Put Time On Your Side

Later this week I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite, portable lesson plans on topics vital to humanities classes such as privilege and intersectionality.

Before that, however, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the time that teaching takes. As mentioned earlier this month, graduate student teaching appointments exist inside an odd little paradox. Most graduate students are at research institutions and most research institutions prioritize research over teaching. I had the privilege of being at two of the top 100 universities in the world for my MA and PhD (the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University, respectively). I can tell you that, even with this limited sample, teaching was considered far more of a distraction from the “real work” of the university at the higher-ranked school.

One thing both schools had in common, however, was that the teaching advice I got from tenured professors was TERRIBLE. All of it boiled down to, “find ways to give fewer hours to teaching because the real work is your research, writing, and publishing.”

The problem with that advice is that it’s not actually advice.

I’m serious.

That injunction, though often given, was rarely followed up with strategies for how to spend less time teaching which made it worse than useless. It was, instead, debilitating giving me the impression that even when I was working I was somehow working wrong.

So, today, I want to have some real talk about why teaching is such a “time suck,” in the words of one tenured mentor, and how to make it work for you. Grab your coffee, and let’s settle in!

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It’s true: teaching is time intensive. It is not, however, significantly more time intensive than any other aspect of graduate work. What does set teaching apart from other aspects of graduate labor is that it is significantly more immediate than almost anything else you do in graduate school. You can fake your way through a seminar when you haven’t read the book and there’s not really a whole lot your committee can do if you’re late with a chapter draft but you can’t show up to class unprepared. (Well, you can but if you’re reading this you probably aren’t that type of person so it’s a moot point.)

This means that, however often you teach, you have to show up to a place dressed and prepped and ready to interact with other human beings.

The other thing that sets teaching apart from other types of graduate labor is that it has a built in structure for setting goals and knowing whether or not you’ve made progress.

Let’s say you start the week with two primary goals. The first is to finish editing a chapter you’ve been working on and the second is to finish grading assignments for your class. With your class there is a very simple equation:

Number of assignments left to grade/Number of days to grade them = Number of assignments to grade every day.

There is no parallel for chapter editing. Sure, you can guarantee that you spend 2 hours a day in front of your computer staring at your document. You can print it out and read for typos. You can work on your footnotes. You can do research to solidify that nebulous part of your argument.

But how do you know if it’s really done?

How do you know how long any of these individual steps are going to take? How do you know if you’re on schedule or behind? What if you get writer’s block? What if your chapter drives you into an existential crisis and you lose a day to laying on the couch binging Jessica Jones and wondering how to find out if you have superpowers?

Even if you have firm answers to all of these questions (and I have never met anyone who has) at the end of a day of writing you often are left with what you started with: some words on a page rather than a concrete reminder of how much progress you’ve made.

Taken all together these things can make writing discouraging and difficult.

Teaching, on the other hand, allows you to see noticeable progress from when you start grading to when you stop. Whether you are grading hardcopies and can see physical papers moving from the “not-graded” to “graded” pile or are grading on Blackboard and can see the green “graded” icon pop up in your columns there is some sort of external validation that you are making progress.

In addition, when you leave comments on students’ work like, “Did you think about X?” they take it seriously! Some of them will come to your office and have long conversations about how they, in fact, did not think of X but Googled it and are now fascinated by X and would like to learn more and can you recommend any resources and might X connect to Y?

In short, students, even the shitty ones, often treat you like an authority because, in the classroom, you are.

This is a significant contrast to how we feel as graduate students. Even if you are in an exceptional program that does not make it’s graduate students feel like supplicants we often feel as if we know so little compared to the experts we are reading and writing about.

Combined, the sense of concrete progress and being an expert can make teaching feel kind of addictive. This, I think, is why so many graduate advisors give their advisees dire injunctions to teach less. I have personally known at least 3 graduate students who allowed teaching to take up all of their time because they were stumped on the dissertation and teaching was, comparatively, easy. To my knowledge, all of these graduate students are part of the 50% of humanities PhD candidates who leave their programs after becoming ABD.

I don’t say any of this to discourage you from teaching. I hope that you enjoy your teaching. The purpose of this post is to let you know how teaching can be detrimental to dissertation progress and, more importantly, how to make teaching work for you rather than against you. With that in mind, here are five tips I wish I had followed a helluva lot sooner.

1. Track Your Hours.

No, seriously, I mean it. This was advice I got from a committee member early on and didn’t follow until, I kid you not, my last semester of graduate school. God, how I wish I’d followed it sooner!

Part of why I didn’t follow this advice sooner is because I would start the semester with good intentions of logging my hours buuuut, I didn’t really do much the first week so I put it off. Then, before I knew what had happened, I was slammed with assignments to grade and logging my hours seemed like one more thing I didn’t have time for.

Please don’t make my mistake.

Please log your hours.

Don’t just log your teaching hours. Log all of your hours. Log the hours you teach and the hours you read and the hours you write. Log the hours you spend in class, as teacher or learner, and the hours you spend in your office.

