The start of the fall 2012 semester was the kick-off for my journey toward my PhD. It also marks my second year as a full-time lecturer in the English department. Needless to say, this semester has been one grand experiment in an elusive concept for me—that of balance.
This is a recurring theme in academia. We talk about it at every level. For many readers of this blog, the concept of balance, particularly between teaching and scholarship, is one long considered and practiced. For some, it is a snowball beginning its roll down the mountain. Either way, I’ve found that it is always worth considering anew, revising, and adapting to whatever any given semester decides to throw at me. Here are some things I always return to.
Don’t let your scholarship suffer
This is especially difficult for new teachers, since teaching is (in my opinion) one of the most thrilling and intellectually challenging things anyone can do, and when you’re just beginning to figure it out, it looms large in your consciousness. However, there are a few key principles that help me, even with my full-time teaching load, keep my studies firmly ensconced in my sight-line.
- Consider due-dates fixed and un-flexible: At this level of academia, our work is largely a negotiation—with ourselves, our professors, and our families. Many professors have reasonable policies for negotiating due dates on assignments and incompletes. My advice? Pretend they don’t exist. Consider due dates as carved in stone, because once you start smudging around, you can quickly find yourself swamped.
- Do the thing that’s due first, first: also a kind-of no-brainer, but difficult for perfectionist-types (hello, everyone-in-graduate-school!) who want to always be “on-top” of things, it takes a lot of fortitude to ignore looming assignments in favor of the more closely looming one. Do what you must turn in first, first. This idea extends to committee tasks or workshop presentations.
- Make use of “time gaps”: when I pack for vacation, my husband always marvels at how much I manage to fit in my suitcase. This is because when I pack, empty pockets of space get shoved full of socks and scarves, shoes get stuffed with belts and t-shirts, and in the end, my suitcase is a solid brick. Allowing me plenty of outfit options on vacation, of course. But I try to do this with my time, too. Empty pockets of time need to get filled up—making dozens of copies that will take you ten minutes? Bring your reading for class tomorrow night. Setting your students to peer-reviewing? Take a minute to scrawl some ideas for your next paper. Holding student conferences? Work on your blog draft for the WSU teaching blog in between conferences. ; )
But, don’t let your teaching suffer, either
Ah, there’s the rub. Not only do I need to pay attention to my priorities as a student, I by no means should ignore my teaching practice. I’ve found that when I am reflective and purposeful about my pedagogical theory-framework for my courses, much of what I intend for students to “get” out of class falls into place. Thus, much of what I’m always revising in my teaching practice revolves around my workload of commenting and responding to students within that carefully thought-through and composed framework.
- Avoid procrastinating when responding to students: as soon as I read an email, I respond to it. This is a technique gleaned from one of my mentors, one of the most efficient women I’ve ever met. It has helped me keep up regular digital communication with students (respond to every email, which encourages them to communicate more with me) without too much anxiety or dread. Having said that, I’d advocate for only checking email 2-ish times a day.
- You’re the boss of your class: Unlike due dates and deadlines in classes you’re taking, you are in control of what’s due when in the classes you teach. I recommend scaffolding your assignments to not only help students build toward larger projects, but also to spread out your own grading tasks. For example, assigning a draft of an introduction that you can give feedback on, vs. a whole draft. Then, perhaps you might schedule conferences with students to talk about drafts and give them feedback verbally—this may make for a couple of long days, but unlike the pile of papers that can lurk for days on end, you’ll be done when the conferences are over.
- Give feedback your students will actually use: ask yourself how you want students to use the feedback you give them. Will they be asked to revise? In that case, feedback from you will be very valuable. If not, then perhaps you can constrain your feedback, and the time you take to read. As an example of limiting your time, yesterday I read through and graded proposals, averaging 6 minutes per piece. It was breathtaking to get drafts done in so quick a time, but knowing that I would have conferences with students today, I also knew that I didn’t need to labor over extraneous commenting. It may take some practice to break out of “commenting-as-evidence” for why a particular grade is given, but a necessary break for any teacher of writing to make.
Don’t neglect self-care
Self-care is an essential aspect of a healthy, balanced academic life. Several lists of suggestions for how to go about self-care can be found floating around (I like this one at the freedom experiement–) Whether or not you’re a “list person,” it might be helpful to think about ways that you can pause and take care of yourself—body and soul—to help you work at optimum efficiency.
Out of myriad possible self-care strategies, perhaps the one I practice most is the mini-break. One of the things that struck me as I re-entered student life, was how much sitting we do. As a teacher, I stand a lot, move around the classroom, walk across campus. I do sit a lot grading papers and blogs, but somehow that seems far more comfortable. Sitting in class for 6-9hrs a week, in those tiny plastic desks, takes its toll. A mini-break could be anything from making sure I stand up and stretch in my office, to taking a walk for coffee with friends.
Speaking of friends, the second strategy I’d recommend for self-care is to ask for help when you need it. We scholar-educators are a proud bunch, prone to extreme feelings of guilt or even worthlessness if we can’t “handle it” (whatever “it” is…). Sometimes, though, you need to ask for help—from classmates, fellow teachers, or just asking your partner to take care of the laundry for the next eight months.
In the end, I have not figured anything out, just opened up more room for reflection. My life as a teacher and now again as a student continues to undulate along the troughs and peaks of a homeostasis wave. If you have any tried-and-true methods for balancing your own teaching and scholarship, I’d love to hear about them!
Nicole Guinot Varty received her MA in Written Communication and the Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and then as a PhD candidate in 2012. She is currently teaching ENG 1020.