Privilege and Saying No

I want to continue my series on saying no in academia by addressing the role that privilege plays in saying no and supporting others who say no.

I have a ton of privilege in academia:

  • I’m white, which means I am never asked, by virtue of my skin color, to represent an entire race of people. I look like the prototypical female academic.
  • I’m a native White English speaker, which means the English I grew up speaking and writing is the English of academia. How lucky for me!
  • I’m tenured, which means my job is safe even if I am perceived as difficult or not a team player.
  • I’m a Full Professor, which means I never have to go through the promotion process again at my institution, so as with being tenured, there are very few material consequences for me if I am perceived as difficult.

All of this means that I don’t have much to lose when I say no to a service request. The decisions I make about how much time and energy to put toward service requests are relatively low stakes for me, and I can make those decisions largely without worrying about how senior colleagues, the chair, the dean, and the provost will judge me. If they judge me negatively because of the decisions I make, I may have to deal with the emotional labor of navigating workplace conflict, and I don’t want to minimize that because it is exhausting, but there is very unlikely to be any significant material impact on my career.

Before I had tenure, I felt pressured to take on every service “opportunity” that was offered to me. A number of factors contributed to that pressure:

  • I was typically invited to participate in service by someone who would ultimately have a say in my tenure bid: a senior colleague, the chair, the dean, or the provost. I was afraid that if I said no, they would vote against me when I went up for tenure.
  • Service was generally presented by these people as a “great opportunity” for me, and I had yet to understand what a load of bullshit that usually is. I trusted that these people had my best career interests in mind. Yes, I was naïve enough to believe that others genuinely wanted me to succeed and would only bring me opportunities they truly thought would help my tenure bid. Just writing that sentence feels absurd, but it is what I thought was true.
  • Because the standard for service work in place when I went up for tenure was very vague, I always felt it was possible for someone to look at my service record and find it lacking. What exactly is “significant service” or “leadership”? If what counts as enough isn’t defined clearly, someone who doesn’t like you can always interpret your record as lacking.

Once I had tenure, I immediately felt the weight of these factors lift. I knew I would still have to go up for promotion and be judged, but I figured that if the service I had done pre-tenure was deemed “enough,” then I could just maintain my current service load and not go beyond it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, and I see regularly that once faculty get tenure, their service work becomes much more focused on what they are actually invested in.

That lifting of pressure to say yes that I felt when I got tenure will NEVER be felt by faculty who aren’t in tenure lines. This means adjunct faculty and folks in non-tenure lines will ALWAYS feel those very real pressures to say yes. For folks whose jobs are up for renewal every semester or every year or every few years, the worry that being perceived as uncooperative or not a team-player could cost them their livelihood NEVER goes away.

I am still asked to do more service than I suspect my male colleagues are—for more on this, see my post, “On Having to Say No Over and Over”—but because of my privilege, I am able to say no without ever worrying that my job is in jeopardy. This is why I feel strongly that those of us with privilege must actively create conditions that protect our colleagues with less privilege from being exploited through service requests.

Unfortunately, I witness many senior faculty taking the attitude that because they were terribly exploited as junior faculty or adjuncts, everyone should have to go through that. I actually was in a meeting one time, before I had tenure, in which a senior colleague said, “Adjunct faculty are used to getting the shaft. Why should we change that?,” as if “giving a colleague the shaft” is a normal, reasonable thing to do in a professional setting. Others in the room laughed at the comment, and when I told the chair about it, they, too, laughed.

I have another colleague who calls this attitude part of the “academic cycle of abuse.” We replicate for others below us the conditions we experienced ourselves. If we had to do ridiculous amounts of service with little or no reward, then damn it, others should, too. It becomes normalized.

I believe those of us with privilege must break this cycle of abuse. I talked in my last post about supporting folks when they say no, but to really break the cycle of abuse, we need to understand that faculty in precarious positions may not ever say no because of the pressures I mentioned above. To break the cycle of abuse then we need to go beyond supporting folks who say no by actually creating fewer “opportunities” for service. There is so much busy work in academia—it doesn’t really all need to get done, and of the work that does need to get done, it doesn’t all need to get done now. With the U.S. facing both a pandemic and a rebellion, perhaps Fall 2020 is the perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and suspend all service that doesn’t actually have to be done during the fall. At my institution, tenure clocks are being paused and sabbaticals are being delayed—it seems perfectly reasonable to me that non-essential service could also be suspended. That would give us an opportunity to think more deliberately about what actually needs to be done and by whom.

