For the first few weeks, I would walk into my eight o’clock class to bright faces and smiles from the students seated within the rows. About a month into the semester, and coincidentally around the same time that they had to turn in their first essay, the smiling faces turned to tired and haggled sleep-deprived visages that stared blankly back at me as I entered the room and said, “Good morning!” Replaying discussions from almost every semester, I would ask, “How are things going?” Most of the students are freshmen, so they reply, “Exhausted!” Here, I take a couple of minutes in class to talk about the importance of time management and self care.

phd022008s

I do this, especially in my composition classes, because for most students the transition from high school to college can seem overwhelming, and they become shocked at the time and energy required of them to complete assignments for class, work a job, maintain a social life, and anything else they engage with. I know that no matter how many times I stress the importance of time management, the words that arise from my lips hover in the air, unheard, before they drop listlessly to the tiled floor.

During my graduate studies, I had a professor talk about her late-paper policy, and since then, I have incorporated the policy into my own classroom. Rather than taking say five points off for every day that a student does not turn a paper in, I give students one week past the due date to turn the essay in to me. However, I do not comment on the essay; instead, I just read it and return the essay with a grade attached.

The first few times I tried this policy, most students would turn the first essay in on time. For the second essay, some would start to turn the essay in a week later. However, I have had classes where students, even for the first essay, wait to turn the essay in a week later. For example, out of 50 students one semester, about half turned the essay in on time and about half waited a week to turn it in. While on the surface this policy may sound counterproductive and detrimental, I have found that it helps students and myself.

One of the key aspects of this policy is that it takes into account unforeseen events in a student’s life. The week an essay is due, a student may fall ill, he may have to work extra hours at his place of employment, she might have two tests within the span of three days, or something else may occur. By having the ability to turn the essay in later, without any repercussions in regard to the grade, it allows the student to space out the work and to, rather than rushing the assignment, take extra time to craft the essay. (This, of course, does not always occur.)

On my end, I may have half of the essays turned in on time. With this number, I can typically get through grading and commenting in a reasonable amount of time and return the essays to students. For those that turn the essays in during the week long grace period, I can read them, comment in my head, and provide a grade. In this manner, the late paper policy spaces out the grading process so I do not have to spend hours upon end grading papers over the weekend.

After I read and assign a grade for the essay, I have students who have questions about the grade set up meetings with me. For the students and myself, this is one of the most beneficial aspects of the policy. In order for the student to see what he or she missed on the essay, that student must meet with me face to face to discuss the grade. Throughout my years of teaching, the face to face conferences have proven more helpful in helping students understand the reasoning and thought process behind my comments on their essays.  Having students meet with me, as well, places the responsibility on them, as young students, to inquire about where they may have excelled and where they may have fallen short on an assignment.

work-life-balance

I present the above policy because, while it helps students, I also find it helps me manage my time. Over the past few days, I have had conversations with graduate students and colleagues about time management and stress in academia. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that, even though academia is a time-consuming, stress-inducing profession, my mental health and time are important. This realization led me, a few years back, to begin treating my work as just that, work. I start at eight in the morning and I stop about five to cook dinner and get ready for my family to get home.

I came to this epiphany during my graduate studies as well. I saw others in academia sacrificing aspects of their personal lives to get ahead. I had some tell me I need to miss my daughter’s t-ball games and cut back on my service around town. I saw some go through depression and struggle with the mental load that academia places upon us. With all of that going on around me, I decided, then and there, to make time for myself and my family. Since then, I have been happy and productive.

That does not mean that work cannot occur outside of that 8-5 window. In fact, one of the things I like about being in English is that I can read anytime, anywhere. I read at night, and I write blog entries, typically on Sunday. However, I rarely do much grading or academic writing for journals or other venues outside of that typical workday time frame.

Still, one may wonder how to be productive within that 40 hour per week schedule. You can do it. All throughout my career, I have taught a 4-4 load, and sometimes a 6-4 load. This has been the case over the past three-four years after I graduated. During that time, I have published articles in leading journals, gotten essays published in edited collections, attended conferences, been contacted to become a regular contributor to two blogs, written numerous book reviews, and achieved countless other professional accomplishments. I did all of this, as well, while teaching on average 110 students a semester.

I don’t say all of this to gloat, even though I know it sounds like I am doing just that. I say it to point out that we need a mentality that treats what we do in relation to what it actually is, a job. There will be times when that 8-5 model doesn’t always work. At those moments, I work overtime. However, for the most part, 8-5 is exactly what it sounds like, 8-5.

My brain does not shut off thinking about English or academia even when I’m sitting up watching television before bed. Some nights, it takes a while to go to sleep because my brain refuses to shut off. I will always think about it, no matter what I am doing. However, I will not let it get in the way of my personal health, time with my family, and restorative periods.

All of this is easy to say. Trust me, I know. It’s much more difficult to implement. If I can provide one more piece of advice, it would be this. “Write everyday!” I cannot tell you how much more productive I have become, in all aspects of my job, by writing some everyday (for me, at least five days a week). I used to tell my students to do this in every class, but I failed to heed my own advice until I started the dissertation. When I wrote the dissertation, I would write some everyday, Monday through Friday. I completed the dissertation in one year.  Before I started each chapter, I would read for two weeks then start writing, reading as I went along.

The process of writing the dissertation got me in the habit of writing as a routine. From there, I started writing the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog. I posted twice a week. I carried that schedule over to my own blog, and looking back at those initial posts on the Gaines Center blog, I can see how far my writing has progressed since I started that one about three years ago.

In conclusion, find a schedule that works for you. Take time to yourself, whether you’re a student or a professor. Again, it’s easier said than done, but it is important. How do you manage your time with a heavy workload? What tips would you provide for fellow professionals? Let me know in the comments below.

One Comment on “Is Work/Life Balance Achievable in Academia?

  1. Pingback: Flexibility, Communication, and Compassion | Interminable Rambling

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