There’s no need to be super-precise here just put in your best estimate.

Logging your hours combats he creeping sense of productivity paranoia that graduate school engenders. Instead of wondering if you are “doing enough” you can look at your hours over the past week or month and see where your time is going.

Logging your hours will also help you see if your teaching to writing ratio is creeping into dangerous territory.

Finally, and this a worst-case-scenario, if you have an awful teaching appointment that demands more of your time than your contract said it would then tracking your hours will give you evidence to take to your Graduate Coordinator or Ombudsperson.

Both Excel and Google Sheets have templates for activity logs you can use. I jut made my own as a table with a column for the day, what I was doing (e.g. teaching), and what I worked on (e.g. grading papers, lecture prep, responding to student emails).

2. Manage Student Expectations.

This one actually has two parts. First, decide what you won’t do. For me, I don’t answer emails outside of business hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 to 5:00. I know another person who doesn’t do teaching related things on days they don’t teach so if they are teaching MWF they are unavailable to students Tusday and Thursday. I know professors who live an hour away from where they work and won’t come into campus on days they don’t teach.

Set whatever boundaries you want to set for yourself and stick to them.

The second half of setting your boundaries is to communicate them clearly to students.

I tell students on the first day that I don’t answer emails outside of business hours. I also give them the following example: If you have a question about an assignment that is due on Monday you need to email me on Thursday because if you email close to or after 5 on Friday I may not see your message in time to do you any good.

In my last year of the PhD program, I would often devote Monday through Friday to teaching (I was teaching 2.5 classes) but the weekends were my writing time. Having the mental freedom to not worry about checking my emails meant that I could focus completely on writing. If I did happen to check my email and respond to a student over the weekend they were always appreciative because they knew my policy.

3. Grade Strategically

This is very simple but often overlooked by new instructors who are concerned with doing things the “right” way.

Structure the times that your students turn in assignments so that you don’t have overlapping deadlines that make your life a living hell.

For instance, if you are still in coursework when teaching your first class and you have a seminar paper due during finals week then for the love of all that is holy do not have your students turn in their final paper during finals week. Instead, have your students turn their paper in the penultimate week of the semester and then watch documentaries or have wrap up sessions for the last week of classes.

If you want to implement this advice but have already handed syllabi out to your students with deadlines that conflict with your own deadlines then give them a one week extension as their original due dates draw nigh. They will love you and your life will be so much better.

4. Assign What You Need to Read

If there’s a new work in your field or a classic you haven’t gotten around to reading yet or an old-favorite you need to revisit then assign it to your students.

If it’s an article, even if it’s a heavy-hitter, have them read it. If it’s book then have them read the introduction or the chapter most relevant to your work.

I guarantee you there’s a way to shove this thing into a week of your class as sort-of, kind-of related to something.

Again, if it’s not already in your syllabus and you’ve already started teaching then PDF that reading and post a Blackboard announcement that it’s replacing something not essential to your dissertation on next week’s course schedule.

The benefits of having students read something you need to read are manifold.

First, it’s often a good way to stretch the students understanding of the topic or the discipline because the level of scholarly work you are dealing with in your diss is, likely, more rigorous than general intro course level material.

Second, it forces you to be accountable to someone for reading it. (BONUS: If it’s a new book and you are using it for a class you might be able to get a free or low-cost copy from the publisher.)

Third, student comments can provide new insights on works you’re already familiar with.

Finally, because the work is likely a little more difficult compared to other course materials students will rely on you to help them interpret it through providing context or breaking down the argument. Doing this in the classroom for your students can be a great way to reassure your inner critic that you really do know your stuff. After all, if you can lead 35 undergraduates through a discussion of the thing then you are probably ready to write about.

5. Workshop, Bitches!

Let your time teaching double as a time to try out new ideas for your research. There are a million ways to do this.

Sometimes, if I got to class early I would ask the students already sitting there, “Hey, can I ask for your opinion on something?” With permission I would then summarize the new line of argument I was working on and ask what they thought. Sometimes students had great insights that helped my argument. Sometimes the value was just in forcing myself to articulate my argument out loud to an audience.

If you are in the later stages of your dissertation and have a few chapters that are done-ish then assign one of them to your class. Is it scary to open yourself up to your students like that?

Like heck.

But it’s also valuable. You can get some good feedback during the class discussion and it’s just great practice for presenting your research to a group who is not familiar with it (you know, like a job talk) in a low-stakes setting.

I had a professor during my MA who, the day our first paper was due, would bring five pages of her work in progress. She would pass them out to all of us and give us 20 minutes to read and edit them.

This practice, according to her, did two things. First, it was designed to reassure her students that absolutely everyone makes spelling and grammar mistakes and not to be embarassed by them. Second, it got her 30 free editors for those 5 pages.

Teaching is going to take up time but hopefully with these tips you can make that time work for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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