We need to think carefully about how our actions shape academic workplaces for others. Exploiting junior faculty will not lessen any exploitation we experienced. Do we want to work in an abusive environment? If not, then if our privilege allows it, we must not engage in abusive practices, be accountable when we do engage in abusive practices, and actively work to end abusive practices for all of our colleagues.

Support Others in Protecting Their Time

At the end of my last post, “The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity,” I listed a few things folks with tenure (or in other positions of relative privilege) can do to push back on the culture of defaulting to yes when it comes to service work. In this post, I want to expand on what we can do to support our colleagues who say no (or would say no if they felt that there was support for such a thing).

If we want a culture in which we feel supported in protecting our own time and energy, then we need to help build that culture by supporting others in protecting their time and energy. There are many subtle ways we undermine people who say no. Sometimes we undermine through what we say to the person saying no:

  • “Are you sure?” This implies that the no-er is making an error in judgment to pass up this opportunity, and implies that the speaker’s judgment (that the no-er should do the thing) is superior to the no-er’s judgment. This is an attempt to make the no-er second-guess their decision.
  • “It won’t take long.” This oversimplifies service to being only about time. In fact, even a service task that can be done quickly increases cognitive load and requires both emotional and intellectual labor. The time involved is only part of the equation.
  • “I trust you to do a good job.” This approach strokes the ego of the no-er, making them feel valuable, appreciated, and special. But there are ways to feel valuable, appreciated, and special through activities that are more recognized as capital in academia, such as scholarship.
  • “If you don’t do it, it might fall to so-and-so.” This is the more sinister cousin of the previous approach. It combines the ego-boosting of the previous approach with a dose of paranoia and tries to put responsibility on the no-er for the potential damage so-and-so might do. But corralling so-and-so is not the no-er’s responsibility.
  • “Why can’t you do this?” This approach challenges the no-er’s notion that they have a right to control how they spend their time and energy. No-ers don’t need to answer this question but often feel compelled to because of its open-endedness.
  • “We could really benefit from your perspective.” This is usually said to a no-er of color who is being pressured to join a committee of all white folks, or it could be said to a no-er with a disability being pressured to join a committee on accessibility that is currently populated by all able-bodied folks. This approach implies that people of color or people with disabilities have a special responsibility—and therefore, extra workload—to diversify campuses.

And sometimes we undermine through what we say about the person saying no:

  • “She’s not a team player.”
  • “She’s selfish.”
  • “She only does things that benefit her.”

The no-er cannot control what others say behind her back. The only people who can control that are the people saying those things, so I will now turn my attention to what we can say in support of people saying no—and supporting people saying no is one key way to create a culture in which it is safe to say no, which benefits all of us:

What to say to someone who said no:

  • “I admire you for setting healthy boundaries.”
  • “Thank you for modeling good self care.”
  • “I appreciate that you considered my request. Thank you.”
  • “This sounds like a good decision for you.”

What to say about someone who said no:

  • “It takes a lot of strength to say no in academia. I admire that she did that.”
  • “I wish more people set clear boundaries like that.”
  • “I want to be more like her!”

Finally, focus any anger you feel about someone saying no away from the no-er and toward the institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism that encourage faculty to undervalue their own time and energy. With COVID-19’s catastrophic impacts on already strained higher education funding, I fear we will be asked to do more service than ever at the same time we are facing salary cuts and furloughs. Our faculty colleagues who say no are not the problem. The expectation that faculty should take on inhumane workloads is a problem; continued underfunding of education is a problem; institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism are problems.

The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity

My last post, On Having to Say No Over and Over, generated a lot of response on Facebook, so I’m going to stick with the theme of saying no for a while. I happen to have a lot to say about it.

