Teaching Tip: April is the cruellest month (academic version)

This week, I was reading an email newsletter from Gina Hiatt, who runs online Academic Writing Clubs, and her opening line really struck me:  “It’s the time of flagging will power for every academic in the Northern Hemisphere.”  Her article goes on to talk about ways to manage the struggle to get things done as the spring semester starts to accelerate to its exhausting close. While she focuses on academic writing tasks, I think her message extends to all of our work here in academia.

What are some strategies you can use to get through the next few weeks of teaching, grading papers, keeping up with your scholarly and committee commitments, and trying to have some kind of life?

Make a master list.
Some people turn up their noses at lists, but I believe when used well, they can be a time and stress saver. Use whatever media that suits you – paper and pen, Google tasks, stand alone apps like Remember the Milk or ToodleDo.  Record every single thing you need to do between now and the end of the semester (well, not brushing your teeth).  Think of it as backing up your brain – once you have everything down on paper you won’t need to worry about forgetting something. The reason lists are sometimes less effective than they could be is that they must be complete if you’re going to get the full benefit of not worrying that you’ve forgotten something or left it off the list.   The minute you think of something new, add it to your lists.  Some people have home and work lists; I prefer one big list so I can see everything all together.  Just get it all down.

Prioritize and organize. Is there anything on your list that could possibly wait until the semester is over?  If so, put it off.  Is there anything on it that someone else could do?  Maybe you could hire a temporary helper for tasks that really don’t require your level of expertise.  For everything that’s left, establish a next step and a final due date.  Some things come with built-in due dates e.g. reports due or tests that need to be ready by test day.  For the other things, establish a reasonable due date and then order your list by dates.  If you have a big project with a due date, determine the next step, and give it a due date.  Then keep breaking down the project until you have it spread out however you would like it.  It’s completely up to you how you do this – for example a lot of experts believe strongly in daily writing, but it if doesn’t work for you, schedule it as a marathon.  Now take a deep breath, read it over and (I hope) find out that while there’s a lot of work, you know what to tackle first, and can skip the time-wasting fussing about the rest.

Lots of people don’t want to go through this process because in itself it takes some time.  But I bet you can do it in no more than an hour, and I bet it will save at least that amount of aggravation, worrying, forgetting and being late.

Monitor your progress. Once you’ve written the list, USE it.  Check it every time you have a few minutes to see if there’s something you could knock off in that time.  Sometimes this is where the process breaks down.  Perhaps you write your lists and two days later you’re not following it.  Why not?  There are several possibilities:

  • Life happens. A child got sick (or you did), the car broke down.  All you can do in these situations is regroup and reorganize your list.  Maybe look to see if there’s some way to move a few deadlines back. Just don’t throw the entire list away and go back to panic mode.
  • All work and no play. Please include at least a few minutes of down time for yourself, and try not to cut into your sleep if at all possible.  Tired, cranky people are not only unpleasant to be with, they make more mistakes and are less time efficient.  Allow yourself breaks without guilt.  Otherwise you are more likely to take a break by procrastinating but you won’t enjoy it. You’ll just Facebook your way into despair.
  • Inaccurate time estimates.  You thought you would finish grading in two hours but it took five. This is a learning experience for the future, but also look at your process to see if you can make it more efficient.  Were there a lot of breaks during that five hours?  Try the Pomodoro technique for tasks that require sustained effort like grading and writing (link).  It can help you focus your attention and has breaks built in.  It also helps you estimate how long tasks really take.
  • Fear. Procrastination often reflects a sort of performance anxiety.  If you find yourself putting off  things on your list that are important and really need to be done, ask yourself whether you are worried about somehow risking failure.  Perhaps your writing won’t be as good as you hoped, and you wonder if anyone will think you have something worth saying. Or maybe your students’ papers will be bad and you wonder if you’re really in the right profession.  We often avoid confronting unpleasant feelings by busying ourselves with soothing routines – cleaning, organizing and computer games come to mind.  So, you don’t feel the negative feelings, but they still exert a powerful influence on your behavior.  Becoming aware of this pattern can help you figure out how to handle it.

Find some support. Gina Hiatt leads writing groups for faculty who are trying to complete scholarly tasks (and by the way, MU will have a writing fellows program this summer – check the CTE website for details).  Support systems during the last weeks of the semester may include spouses and family members who take a larger share of household duties, paid help when possible and colleagues who share their grading tips or their latest jokes.  External accountability is really helpful – exchange lists with a colleague and check-in on each other’s progress.

One last thought — You might want to discuss end-of-semester crunch strategies with your students, who undoubtedly are just as snowed under as you are!

What are your end of semester survival strategies?

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