3 Practical Approaches to Writing While Teaching

Note: In the “Do you work?” series, a Ph.D. and an academic writing coach answers questions from faculty members and graduate students about academic motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read her previous columns here.

Question: I start each semester with high goals for my research and writing – and each semester my teaching commitment slowly eats away at those goals. How can I manage to write something when all this preparation, teaching and grading takes up all my time?

Is writing impossible while teaching?

dear impossible,

Technically, it’s not advisable to write at the exact same time you’re teaching – although it’s not impossible. Your students may wonder what you are doing and then get bored and leave. But of course you mean that it is difficult to maintain a writing practice during the semester. Writing requires both inspiration and time, and tending to the different aspects of teaching can monopolize your inspiration and waste your time.

Many academics simply give up writing during the semester or quarter, assuming they’ll get it all done over the holidays. Not only is this a farce in its inaccuracy—PhD students are supposedly smart, and yet many seem unable to grasp the spatiotemporal boundaries of trying to squeeze months of writing into weeks of vacation time—but it idealizes it remains a poison and an unhealthy “always work” mentality that contributes to burnout.

So let’s try something different. I have three strategies for freeing up time for your writing and research during a busy week of class.

But first one has to accept that teaching, at least at the elementary level, requires a different intellectual and physical frequency than adult education. Especially as the semester draws to a close and classroom commitments (and student stress and grading) mount, you just won’t be in optimal shape to complete the kind of 10-hour marathon sessions that your research and have defined writing time in graduate school, for example. So plan accordingly: What lower-bandwidth tasks in your research corpus still need to be done but can be done without having to invoke a perfect synergy of working conditions? For example:

  • Everyone needs to create their footnotes and bibliographies at some point, and scientists and social scientists always need to clean up their data or make their charts and graphs look cool.
  • It takes more energy to start something new than it does to refine work in progress. So if that particular resource is scarce, I would recommend working on a manuscript that is already more than 50 percent “complete” (i.e. most of the research is done and the data is processed and at least 25 percent of it is written). .
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These types of projects lend themselves to 45-minute chunks of time, and those chunks are far easier to arrange during a busy week than any mythical five-hour visit to the (largely imaginary) muse. How much time you can devote to your academic work certainly depends on your teaching load and schedule, but I have three basic approaches that offer something for everyone.

  • Approach 1: Draw clear boundaries between your days of teaching and your days of research. If you’re lucky enough to have all of your classes taking place on the same two or three days of the week, devote those days entirely to classes (and various administrative duties). Break the expectation that after five consecutive hours in the classroom, you’ll return to your office (on campus or at home) refreshed and ready to think hard about your own stuff. (You won’t. You’ll be ready to binge-watch The Great British Baking Show and then wonder why you’re suddenly craving cake.) Now comes the hard part: on the days when you’re not having contact hours with students, don’t even think about teaching. These days are your sacred research space, and your students just don’t exist. Nothing anyone wants from you can’t wait 24 hours. The downside: On the days you teach, you also need to fit into your preparation and grading. The good news here is that the classwork has the magical ability to expand and contract to fit the exact time it is given. So give him two to three full days a week (and sadly the occasional weekend during those last crazy weeks of the semester) and no more.
  • Approach 2: Prioritize your own work for a specific part of the day. When you teach five days a week, the luxury of pretending your students (bless them) don’t exist isn’t possible for a whole day or two. However, what is possible is to block them out for 25 to 60 minutes – let’s say first thing in the morning. Just refuse to check email or look at your lesson plan or course materials until you’ve completed a small, specific task for your own research. This approach takes drive to establish and persistence to sustain. It’s all too easy to put your most immediate teaching commitments first, but your writing deserves space and priority, too. Once you get used to dedicating at least a short portion of the day to writing, every day you don’t — because you’ve thrown yourself into class commitments without checking first — just doesn’t feel right.
  • Approach 3: Desperate times, etc. If you’re teaching five days a week and you just don’t have even 45 minutes to spare on those workdays, then that’s a hardcore strategy that I don’t recommend in the long run. Aim to complete approximately 25 to 45 minutes of a scholarship assignment two to three evenings a week between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. If you work later, it can disturb your sleep. earlier and you might have kids screaming in your ear all the time. The last thing I want to do here is encourage you to do a “third shift” after a full day of classes followed by family and homework. But if you have no other choice, a very small amount of night work — two to three times a week — will do a surprising amount to keep your research afloat during the semester.
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Finally, let’s be realistic here. The last two classes and final weeks are a total loss. Don’t set yourself any deadlines during this time, and if you’re completely falling away from your practice at this point, just remember that it literally costs zero dollars to forgive yourself and do it.

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Question: Like many young scientists, I have problems turning down commitments (edited works, conferences, etc.) that I don’t have the time or inclination for. What if that one thing I turned down leads to snubbing the one person I need a favor from in 10 years? How can I stand up for myself without sabotaging my career?

Looking for a failsafe “no” script

love just say no

Here’s a permanent approach to protecting your time and your relationships with colleagues:

  • Respond to the invitation with exuberant glee—that there’s really nothing you’d rather do than contribute a 7,500-word paper to an edited volume that doesn’t add to your resume. Then tell the inviter that you need to review your calendar before you can commit to anything. This gives the petitioner the dopamine boost they need, because they know you think the project is cool.
  • Do nothing for a week or two. This shouldn’t be difficult as you will be swamped with other work commitments.
  • Within 14 days of your initial response, send a follow-up email with a tangible apology (one that’s true) about a vile committee duty or tenure review or other triggering matter explaining why you can’t attend , and who will convince you colleague will recoil in empathy and feel sorry for you.

And yes, make sure you would like to work with this person in the future (even if that part isn’t true). You really never know whose help and friendship might one day save your (academic) life, so it’s a good idea to keep all relationships as friendly as possible.

But that doesn’t mean committing to things you don’t have the interest or time for. There are commitments that you simply shouldn’t make, for practical or psychological reasons. Finding a way to draw boundaries with the utmost diplomacy remains an important skill in academic life.

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