Today I want to call bullshit on the idea that service is a “great opportunity” for junior faculty members or grad students or adjuncts or others in precarious academic positions. In my experience, “this is a great opportunity for you” is generally code for

  • I really want this thing to get done, but nobody else wants to do it, and if you don’t do it then I’ll have to.
  • If you don’t do it, it might end up getting done by someone I don’t trust.
  • It would look really great for me or my department if you would do this.

When I was a grad student, an adjunct, and a junior faculty member, I fell for “this is a great opportunity for you” almost every time. I misunderstood “opportunity” as something that would benefit me when I applied for tenure-track jobs or tenure, and I therefore thought the people offering me these great “opportunities” thought I had tenure-potential. In fact, however, my extensive service record never had any bearing on me getting a job or tenure. In my experience, decisions about hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion do not ever hinge on service. The reality is that putting your energy into service is more likely to be held against you in those decisions.

Sometimes service work is legitimately a good opportunity, but that is a judgement that can only be made by the person being asked to take on the service. In evaluating whether something is actually a good opportunity, I ask myself questions like this:

  • Will it allow me to work in my Zone of Genius? (I learned the concept of Zone of Genius from Kerry Ann Rockquemore—your Zone of Genius is what you are uniquely qualified to do; your Zone of Competence is what you are good–maybe even great–at, but so are lots of other folks; and your Zone of Incompetence is exactly what it sounds like.)
  • Will it allow me to develop skills I am interested in developing?
  • Will it allow me to develop relationships with people that I want to develop relationships with?
  • Will it help me move my scholarship forward?

I don’t have to answer yes to all the questions to agree to an opportunity, but answering the questions helps me think through my decision. And if I answer no to all of the questions, saying no becomes very easy.

There is one question that is not on the list that I think works against a lot of academics when trying to evaluate “opportunities”: Am I passionate about this? This question is very deliberately not on the list for two important reasons: 1) Academics tend to use their passion for a subject or cause as a rationale for doing too much and getting burned out, and 2) Other academics know this and use this knowledge to exploit each other.

Here’s how these questions helped me make decisions about some service opportunities in the last year.

  • I was asked to join an advisory board on academic integrity. I decided it was a good opportunity because it intersects with research I am doing on plagiarism.
  • I was asked to join a department-level task force on assessment, which I said no to because my answer to each of the questions above was no. Assessment work is not in my Zone of Genius. Serving on the task force would allow me to develop new skills, but not ones I am interested in developing now. It would allow me to work with people I like working with, but I have plenty of opportunities to work with those same people in other capacities, so no need to join this new task force. And departmental assessment work is unrelated to my scholarship.
  • I was asked to run for treasurer of a national organization and said yes because I wanted the opportunity to work with the people who were already officers.

I did not talk in On Having to Say No Over and Over about the fact that as a tenured professor, there are fewer consequences for me saying no than there might be for someone with less job security. I will devote at least one post in the future to that, so I’m not going to address it in depth here, but I do want to say explicitly here that those of us with tenure need to

  • Stop pretending that the work we don’t want to do is an “opportunity” for someone with less job security.
  • Support our colleagues who say no to “opportunities.” Respect their decision and don’t misdirect your anger about the exploitation of faculty toward your colleagues who say no. They are not the problem.
  • When you are part of a discussion in which someone suggests that the thing no one in the room wants to do is a “great opportunity” for someone else, question whether the thing really needs to be done.
  • Tell the truth. Some things that need to be done aren’t “opportunities” for anyone but they need to be done nonetheless. Instead of farming those things out to people in precarious positions with the fake promise that there is a reward in the future, look for ways to make the work less onerous, or to compensate people in tangible ways for doing it.

On Having to Say No Over and Over

I talk to students, colleagues, employees in the Writing Center, and others in academia constantly about the importance of saying no. Just like in other realms, women in academia are regularly asked to take on more service work than men and more work that isn’t even recognized as work, like organizing a potluck or cleaning out the break room fridge. And doing that work is actually held against women, who are then seen as being unable to prioritize and set boundaries or making poor choices about how to spend their time.

