Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Which Girl Scholar Ponders the Road Not Taken

Lately I've been thinking more about this whole research/teaching/life balance thing, and no more than yesterday, when I was having a conversation with a friend and junior colleague. We were just walking to another part of campus to grab a cup of coffee to take back to the office, and the subject turned to teaching, and our recently increased teaching load. We're up to a 3-4 now. That four-course semester is rough, but it's even rougher on some of my junior colleagues, many of whom have been protected from even three-course semesters.

So, this colleague was talking about how he was dealing with it, and was making noises about how he was not going to be able to publish with the extra course load. At first, I was inwardly incredulous -- after all, many of us have been teaching the "increased" load for most of our time there. But then I had two thoughts:

First thought: it's only partly how much you're teaching; the real shock comes with adding a course to what you're used to handling, regardless of the absolute numbers. Whether you're being increased from a 1-2 to a 2-2, or a 3-3 to a 4-4, it's going to feel like the world is coming crashing down on you head. So it's not really fair that my first, fleeting thought was "sack up, man!" Thought banished.

Second thought: As I was trying to make encouraging noises ("Hey, I think you can do it -- it just takes some getting used to." "If you want a writing partner to keep you going, let me know. I'm happy to have someone to work with."), I found myself doubling back. Because I realized what I'd given up to maintain even a semblance of productivity under increased teaching loads: when I'm keeping on top of both teaching and writing, I have no life outside work. None at all.

You may think I'm exaggerating. I'm really not, or at least not much. If I socialize here in Grit City, it's with work colleagues. I don't have "vacations" so much as work trips to places that sometimes offer interesting scenery while I'm there. I haven't been on anything resembling a date in almost two years. I haven't taken the camera out in weeks. Nada. And still, I only seem to have time for six hours of sleep a night. Meanwhile, my colleague has a happy marriage in which he and his husband spend time together, cook, see friends, go on trips. Doesn't that sound nice?

It occurs to me that I may have made a bad bargain.

32 comments:

reassignedtime said...

Can you say more about what you mean when you say "keeping on top of both teaching and writing"? I ask because I find that what I meant when I said that when I was in graduate school teaching at most two classes a term vs. what I mean now, with a 4/4 is a lot different. So, for example, when you say "keeping on top of writing" do you mean writing every day? For a certain amount of time per week? Or something else? And what does keeping on top of teaching mean? Getting assignments back in x amount of time? x amount of time per day or week spent on prep?

I'm asking because to me, when not on sabbatical, keeping on top of writing during the academic year means maybe working on writing-related stuff once a week (if that) unless I have an immediate deadline, and meeting whatever writing deadlines (real ones) I have. (Though often I am doing a lot of the thinking parts of writing through teaching-related activities.) Keeping on top of teaching means getting assignments back at 2 weeks (and often if I have them done earlier I still don't return them until two weeks have passed, just so students' expectations about turnaround time won't be unreasonable later on) and having prep done at least the day before I teach (as opposed to doing it in the 5 minutes before I teach).

I don't actually believe in the whole balance thing - I think that's a nasty trick played on us to make us feel stressed out about not being more in balance - but I do believe in down time. And that means that I very much adjusted my expectations about what "keeping on top of things" was going to mean for me, once I landed in the world of the 4/4.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good question, Dr. C.

For me, the "teaching" part of the equation is exactly what you specify: get the assignments graded within two weeks, get my prep ready more than five minutes before class, deal with appointments from students -- in general, feeling like I'm being a good teacher.

Now that I have tenure and don't have the external pressure to publish, "keeping on top of writing" is self-defined. I'd like to have a couple of articles and a book contract by the time I go up for full in 4 years. So far I've got none of that. So I would like to write at least 5 days a week, at least 500 words a day, even if those words are what my friend refers to as "the verbal vomit stage."

Part of me says that I've set myself a research agenda that is beyond what people at similar stages in their career at similar institutions are doing. That's true. But I'm personally invested in continuing to keep an active research profile. And more than that, I have questions that I want to answer. For me personally, I'd totally lose the thread of my thoughts if I only wrote one or two days a week. And the momentum of almost-daily writing keeps me encouraged that this is something I can do. I end up feeling a little lost when I'm not making progress on my research.

Please understand, anyone who's reading this, that this is not a judgment on people who don't write every day. If anything, it's me starting to think that my priorities may not make me happy in the long run. So I'm looking forward to hearing how many of you -- especially those of you who are post-tenure -- have grappled with this issue.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Does this "3/3", "4/4", etc code mean that you teach 3 hours per week both semesters, 4 hours per week both semesters, etc?

Edward said...

