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.


  1. Allow me to make a couple of observations that might help you feel your way forward. On the one hand you say that you trust the structure of the university and that the tasks they assign you are really productive but then you also say that just going along with the flow created by the deadlines feels like a cop-out. Perhaps you can trust that the structure of the university does make sense but the nagging little voice in your head is reminding you "not all the time it doesn't!" So adopting a "meet the deadline and don't waste energy questioning the value of the project" requires you to suppress legitimate doubts about some of the demands being made on you.

    These demands are always urgent. They come with nice clear deadlines and there is the pleasure of frequent closure. Research is more open-ended. It takes much longer to finish projects and there are fewer deadlines. So administrative stuff can easily push aside the research. But is the less valuable pushing out the more valuable by being more immediate?

    How valuable are the reports that you are asked to file? It really depends on how much bureaucracy has been allowed to grow in your university. Many reports do not really get used at all. They are bound and put on the shelf but play no real role in concrete decision making. Now some reports do make a difference. Sometimes budget allocations flow from one department and away from another based on some report. This has real effects on faculty and students. But many reports do not and a wise chair will figure out which reports matter and try to do them right and which reports are just sponge activities that soak up time and energy for no real purpose. The wise chair will be satisfied to put minimal effort into these reports.

    I would advise that you not let urgent trivial drive out vital interests that have no deadlines to lend them immediacy.

  2. Yes, thank you, Richard. What you say reminds me of that important distinction between "important" and "urgent." What's both important and urgent tends to get most of our attention, but then it is up to us to decide how we want to prioritize the never-ending competition between the urgent-but-not-so-important, and the important-but-not-so-urgent.

    Our university is pretty good at not piling too much that is not really important upon us. So I really don't feel that I have a lot of tasks that are a waste of time.

    Part of what is hard this semester (and was hard last semester too) is that I get one course release per year as chair. Last semester I took the course release in the fall, which was part of why spring felt so busy. This time I am taking it in the fall so that I have the hope of a less busy spring to look forward to!

    So I am teaching a full course-load, plus being chair, this semester. It just really is a heavier load than anyone else has (except other chairs of small departments who only get one course release per year and have postponed it to the spring).

    But I'm about to write a new post that gives more of an update on where I am with my schedule revisions...