As aspect of saying no that many people overlook is that you often have to say it over and over, even to the same request. This makes really saying no tough, because you have to first work up the nerve to say no, and then you have to keep saying no as the request is made repeatedly and you are given “opportunities” to reconsider your answer.

This is exactly what happened to me this year. I had to say no adamantly FOUR times around one service request:

First No: Last summer, as I was trying to decide if I should run for treasurer of a national organization, I had a conversation with my chair about the time and energy it would take and asked her if it would be possible for me to take on no new service commitments in the department if I became treasurer. I already serve on several department and university-level committees and am co-editor of my institution’s UR journal, so I want to be clear that I wasn’t getting a pass on service—just a commitment to not have anything new added. She gave me her assurance that my request was reasonable and that it would be honored.

I did ultimately become treasurer of the organization.

Second No: Fast forward to November. A high workload departmental committee I am on had a leadership vacuum and without any conversation with me, my department chair emailed the entire committee announcing that I would be co-chairing it. I immediately emailed her, reminding her of our summer conversation and plainly stating that I could not co-chair the committee. To her credit, she admitted she had forgotten about our summer conversation and appointed someone else.

Third No: January. That same high workload committee experienced another leadership vacuum and a faculty member who works closely with the chair came to me and asked why I couldn’t chair the committee. When I said that I simply couldn’t, she said, “Well, if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask [male colleague], and he’s already so busy.”

Fourth No: Later January. Said male colleague asked me if I was certain I couldn’t chair the committee. I assured him I was.

So that’s four NOs, all around the same request. I want to highlight a few details:

  • With the second no, I wasn’t even asked if I would take on the role and so saying no meant having to deal with the emotional labor of knowing I was putting the chair in the awkward position of having to rescind a decision and inviting questions from others about why I was announced as a co-chair and then announced as not being a co-chair. Saying no often means feeling like you’re putting others in a bad position. The reality is that the chair put herself in a bad position by not talking to me first.
  • With the third no, note that my colleague was concerned about overworking a male colleague but expressed no such concern about overworking me. This plainly shows how gendered expectations are about service. Saying no often means pushing against gendered expectations.
  • Also with the third no, note that my colleague asked me why I couldn’t do it, which is actually none of her business, but it’s a trick people use to chisel away at boundaries. Questioning why you can’t do something challenges your notion that you have a right to control how you spend your time and energy.

Saying no is exhausting, but it must be done. Every time I say no, I am normalizing women saying no.

Teaching Failure and Recording My Own Failures

One of my classes this semester focuses on helping peer writing center consultants frame their tutoring experience in job and grad school application materials and interviews. With COVID-19 looming over everything this semester, making job markets and grad school prospects even more uncertain than usual, and my students extremely anxious about the future, I ended up changing the plan for the last class meeting. Normally, students deliver Pecha Kucha talks about how their writing center experience helped prepare them for the future. This semester, that seemed like a fantastical exercise, so we focused on failure instead.

That may sound really grim, but in fact, students and I left class feeling much lighter. Talking about our failures and what we learned from them, admitting that some failures aren’t really learning experiences, and acknowledging failure as a normal part of any person’s life felt very affirming for us.

I’ve been a fan of normalizing failure for years, including failure as a topic in the textbook I co-authored with Amy Braziller and posting on social media about rejections. I’ve had students read and write CVs of failure (also called shadow CVs). But I’ve never gotten around to writing my own CV of failure, and at this point, I’ve had so many failures that I can’t remember them all.

So I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll start recording my failures here today. Expect this page to be updated regularly.

Failures beginning May 2020

(the list is empty only temporarily, I promise!)

What place does grading rigor have during COVID-19?

My own grading practices have shifted quite a bit over the past few years toward what seems to be now called “compassionate grading,” which aims to eliminate less important assignments, allow students flexible deadlines, and provide more support for students to meet learning outcomes. I’ve seen “compassionate grading” recommended as a response to the sudden shift to online learning, but I wonder why anyone would practice non-compassionate grading, regardless of whether we are experiencing a pandemic. How is a lack of compassion equal to rigor? Is lack of compassion a teaching strategy?

