The disappearance of faculty downtime

It started last year with a simple request, and then another. “We’re holding this workshop during the December break. We’d love to have representation from your department. We need to have representation from all of these departments. Will you or someone else from your department attend?” (In some cases, repeat until I said I’d attend or found someone who agreed to attend.)

This year, November rolls around, and bam—more requests from workshop organizers for this December’s workshops.

I didn’t think much of it last year—this must be one of the many things they forget to warn new chairs about, I thought. But this year, when the requests came in, I wondered: is this normal? Have chairs always dealt with such requests, or does it seem like these requests are more frequent these days (and, in some cases, more fervent)?

I consulted with the previous chairs of my department, and yes, as I suspected, things were not always this way. The requests, in fact, are more frequent and more fervent.

Welcome to December Creep.

When I took this job, one of the perks I most looked forward to was the long break between Fall Term (which ends right before Thanksgiving) and Winter Term (which begins right after New Year’s Day). Five weeks! Sure, there are some major holidays in there, but still, five weeks! Time to do research! Plan my courses! Not work insanely crazy hours! Reflect! Heck, maybe even take a day or two off to go shopping or bake cookies!

(And yes, we do end up paying for this luxury, with our Death March between January and June, with little break between Winter and Spring Terms.)

There have always been workshops in the first few weeks of December at my institution. In theory, it’s a great time for them: people’s schedules are freer, they are not exhausted from the go-go-go of the term, and the break fosters reflection anyway. When I started, it did not seem like there were very many workshops, and other than the new faculty workshop my first year, there was not much pressure to attend. (Perhaps this is one of the many things I was shielded from as junior faculty, but I don’t think so.)

This year, there are eight workshops (including the new faculty workshop, which also seems like it’s longer than it was when I attended lo these many years ago). And as I mentioned in the opening to this post, there seems to be more pressure to attend and to represent at these workshops. They are theoretically “optional”, but perhaps not always practically or politically “optional”.

And so, all that free time starts to vanish, eaten up by Yet One More Responsibility.

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

We’ve seen this during the summer already at my institution. We don’t hold classes in the summer, but between supervising student research and teaching in summer programs, there’s very little downtime/unscheduled time. My summers are largely no longer my own.

I really don’t want the same thing to happen to all of our breaks.

Last year I attended both of the workshops to which I was, er, “invited”. This year I decided to be “selfish”, and only said yes to one such request. I have a grant to write, research to conduct, and job apps to read, and ultimately carving out time for those things will serve me better than representing my department. And I hate that prioritizing in this way is somehow “selfish”.

In some small way, I like to think I’m taking a stand to Bring Back The Break. And I really didn’t wish I had to take such a stand.

Does anyone else experience this at their institutions? How do you protect your break?

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#AcWriMo progress report, 2/3 of way through

We’re in the homestretch now for #AcWriMo 2014! It’s hard to believe there are less than 10 days left in this madwriting frenzy.

I’ve made some really good progress on my first goal (revising my grant proposal) since I last posted an update on my progress. I’ve spent much of my writing time writing code instead of words, but it’s been time well spent. (And as one of my colleagues in the writing program here likes to point out, coding IS writing!) I’ve been programming a simulation that will hopefully “prove” (for some definition of “prove”) that the ideas that I’m putting forth in my grant proposal do have merit and are feasible.

It was writing words in the first place (“writing when I have no clue”, from my last post) that led to the coding frenzy of the last week and a half. And when I got stuck on the code for my simulation, which is largely what I’ve been writing, I went back to writing about the simulation, and boom, I figured out how to get unstuck. With any luck, I’ll be able to start running some simulations with the code the first week in December, and then integrate the results into my grant proposal.

The awesome progress I’ve made on my first goal makes up for the fact that I haven’t even touched my second goal—drafting a conference paper. Oops. At this point, I’ll be happy if I just have a rough outline of a conference paper by the end of the month, which I think is do-able given the time I have left.

The good news is that fall term classes ended on Wednesday, so aside from grading (projects and final one-page papers), my time is largely my own for the rest of the month. This means I (theoretically) will have more time per day to devote to AcWriMo from here on out, and can be a bit more aggressive in this final push.

