Take some time away from work to work
We often think of the December-January holiday break as the midpoint of the academic year. Faculty need recuperative time to gear up for the semester or term, for course planning, fine-tuning, or writing syllabi.
But, what about your own writing projects? In early December, many of my clients need to step away from their daily writing practice to dive into their grading, with final grade deadlines looming. We talk about scheduling for the first week of January, and then we talk about how it will be more likely the second week of January before they sit down to begin writing again.
In fact, I start to get a little nervous for them, because I know that come the second week of January, for many of them, the course planning and syllabus fine-tuning will take place that did not happen after the grading in December. And, that is okay. I get it.
However, as you look ahead to classes beginning again in mid-to-late January, what about your own writing? Does it stress you out? If it does, let’s do this instead.
Think about your writing in larger terms. Let’s think about the pieces of the writing project that can still be a bit relaxing, may not call for you to be sitting at your computer when you would rather be in your newly gifted cozy pajamas or under the perfectly weighted blanket for reading on weekends. What parts of the project can you do in a more comfortable, comforting way?
Well, we know about those SMART goals. They are:
But what if we do SMART goals-lite. I am thinking here about discrete tasks that you can interrupt, that you do not need deep concentration for, but that you can check off your list as you complete them. Maybe they include reading articles, bullet pointing the topic sentences of an article, writing the explanatory footnotes, double-checking sources and page numbers, finding photographs or archival images, writing out the Methods section in short hand, reviewing qualitative data or creating a table, or mapping your argument on a big piece of paper.
Except even here, I want to think also about being lower-case “smart” about what you need during this time off from teaching, meetings, and service. Maybe you need rest. Maybe you need time away from your computer. Maybe you need time to think about life – or nothing at all.
So, what then? Well, what about putting on your favorite mellow music and doing breezy research on some concepts you need to review? I write “breezy” and “some” here because I want you to lessen the stress. A breeze is not a gale-force wind, some might say it is even soothing. I write “some” here because by some I specifically mean “an unspecified amount.” Not an exhaustive search, but a search nonetheless. And, as you find articles or books worth reading based on your breezy somewhat search, maybe you want to go to a coffee shop to read these articles. Or, maybe you want to read them in bed or in your favorite chair. And it is okay to fall asleep for some time. My point is you are doing some work. Maybe you can do some work for some time at some point each day.
In the client meetings I have had since the semester ended, we have been doing more planning, more taking stock of what worked and what we want to keep doing, and what may have not worked so well, and what we want to change. We are working on clearing a path for the next semester, mapping writing schedules for the next semester, and forming new goals.
We are also working on course planning, making sure the learning objectives fit the learning assessments and activities. We are thinking of ways to ensure that we scaffold the assessments across the semester so that when it comes time for grading, students have been able to practice their learning, turning in drafts and working with other students in writing workshops, so that the work you read is of higher quality.
We also look at course syllabi. Maybe the syllabus has too much breadth and not enough depth. Do you really need to assign all ten books about the late Victorians, or can you assign seven and go a bit deeper? Likewise, when you assign a 10-page paper at the end of the semester, is it really a different kind of assignment than if you asked students to write seven pages? Remember, paper length does not mean better thinking or writing. What if you applied SMART goals to your teaching pedagogy? I think we can do this more often and take charge of our teaching in the same way we want to take charge of our writing.
On the other hand, if you need to get work done over the break that you were not able to complete during the semester, do be SMART about it, with one caveat. Do not burn yourself out so that when school starts up again, you are too tired. You need to achieve balance. If you collected a stack of articles and books to read, divide the work SMARTly over the course of your break, and maybe take the weekends off. Do you need to write letters of recommendation or write the book review you promised? Spread these out also, with maybe a letter a day, with those articles also spread out across the days. Varying the tasks throughout the day can feel like a reward as you can switch your brain gears and resituate yourself from micro to macro, details to implications. And if you find yourself in the mood or flow to write all those letters at once, go ahead and run with it.
My point is over this time away from school allow yourself the freedom to stay on task but with some leeway built in to shift between tasks, or to work at the coffee shop, or away from your desk. This physical freedom may help you feel loose enough to get the work done well enough so that when school starts up, you feel both refreshed and satisfied, and ready to begin again.
Caroline Eisner is a certified professional co-active coach and has extensive experience working with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates on all aspects of their writing projects. She has owned Eisner Consulting LLC since 2012 and works with professionals across organizations to communicate strong, precise, and engaging messages. Her previous experience includes positions as Executive Director and Academic Coach/Consultant at Academic Coaching and Writing (ACW), Associate Director of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, and the Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University. Caroline co-edited a collection of essays, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (UM Press 2008). Caroline received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in English from Middlebury College, and a PhD in British Literature from George Washington University.