When my classes suddenly became online courses in March, I emailed all my students and told them that if they were already passing the class, even if they didn’t turn in anything else for the whole semester, they would pass the class. I wondered how many students would simply stop submitting work, especially as many of them now had children at home with then 24/7, loved ones diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19, drastically reduced or increased work hours, and other intense stressors.

I also told them that my standards for what constituted a better-than-passing grade had just become more flexible.

With one week left in the semester, I can report an astonishing statistic: less than 5% of my students stopped turning in work, and the few who did all contacted me on their own accord to apologize and promise that work would be turned in before the end of the semester. That means more than 95% of my students, when told they would pass a class even if they turned in nothing more, continued to turn in work.

I’m halfway through reading their final projects, and damn, they’re good. As good as final projects from any other semester. This means that even with me announcing that it would be easier to get a B or an A, my students have not turned in work that is of lower quality than what I typically see. This seems like compelling evidence for more compassionate grading overall.

I think a lot of talk about grading rigor is code for enforcing white ableist standards of what academic success looks like, and it often goes way beyond evaluating the quality of work turned in. If you’re really looking at the quality of work turned in, why take off a point for every “error” (lots of research indicates that what we recognize as an error is often connected to our perception of whether the writer is white or not)? Why factor in whether the assignment was turned in on your timeline? Why penalize students who don’t know what office hours are for? Why dictate the genre an assignment must be written in? Why give extra credit for going to the writing center?

Grading is my least favorite aspect of teaching. I can read and respond to student work all day long, but having to assign a grade to it seems so counter to everything my pedagogy is based on. I believe all grading is flawed in some way. A traditional grading system evaluates how much access to resources (time, energy, etc.) a student has as much as it measures how much a student has learned. Labor-based grade contracts and portfolios, which I have embraced, are better, but not perfect. There’s still no way that I’ve found to really control for differences in resource distribution.

But at the end of the teaching day, evaluating how much my students learned isn’t the most important part of my job. On some level, I have to blindly trust that they learned the important stuff, and if the semester ends with us on good terms, then even if they didn’t learn it, they’ll know they can reach out to me in the future, perhaps when they are in a better place to do that learning. (Yes, that has happened.) This is always true, but particularly now.

The Naylor Report on Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies is here!

I got my copy of The Naylor Report on Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies last week. A group of 43 UR mentors authored the text in less than a year and the resulting book is, I think, simultaneously visionary and pragmatic. I hope WPAs, writing center directors, English and writing department chairs, UR directors, and others in academia will read it, debate it, and use it to further their engagement with UR in writing studies.

My work as a mentor of students engaged in UR has been some of the most rewarding of my career. In this work, I usually begin by working side-by-side with an undergraduate, working collaboratively with them to formulate research questions, decide on research methods and methodologies, and go through the IRB process. I step back as they collect data, and then I teach them how to code and interpret the data. I act mostly as a sounding board as they work to make sense of their data. I then typically find myself in the audience as they present their work at a conference, joining along with others to recognize their achievement as scholars and knowledge contributors. Work done by undergraduates I have mentored has, in turn, influenced my own work as a scholar, teacher, and writing center director. For example, research conducted by Aubrey Baucum, Rachel Livingston, Harrison Murray, and Sierra Rakes about microaggressions in the MSU Denver Writing Center pushed me toward understanding the Writing Center I direct as a brave space rather than a safe one. Research conducted by Mateo Candelaria on power hierarchies in writing centers continues to inform my pedagogy and raise my awareness of my own performances of power at work.

My contribution to the book, “Undergraduate Research and Labor Practices in Writing Studies,” focuses on how many current models for UR in writing studies depend upon exploited labor, which limits both the experiences available to students engaging in UR and knowledge production in writing studies.

 

“storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” as citizen, tenured faculty, & writing center director

I watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, “It’s OK to Feel Overwhelmed. Here’s What to Do Next” this past weekend and found many useful reframings of the current situation and inspiring thoughts and advice. At the same time, I was troubled by how white it was, by virtue of it being the thoughts of a wealthy white woman, sitting in her beautiful home without having to worry about paying rent or entertaining/homeschooling children. Gilbert explicitly acknowledges her privilege, pointing out that she’s in a lucky position. I am not taking issue with her at all, or even with any of her advice; I’m just acknowledging that yeah, she is a privileged white woman giving advice that resonated with me, in part because, I, too, am a privileged white woman, and that I’m very uncomfortable with that.

