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Quote of the Day
Monday, September 11, 2006
Structured Time
I am battling time these days. It's not that I don't have enough of it (couldn't everyone use a few spare hours?), but rather that I'm not sure what I should be doing with it.

Last year I had a dissertation fellowship that required I do nothing but work on my dissertation for twelve full months. It was wonderful to be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about having to be somewhere at a certain time: the boundaries of my day were 8:30am (when I would walk ST a few blocks down the road to daycare) and 4:30pm (when I would pick him up again). The rest of the day was completely unstructured. This was good in that I had a lot of hours of time to really get involved in whatever I was writing. But of course it was bad, as I've chronicled here, because the day was so easy to fritter away doing things that really could have been done later (e.g., laundry, cleaning the kitchen, baking).

Starting this new job has been (and continues to be) quite an adjustment for me, then, since I have somewhere to be at a certain time every day of the week. I am up at 6:00am to shower and get ST ready for preschool, and after T and ST leave for the day I quickly get myself ready and am in my office, ready to work, by 8:00am. I teach MWF from roughly 9:00am-2:00pm, which an hour break around 11:00am. On TTh I come into the office anyway, knowing how susceptible to distraction I will be sitting alone in the vast project time-suck that is Pond House. I am usually home by 4:00pm most days after picking ST up from preschool, and once my family is fed and happy I retreat to my office to work. I usually work in my office from about 8:30pm until midnight, sometimes a little later.

My body clock is completely messed up as as result. It's not that I'm not getting enough sleep -- 5-6 hours a night has always been sufficient for me -- but rather that I'm simply not adjusting to having to BE somewhere at a particular time. I don't like it. And I certainly don't like rushing my family out the door every morning (unfortunately, ST is a nightowl like his mother and hates getting up early in the morning, which makes our morning ritual far from fun). But I suppose that is life and, in time, I'll get used to that, too.

This time-struggle is coupled with a few others: first, I am not at all used to the length of classes here and it's completely throwing off my lectures; and second, I feel a little lost when I'm in my office for more than a few hours. On the first issue: classes at Doctoral University were 50 minutes long. That meant that I usually scheduled 40 minutes of lectures or activities, and then left 10 minutes in the period for questions or administrivia. Classes here at SMU are 60 minutes long. That's not a huge difference, but I simply cannot seem to time my lectures correctly. The first week I was always 20 minutes off, leaving way too much time to fill at the end of the lecture. This was all right in the first week, since students didn't expect to stay for the whole period anyway, but now it's annoying me. Today I was only ten minutes off in my senior seminar class, and five minutes off in my two intro courses. I want to make the best use of my students' time and I'm just not confident that I'm doing that.

As to the second issue, when I'm sitting alone in my office I feel like there's something I "should" be doing. I'm not sure why, but I don't feel like I use my time well there, despite the fact that the place is set up for productive work. How do the rest of you manage your research/prep days? Tomorrow I think I'm going to make myself a schedule (e.g., "work on seminar class lecture" or "search for new dataset for Project XYZ") so that I can at least feel like I'm accomplishing something.

Yet another issue that is driving me crazy: the timing on the syllabus for my intro course. I don't know what I was thinking when I set up the first few weeks as I did, but I know that they will be axed immediately when I teach this course next semester. I reserved two full weeks to talk about theoretical and methodological issues in my subfield, and it is really, really dry stuff. These are undergraduates, most of them non-majors, and I feel like I'm boring them to death with these matters. It probably comes from being in a graduate student mindset but being faced with only undergrads. Another issue I have with my syllabus is the fact that I've already changed an assignment due date once and am thinking of changing it again (all for good reasons), and I'm worried the students will think I'm a flake. I am also seriously considering making some other significant changes to the exam format so that I can grade the exams in a reasonable amount of time. When I designed this syllabus this summer I was told I'd have approximately 50 students total in the two sections of the intro course and so I assigned a lot of writing -- two essays during the semester totaling 15 pages, two essay exams. The reality is, however, that I have 100 students in my intro course-- double what I was expecting. When added to the 35 students in my senior seminar, that makes for a whole lot of reading/grading. I'm seriously considering, for the intro course at least, of substituting multiple choice questions for half of each of the exams (and I hate multiple choice exams). Grr. Hopefully the students won't think I'm a quack.

