Review, Rinse, Repeat Episode 3: The prof who did too much

Last week, I received very good news: I have been reappointed at Bates for three more years! So there will be some breathing room between this review and the big one. I am talking of course about the tenure review. This fourth-year review process was a lot of work and taught me many things. In this post I wanted to share one of the most important lessons I learned.

Part of the point of this review is to give you some feedback on how you’re doing and what things you could improve so that your chances for getting tenure are better. One of the recommendations didn’t surprise me in the least. I need to be careful not to do too much, and not to focus so much on teaching that I lose sight of my research. In a recent post in Inside Higher Ed, Kerry Ann Rockquemore calls this phenomenon “over-functioning”. I really liked the post because it gives concrete advice on what to do to avoid this, and how not to let this impulse to over-perform overshadow other aspects of your academic and personal life.

I guess now I should explain what I mean when I say I do too much. In my case, it is mostly focused on teaching. I have already written about how I tend to grade assignments too carefully, and assign too many things that need to be turned in. Even though some of these are pedagogically sound ideas, I need to be careful not to be swallowed up by the grading. I am also bad at setting aside time for my research (my first semester I had set aside one day a week which I called “research day”, but that disappeared very quickly). Especially if I am in my office I work mostly on teaching-related stuff. Last Spring semester I decided to work from home sometimes (one or two days a week), and that helped slightly (I submitted two papers). What Rockquemore suggests seems more reasonable, just set aside some time during the day for writing. If it becomes routine, it’s easier to keep up. For example, “work from home” days didn’t happen during busy weeks for my classes (like exam weeks or before a hard homework was due). I suspect the teaching gets easier the more you teach classes you’ve already taught. Prep time at least should be reduced dramatically. I also intentionally volunteered to teach different things every semester, because I wanted to try my hand at different courses. Variety is the spice of life and all that. Now it seems like I should try to stick to the same thing for a little while, give myself a chance to get better at teaching those classes before trying new ones.

But not all of this is related to teaching, and I know that many of the other things I do that distract from my research are things I really want to do, so I just need to find a better balance. For example, for a while I was giving lots of talks and traveling to conferences. I realized at some point that I was giving the same talk each time, and that I really just needed to sit down and do some new math before I talk anymore. I am trying to be a bit more selective of conferences: they should be related directly to my research. Like I mentioned in another post, I am on leave this year so getting research done is much more feasible, but I can’t let this be a pattern either. Research needs to happen when I’m not on leave, too!

Rockquemore has some suggested questions to ask yourself and see where and why you’re over-functioning. I came to realize that I over-function in teaching because I am at a very good Liberal Arts school surrounded by excellent teachers, and I’m trying to prove that I belong in their company. But some of the things I do are over the top and ridiculous, like that semester where I spent an average of 15 hours a week only on grading for ONE class. No one in the department expects commitment like that from me. Moreover, they expect me to do research and publish! Come tenure-review time, if I prove that I am completely devoted to teaching and have no more publications than I have now, I will certainly be in trouble. So I need to readjust my expectations for myself and see more honestly what other people expect from me. Rockemore suggests a radical approach: talk to your department and colleagues about their expectations. I talk to people in my department plenty, but maybe asking more specific questions about how they do things might help me figure out if I’m doing too much or not.

In the end, I am happy I get to keep my job for three more years, and hopefully longer than that if I can be careful with balancing teaching and research.  I now ask you, dear readers, do you over-function? Do you have any advice for people like me? Any other articles on this topic that you recommend us tenure-track folk to read? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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3 Responses to Review, Rinse, Repeat Episode 3: The prof who did too much

  1. Michelle says:

    My over-functioning is service.

    In addition to the “feeling like you can’t say no to committees because you’re not tenured,” I do all of this outreach stuff. On the one hand, I’ve won grant money for it. So it counts for more than “just” service. On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and energy, and isn’t really considered that important (I suspect) by a lot of my colleagues. I’m also not as good at PR as I should be. If my regular outreach activities got into the local paper or even the university newsletter, it might “count” more.

    One thing that has really helped me: make an appointment (protected time! that you keep!) for writing every week. I have a writing group that meets on Friday mornings (will be heading there soon). We share goals, spend a few hours writing, and then check in on how we did with the goals.

    This has done two things: (1) I make time for writing every week. (2) I do a bunch of research (the figuring-things-out part) during the week, because I know I need to have something to write on Friday. (I have also used the time for writing grant proposals and my tenure dossier. But mostly for writing up results, editing papers, and so on.)

    The important thing is that I think of it as a commitment to those other folks. It’s just as important as showing up to teach my class or to a faculty meeting. I don’t miss it unless I’m out of town. I don’t schedule meetings with students during that time. I don’t ever list it as a time I’m available for meeting with colleagues. I have a standing commitment then. And you’d be surprised… no one ever questions it. Ever.

  2. Mike Breen says:

    Congratulations on your reappointment!

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