Tyro Tracts

Learning Time Management

Balancing responsibilities is the most difficult part of an academic career, writes Nate Kreuter. And that's true even in summer, when some duties may not be present (and you may not be getting paid).

May 30, 2012

The most difficult part of an academic career is not producing scholarship, not teaching courses as effectively as possible, and not the service required of all faculty members. The most difficult part of a career is balancing the three. The most difficult part of a career is, in my experience, time management.

Essentially, these are the three categories of labor in all academic careers: teaching, research/scholarship, and service. How much a faculty member is expected to contribute in each category will vary dramatically from institution to institution. If you’re lucky, when you begin an academic appointment your expected contributions within each category will be clearly articulated in writing, possibly in your contract, in your department’s tenure requirements, or in college and university policies. But whether or not your own department's expectations for teaching, research, and service are explicitly articulated, each activity will require different commitments of time and energy at different times. All three activities will persistently compete with one another for your attention and energy. But giving too much time and energy to any one category, and not enough to the other two, can spell disaster for a career.

Many contracts for employment stipulate a faculty member’s teaching load quite explicitly. At so-called "Research I" universities, teaching loads are relatively low. At such an institution one usually teaches two courses each semester (a "2/2 load"), but one is also expected to produce more scholarship than at other sorts of institutions. Other typical teaching loads are three courses per semester (a "3/3 load") or four classes per semester (a "4/4 load"). I teach at a public, regional comprehensive university where most faculty teach a 3/3 load. So, my perception of faculty labor is framed by my own institution’s particular emphases on teaching, scholarship, and service. While I can't stress enough that expectations will vary dramatically between even seemingly similar institutions, the important point is to gauge, as precisely as possible, the expectations of your own institution and then budget your time and energy accordingly. Your productivity needs to more or less mirror the priorities of your institution. And teaching loads alone don't really tell the whole tale of how teaching will affect your time commitments.

For example, teaching multiple sections of a single course cuts down on prep time, but doesn’t cut down on the grading. Class size matters as well. An instructor teaching a 3/3 load with 25 students per class has more grading responsibilities than an instructor teaching a 4/4 load at a small liberal arts college with classes capped at 15 students. How often a faculty member is expected to develop new courses will also affect time commitments. Developing and teaching a course for the first time requires significantly more work than refining and tweaking an existing course. Expectations in teaching performance also vary dramatically between institutions. Some colleges and universities will scrutinize an instructor’s teaching intensely, while other institutions, sadly, regard teaching simply as an unavoidable burden and don’t have high expectations for teaching performance.

Expectations for scholarly productivity also vary dramatically between institutions. The general rule, though, is that with lower teaching loads, more scholarly production is expected. Those teaching the relatively small 2/2 loads will generally be required to produce the most scholarship. Inversely, colleges and universities with the highest teaching loads, where instruction is prioritized above research, will generally require faculty members to produce the least scholarship. These differences aren’t true across the board, but are generally the case. A department's expectations for scholarly productivity will either be articulated specifically in tenure requirements, or instead will be well-established within the culture of a department. Junior faculty members need to know very specifically what their college’s expectations for scholarly productivity are, and make regular, consistent progress toward scholarly benchmarks.

The least-defined realm of expectations is inevitably in the category of service. Service is the often mundane, but also sometimes rewarding, work that keeps universities running.  It is almost always time-consuming, even time devouring. All faculty members are expected to contribute to the college by serving on various committees and carrying out assigned administrative responsibilities. Service, essentially, is a catch-all category that includes all the work that is not teaching or scholarship. Such work might include serving on hiring or curriculum committees, or running a faculty training program, or administering a program within an academic department.

Ideally, tenure-track faculty members are shielded by their departments from oppressively large service responsibilities. The thinking is that lowering service responsibilities frees up time and energy for the more critical activities of teaching and research. Commensurately, tenured faculty are expected to contribute more to their departments and universities by carrying out the administrative work and other necessary, often invisible and nearly always unappreciated work that keeps departments and universities running.

Departments that require too much service from faculty members too early in a career are setting those individuals up for failure. Service work is often difficult to measure, and not often highly regarded by tenure committees, so service obligations that detract from teaching and scholarship can doom junior faculty members’ tenure cases. Senior faculty who shirk their service responsibilities are often resentfully regarded by their colleagues as deadwood. And in an environment of fiscal austerity, virtually all faculty members are increasingly being overburdened with excessive service responsibilities.

Balancing one's time also includes protecting one's time. And protecting one’s time requires saying "no" on occasion.  For many of us, "no" is a difficult thing to say. It is even more difficult, I’m learning, before one has achieved tenure. Nobody wants to be seen as a shirker, and it is difficult to beg out of important work.  But occasionally we all have to. There isn’t a formula for when or how to say "no" to a request from a colleague, but know that you can, and that you should.

Time management skills carry over into summer as well. For the typical teaching scholar working on a nine-month appointment, the responsibilities of teaching and service are suspended during the summer months. For many professors, and for most professors teaching more than a 2/2 load, summer is the only season when significant blocks of time are available for research and writing. Don't blow summer off. Effectively, you aren't being paid for the time, but scholarly work still needs to be done. It’s also a good time to get ahead of preparing classes for the upcoming academic year. You may be on a nine-month appointment, but you aren't really "off" during the summer. Personally, I think that it is a mistake for junior faculty members to take on additional teaching responsibilities over the summer.  While the extra money is appealing, critical time for scholarship, teaching preparation, and recovery is lost.  

Similarly, having a high teaching load is also not an excuse to neglect scholarship during the academic year. Modest, incremental progress in research or writing during the academic year accumulates quickly. Even when teaching and service obligations weigh heavy, time must be reserved for research and writing.

Finally, time management should also include more than teaching, scholarship, and service. Effective time management also means reserving time for recovery, and time for fun, time for family, and time for friends. In the words of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, "The only reason I work at all is to drive the work from my door" — even when it’s work that you love to work at.

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