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?

Teaching Tip: Have a PEACEful holiday

Feeling stressed out?  Not happy with the balance between your teaching, scholarship, service  and – well – life?  You’re not alone.  Research suggests that university faculty experience higher levels of job stress than the general population, so it’s particularly important for us to be pro-active in dealing with stress and strain.  And Adjunct faculty are certainly not exempt — balancing primary employment with teaching commitments and home life.  In her Monday Motivator email this week, Kerry Ann Rockquemore uses the acronym PEACE to help readers think about ways to plan and implement changes that will help them thrive.  I’ve condensed and commented on her remarks.  You may not read this until after finals are in, but I hope you’ll come back to this idea and find some ways to make next semester more peaceful and productive.

What do you want?  How can you get it, or make progress toward getting it?  What’s MOST important and are you really putting your time where your priorities are?  In CrazyBusy, Edward Hallowell talks about leeches and lilies.  Leeches are projects, activities, beliefs, attitudes and/or people who drag us down, suck the life out of us and waste our time and our attention.  Lilies energize us, excite us and help us feel happy and fulfilled. They keep us going.  Hallowell advocates systematically analyzing your time and effort in order to use them effectively to maximize your lilies and reduce your leeches to the minimum. The book is short and interesting (although I find all his made-up terms a little silly).  If you want a more interactive planning structure, Kerry Ann Rockquemore is offering a free semester planning workshop on January 12th, 2011 for the first 500 people who sign up.  Her primary focus is new faculty but a little planning never hurt any of us!

Experiment (with tested strategies)
You don’t ignore prior research findings when you plan a scholarly project, so why would you do it when it comes to making changes in your life?  There are models for time management, increasing writing productivity, reducing stress and more that have proven effective.  If you don’t know what they are, the CTE is happy to help you find out.  For starters, check out these Inside Higher Ed columns, also by Kerry Ann Rockquemore:  1) The Sunday Meeting, 2) a daily writing practice, 3) tracking your time, and 4) holding yourself accountable on a regular basis.   CrazyBusy is another good choice, as is The Pomodoro Technique (best for writing projects)  and David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Pick an approach, try it for a month and check to see if it’s helping.  If it is, GREAT.  If not, you may need to re-examine your goals (Is this REALLY my top priority or is it what I think I’m supposed to want?), or your methods (Was it totally unrealistic to commit to two hours of writing a day?).  This step is often overlooked.  If something doesn’t work, we tend to shrug it off as a useless approach without digging a little deeper into the “why”.

We all have beliefs and attitudes that hold us back or empower us — leeches and lilies again.  You read about an approach to time management and immediately decide it can’t work for you.  You just know you don’t have time to exercise or join a book group or start a new research project.  Challenge your knee-jerk reactions and examine them.  Whose voice are you hearing?  Is the belief you have left-over from another part of your life?  Are there things you could let go of that you don’t because of some old script in your head?  Changing beliefs or attitudes, or actions isn’t always easy, but if you’re unhappy now, choosing not to change will pretty much guarantee continued unhappiness.  Waiting around for others to change or for “the situation” to change usually isn’t too effective either, unless your unhappiness is caused by a temporary condition that’s out of your control.  That’s why it’s so important to be sure the goals you are setting are truly your highest priority.  Are they worth working hard for?

Establish (a community)
Achieving work-life balance is hard enough – don’t go it alone.  It can be online or face-to-face, weekly, monthly or ad hoc, at Marymount or somewhere else, but find a community.  One of the most common comments I hear at CTE events is “it was so great to talk to other people about this issue…we should do this more often.”  And I totally agree.  Next semester we will be sponsoring a lunchtime journaling group and we hope to have a writing group as well.  And if you’re interested in forming another type of community, the CTE would be happy to try to help.  Whatever type of community or group you join or create, it’s the collective wisdom and support that matters.  Sometimes people feel that group events take up time they don’t have, but I notice that those who make time generally are more efficient and productive  in other ways as well.  You can add to our community right now by commenting on this post!

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” -Albert Einstein

You can sign up for the Monday Motivator or explore all of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s resources at her website, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

This will be the last Teaching Tip until classes start again in January.  Best wishes for a happy holiday and a joyous 2011!


Teaching Tip: Tis the Season

This week’s tips is more about surviving the effects of teaching than teaching itself.  Look around — do you see piles of papers and exams to grade, reports to submit, and just a general seemingly unbearable amount of chaos? That sounds like December to me.  At this time of year, even when we “take breaks,” it’s usually not to actually relax but to just complete other tasks that somehow don’t seem as daunting as the ones from which we are taking said breaks.  While I would love to recommend a long weekend in a warm place, I’m not that unrealistic (not to mention sadistic).  Here are a few quick ways to relax and take care of yourself so you make through this stressful time more or less intact.

