On productivity and expectations of productivity

By some accounts, this year in research was a failure.

One of the challenges of being at a teaching institution is that there is an expectation of research productivity, but the exact/precise expectation is not always clearly articulated. There are good reasons for this, of course. Different fields, and even different subfields within the same field, can have very different ideas of what constitutes “scholarly activity”. Additionally, leaving the expectations a bit vague allows for more freedom for individual faculty to define or explore various scholarly activities, whether that’s pedagogical research or, particularly after tenure, exploring new subfields. But it does often lead to angst, especially among junior faculty, who are not sure where exactly the research bar sits.

When I was junior faculty, I dealt with this uncertainty by coming up with heuristics for my research productivity. I looked at what my peer scholars produced in a year and calibrated this for my teaching load and service responsibilities to come up with my own “research productivity rules”. My rules: (1) at least one publication every year, approximately (journal or conference paper); (2) one journal publication every 3 years. So far, these heuristics have served me well.

Now, of course I don’t expect to hit these exactly every year, and if you look at my CV, I have years with zero pubs and years with several pubs. So they do tend to average out. I recognize this, and when I have an “off” year I just assume I’ll have multiple pubs the next year (which is usually the case). And so much of this is dependent on other factors, like whether reviewers like or abhor my work, what point a particular project is at, family/life circumstances, etc. (Although looking at my CV, I tend to be very productive around big life events, like the birth of my daughter or when my son joined our family. Go figure.)

This year was a zero pub year. I submitted a journal article (rejected) and a grant application (also rejected) and started a new research project, so it’s not like I was sitting around eating bon-bons. I recognize this, and on one level am proud of what I was able to accomplish given everything else that was going on in my life this year. (Particularly submitting the grant, which was a huge personal step for me). And last year I had 2 pubs, so again, it averages out. Still, when I look at my CV and see nothing marked with the year “2013”, it does disappoint me a bit. (OK, more than a bit.)

I am my own worst critic, sometimes.

The bright side to this—and there always is a silver lining—is that I tend after less-productive years to focus more closely on developing a publication plan for the next year. And that’s what I’m doing now: re-evaluating things that are in the queue that I never finished writing up, thinking up new experiments that should lead to quickly-publishable results, etc. This is also a great way to get my confidence back up and to drive back the panicky feelings of I’ll-never-publish-again. It’s also made me recognize how much I’ve missed my interdisciplinary writing/gossip group—we’ve not met recently because our schedules are way mismatched, but we have managed to meet a few times this break and are hoping to continue into the winter term and beyond.

Wherever you are, and whatever you did or didn’t accomplish this year, I hope you have a merry, restful, joyful, and productive holiday season!

The secret life of professors: Winter break edition

Here at Carleton, we’ve been finished with Fall Term since right before Thanksgiving. While most of the rest of the academic world frantically writes, administers, and grades finals, we at least have a respite from the daily demands of teaching. The tradeoff, of course, is that right after Christmas we frantically scramble to get ready for the start of Winter Term, which starts right after New Years, while most of the rest of the academic world gets their respite.

Of course winter break is really only a small break, a break from the daily demands of teaching. Yet the myth persists, even among some who know me well (*cough cough* MIL *cough cough*), that I get to spend my 5-week break lounging on the couch watching Hoda and Kathie Lee, baking cookies, leisurely getting my Christmas shopping done, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and in fact I will struggle this year like most years to get all of the holiday stuff done in time for the holidays.

So what is it that I’m spending my 5 weeks doing?

  • Wrapping up Fall Term. The first week+ of break is always spent finishing up the previous term. Lots and lots of grading, for sure, but I also like to take notes on what worked well in each class and what I want to change next time around.
  • Prepping for Winter Term. I’m teaching one class next term (thank goodness), and I’ve taught it before, but that doesn’t mean I can just waltz into class the first day and start teaching. I need to prep my syllabus, plan out all the projects, figure out exam dates, get the first few weeks of readings and reading exercises posted (this is particularly important when you flip your classroom, as I do), determine my office hours, and in general plan out the flow of the class for the term. Plus, since I’m teaching outside the building, I at some point need to take a field trip over to my classroom/lab and make sure all the right software is installed and ready to go.
  • Grant writing/research. This is the biggie. I still need to finish up some simulations that I didn’t get to last month, and then analyze the results. I need to look more closely at the data my students generated last summer and figure out if I can use it, or if I have to run more experiments. I need to revamp and revise the grant narrative, revise some supplementary documents, and add some new sections and language given some new language in the call for proposals. And did I mention I found a bunch of recent research that I have to skim through?
  • Other research activities. As odd as this sounds, I need to start planning for the summer now. I need to figure out how many students I want to hire, determine what I want them to do, write up a job description, recruit, and find them funding. I also need to start thinking about what I want the high schoolers to do and start figuring out how to recruit an undergraduate RA for that program. Plus I have some data lying around (and a rejected journal article) that I need to write up/revise and send out (again) for peer review.
  • Workshops. This week is the week of workshops. Earlier this week I went to one on a graduation requirement that many of our CS courses fulfill. Today and tomorrow I will be attending one on academic civic engagement in STEM. The former was tremendously helpful in helping me understand the requirement further and how the requirement is playing out on the ground, which will help me be a more effective chair as we set curricular designations for our courses. The latter is something I’m interested in for some of the courses I teach (as well as for Comps, our senior design projects). As useful as these are, though, they are time-consuming: all morning Monday and Tuesday, all afternoon today and all day tomorrow.
  • Hiring/chair stuff. One thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as chair is that there’s always something unsavory or time-consuming that comes up that you have to deal with. Break time is no exception. Plus our application deadline for our TT position is looming, which means I need to both start dealing with the search stuff (figuring out who reads which applications, answering questions, scheduling search committee meetings, etc) and start reading and ranking applications.
  • And I almost forgot, ’tis the season for recommendation letters. Fortunately I’m only writing for a few students this year, but it’s still time-consuming—the drafting of the letter, but also the letter submissions, as each school has their own (different) process for doing things (their own rating scales, their own upload procedures, etc).

