Friday, September 28, 2007

Levels of Busyness

Here is something I was thinking of on my walk today. There's not just one kind of "being busy." There are at least four levels of busyness. Before I define them, I need to define a few other key terms:

A "reasonable workweek" - In academia, this tends to be about 60 hours a week, but for some it may be more, and for others less, depending both on one's "work stamina" and one's "home demands."

"Work stamina" - How many hours per week you can put into work on a regular basis without risking burnout or other stress-induced health issues. This is a function of a combination of your overall psychological/emotional well-being, the healthiness of your work environment, the nature of the stresses of your work in relation to your own psychology, and the satisfaction you derive from your work.

"Home demands" - how much time and attention your family, friends, and home responsibilities require of you in order to function reasonably smoothly.

Level I: Busy Enough

At this level, about 80% of whatever you deem a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events (including classes and meetings) and deadline-driven tasks (including preparing for classes, grading student work, getting reports in, preparing conference proposals and papers, proofreading manuscripts, etc.). This gives you 20% for more proactive instead of reactive work: planning new projects (e.g., research projects or new courses); going above and beyond what is minimally expected (e.g., helping start a student club in your department, above and beyond merely keeping your student honorary society going).

Level II: Too Busy

100% of a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks. To do more requires exceeding what works for you as a reasonable workweek. Thus, it cuts in on home time, which may begin to erode your own well-being and/or create stress and tension in family relationships and friendships. Still, it is reasonable to expect that we can tolerate this level for short periods of time. But if work demands settle into this pattern for the long-term, we are tempted to begin to sacrifice the (formerly 20%) proactive kind of work in favor of well-being and relational harmony.

Level III: Way Too Busy

Scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks now require more than 100% of a reasonable workweek. Now it is impossible to complete the minimally necessary work tasks within what is for us a reasonable workweek, and so even with the sacrifice of the proactive kind of work, we must push our working hours higher. Again, we can sustain this for short periods, but if it becomes more long-term, our well-being, relationships, and ability to take care of other home responsibilities become seriously strained. The mildest form of this is when necessary work pushes just a little over 100% of a reasonable workweek. But the most severe form is when every waking hour is spent either on work or the minimum absolutely necessary home chores. But at this level, at least you are not required to cut back on sleep.

Level IV: Impossibly Busy

Like Level III, except that now you do have to cut back on sleep in order to keep up. While not technically "impossible," because this is something that we can do for short periods of time, it really is impossible to sustain for any length of time without seriously beginning to break down our health and well-being.

My life last spring was at the high end of Level III, breaking occasionally into Level IV. Wait, let me rephrase that last phrase: breaking as much into Level IV as I could tolerate.

Happily, my life this semester started off at Level II but last week actually settled back to Level I. It's picking up again, inching back to Level II -- which still feels refreshingly easy after last spring, so I'm not complaining. Most of my life here has been towards the high end of Level III during the academic year.

Also happily, I have pretty high "work stamina," because my work environment is pretty healthy overall (except for the constant pressure always to do more) and my satisfaction with most dimensions of my work is very high.

But still, Level I is "busy enough." And Level I is required as the norm if you want to have time to be proactive in your work: thinking creatively, initiating new projects, revising your courses, developing new courses, etc. Level I is required also to have a balanced and sustainable life, conducive to mental and physical health, and embedded in relationships that are mutually-supporting.

Now I have a goal. I aspire to Level I busyness. If I reach it, I want to live true to it unapologetically. I will try not to become seduced by (or infected by?) the competitive busyness game (or disease?) that my colleagues seem to engage in.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Grading to Roaring Applause

Accidentally, I happen upon a way to work on grading that makes it kind of fun. My office is in a building across from the football field, and there is a home game there this afternoon. It's a warm day, and I have my window open. So, here I am, grading, and just after I write a brilliant comment on a student paper, the crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause!

Very gratifying.

(A little later): Alas, they are booing me now... Hmm, this is not going as well as I thought. Now there is even chanting and a drumming of feet. Maybe I am being a little hard on the student whose paper I am currently reading...?

Some Success in Schedule Refinements

Last time, I wrote about my difficulty in establishing time in my schedule for exercise and for research, and so I thought I should write an update (that may be helpful to others trying to work out how to construct daily schedules that help them to manage their busy lives effectively).


I decided that trying to go running in the early morning was just not going to work for me, and committed instead to walking for 30-40 minutes every day whenever I could fit it in. "Just an experiment!" I told myself. "Just see if I can do this for one week!" It's almost been a week -- and it is working! One day I almost gave it a miss -- I felt too pressed by too much to do. But once I realized that I really wanted to, I gave myself permission to go ahead and do it. And then I was really really glad that I did.