Pay attention to your workspace: If you are sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time, check your alignment.  The top of the screen should be at eye level and about an arm’s length from your face to avoid eye strain and a stiff neck.  Your arms should be approximately level and your wrists in a neutral position to avoid numbness, tingling and eventual carpal tunnel. Your chair should allow you to sit up comfortably, preferably with your feet flat on the floor or a footrest.  Twisting into pretzel-like positions and hunching can lead to stiffness, sore backs, necks and shoulders and overall cranky attitudes.  Using a laptop for extended periods of time is a recipe for pain – it’s impossible not to hunch.  Get a separate keyboard or monitor so you can sit properly while using it.

Practice Pomodoro: Work for 25 minutes and take a five minute break.  After four of these (two hours, in other words) take at least a 30 minute break. During your breaks, don’t think about whatever you’re working on. Instead…..

  • Just breathe: Listening meditations can be done anywhere, any time.  They are perfect for rejuvenating the mind when you’ve graded one too many papers or exams in one sitting, don’t have time to get out of the office and regroup but truly need a mental break.  Sit comfortably upright or stand tall in Mountain pose (feet shoulder-width apart, palms forward, shoulders rolled up and back and down away from the ears, tail bone tucked, a bit of a bend to the knees, with the belly button pulled in). Then, close your eyes and allow the noise to happen– just don’t give it your full attention.  You may notice certain sounds, like a door slamming or a phone ringing, and you may even give them those names.  Don’t think on them, just let them pass.  The sound is there, and trying to ignore it will just be frustrating. Instead, as with any meditation, focus on the breathing you’re doing: in through the nose and out through the nose, slowly, in complete awareness of how that air moves through your body.  Notice how the chest rises and falls, how the abdomen expands.  Take slower, deeper breaths, eventually filling the chest fully and holding it for a moment before slowly letting it out and again holding for a moment before restarting the cycle. You may find it helpful to focus on doing this to a count of four or eight, pausing at the top and bottom of each breath to notice how that fullness and emptiness feels.
  • Watch your back (and neck and shoulders):  If you’re like me, you may find that you sit at a desktop computer for hours grading papers electronically or sit in a chair doing the same with real papers. The head, neck, shoulders, and back can get so tired, and there is a simple yoga flow of two asanas (poses) that can help to reinvigorate those areas: cat and cow.  Start down on all fours, making sure your knees are stacked under your hips and that your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in alignment, too, and flatten the back like a table top with the belly button pulled in. This is called “neutral spine.”  Inhale into cow, dropping the stomach the floor, tipping the head to look up and raising the tail bone high.  Then exhale into cat, reversing the stretch by moving through the spine to arch the back like an angry cat, slowly dropping the head and tucking the tail bone under.  Flow through these poses with your breath.  When you are done, finish the flow by sitting back into child’s pose, sitting your hips back on your heels, stretching your arms in front of you or wrapping them around your legs to reach for your feet, and letting your chest and head rest as low as is comfortable for you.

  • Hang Loose: Another way to loosen the back, shoulders, and neck is the asana known as rag doll.  If your balance is lacking, you may want to do this over the back of a stable (not rolling!) chair. From a standing position, with feet hips’ width apart, take a deep breath in, and then as you exhale, roll forward vertebrae-by vertebrae into a forward fold, arms dangling down loosely.   Then, grasp opposite elbows– right elbow in left hand, left elbow in right.  Make sure you gently drop the head and let it hang, releasing all tension in the neck and jaw and back and shoulders.  If you still feel tense through your neck, gently and slowly shake your head “no” and nod it “yes.”  If you feel tension through the back and shoulders, you can gently sway from the waist, twisting first to the left as you inhale and then to the right as you exhale: all movement in yoga is tied to the breath, so don’t move without breathing, and never hold your breath in a pose.  When you feel relaxed, don’t sit right up: slowly inhale and exhale as you roll up, one vertebrate at a time to avoid a head rush.

Eat, sleep and move: Productivity drops off dramatically with sleep deprivation. You’ll grade more efficiently if you’re rested, you’ve eaten well, and gotten some exercise (now known to be critical for brain functioning).  Just keep reminding yourself and your long-suffering friends and family that finals are only temporary.

What gets you through the season?


Thanks to Wren Mills, Ph.D., Instructional Coordinator, Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching (FaCET) at Western Kentucky University for the yoga and meditation tips.