Essay on academics who do too many things
I recently received a frantic phone call from a tenure-track faculty member at a research university whom I’ll call Noel. I met Noel this last summer when she was in transition: she had been turned down for tenure at her university, but was on her way to a fresh start as a new tenure-track professor at another university. I distinctly remember that she was determined to avoid the key mistake she made at her first institution: spending all of her time on teaching and service at the expense of her research and writing. While the semester started off well on her new campus, she found herself right back in the same situation at the end of this term: she has spent all of her time on teaching and service and has made zero progress on her writing projects. Her call came out of desperation because in addition to not writing, she was also not exercising, not eating well, and sleeping only five hours a night.
In this column series on overcoming perfectionism, we’ve mostly focused on the how much perfectionism costs academic writers (lower productivity and fewer publications). But for many professors, perfectionism extends well beyond research and writing and filters its way into every aspect of professional life. While many faculty members can readily identify perfectionism in writing, I like to use the phrase "over-functioning" to describe how it manifests in teaching and service. Noel’s case is illustrative because "over-functioning" in teaching and service activities is all too often paired with "under-functioning" in research and writing.
Over-functioning in teaching looks exactly as it sounds: doing far more than needs to be done (or is expected in your department) for any given course. Practically speaking, it looks like the following:
- Assigning more homework, papers, and/or projects for your course than anyone else in your department.
- Creating more labor-intensive grading than is typical for your department.
- Over-grading (e.g., line editing your student’s papers with the idea that this is the only and best way to improve their writing).
- Over-preparing content for lectures so that you end up with two hours of material for a 50-minute class.
- Overstepping the normative professional boundaries on your campus to make yourself available to students 24 hours a day (e.g., giving them your cell phone number, texting undergraduates, and/or sending e-mails late at night).
Over-functioning in service looks similar: you’re doing more than anyone else because you’re not using the departmental norm as your reference point. Instead, you gauge your behavior on your own perfectionist internal standard (aka "super professor"). This leads to over-commitment (you’re on too many committees), feeling overwhelmed (you end up being ineffective because you’re stretched too thin), simmering resentment and eventual burnout.
Don’t get me wrong, if you love teaching and service, you’re consciously choosing to invest your time in these activities, you’re meeting the research and publication expectations at your institution, and you feel great about your work, that’s great! You’re on the right track. When I use the term "over-functioning," I’m talking about perfectionists like Noel who:
1) Have "perfect" as the standard for teaching and service.
2) Are not intentionally choosing to spend time on service and teaching to the exclusion of research, but end up doing so in the desperate effort to prove they are good enough and deserve to be teaching in a college classroom, and/or...
3) Are putting themselves professionally at risk by engaging in professional activities in a way that is dangerously disproportionate to how they will be evaluated for tenure and promotion (over-functioning on teaching and service while under-functioning on research and writing).
Over-functioning in teaching and service has already cost Noel tenure (and ultimately her job) at her previous university. The fact that she could recognize herself falling right back into the same pattern, noticed she was feeling miserable, and wanted to figure out how to turn things around is a positive sign. But it takes intentional effort to move from over-functioning to optimal functioning.
It’s probably clear what the solution to over-functioning is from the way I’m describing the problem. Specifically, consider the following five steps:
STEP 1: Ask Yourself a Few Important Questions
I strongly encouraged Noel to ask herself a few critical questions: 1) What is my standard for teaching? 2) What is my standard for service? 3) Where are those standards coming from? 3) What are the standards in my department?, and 4)
Am I currently operating above or below those standards? On one hand, many perfectionists don’t (consciously) realize how unrealistically high their standards are. And on the other hand, perfectionists tend to hold themselves to higher
standards than others expect of them. So it’s imperative that you intentionally clarify what it means to be a successful teacher and department citizen and understand the relationship between your current definition and the expectation your department has for your performance.
STEP 2: Collect Some Data
If you’ve never tracked your time, it’s time to try it. There’s nothing like collecting data on your own behavior to help break through denial and clarify just where your time is going. When a perfectionist like Noel tracks her time for a week (and I mean literally tracking her time in 15-minute increments), she has to face the painful reality that how she is currently spending her time isn’t aligned with how she will be evaluated for promotion. Time-tracking has a way of infusing new energy to adjust standards, change time-management strategies, and learn how to teach and serve efficiently. In addition to time-tracking, you may want to initiate conversations with your departmental mentors about expectations, how they manage to teach efficiently, and how they make decisions about service.
STEP 3: Experiment With New Strategies
Once you realize that you’re over-functioning in response to your perfectionism, you’ll quickly become ready to experiment with new strategies for preparing for classes, grading efficiently, and and saying "no" to any new commitments. The
great news is that there are so many proven ways to teach efficiently and serve strategically. You just need to release yourself from the idea that lectures are the only effective format for teaching, line editing is the only acceptable form of grading, and "yes" is the only answer to service requests. The key is to ask your colleagues about their tips and tricks, experiment with new strategies, and then analyze the results to see how effective they are, as well as how they feel to you.
STEP 4: Wedge Writing Into Every Day
The fastest way to stop over-functioning on teaching and service is to get reconnected to your intellectual projects. And the easiest way to do that is to start a daily writing practice. All it takes is 30 minutes per day (Monday through Friday), to get your intellectual work wedged into your workday. I promise, it will help to align your time with your review criteria and (even more importantly) it will automatically keep you from over-functioning on teaching and service because it will focus your attention on the scholarly work you love each and every day.
STEP 5: Don’t Go it Alone
Most of us don’t just change our behavior overnight by sheer force of will. We need support, encouragement and accountability to disrupt the patterns that are keeping us from reaching our highest potential. When you’re trying to overcome
perfectionist tendencies that lead to over-functioning in teaching and service, the best way to do so is to surround yourself with other people who: 1) are actively writing every day, 2) have what you want (optimal functioning in service, teaching, and research), 3) will hold you accountable for your weekly writing commitments, and 4) can help you to strategize about new efficiencies in your teaching and service. There are many different kinds of accountability structures: buddies, small groups, online communities, and boot camps. What’s most important is that you choose the kind of structure that will support you as you break the cycle of perfectionism.
The Weekly Challenge
If you’re over-functioning and you know it, I challenge you this week to try any of the following:
- Ask yourself: what are my standards for teaching and service and what are the standards in my department?
- Visualize what it looks like to optimally function in all aspects of your job as opposed to over-functioning in some and under-functioning in others.
- List all of your service commitments on one sheet of paper and observe how you feel about that list.
- Track your time this week (try Rescue Time) and ask yourself if the way you are spending your time is aligned with how you will be evaluated for promotion at the next level.
- Experiment with writing every day for 30 minutes and observe how it shifts your approach to your teaching and service.
- Find an accountability mechanism that can support your new behavior.
I hope this week brings you the clarity to identify how your perfectionism is manifesting in your teaching and service, the willingness to experiment with something new, and a taste of freedom from the pain of over-functioning.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore