Kerry Ann Rockquemore

President at National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

How to Thrive Amid Academic Chaos

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December may be the most stressful time of the academic year. The end of the semester is so close you can almost taste the eggnog, if you can just hold on a little longer.

But even when you’ve finally run the grading gantlet and made it to the holidays, a new semester—and the demands on your time that come with it—will stare you in the face soon enough. While there’s plenty of literature out there on how to survive during crunch time, there’s little on how to thrive—to be highly productive in your research and have a full and healthy life. Imagine how it would feel to make significant progress in your writing while also taking weekends off, sleeping eight hours a night, and being fully present with people you love.

As someone who runs an independent faculty-development center that serves over 30,000 academics, I know that learning to thrive in academia is a process. Unfortunately, the behaviors that help people flourish in academia run counter to how most academics work and were socialized in graduate school. However, you can become more productive by making small changes in your daily behavior.

First, though, it’s critical to understand why so many tenure-track faculty aren’t thriving. It all boils down to the structure of academic work: Teaching and service have a high degree of built-in accountability, but your scholarly work (what matters most for tenure and promotion) has next to none. For example, having a room full of students waiting for you in the classroom several times per week ensures that you’ll show up and teach them something. Likewise, service involves meetings, reports, events, and so on. If you don’t attend, or don’t complete the paperwork, there will be hell to pay.

When it comes to writing, though, there’s no daily accountability, so faculty often wait until the last minute and then engage in binge-and-bust writing to meet their deadlines. It’s easy to fall into the trap of over-functioning on teaching and service while under-functioning on research and writing. But this leads to feelings of guilt and anxiety about not writing, not to mention exhaustion and disappointment at the end of the term. Once you realize that this challenge is a structural one, you can create your own accountability mechanisms for the two things that are essential to your long-term success: maintaining your personal health and wellness, and producing and publishing your research.

Want more tips on writing and productivity? Here's Joli Jensen on The Road to Scholarly-Writing Utopia. And here's Stacey Patton on How to Publish, Not Perish.

There are plenty of ways to move toward those goals. Here’s a five-step plan that works for me:

Eliminate electronic distractions.

The most common complaint I hear from people is about electronic clutter: They feel overwhelmed by how much email they receive, and by how much time they spend answering it. You can’t control everything that comes into your inbox, but you might be surprised how much you can control.

Remember, for a lot of e-mail, there’s an off switch: unsubscribe. Pick one day this week and spend an hour unsubscribing from the listservs and daily e-mail updates you don’t read anymore. Last week I removed myself from 70 mailing lists (most of which I had never signed up for). It's shockingly simple. Then, in January, decide with whom you want to be in conversation in 2014.

Of course, e-mail is just one example. Consider whether other areas have off switches that you might have overlooked. If you’re overwhelmed by service commitments, say “no” to taking on additional ones. If too many people are stopping by your office with last-minute requests, close the door (even if only for a little while).

Create a plan for your writing and your personal goals.

Most academics automatically plan for the things that have built-in accountability (you make a syllabus for your teaching, create deadlines for grading, etc.). Right about now, you’re finishing your courses, assigning grades, and attending end-of-year functions because you have to do these things.

But what if you had a plan for your writing and your personal goals? It’s simple: Spend 30 minutes deciding what you want to accomplish, how you will accomplish your goal, and when you will do the work.

Pay yourself first.

It may seem counterintuitive to make time for writing during busy periods of the term, but carving out 30 minutes or more per day to move your manuscripts forward is critical to maintaining your research productivity and ending the term in a position of strength.

If you’ve followed Step 2, you have a plan, so you know what tasks need to get done. Start every day by getting down to business. Don’t check your email first, don’t get on Facebook, and don’t do other low-priority tasks right off the bat. Just get your butt in the chair, your fingers on the keyboard, and start writing. And if you want to turbo-boost your daily writing, add an accountability mechanism. Most people who experiment with writing accountability find it not only results in greater productivity, but it makes daily writing sessions more enjoyable.

Rethink old habits.

When I was a tenure-track faculty member, one of my greatest end-of-term stressors was grading papers. I would spend hours line-editing papers and making comments because I imagined my labor-intensive grading led to better student outcomes. Then I would stack the papers outside my office door so students could pick them up. Guess what? When I returned from break, the same stack of papers was usually by my door. Only a handful of students ever bothered to pick them up. I’d let that stack sit there for several more weeks and then recycle it.

Finally, a mentor pointed out to me that unread comments don’t lead to better writing and learning. Why not just ask your students if they want comments on their final papers? he suggested. If they do, great! If they don’t, give them a grade and move on. So the next term, I asked my students: Who wants comments? As it turned out, fewer than 10 percent did, so I spent 90 percent less time grading papers, and everyone’s needs were met.

I use the example of grading to get you thinking about what practices you habitually engage in, simply because I’ve always done things this way or because That’s just how things have to be done. Instead, ask yourself: Does this work matter? If it doesn’t matter, stop it. If it does matter, then ask: How urgently do I need to do this? And will “done” be good enough, or does this need to be completed to the highest standard? Consider how you can complete tasks in a way that leaves yourself time to invest in the high-priority activities that will contribute to your long-term success.

Listen to your body.

While you’re reading this, pause for a minute, take a few deep breaths, and think about what you need. So many of the academics I work with are sleep deprived, stressed-out, and haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years. How can you be productive if you’re ignoring your body’s basic needs? You may be surprised by how something as simple as getting more sleep, down time, exercise, a massage, eating healthier foods, or spending more time with people you love can increase your productivity, creativity, and innovation.

Ultimately, all these suggestions boil down to the same principle: identifying the areas we can control and making choices that contribute to our long-term success. In other words, a little planning and prioritizing go a long way. And exerting our ability to still the waters in our environment can enable us to have a more balanced and productive academic experience.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore is president and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.

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4 Comments
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  • Good points here.

    Ross Geesman
  • Absolutely, thank you Dr. Rockquemore very helpful!

  • Now the other shoe, what about productivity in the classroom. Research and writing is faculty centric. Students deserve more than the secondary, at best, benefits of narrow scholarship.

  • Great article!

    B. K. Forsyth