It's been a long day of working this "real" job. For now, the best place for me is snuggled in my bed.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 9/11/2006 10:25:00 PM  
7 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 6:36 AM, Blogger Flavia said…

    I change my syllabus all the time, as do most of the professors I know. Usually, I present these changes to my students as a result of my responsiveness to them and the dynamic of the classroom: "since you were doing so well with X, I've decided to cut Y so that we could spend more time on it. . . since I realize that you probably have a lot of midterms next week, we'll be moving ours to the following week (or the earlier week, to get it out of the way). . .I think it will be more convenient for you if these exams are multiple choice; I'll be sure to let you know in advance what that format looks like." You can even ask them question to which you already know the answer: "How would you all feel if we moved this exam back?"

    The point is that if you don't seem flakey--if you give them enough lead time for major changes, let them in on (some version of) your rationale, and especially if your changes appear to involve *less* work--they won't think you're flakey.

    Good luck with everything--it IS hard adjusting to these new demands on our time!

  • At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Sarah K. said…

    I don't have any amazing words of wisdom, as I'm still plugging away on the dissertation, but it seems completely understandable that you are feeling your way though this semester, especially these first few weeks. Some aspects of your classes will go better than expected, some worse. Don't be too hard on yourself -- there's no way that SMU would have hired you if you came across as flakey and, frankly, you sound like a super-organized person! Good luck.

  • At 10:32 AM, Blogger betty said…

    i'm with flavia, i do the same thing and if you explain to the student what you're doing they don't mind so much. they do hate unexpected change (when it causes them to do unnecessary work), but you wouldn't do that to them, right?

    sorry the adjustment is so...not easy. you're going to be pleasantly surprised at how easy next year will seem compared to this one. just keep that in mind!

  • At 7:54 PM, Blogger Lilian said…

    I am like you in two ways: I'm a night owl and I prefer unstructured time and it's hard for me to adjust to the "structure" of having to be somewhere at a certain time. The hardest thing will be that if I start teaching next year, it will have been over 3 years since I last taught.

  • At 12:18 AM, Blogger phd me said…

    No words of wisdom to offer, really, but boy! can I relate. Like you, I had a fellowship last year - while good for the dissertation, not good for me - so I'm struggling to get back into "normal" work hours. I manage to fill my time at the office but I'm never sure if I'm doing what I should be doing. Then again, if my lessons are planned and my emails are answered, I'm guess I'm doing something!

  • At 7:37 AM, Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said…

    A couple of hints about how to structure things....

    1) revise the syllabus, hand it out and tell them that you are making adjustments based on how the class is developing. If it makes you feel better, tell them that you are new to SMU and are adjusting it due to the unique qualities of SMU.. which is the truth, namely that the administration can't count (50 vs. 100 eeek).

    2) A "to do"list and a set of priorities for your off days are crucial. Learning to be self-guided and multi-task is kind of hard, but you can do it!

  • At 7:18 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said…

    I don't have any advice other than what other people have said (though I agree that you can change things around with a course and students are fine with it, especially if you present it as responding to their needs, rather than saying "I didn't plan this very well the first time round" - which I know you would never do!). I'm just stuck on the idea that you manage with 5-6 hours of sleep a night - oh, that I was like that! I really need at least 8. It would be sooooo nice to have a couple more hours in the day (without dragging around like zombie...).

    FWIW, I get TONS more done with structured time than unstructured time (though there are things about it I HATE, too). A useful psychological trick for me has been to shift my teaching from first thing in the morning to the afternoons - that way, I feel like I'm getting up when I *choose* to get up, even if I'm getting up to work on course stuff. Obviously you still have to get ST up in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon so this may not work for you, but it helped me a lot.

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