able to do in my on-campus office is (1) meet with students, (2) review admissions folders or attend to other administrative work that doesn’t require intense concentration, and (3) socialize or (and for this I am grateful) have lovely, productive discussions with faculty colleagues. Most of the important work — prepping for class, responding to complicated student emails, reviewing student coursework, reviewing theses, doing research for committee work, writing committee reports, or, last and often least of all, doing my own research — happens elsewhere.

I’m often on campus for meetings scattered throughout the day. And because ours is a graduate program with classes in the late afternoons and evenings, I often head home between 8 and 10:30 pm — home, finally, to do the hard work. I try to find things I can do in my campus office, or in a coffee shop, during those awkward two-hour breaks between meetings or classes or office-hour appointments — but it’s hard to write a book review when your office-mate’s holding office hours…or when the media you need to prep for tomorrow’s class are at home, a 40-minute train ride away.

It depresses me to think of how much time I’ve lost in these between-meeting time sinks over the years. Which is why I must accept this:

You can’t feel guilty about missing meetings that are scheduled at times that totally totally screw up your day. I had a great conversation with a senior colleague today; we were on a bus with a bunch of students, heading upstate for a class field trip (which was awesome, by the way). “I’m often on campus until 10:30 at night,” he said. “For my daytime-teaching colleagues to ask me to do a 10am meeting is like me asking them to meet at 4am.” Damn straight.

[Update: the day after I wrote this post, I agreed to co-chair a regular meeting on Mondays at 10am — the only time that worked for every other member of the committee. Except me. I teach until 10pm on Mondays and get home after 11. I am such a pushover!]

When I’m invited to join a committee (and especially when I’m chairing one), I feel obligated to pull my weight. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I always like university service, I do derive some satisfaction by being involved in a meaningful way. But when doing so means that I compromise on my productivity in other areas of responsibility — or, more likely in my case, that I simply go to bed even later than I normally do (3am-ish) so I can still get everything done — my desire to be accommodating proves deleterious in so many ways. Not least of all to my health.

This raises a related issue:

Yes, it’s an honor to be invited to contribute to important initiatives and hold big-deal leadership positions. But sometimes you have to gracefully decline such “honors.” I haven’t lived by this rule at all. The price I’ve paid has been in hours of sleep, peace of mind, and ability to concentrate on the myriad responsibilities that all seem equally important to me.

These invitations put junior faculty in sticky positions. Senior faculty need to talk to their junior colleagues about how to consider such offers and invitations, and how to decline them gracefully when necessary.

You can say no to students and still serve them well. I’ve had students who claim not to be able to visit during my regularly scheduled office hours — despite the fact that I’m happy to chat on the phone, Skype, etc (I also do lots of advising via email). So on a few occasions I’ve agreed to come to campus at a time I wouldn’t normally be there. That’s a 40-minute subway ride each way for a half-hour- to hour-long meeting.

Sometimes they forget to show up — or, on a few insanely frustrating occasions, they’ll text me at our scheduled meeting time to say, So sorry — stuck at work! When this sh** happens, I so want to bill them for my time 🙂

Yes, it’s nice to be accommodating, to not be unreasonably inflexible, to recognize that students, too, have unpredictable lives — and that their occasional mistakes are a result of those inevitable snafus, not a sign of their reprehensible irresponsibility. Yet all those alternative office-hour arrangements, those assignment extensions, the students who neeeeed you to write last-minute letters of recommendation for them because they forgot about an impending application deadline, the other students who need you to get them out of a financial aid jam because they misread a form, the students who come to you in a panic because their other advisors never wrote back and the proposal’s due tomorrow!, etc. — as well as the colleagues who need your input on reports for committees to which you have no official obligation — if you accommodated all this stuff (as I’ve done on far too many occasions) you lose your own time. You miss out on the weekend and Spring Break research-and-writing sessions you promised yourself. You fail to respond to that CFP in time. You’re too tense to always enjoy teaching and meeting with students — which should be among the most enjoyable activities of the week.

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Long story short: don’t be like me. Set boundaries. Say no. Those who know me well know that I’ll never shirk my responsibilities, and I’ll never be anything less than a fully engaged teacher and university citizen. But in order to balance these commitments and a commitment to my life and health outside of school, I have to start taking my own advice. I had to make a few years’ worth of bad decisions to learn how important boundaries are.

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