Reading this list makes me want to retreat to the couch with a plate of cookies!

There will be small breaks, of course—quick trips to visit family, days of fun with the kiddos when daycare is closed—and for those, the extra flexibility in my schedule really helps. But this, as with all my “breaks”, is definitely a working break, and demonstrates just how many hats I as a faculty member need to wear on a daily basis.

Back to work, then!

#acwrimo final accounting

AcWriMo 2013 is over and done and in the books, and so it’s time for the final reckoning…er, accounting. So, how did I do in meeting my goals?

Goal: Spend at least 30 minutes a day (6 days a week) on research or research writing. To meet this goal, I needed to spend 25 days on research for a total of 750 minutes this month. In reality, I spent 15 days on research for a total of 620 minutes. Thankfully, on over half of the research days I worked for more than 30 minutes, which bumped my minute total up. If we go just by minutes spent on research, I’m only about 4 days short of my goal.

My big enemy here was not procrastination, but time. I had some days which can only be described as bat-shit crazy, plus I had a few work travel days interspersed in there as well which messed with my productivity. I could have easily let this demoralize me, but instead I just treated every day as a separate and independent day. Didn’t have time to do research the previous 4 days? So what—today is a new day and I can squeeze my 30 minutes in today, which means I’m 30 minutes closer to reaching my goal of finishing my grant application.

Goal: Finish all of the major experiments that I need for my grant resubmission. This was the most nebulous and thus hardest goal to meet. As I mentioned in my previous post, “all of the major experiments” is a moving target, since it seems like every experiment I run leads to more questions than answers. Luckily, towards the end of the month I switched tactics and started writing some simulation programs to get at some of the same questions from a different angle. This was much more successful: I got unstuck and now have a clear(er) path forward.

Actually, it was all that spinning of wheels in the first part of the month, where I felt like I was hitting dead end after dead end, that led to the insights that led to the simulation code. So once again, failure saves the day!

Goal: Draft an outline/plan for the rest of the grant narrative revisions. I didn’t even begin to address this one. However, in reviewing some old notes when analyzing some data, I did find a partial outline from several months ago, so at least I have a starting point.

So I didn’t fully meet my stated goals, but I still accomplished a lot this month. AcWriMo refocused me on my research, which in turn reenergized me. I’m not where I want to be with my grant resubmission, but I’m definitely further along in the process than I was at the start of the month, and I gained some much-needed focus and perspective. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t more disciplined and didn’t work more days out of the month, sure, but on balance I think it went well enough.

One thing I do enjoy about AcWriMo is the community that forms on Twitter—I enjoyed reading everyone’s tweets about progress made or not made, milestones met and goals accomplished (or not). Towards the end of the month, there was some grumbling on Twitter about how November is the wrong time for AcWriMo—it’s a busy time! Too busy! It should be at a less busy time! I understand the sentiment behind that. But I think that largely misses the point about AcWriMo. It’s easy (or easier) to commit to writing/research when you have fewer things on your plate. The real test is how well you can commit to writing/research when life is at its craziest. And I think that’s part of the point of AcWriMo: it helps you form that crucial habit of writing/research every day, even when (especially when) you’re too tired or have eleventy-million things going on. Because if you can find time for your research when you don’t have time for research—well then, finding time for research the rest of the year is easy-peasy by comparison. If you can form a habit under the worst of circumstances, you should be able to maintain it under better circumstances. So I hope that AcWriMo continues just where it is, just for that reason.

I’ll probably sign up to do AcWriMo again next year, but honestly, I aim to continue on with AcWriMo every month of the year—continuing on with the habit I re-established during the month of November. And that, I think, means that AcWriMo on balance was ultimately a success for me.