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Finding the balance: Tailoring more time for writing by adjusting teaching practices

Finding short bits of time to write during the week is usually a challenge for busy faculty. Teaching expectations are often urgent and very important while writing time is important but, usually not urgent. Yet, by being more focused and intentional with our time, even our teaching time, we can tailor our teaching practice to be able to fit in much more writing time.

Here are four practices that we have honed over the years that have enabled us to carve significantly more time in our schedules to dedicate to our writing projects.

1) Cluster and streamline teaching assignments. As faculty, we have a set workload spread over nine or twelve months. Barring unforeseen circumstances, typically we know this workload a year ahead of time. We know our course schedule and classes we will teach.

Prior to setting your schedule, you have an opportunity to negotiate your schedule with your supervisors, usually the department chair. You and the chair can sit down and look at department needs, your experience, as well as your upcoming responsibilities like managing a new program this next year. This is not an exact science, for sure, and there is usually room for negotiation among the department teaching needs, your background and experience in teaching these classes, and your preferences. Your career path and rank may also be a consideration. You may be going up for promotion in three years and you might like to have some focused time to do some research or complete a manuscript submission. This all comes into play, as department chairs generally want you to be successful and will listen to your needs.

Working with your department chair or supervisor, there are several strategies you can use to optimize your teaching schedule so that you will have more time for writing, including:

  • Teach multiple sections of the same class one term, saving additional preparation time. Teaching multiple sections also gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast how your course content works with different groups of students.
  • Suggest to the chair that it would be helpful if you taught more classes one term, but had another term when you taught only one or no classes. Clustering your classes like this means one very busy term with teaching and student advising, and one term with less teaching, fewer student office hours, but many more large chunks of time to schedule and complete your writing.

The chair may be particularly helpful in making these adjustments if he or she knows you are coming up for promotion soon and need that additional time to get current manuscripts submitted. When you have this conversation with the chair, bring in your curriculum vita and discuss what you are working on and how it fits in with your career path. Having a clear idea of your plans and current projects may help your chair embrace and act on these special adjustments to your teaching schedule.

2) Look closely at your plans for the term in your syllabus. One of the most wonderful aspects of teaching is that (usually) no one tells you how to arrange your class content nor do they tell you what assignments to give nor how to grade them. We make these decisions when planning for teaching. Yet, within those decisions are some ways to allocate more time for writing without sacrificing teaching quality and engagement with students.

  • Look very closely and carefully at every assignment you give. Ask, how does it help students learn the course content? How have students responded to feedback on this assignment in the past? Is it really worth my grading time? Does it help students accomplish course objectives? Sometimes we can eliminate one or two assignments that don’t really contribute to student learning, thus, saving grading time, and adding more writing time.
  • Consider streamlining your grading time by using rubrics (Stevens & Levi, 2011), a matrix that describes the sub-tasks students need to know to complete an assignment at different levels of performance. Dannelle recalls a faculty member who told her she spent 45 minutes explaining an assignment. Dannelle said to herself, “Too long, too much class time.” From her experience and that of others (Peat, 2006) designing and giving students rubrics before they start an assignment means better student work as well as less time explaining the assignment. An additional bonus is that your grading will go faster because all you have to do is circle the error on the rubric instead of writing it out on every student paper. A caveat though, is that the first rubric you make will take some extra time, but the process goes faster over time.
  • Consider using short screencasts to communicate and demonstrate common errors found in student work. For some reason many of our masters students could not figure out how to do a hanging indent in their bibliographies. So, Dannelle downloaded Screen-cast-o-matic, an app that can record her voice as she demonstrates and talks through the steps on her computer. To make the screencast, she put a student paper with the error on her screen and corrected the error while explaining what she was doing during the screencast.  It then becomes a YouTube video. Then, when she sees the error, she simply puts in the link to the video in the comments section of their paper. She suggests the students put the video on a device next to their computer and correct their own papers following her steps. By referring students to the video, she doesn’t have to explain the correction over and over again.
  • You don’t have to use a new textbook every year. A new text means adjusting your syllabus for the book and making new presentation materials as well as assignments related to the new text. A new text may add fresh content but it also adds a lot of additional preparation time. Carefully assess whether it is worth the time.

3) Manage interactions with students. Email is a time gobbler. Just managing your email connections with students can give you the gift of several open time slots in the day for attention to your writing. In addition, meeting students during office hours is very important but can be managed in a way to give you more writing time.

  • Write about your expectations for email in your syllabus. We tell (and usually have to remind students) that when they email us, they need to put the course number and name in the subject line, for example, CI590, Action Research. We have directed our email accounts to move all emails that have that number in the subject line to immediately put it in a file for that class. We check that file once a day.
  • Remind students that when we open their email and it extends beyond the first page, they need to make an appointment with us. Obviously, their time and our time are valuable and it actually might be better to talk things through rather than write it all out where miscommunication can occur.
  • For those emails that are really urgent, we ask students to make sure we know that by putting “URGENT” in the subject line. Sometimes students need a signature on a scholarship application and the deadline is time sensitive.  It is great to know that so we can respond quickly. We put all of these directions in our course syllabus.
  • Cluster your office hours so that you can focus on student needs one or two times a week rather than have your office hours scattered throughout the week.  Put your office hours on the syllabus. We usually say, before we make appointments outside of those hours, we prefer to have those hours filled up. Another upside is that by clustering your office hours, there will be an obvious time limit. After all, they can see there is another student waiting in the hallway.

4) Use class time to model and further your own scholarship. There are several ways to use time in class to further your own scholarship as well as provide a powerful role model as an academic writer. The old adage, “Having the best of both worlds” prevails.

  • Model and have students engage in writing practices that you have found helpful. One example would be a focused freewrite. Ask students to begin the development of a paper or project by brainstorming and writing. At the same time, instead of recording grades or walking around the class, do the focused freewrite yourself on one of your writing projects. Afterwards, tell them how doing the focused freewrite helped you, for example, think more carefully about the next steps for your conference proposal. Check in with them about how the focused freewrite helped them in their thinking and writing.
  • Bring in a draft of a paper you are working on so that students see that writing is rewriting and rewriting. Ask them to be the audience and give feedback on the draft.
  • Have students do a mini-literature review (two or three articles) on a topic related to the course. When we have done this in the past, students have found articles that we were not aware of that we can add to our own lists of references.

Using strategies such as these, you will be amazed at how much time you regain to dedicate to your own writing projects without sacrificing the quality of your teaching.

Dannelle D. Stevens, Professor Emerita at Portland State University, is the co-author of five books, including Write more, publish more, stress less! Five key principles for creative and scholarly writing. For the last five years she has been the Portland State Faculty-in-Residence for Academic Writing where she initiated the highly successful Jumpstart Faculty Writing Program.

Micki M. Caskey is Professor at Portland State University whose areas of specialization include doctoral student writing and research. Micki is co-editor of two book series: The Handbook of Research in Middle Level Education and The Handbook of Resources in Middle Level Education. She is also former editor of  Research in Middle Level Education Online, an international peer-reviewed research journal. Micki is author or editor of more than 75 publications and 100 conference presentations.