Thursday, November 7, 2019

Juggling and Dropping: Thinking About the Academic Balancing Act

I was asked the other day by a friend how I can keep doing everything while adding all of the CDSN  stuff to my to-do list.  My answer is: I can't.  I am behind on all kinds of stuff, as I am reminded by returning to my half-written Chile case study today.

I write this not to explain or apologize for fewer blog posts (the slide in posts has been a steady thing) or to buy some time with co-authors.  I write this because I think the idea that people can do everything and keep adding new tasks is probably unhealthy.

Academia is always a balancing act.  We have three kinds of responsibilities: teaching, research, service.  They vary in how much time they take, in when the work must be done, and, of course, in how much they are valued.  And each one has multiple tasks within the category.  As I listicle the tasks in a professor's life, I will highlight the stuff that I am currently behind on (and I am sure I am forgetting stuff).
  • Teaching involves
    • Course Prep
    • Office hours
    • Classroom time
    • Grading
    • Supervision of graduate students (this is the most invisible yet often most time-consuming of the teaching tasks).  I am not behind on this, but I am slower than I used to be in getting feedback back to students.
  • Research involves
    • Grant applications and, if successful, managing the spending/accounting
    • Managing research assistants--while these folks help save time, they also require time to manage.  And, yes, when they go unmanaged, things go awry.  As I learned a while ago with my diaspora project that never came to fruition (its failure is overdetermined) 
    • Reading the work previously written on the topic
    • Reading the relevant documents/research materials
    • Data coding/cleaning/accounting (something that is wildly underappreciated)
    • Interviews, including travel to do them
    • Writing
    • Editing
    • Proofing
    • Writing letters to explain revisions for resubmission/cover letters for book proposals
    • All this stuff for secondary projects
  • Service involves
    • Sitting on university and professional committees
    • Meetings.  This is one of the big time consumers now that I am running a network.  I don't mind since it gives me the chance to hang out with interesting people, but it is the piece I underestimated the most.
    • Reviewing manuscripts for journals, presses
    • Performing administrative roles (not just chair/head but directing programs, running institutes, etc)
    • Writing tenure/promotion letters 
    • Writing letters of recommendation (the upside of teaching mostly MA students is far fewer requests to write such letters)
    • Public engagement--op-eds, blogs, twitter, podcasts, speaking engagements, tv/radio, etc
None of this list refers to keeping up with the scholarly literature (reading journals and the latest books) or reading for fun (non-fiction, that is, stuff in my field but not necessary for my research--I do read fiction for real fun). Nor does it list stuff that I don't have to worry about but others do, like figuring out child care arrangements (my daughter needs no arrangements anymore and, yes, my wife took care of most of that stuff when it was necessary).

Over the course of a career, teaching tends to get easier and requires less preparation as one develops the ability to take what one knows and organize it more quickly.  However, one tends to accumulate more supervision as one gets deeper into the profession.  Despite my best efforts (moving to a program focused on MA students), I have more PhD students now than at any other time in my career.  I don't know how the David Lakes of the world do it--supervising a dozen students and remaining productive.  Hopefully, younger folks are protected from serious service work until they get tenure.  I have thus far evaded being a department chair or school director, and taking on the CDSN has been helpful in that regard.  But that means doing more service of one kind than another.

I have found that the grant writing to fund the CDSN and leading the CDSN has cut mostly into my secondary research projects.  I have still been doing the travel for the main priority--the Dave/Phil/Steve project on legislatures and overseeing militaries--but I have put off travel and research for several secondary projects.

To be clear, I am not complaining or whining (ok, maybe a bit).  I just trying to make sense of the juggling that I am doing, that others are most assuredly doing.  Perhaps the most apt metaphor might be ducks--that they sail along smoothly but they are paddling furiously below the water.  Sure, there are folks who shirk and do little service, maybe stop doing much research after tenure, and who don't put much work into the classroom.  But there is much less deadwood than there used to be, and most of the folks I know are busy balancing multiple tasks.  Many academics seem to need "no" committees that help that say no to various opportunities/requests.  Ultimately, we vary in what we prioritize, and we vary how well we disguise the difficulties and the balls we drop along the way.

It is important to note that most of us chose this profession in part so that we could control what we do (giving up control over where we do it).  So, the balancing act is largely in one's own hands.  I may blog about the varying incentive structures that shape these decisions ... when I have more time.

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