Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Such a helpful metaphor

I haven’t heretofore been a regular reader of Confessions of a Community College Dean (aka “Dean Dad”), although I’m definitely going to start, having been led there by Academic Coach. So over lunch today I was checking out some back posts and found a post from last Monday on sprinting versus marathoning as a metaphor for the energy requirements for teaching versus administration. So helpful in understanding my energy problems this term!

As I’ve bitched about more than once this term, I am way over-extended on service/administration responsibilities this term. It’s been building for the last couple of years as I’ve been asked to be on this committee or have volunteered to take on that task. The kicker was last term when I wound up on a committee without even being asked if I would serve on it; I was informed of this new committee only when an email went out to all committee members and I discovered that I was listed as a subcommittee co-chair! And this term it’s gotten even worse, and I haven’t really felt that I could say “no” to anything because I’m applying for tenure. I was trying to schedule a meeting yesterday and realized that my calendar is so full of non-teaching-related meetings that it’s difficult to fit another meeting in during business hours. And, as I have also bitched about this term (hmm, a pattern of bitching is clearly emerging here!), I’m now so overwhelmed with administrative tasks that I’m not really doing things particularly well anymore, at least by my standards; and that declining quality is especially true in my classes, which I find frightening since teaching is why I got into this biz in the first place. I just don’t have the energy – both mentally and physically – to stay on top of everything I’m supposed to be doing and to do it well.

And Dean Dad has just helped me to figure out why: as a teacher, I’m so trained for sprint mode – i.e., lots of preparation for a hard, fast, time-limited run. As he points out, this works well for teaching but not for administrative work, which is more like long-distance running and requires slower pacing; an administrator who tries to tackle all projects at a sprint will wear out almost immediately.

In teaching, I am so in control of the timing; I can close the office door or go home and prepare at my own pace, with few distractions, and then during class itself I’m in charge of how the time gets broken up and what we do. I tackle projects and finish them on my own calendar, and I rarely leave things half-done; even with grading, I can decide that I’m going to grade 5 papers today, and if I don’t get them all done, I can add the remaining papers to the next day’s pile, and it’s still all under my own timing and control, and when I’m done, I’m done. (Although I often end up in the position I’m in tonight, of having a whole stack that has to get done by tomorrow’s class.) The thing that has worn me out with all of these administrative responsibilities is that I can never get them finished and I can’t do most of them alone: I make a phone call and have to wait for an answer; I try to schedule a meeting and have to wait for replies about availability and room reservations; I try to coordinate activities and have to rely on other people to do their part (or not) on their own schedule. I’m so used to a to-do list that is about finishing things, about accomplishments that I can cross off my list (e.g., prep for class, grade papers, hold office hours). But with service/administrative things I’m having to learn (with the help of David Allen’s Getting Things Done) to break all projects down into smaller pieces (e.g., make phone call, send memo, reserve room) and to rarely actually finishing any project. I’m slowly learning to do this – although I hate it as a way of working – but now I see that I need to learn to adjust my pace as well. I’ve been tackling my service obligations in the same way that I do my teaching, by blocking out chunks of time and trying to finish the tasks in that time period (e.g., this afternoon I will plan this event, tonight I will schedule and prepare for the meeting), but that’s often not actually possible because I don’t have all the information I need, or I have to do part of the project now, wait for other people, and then do the next part of the project after I hear from them. What really works for administrative stuff is to do little bits on every project every day, a schedule which builds in the wait or lag time that has been making me so crazy. In other words, I need to be a marathoner (content to keep running even when I’m not seeing progress) instead of a sprinter (who finishes up each race in a relatively short period of time and then can start a brand-new race).

As Dean Dad points out, it’s very awkward to be doing both teaching and administration, because then you’re switching back and forth between running modes in a way that’s difficult for the muscles. And I’ve got another problem with it as well: One of the things that appeals to me about the schedule of writing a little bit every day (which I have NOT been doing this term) is that I keep my book in my head all the time; to use another metaphor, the soup is on the back burner or the front burner, but it’s never off the stove, which makes it easier to bring it to a boil, and there’s that lovely soup aroma in the kitchen all the time. The problem with doing a little bit on every project every day is that I can never put the stupid projects out of my head, and I realize that I don’t actually enjoy most of the projects I’m working on, so I resent having to think about them. And I know that David Allen says that writing everything down in “next item” lists helps to keep it all out of one’s head so that there’s lots of free brain space for creativity, but this hasn’t been working for me yet, although it sounds great in theory; what I find is that all projects are crammed into my head all the time, and I’m always fretting about when I’m going to hear back from so-and-so or when I’m going to get around to scheduling that meeting, leaving no space at all for the interesting things that I actually like about my work. Not liking this administrative work leads me, I think, to the task of reducing these responsibilities so that I can do more work than I like, but I don’t think the marathoning versus sprinting conflict will get resolved any time soon. In the meantime, however, the metaphor will help me to think about controlling my pacing in my work, and maybe that’s the first step to not feeling so worn out and exhausted all the time.


Blogger Ancarett said...

I keep folders for each administrative duty in a standing file on the top of my desk. I can flip through those daily, check off the latest accomplishments and prep for the next ones. It helps get them out of my mind, a bit, by knowing they're somewhere I have to face daily.

9/20/2005 7:51 PM  
Blogger Dean Dad said...

Thanks for the compliment! I like what you've done with the metaphor, esp. by adding the soup-on-the-stove image. I hope you don't mind if I steal that one...

And you're dead-on about having to wait for other people to get back to you before clearing a task. Very frustrating, but unavoidable.

9/20/2005 8:37 PM  
Blogger AnalisaGuzman said...

I read the Getting Things Done book as well but I am having some difficulty applying the whole process. Has it worked for you generally speaking or not (besides the not being able to keep projects out of your head)?

9/20/2005 9:40 PM  
Blogger YelloCello said...

I like the soup aroma image (er, scent). Sometimes, though, I ignore a project too long and get the dreaded scorched soup smell instead. That's kind of what guilt smells like, right?

Pardon my cheekiness. I did enjoy this post of yours and it has given me some new ways to think about my own work habits this term.

9/21/2005 7:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm going in the opposite direction. I'm used to the marathon mode and have added teaching, which requires sprinting. I, too, am exhausted. Really good post!

9/21/2005 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Wedding said...

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Good luck.

2/20/2006 10:04 AM  

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