I think the quality of life in the U.S. has been declining for decades in many professions. Progress in technology has not led to a better lifestyle for most people.

As far as I am concerned we live in an oligarchy where people are exploited.

Edward said...

Joining a union might help your situation.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Edward: Entirely possible -- though I do think that most tenure-line academics are much less exploited (or perhaps only as exploited as we allow ourselves to be)

@ CPP: those numbers refer to number of preps per semester, each prep having 3-4 contact hours per week (not counting office hours).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And Edward: I *am* in a union.

Susan said...

For what it's worth, I have an easier teaching load than you do, and don't work daily on my own research. Partly it's that I'm doing new preps every semester, and I have to work at the last minute on them. But anyway, I've never managed that.

I do think, though, that some of this is about being partnered. When my husband was alive, I took breaks because I had to. We went out to dinner, we saw friends, etc. Now I have to work much harder to make recreation. I do try to get to know people outside of work, though.

The other end of it, though, is setting realistic expectations of yourself. You note that you've made choices, but you've also set standards yourself. Yours are pretty rigorous; And I'm not sure that they would necessarily be good or possible to sustain no matter where you were. Having watched people in my field at elite institutions, six to eight years, if not ten, between books is normal. Why the speed up? What's the rush?

Sometimes I think we've absorbed some of hte worst aspects of science scholarship. The good thing about scholarship in the humanities is that we take time to think things through, and they don't always go on schedule.

So: maybe instead of insisting on writing 500 words a day, you could give yourself an hour when you read or thought about your work; you might write, but not always? It might be a little kinder. Because in the end, if you are miserable, is that the life you want? Maybe it's better to be a little less productive, and have more of a life.

Choices are good, of course, but they should be realistic!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Holy fucke! So you mean 4/4 mean 12-16 hours of fucken class per week for 4 different courses over both semesters!?!?!?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

yep, Comrade PP! So lots of us teach four courses per week, each at 150 contact minutes or so. It can be a bit easier if, like me, two of those courses are the same prep. So, for example, I teach two sections of the World Civ Survey, plus one freshman seminar, plus one upper-division (normally 3rd and 4th years) seminar. Three different subjects, but four classes. Spring is my 'easy' semester -- only three sections, and usually only two preps.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

ADM has it about right. And I'd venture to guess that most tenure-line faculty in the U.S. have a 3/3 or 3/4 teaching load, though class sizes (and thus grading load) vary a great deal depending on the type of institution you're at.

From what I understand, our colleagues in the sciences have fewer classes per semester, but they also have lab hours, so it all evens out.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'm glad I'm in a fucken medical school! I teach one small-group tutorial course that is 1.5 contact hours per week, and I give a lecture here and a lecture there in some other courses. No office hours, and if students e-mail me with questions, I just ignore them. But I am expected to support about 3/4 of my 12-month salary from my grant budgets.

Susan said...

Notorious, I've been thinking about this (I actually woke up thinking about this) and I'd just add to my previous comment that there are times in life when one set of choices is right, but they change. So just because the routine you've set for yourself has worked for you for two years, you don't need to make yourself do it for life. And, since you posted about it, maybe it's time to shift just a little bit.

tenthmedieval said...

I'm with you on the no-life thing, but have far less teaching than you, at least now: next term may be nastier. So I am obviously not measuring up here yet. What gets me incredulous about you guys of the US blogosphere is that it's always the writing with you. I can find time to write, I can't find time to read. Writing happens whenever you sit me at a computer, some way or other, but for reading I have to not have anything else to do. I have to make myself make time for reading or the teaching prep, writing papers, cleaning house and answering e-mail swan in and take over. And without reading, I'm just writing the same thing with variations when I write. That's my danger.

By coincidence, another post about the work-life balance on the blogosphere this morning at Acadamnit. I don't know if this makes you feel any different, but it is certainly a different outlook.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

ooh -- Tenthmedieval, when I say 'writing' I mean the whole process of research. If I say 'reading', I mean reading to keep up in my field. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but one is less project-oriented than the other. And yeah -- time for that is scarce!

Notorious, I think Susan is right. I am in the same boat you are, but now trying to add some "life" to my life. It hasn't made me feel much more behind, and I think I might eventually get to the point where I use my time more effectively. I hope.

squadratomagico said...