So what do I want to accomplish between now and the end of the month?

  • Write for at least 2 hours every weekday (excluding Thanksgiving!), and at least 1 hour on Sundays.
  • Finish coding up the simulation.
  • Start reviewing and revising some of the supporting documents for the grant proposal.
  • Read over the grant narrative and highlight the main areas I need to revise.
  • Figure out the topic for my next conference paper and make a rough outline of the paper.

I’m not sure how far I’ll actually get on these goals, but hey, it can’t hurt to aim high. Regardless, I’m excited for the writing days ahead, and excited about my research in a way that I haven’t been for quite some time. That alone makes this AcWriMo completely worth it and completely successful in my book!

#AcWriMo progress report, one-third of the way through

I’m 1/3 of the way through AcWriMo 2014, and I thought I’d give an update on my progress so far. (I laid out my goals for the month in my last post, but to quickly review, my goals are: (1) revise my failed NSF grant proposal, and (2) draft a conference paper.)

What’s working

  • Setting out specific, measurable goals for each session. Often, when I’m stuck on a hard problem, I tend to procrastinate by laser-focusing on minutiae. This is what derailed me last year in AcWriMo. This time, I’m setting goals for the week (usually on Sunday evenings), as well as for each day. (I keep track of these in Evernote, as part of my weekly to-do list). I set the following day’s goal based on my weekly goals and where I ended up that day. That’s made it easier for me to get the challenging work done, rather than just putzing around on paper for an hour.
  • Being flexible with my schedule. As department chair, I don’t always have complete control over my schedule. Things come up, and I don’t always have the luxury of saying no to meetings (or crises) that happen to fall during the time I’ve blocked out for writing. Rather than despairing, I’ve done a good job finding other pockets of time to write if my original block of time doesn’t work out, and of re-prioritizing things so that the writing gets done.
  • Writing when I have no clue. I’m in a challenging part of my research—the problems are harder and the path forward is not exactly clear. My goal for the first week was just to write as if I already had the answers. The simple act of doing so clarified a lot of the problems that got me stuck and helped me to think about solutions more productively. In one writing session, I was able to develop the framework for an entire simulation, which I am now starting to code and which, if it works, should answer a lot of the outstanding questions in this project. Yay!

Challenges

  • Life events beyond my control. Our daycare was unexpectedly closed for most of last week, we don’t have backup child care, and my spouse had an even crazier week scheduled than I did. Guess who had to scramble to take care of the kiddos? I tried to squeeze writing in when I could, and I did ok except for one especially crazy day where no writing happened.
  • End of the term craziness. My institution is on trimesters, and our fall term ends right before Thanksgiving. Classes end next Wednesday. Everyone is freaking out and everyone wants something from me RIGHT NOW. Prioritizing in this environment is challenging.
  • Damn kiddos sharing their germs. Thank god for cold medicine, which is the only thing that kept me halfway functional yesterday.

What’s keeping me motivated and productive

  • Slow and steady progress. I’ve accomplished something concrete each session, and more importantly, something I can build upon. The next step is always clear, so it’s easy to pick up where I left off the next day.
  • Ambient noise generators. A student in my first-year seminar shared A Soft Murmur as a design example in class one day. After class, another student showed me Noisli, another background noise generating site. I generally listen to music while I work, but I’m really enjoying working with these sites in the background. (My current favorite combo on A Soft Murmur is waves + birds + a very light singing bowl, while on Noisli it’s forest + stream. I also like the coffee shop sounds.)
  • The support of local participating friends. The fabulous @adriana_estill and @mijavdw are participating too, along with another good friend and colleague who’s “stealth-participating” (i.e without the public accountability). It’s hard to slack when you don’t want to let your friends down!
  • Twitter! I love reading the #AcWriMo tweets. Some days I read them after I’ve met my goal, but some days I read them before writing if I find my motivation lagging. It’s awesome to be part of this academic writing community.

So I think I’d give myself a B+/A- so far in AcWriMo. A solid effort, with some room for improvement. Here’s hoping the momentum continues for the rest of the month!