Saturday, September 22, 2007

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!


  1. Grading student papers is very hard for most of us. I do recall however I taught at Princeton for a couple of semesters and reading those papers wasn't hard at all. The selection process was good enough so that all the students could express themselves clearly. But grading papers at normal American colleges is a huge chore. Admitting this to ourselves is a step in the right direction.

    Second, I strongly second your point about the need for exercise. I'm glad walking works for you. I like to walk to work whenever I feel I can because it does give me time to think and I enjoy it. Also it is time to reconnect with nature. That's also important. But I find myself walking so slowly when I get to thinking that it doesn't work as exercise for me.

    Concerning the ability of people to fight against their natural body rhythms I'd mostly agree with that. You can't just will yourself into being a morning person if you are not. I'm not a morning person either but what I find is that I can make limited adjustments in my schedule to start earlier. Right now I am exercising at the gym. I get there at 8:00 which is pretty early for me but not so early that I am seriously fighting my body's natural rhythms. Exercise between 8:00 and 9:00 works. Those times when I tried to exercise at 7:00 I did give up quickly because I couldn't readjust to that extent. But a moderate readjustment in an earlier direction can work.

    Maybe you just plain have too much work to do. How many classes with how many students are you responsible for? Don't beat yourself up over not getting more done if your position puts excessive demands on you. When I met you this summer I did not notice you wearing a Superwoman costume.

    By the way I'll be presenting a newer version of the paper I did at FAHE up in North Dakota next month. I think with a little more feedback I will be able to work that into something I feel happy about sending out for publication. Do you have any further thoughts or reactions to the ideas I was putting out in that paper? (Hmmm, here I go asking you to do more work after suggesting you are overworked. What kind of inconsistency is that?)

  2. Thanks for sharing your further thoughts, Richard!

    I have 8:30 classes every day. My original goal had been to get up at 6:00 and run -- but I kept finding that I needed that time to get ready for class. So I decided to try 5:00. But it is cold and dark at 5:00. So I finally had to admit defeat. I do get up at 6:00 (and can manage this all right), but really cannot take this time to exercise -- not with 8:30 classes.

    But my new plan is working pretty well. And I do walk at a good pace for 30 to 40 minutes. This week I will start adding in some running.

    I think that you have a point about my having a lot of work right now. I have three classes plus an independent study (so *four* different preps, actually), and a total of 45 students. By some standards, this is not a lot. But at our school, each course is a bit heavier than most (we meet 3 full hours per week, not three 50-minute "hours"), and the teaching ethos here is to assign a lot of writing and give substantial feedback. So, all told, it does amount to taking up a lot of hours.

    Schools that have 4-4 teaching loads (instead of 3-3, like ours) usually have different grading expectations to make this apparently heavier load more manageable, and usually professors have just 2-3 different preps.

    And of course some schools have lighter teaching loads (3-2, or 2-2), and at research schools professors have graduate assistants to do the actual grading.

    (I know that you know this, Richard, but I'm adding this information for context for my other readers.)

    My load is not impossible, and this semester actually feels much more manageable (so far) than last spring did. I remain hopeful that further fine-tuning of my schedule can get me to where I want to be.

    And yes, I will be happy to send further thoughts on your paper. I'll look back for my notes, but it might be even better for me to read the current version of what you have -- could you send me your latest version by e-mail?

  3. I would say that your teaching load is fairly heavy but not so much so that it ought to prevent research. Our classes are much larger. I have close to 150 students per semester, but given such a load I don't assign papers anymore. I used to when I had fewer students, but not now.

    Some careful planning can help make research possible when teaching demands are high. I still assign papers in upper level courses where the enrollment is about 12-15. Here is a trick to help you with the grading and to help the students with their writing. When they hand in their first paper tell them to take out a pen and underline their thesis statement. If your students are like mine despite the fact that they have all been through English Comp classes more than half of them will have trouble finding their own thesis statement. Then have them read their thesis statements to each other. Then ask them to give a quick summary of their argument. Usually this makes them conscious of the fact that they aren't thinking very clearly and that as a result they aren't writing very clearly. It doesn't take long to get them to the ppoint where they expect this inquisition and come prepared to identify their own thesis statements and offer some reasons in support of them. This help enormously with the organization of their papers and well-organized papers are much easier to read.

    I've also found that small private colleges have much less bureaucracy than large public schools. So your sense that the demands made on you as chair would most often make sense is probably right. However, let me ask this? Are you being talked into volunteering to serve on multiple college level committees? There is usually pressure for the few good people to serve on all the committees. Practice saying no to some of these if they are soaking up all your research time.

    Speaking of research I plan to get this paper done by the end of the week. I will get you a copy by email when it's ready. Thanks for offering to read it.

  4. Richard,

    I really like your idea of having students find their own thesis statements, sharing them with each other, and summarizing their arguments for each other. Do they still turn in that paper that day -- or do you send them back to re-write them before they turn them in (now that they have come to see that this would be beneficial)?

    I used to get talked into serving on too many committees. I have scaled this back a lot -- but I'm still "chairing" too many things. Still, it's much more manageable (so far) than last spring.

    I look forward to seeing your paper when it is ready.

  5. I have them hand the paper in as it stands. It gets their attention and makes them much more conscious of what they need to do on the next paper. I used to have people write rough drafts and outlines etc. but I had too much trouble getting them to take it seriously. This way they take it seriously because they know it will be graded and they know that if there is no thesis and no clear argument the grade will reflect that.

    Try to keep your involvement on committees down if you feel overworked. I've fallen into that trap in the past. On some committees I did work that I am proud of and am happy to have served but on other committees I am now convinced I wasted precious time. Use discernment and don't feel guilty about saying "no."

    I'm going to work on the paper today (Saturday). With luck I might even finish!