Coming to this late (had to be out all day yesterday), but I think Susan makes several excellent points. First, that most people take 8-10 years for a second book (actually, in my dep't our average is 12 years to #2 being in print), so shooting for a contract in 4 years seems like pushing yourself very, very hard. You can remain productive by anyone's standards and still slow doen a little to give yourself some breathing time. And second, that priorities naturally shift over time: if you are feeling ambivalent, perhaps it's time to embrace a feeling of *irresponsibility* for a while. Indeed, the academic identity of research and writing can be a certain kind of easy comfort zone, difficult as it is -- sometimes the harder, more stressful thing to do is to try to turn *off* the drive for a while.
I love having a set of friends who are separate from my work colleagues; it's just refreshing, somehow. I highly recommend finding an outside-of-work community, if you can. It helps give perspective, too.

squadratomagico said...

I meant to say, also, that I was thinking about your exchange with Doc Crazy while I was half-sleeping last night, about the myth of "having it all." I suspect it's quite true that no one does. Most people I know who are highly productive scholars fall into two camps, divided along pretty clear gender lines. The highly productive women I know tend to have relatively small or no families, or in some cases to live apart from their academic husbands. They are able to devote themselves full-time to work. The highly productive men I know seem to have more options: some are single or have small families; some have larger families but have stay-at-home wives -- but they also end up in situations where they can devote themselves full-time to work.
The point is, I don't know anyone, of any age or sex, who is a super-productive scholar AND who has a really complex home life or outside-of-work life. Not one single person.
But I think you CAN have, say, 60-70% of each, home and work, social life and collegiality. Or you can choose to privilege one or the other area, for greater or lesser spans of time. Perhaps cultivating intense research productivity has been the key to a happy life for you up until this point, but you can always rethink that and change the terms of your existence.
Or not: the real, underlying question here is what it means to you to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.

squadratomagico said...

Oops -- I should have said "demanding" home life, not "complex." Obviously, some of the situations I mention (like living apart from a spouse) are complex, but I was trying to target the issue of time management between work and home.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I love the idea of phases of work/life balance -- it seems obvious, once you guys all say it.

Squad, I think you're right about the gender balance -- I've observed it among my circle of friends.

But as for the "take your time with that second book" thing, I'd love to, but I don't think that's going to be possible here.

And there are two other factors we may wish to consider:

1. I love, love, love the questions I'm working on now. I'm fascinated by the research, so I almost don't notice that I have no outside life until I look up and compare myself to others, and then I think: "Eeep!"

2. Maybe I'm just afraid that I don't know how to have an outside life anymore. It's safer in my little research-and-teaching bubble. That doesn't speak well of me, but it is kind of how I've always been, so I wouldn't be surprised if it were a factor -- sticking to the books seems to involve less risk then actual human beings.

Janice said...

Definitely consider what's going to support your mental health. I've seen more burnt-out professors than I like to think about (people who've overdone it on any combination of service, teaching and research).

It sounds as if you really miss having a social and personal life outside of the strict work parameters, even if you don't know exactly how to reclaim that. I hope you can find a way to dial back the intensity on something from the workplace in order to give yourself that balance.

AltoidsAddict said...

This has been a major topic of discussion amongst my friends from graduate school and, at the same time, fellow adjuncts.

I'm actually teaching a 3/4 next semester as an adjunct, plus committee work, plus 1-1 office hours ratio, plus I'm getting pressure to publish, plus I'm advising two campus groups. Adjunct friends have similar loads. And as much as we may love what we do (it sure as hell isn't the money, if I keep up that load I should clear about $20K/year), we realize that it is really, really unfair for us to have to do all that work. And even though we love it, we still feel as though something is wrong, somewhere - the elusive life/work balance is off kilter.

We've started to rebel. We can't turn off the academic because that's all we are and there's nothing left any more - but we do have a movie club where we watch smart things and foreign films with the caveat that they must not be in our direct specialties. We are giving books to each other - casual reading! - and the rules are that the recipient must start reading it immediately, at least a couple of chapters. And booze, there's always booze. We steal walks to the hot dog carts on campus and experiment with not bringing our Kindles with us. We refuse to cancel camping trips and hikes out of guilt - we'll bring research with us, but we will allow nature to take priority. Little by little, we feel we are stealing ourselves back - or at the very least, meeting the machine on our own terms.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

"Little by little, we feel we are stealing ourselves back..."

AltoidsAddict, this is the best response yet. I love it. It requires a critical mass of people to get it going, but it's a wonderful idea.

Does your secret underground society have a name? If so, maybe I could organize a Grit City chapter.

AltoidsAddict said...

I think we should make this sucker semi-formal (okay, maybe "business casual") and start chapters! Our group doesn't have a name per se, though we do refer to the collective activities as "The Opt-Out." I'm rather fond of that term.

Sarita said...

At my institution the teaching load is lower, but no TAs (we do all our own marking), and ridiculously high admin and grad supervisions loads.