And I think that acknowledging my privilege must also mean living with that discomfort, taking it on actively, inviting it to live in the foreground of my thinking rather than allowing it to recede into the background. This is different from feeling bad about it. Feeling bad about it doesn’t help anyone. Inviting it in lets me use it to guide my decision-making in a deliberate way. Here’s what that looked like today.

I begin each morning by reading that day’s entry in the Dalai Lama’s The Path to Tranquility: Daily Wisdom. The entry for today is

All the problems that every individual meets with in everyday life—famine, unemployment, delinquency, insecurity, psychological deviancy, various epidemics, drugs, madness, despair, terrorism—all that is bound up with the widening gap between people, which, needless to say, can also be found inside the rich countries.

Our ancient experience confirms it at every instant: everything is linked together, everything is inseparable. Consequently the gap has to be reduced.

With Gilbert’s talk on my mind, this entry reminded me of an Indian saying she highlights: “I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor.” Gilbert explains

Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it’s taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, “What can I offer in the immediacy?” And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little?

As a financially secure citizen, “storing my grain in the belly of my neighbor” at this moment means making a donation to MSU Denver’s Student Emergency Fund, which is available to undocumented students, something very important to me given that Betsy DeVos has specified that undocumented students cannot get federal emergency aid.

As a tenured full professor with white privilege, it means advocating for colleagues in contingent positions. Today specifically it meant emailing one adjunct instructor to ask how they are doing and how I can support them. In the longer term it means continuing to speak out against inequitable labor conditions and exploring funding a professional development program for first year writing instructors on my campus.

As a writing center director, it means forming collaborations with other offices on campus to pool funding rather than compete for funding. Gilbert mentions “unleash[ing] the white-knuckled grip that I have on what’s mine and make sure that I’m going into the world with an open hand.” The next fiscal year is predicted to be quite grim, and I suspect I will want to cling to whatever bit of funding the writing center gets. I want to resist that urge and look for ways to share our funding with other campus offices.

 

Creating a Default Schedule

scheduleOne of the keys to my productivity (and avoiding procrastination) is to schedule things during a time of day when I have an appropriate amount of energy. I try to do things that require a high amount of concentration in the morning, when I have more energy and am naturally more focused, and things that require less concentration in afternoon, when I seem to naturally want to take a nap. I also work out in the morning, because that gives me the energy I need to get through the day.

The tricky part is working around things that I don’t have control over the scheduling of. My ideal schedule would have me get up, work out, write for an hour, read for an hour, work on whatever my most important task is (aside from writing) for 30-60 minutes, then shower and go to work. The reality is that I would have to get up at 2:30 in the morning to make that happen.

Here’s how I have figured out my fall daily schedule. I’ve listed everything I want or need to do on a regular basis that I control the scheduling of or at least have some input on. I’ve then indicated how much energy/concentration that task requires of me and then ranked everything by importance, with 1 being the most important and 11 being the least important. Finally, I’ve taken the energy/concentration level needed and importance level into account to determine when that task would ideally be scheduled. (I’ll write at some point in the future about assigning importance levels–I always want to give everything a 1 or 2 in the first round of doing this.)

task Energy/concentration level needed Importance level Ideal Schedule
Activism Low 7 P.M.
Bureaucratic stuff Low 11 P.M.
Email Low 9 P.M.
Meditate Low 8 P.M.
Meetings Medium 10 P.M.
Most Important Task High 3 A.M.
PT/doctor’s appointments Low 5 P.M.
Read (work-related) Very High 4 A.M.
Teaching prep Medium 6 P.M.
Work out Medium 1 A.M.
Write Very High 2 A.M.

So my ideal day would look like this:

A.M. – work out, write, read, most important task (MIT)
P.M. – meditate, teaching prep, meetings, bureaucratic stuff, activism, email, PT/doctor’s appointments

It’s unlikely that I would need to do all these things on any single day, so I can sketch out a daily schedule that combines some tasks so I can do whichever one most needs to be done on a particular day. Notice that I only do this for tasks that have lower importance levels or that I know don’t happen very often.  

