An Alt-Ac's Dream: Time to Reflect, Research, Write

Josh Kim says these are the motivators that help recruit, retain and energize non-faculty educators, including instructional designers and others.

September 27, 2017

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” -- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

What do alternative academics dream about? Perhaps alt-acs dream of legible career paths or of dependable funding for the campus initiatives on which we work. Some alt-acs may imagine a world in which nonfaculty educators are viewed as resources to be nurtured, rather than as costs to be minimized.

What unites alternative academics in our private aspirations is a yearning for time -- not just any time, but protected hours for reflection, research and writing.

Every alt-ac I know has a scholarly project they are trying to piece together the time to complete. These projects may be dissertations for Ph.D. programs or articles for academic journals. Some of my colleagues are writing book chapters; others are working to place op-ed pieces.

Alternative academics are trying to fit their scholarship into the cracks of the day (or nights or weekends) that are not taken up by consultations, training or meetings. They are looking for opportunities to work on their intellectual projects between the times when they collaborate with faculty colleagues on their courses and research.

A wish among nonfaculty academics for protected time to research and write may seem anachronistic in an era when precious few in higher education are enjoying this privilege. An expectation of research productivity is reserved for a very few faculty appointees, and today 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments are in non-tenure-track positions.

From 1975 to 2011, the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty -- the academics one would expect would most likely have protected research and writing time -- grew by 23 percent. During the same time, the number of part-time faculty grew by 286 percent, and the ranks of full-time non-tenure-track faculty by 259 percent.

Even among tenure-track and tenured faculty, protected research and writing time may be unavailable. Anthropologist John Ziker wrote a piece in 2014 titled “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo Academicus,” in which he looked at how professors spend their time. He found that professors work an average of 61 hours per week. Of that time, 3 percent was spent on research and 2 percent on writing. In contrast, meetings took up 17 percent of the workweek; email, 13 percent; teaching, 12 percent; and course administration, 11 percent. If Homo academicus is doing research and writing, they are mostly doing it on the weekend.

So perhaps it is unreasonable for nonfaculty educators to have dedicated and protected time for research and writing.

Has anyone done a study of what percentage of a typical alt-ac's workday is spent on email and in meetings? I’m guessing 150 percent, as every alt-ac I know is on email (or now Slack) at night and on weekends.

When I read the story in last week’s “Inside Digital Learning” on the wish for instructional designers to conduct their own research, my first thought was, of course that is what they want. My second thought was, when are they going to find the time to do this research?

The challenge with reflecting, data gathering and writing is that it is time and focus intensive. Writing just doesn’t happen in an environment of constant interruption.

Yet how many alternative academics have the ability to lock their doors (if they have doors) or turn off their email?

The goal of providing alt-acs protected space for thinking, research and writing is not high up on most lists of institutional priorities. But perhaps it should be.

Finding and retaining high-quality instructional designers, assessment experts and media educators is getting more difficult each day. There is a big demand for educational professionals with proven abilities to collaborate with faculty on course development and teaching for online, low-residency and blended courses.

One of the strongest recruitment and retention strategies for skilled, credentialed and experienced alternative academics may be protected time for scholarship. A commitment to set aside a few hours a week for uninterrupted research and writing may be enough to keep the alternative academic at your institution energized, motivated and happy.

How do you carve out time for scholarship?


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