I have been having the same thoughts as you: I have no life outside work. Any hobbies or activities I once did have long since disappeared from my life. I haven't dated in almost two years. My idea of an exciting outing is a coffee shop (new scenery to work) or going to the gym.

This year, a year after getting tenure, I have determined that I will readjust my worklife. This is no fun at all and it's supposed to be a great job.

I will take a day off a week. I won't work every evening. It feels so rebellious !

ntbw said...

I want to say something, not to boast, because I am afraid this is going to sound obnoxious. Rather, I write this,I hope, to give hope re something squadrotomatigo said:

The highly productive women I know tend to have relatively small or no families, or in some cases to live apart from their academic husbands. They are able to devote themselves full-time to work. The highly productive men I know seem to have more options: some are single or have small families; some have larger families but have stay-at-home wives -- but they also end up in situations where they can devote themselves full-time to work.
The point is, I don't know anyone, of any age or sex, who is a super-productive scholar AND who has a really complex home life or outside-of-work life. Not one single person.

OK, so here's my situation:

I turned 40 this year. I got married to a lovely man when I was just barely 21; we will have our 40th anniversary next year. We have two sons ( ages 9 and 3). He too has a career; he is not a stay at home dad.

My older son is an amazingly talented gymnast (no clue where that came from, since I was the clumsiest kid ever, and Dad is fit but not athletic), which means we travel many, many weekends during the year, and spend vast amounts of money on his training. So, yeah, we have a complicated, fulfilling, wonderful domestic life.

I don't know if I qualify as super productive, but my third single-author book will appear next month, all from top presses in my field. I've also co-edited a fourth book. I'm the editor of a special issue of a pretty top-drawer journal in my field coming out next year. I have done a ridiculous number of conference presentations (to the extent that my CV, if I list everything, is about 17 pages long).

I am a full professor. I volunteer at my older son's school. I am about to be ordained as an elder in my church. I help coach the cross country team at my son's school, because I am an avid (though not all that fast) runner. I learned ballet as an adult, and have been dancing for 13 years.

I have a wonderful professional life. I also have a LIFE, which is not my job. It is possible. And I am not extraordinary. I know plenty of professionally successful women, at better universities than mine, who have families and lives. Do not give up hope!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

ntbw, do you ever SLEEP?

ntbw said...

Hi Dame Eleanor,

Yes, I sleep. Not as much as I'd like, but enough. What my husband and I don't do is watch TV, go to movies, or have much of an adult social life except at home with each other no dinners out, drinks with friends, parties, adult-only travel, etc). I have very little time to read for pleasure, which I do regret. I've lived in my current town for nearly 8 years, and I've never been to most of the restaurants. I've never, not once, been in a bar or a club here. I've been in a movie theater only twice, and both of those times were to take my older son to see a movie he wanted to see. My husband and I have never been on a trip without the kids since we had kids. But that's OK. I'm happy with that for now.

I figure, when the kids are grown, there will be time for dinners and movies and adult travel then. And, we were married for 10 years before we had our first child, so we had plenty of all that before too. That whole phase thing does have something going for it.

Historiann said...

I know you, ntbw, and you are insanely, over-achievingly productive.

The fact is that some people will publish, and some won't. Some will do just enough to squeak by, and then lay down. This happens at all unis, with all sorts of different expectations about research productivity.

That said: once you go from a 3-3 to a 2-2 (as I did 9 years ago), it's utterly impossible to think about going back to a higher teaching load.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

OK, ntwb, now I can see how your life works. I've given up on movies myself (mainly because I just don't enjoy them very much), but at no point in my life have I ever been able to give up reading for pleasure. I wish I could, but for me it's like not eating.

ntbw said...

And, obviously, I meant 20th anniversary next year--I feel like I've been married my whole life, but it's not literally true. And thanks, Historiann, that's very kind.
Another thing I don't do, obviously, is write interesting blogs that you folks do. I just read and sometimes leave comments.

Ink said...

This is such an important topic, and I thank you for raising it. I'm realizing more and more just how much the 4/4 load at our school has taken a toll. During my first 8 years, I was able to research/write pretty consistently. However, I finished the last book project a year ago and haven't been able to complete anything since then. Did start two different projects but haven't made too much progress. And as the months tick by, I'm wondering if I will ever be able to finish them. It seems impossible. I'm exhausted!

And social life? Ha!

kosher grits said...

I find that being religious helps me (even if this is SOOO uncool in academia). One day a week I take totally off, don't check email, phone etc., I meet friends, read, sleep... I have a teeny bit of life outside of academia, sort of BUT: It hasn't made me more productive, just a bit better rested.