Just this much exercise has already done wonders to help stabilize my emotions and my energy flow, and to help me feel better about myself and in more control of my life. And it carves out at least a little genuine contemplative space in every day, which I very much value. It helps me to put everything (back) in perspective.

Then I was talking about this with someone, whose response was to say, "You are not a morning person." I tried to protest, but he pointed to the pattern (I tend to drift to a later schedule in the summer), and then said, "People who are not morning people will never succeed in establishing an early-morning exercise schedule (or at least won't be able to maintain it very long). You have to find another way to fit exercise in."

The definite way he said this took me by surprise, but then I realized he was right. The time I kept the running going the longest in my life was when I was a graduate student and was doing my running at around 4:00 in the afternoon.

I cannot carve out that time (or any time!) with perfect reliability in my life now. But I can generally count on finding some space between the end of the time I spend in the office, and my returning to my work at home in the evening. It is in that space that I have been doing my walks. I'm almost ready to start adding some running too again.

General Lesson to All: Be honest with yourself about whether you are a morning person or not. Don't try to schedule exercise time during a time you know does not really work for you. If you schedule it for a time and spend a whole week (or so) still managing not to do it, give up on that time and try a different time instead! But don't give up on the idea of exercise altogether -- we all need real exercise on a regular basis!


I have also picked up on research again. But the way I have done this is a bit devious. Student work is rolling in, and I need to be reading it and grading it and giving feedback. But, well, this is something I have a hard time with. So in procrastinating from this, I have been working on my research again!

Is this an accomplishment I should celebrate, or a failure I should chastise myself for?

I used to think that I didn't like grading because I didn't like playing the evaluative role we teachers are called upon to play in this way of structuring education. I tried to convince myself that I did like reading student work and giving feedback.

But this week I finally admitted that I was just fooling myself. Sometimes I like it. But usually it is just plain painful. Many students cannot write very well. And trying to get how they are thinking through the complex ideas they are studying is really hard work. To really do their work justice, I have to read their papers at least three times (once for grammar, once quickly to get an overview of the shape of their [attempted] argument, and then a third time to examine their thought-process more closely and write strategic comments that will help them move forward in their understanding and in the development of their reasoning abilities).

I do this with compassion. They are students. They are in the process of coming to terms with new ways of thinking. It's not going to be pretty. My job is to help them find their way forward to improved understanding and improved use of the power of their minds.

It is a noble undertaking.

But it is also hard and time-consuming work.

I state this as a simple fact: not to complain. It just is that way.

But back to the question at hand: I really do have to do this grading. I also want to keep momentum going on my research. Can I succeed in both?

Maybe after another week I will be able to report back, "Yes!" We shall see...

Right now I have some grading I really have to catch up on!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Schedule Refinements

Now that the semester is fully underway, I spent some time yesterday rethinking the schedule for myself I had set up just before the semester started. It is not working as well as I had hoped, and so I am trying to discern whether I need to rework it, or whether I just need to rededicate myself to it. The reason the latter is a possibility is that it is so easy to fall into a state of being of feeling driven by the steady stream of deadlines that emerges -- and here at the early stages of this, I can catch it and regard it critically. I can admit to myself that I disapprove of my falling into this state of consciousness.

Strangely, this state of being is seductive. The reason it is seductive is because when you surrender to its demands, you do become very "productive," and productivity is both satisfying and gains the admiration of your colleagues. Surrender is also to let go of your rebellious stubbornness, and letting go of this is a relief. All that energy previously tied up in your self-righteous struggle now becomes released for other purposes: such as more productivity. Finally, it is seductive because you are no longer under the burden of hard decision-making. The schedule of deadlines tells you what to do from moment to moment.

I use terms like "seduction" and "surrender" to cast doubt on the acceptability of this state of being, to give voice to my disapproval; but maybe my criticism is more ambivalent than disapproving. There is a way that all of this can be good. If you have chosen to abide by a structure you trust, and if the productivity it yields is a kind of productivity you value, I think that maybe there really is nothing wrong with this.

But I still have two nagging worries for myself in this right now:

1. The kind of productivity it yields is valuable, but is not expressive of my full calling. It still is now pushing out a major dimension of my full calling, and I don't like watching this happen. My research is getting sidelined again (despite my earlier determination to place it firmly within my schedule).

2. There's a way that the sense of "surrender" I am experiencing now does feel like a cop-out rather than some morally-commendable version of humility.