A.M. Work out
A.M. Write
A.M. Read
A.M. MIT
P.M. Email
P.M. Meditate
P.M. Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
P.M. Activism
P.M. Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments

Then I can come up with time allowances for each one. The concept of a time allowance is that you work on the assigned task for the amount of time allotted rather than until the task is completed. If the task isn’t done when the time is up, you just come back to that task the next time you have time allotted for it.

A.M. One hour Work out
A.M. One hour Write
A.M. 45 minutes Read
A.M. One hour MIT
P.M. 30 minutes Email
P.M. 15 minutes Meditate
P.M. One hour Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
P.M. 30 minutes Activism
P.M. 90 minutes Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments

Then, using the schedule I sketched out above, I can plug in things like a commute, a shower, lunch, etc. and start figuring out what time things need to happen to accomodate the things that don’t have flexible times.

4:45 Wake up, make lunches
5:15 One hour Work out
6:15 One hour Write
7:15 Wake up daughter, walk dog
7:45 Take daughter to school
8:30 Shower, clean house
9:30 45 minutes Read
10:15 Commute
11:15 Get settled in at work
11:30 One hour MIT
12:30 30 minutes Email
1:00 15 minutes Meditate
1:15. One hour Teaching prep or bureaucratic stuff
2:15 30 minutes Activism
2:45 90 minutes Meetings or PT/doctor’s appointments or office hours
4:15 Commute or office hours
5:30 Get settled in at home or teach
6:00 Make dinner or teach
7 Dinner/family time or teach
8 Family time or teach
8:30 Family time or commute
9:30 Get ready for bed

This is now my default schedule. On days that I have something that isn’t a regular engagement, like going to hear a visiting speaker or working intensely on a bureaucratic report that has a tight deadline, I will deviate from this schedule, but 80% of the time, this is the schedule I’ll follow through the fall semester.

Use Your Energy Patterns to Be More Productive

lightbulbsOne of the biggest light bulb moments I’ve had in terms of scholarly productivity is that when I work on writing when I’m energized, things go better. This probably sounds obvious, but for years–ahem, I mean more than a decade–I tried to do my writing in the afternoon, the time recognized as nap time, coffee time, and slump time by most everyone, including me. Despite my strong daily desire to take a nap in the afternoon, I thought it made sense to plan to write in the afternoon. My reasoning was that by then I would have gotten all of my tasks for the day done and I’d have this delicious open period before me.

But most days, by the time 2 or 3 pm came, I did not have all of my tasks done, so I was grouchy, slumpy, nappy, and stressed out about being behind. I would then spend my “writing time” trying to catch up. Why did I not catch on to this insidious pattern after it had repeated itself thousands of times? Sigh. I don’t know for sure.

But one magical day, after my usual morning workout, which leaves me full of optimism and energy, instead of going straight to the shower, I sat down at my computer, and something amazing happened: I wrote for an hour straight with no trouble. I fell into the “zone” in which you lose track of time and just revel in your current activity. After this happened a few times in a row, I came up with a theory–if you write when you are energized, things will go well, and if you write when you are not energized, things will go not so well–and I decided to test it by keeping a log of my writing times and productivity for a few weeks, sometimes writing in the morning and sometimes writing (or attempting writing) in the afternoon. You can guess what my log revealed: yes, it was no fluke–when I wrote in the morning, when I was energized, I wrote more and it felt less like a chore; when I wrote in the afternoon, when I was not energized, I wrote very little and it felt like a huge burden.

Now I try to write as early in the morning as is possible, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Writing for 20 minutes at 6 a.m. results in more words for me than writing for 45 minutes at 4 p.m.

Now you may not be a morning person and perhaps your high energy time hits at 8 p.m. My advice is to then reconfigure your schedule so that you can write at 8 p.m. as often as possible. Whatever your high energy time is, that’s when you should write, and if your schedule doesn’t allow that, then figure out when your lowest energy time is and write as far away from that time as possible. (If you’re not sure when you have the most or least energy, try this.)