So, I broke with my schedule in two important respects early on under the theory that I needed to make exceptions in order to pour full energy into starting off the semester well. But what I forgot was that things do not then lighten up a bit after the initial start-up energy. If things had lightened up a bit by now, then I could put my "exercise schedule" and "research schedule" fully into place now and there we would have it. But the reality of our life here where I teach is that, after the initial start-up energy, things get busier and busier!

The other thing that has been harder for me than I expected was switching back to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule. In the summer I drift later and later. Trying to reset this has proved physically exhausting. I wake up early, intending to go for a walk/run, but it is dark and cold out and I am terribly tired. Furthermore, I am preoccupied by my rapidly-approaching early-morning teaching schedule. So I delay and then scramble to get ready.

So, what I need to figure out is how to re-adjust my schedule to ensure that I do make time for exercise and regular attention to my research.

The rest is off to a solid and good start, I am glad to report. But if I remain unable to construct a well-balanced life within the semester: a life grounded in healthiness and attention to the most important part of my calling (my research and writing), why then, then... (I don't know what, then)!

I think I need to be patient with myself this year. One reason is that I still am chair of my department, and it has finally dawned on me how enormously this complicates my life. I became chair before tenure (not a good idea!) and so have actually been chair for most of my academic life! I can scarcely remember what it was like not to be chair. But now that I am anticipating this being my last year as chair, I think more concretely about what my life would be like not being chair, and am amazed to catch glimpses of how much this will simplify my life! As each chairly responsibility comes up, when I consider what life will be like when I don't have to do this any more, my heart leaps with new hopefulness.

So, while I don't like surrendering to a kind of "survival mode" (just get through this year and then at last things will get better!), if that's what ends up happening, it's understandable and forgivable.

But right now it is still early enough for me to hope that I can do better than this.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some Random Notes from the First Week of Classes

The semester is really and truly underway now. Here are some scattered thoughts and impressions:

1. One day, coming back happy from a class, I was thinking about why I like teaching so much. "When I'm in the classroom, I feel like a magician," I found myself thinking. I say some magic words, and if I put them in the right order, and wave my hands a certain way, I can summon certain Energies. It really is quite amazing. But it is a subtle art. A spell cast in one class may not work in another. You have to Discern. You have to gain a good sense of the Energies already present in the room to know how to evoke from them the kind of spirit you wish to evoke. It doesn't always work very well.

So, a teacher really does have a special kind of power. Like all power, it can be used for good or ill. But even at its best, what does it really do? Oddly, this is the one thing the teacher never can fully see, feel, or know.

I work hard to evoke positive energies: energies of surprise, insight, inspiration; energies that help students feel empowered by what they are learning: empowered to strive for excellence, to live their lives well, and to have a positive effect on the world. But I know that I am met sometimes by dubiousness, even cynicism. Sometimes I sense that I do transform the negative energies that meet me. But what effect does that have long-term? That I do not know.

So I live in a special kind of faith in this respect. I keep doing my best, and I live in and enjoy the moment. I have goals and hopes, but I resign myself to the realization that, to a certain extent (and despite "Assessment Plans"), there is no way that I will ever really know the effect that I have. I must just trust. Even when the effect is sometimes negative despite my good intentions, I must trust that too. After all, in the long run I did benefit from processing the negative experiences I had with some of my professors in the past. The value of the positive experiences I had with my professors was immediately visible, but even the few negative experiences I had did have value too, that I often did not realize until much later.

2. Because I teach philosophy of science, I sometimes get in my campus mail science supply catalogs. Usually those catalogs relate to physics. I enjoy looking at them. But this week I got a catalog of various dead animals and embryos students can dissect in laboratory sessions. There were fetal pigs, and a stretched out "skinned cat." There were also various pig organs, and models of every human organ imaginable, including diseased versions. I did not enjoy looking at this catalog. I threw it away, remembering to myself that this is a major part of the reason why I switched from being a student of science to becoming a student of philosophy of science. I am curious about the mysteries of life, but wish to explore these mysteries in a somewhat different way.

3. There are four colleges in the area where I live. I was talking with someone who interacts a lot with faculty from all four of these colleges, and he observed that it is the faculty at my college who work hardest and seem most stressed. Meanwhile, the faculty at my college have revived an AAUP chapter (American Association of University Professors) and met yesterday to organize for an improved faculty salary policy, to help us catch up with our competitor schools. While I like the fact that we are organizing for change, I'm not so concerned about our salaries as I am about figuring out what it is that makes us unusually busy and stressed. I'd rather have the same salary and be less stressed than be as stressed but get paid more. I think for a lot of faculty the salary issue is more symbolic than pragmatic. Working hard, they think that higher salaries signal appropriate respect. I prefer the kind of respect that manifests itself as interest, attention, and kindness.