On Taking Time Off

As we all approach Thanksgiving, I’m wondering what your plans are. Specifically: how much of a “break” is a faculty member supposed to take?

MATLAB cornucopia filled with papers

Horn of Plenty of Work

I used to fill carry-on bags with grading, notebooks, and papers to bring home with me for the holidays, certain that this is my chance to finally get caught up. Which, obviously, I wouldn’t need to do if I’d just worked hard enough all semester like I should have.

Most of the time, the bags were never even opened, just dragged through airports as a physical manifestation of guilt; an academic’s hairshirt.

This year, I’ve got exams and projects to grade, the last weeks of classes to plan, a couple of papers that have been “almost done” for a while now, some grant and travel applications coming due, and an impending talk that could really use one more new result.

But I need to try something different. So after 5pm on Tuesday, I won’t think about any of this until Sunday.

Some family is coming to town that I don’t see that often. I’m hosting a bunch of my awesome new faculty cohort at my house for a potluck dinner. I have a few days to spend with my overworked first-year-teacher spouse while he gets a little break from his grading and planning. I’ll be running a Turkey Trot, finishing an afghan, building a PC, playing a couple instruments, and doing some non-academic reading. By Sunday, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be excited to get back to work.

I could maybe devote more time to working over the long weekend. But I wouldn’t get as much done as I’d hoped for, and I’d come back to work exhausted on Monday and drag myself through the week in a fog. I know, because I’ve done it a hundred times before. Since I started giving myself regularly scheduled breaks this year, my productivity has actually gone up.

I’ve talked to a lot of other young academics about this, and we confess to each other in hushed tones that we take a day off on the weekends, or refuse to grade in the evenings, or struggle to not answer emails during date night. But this still doesn’t seem like an easy thing to admit publicly, that you can’t be superprofessor all the time.

I’m fortunate that my department is very supportive about having a life outside of the office. When some people talk about work-life balance, what they seem to mean is that you should effortlessly have a perfect home life while you also effortlessly crush it professionally. But my chair apologized for sending emails late one weekend night. My colleagues tell me to go home if I stay in the office too late. They know it’s impossible to work effectively when you’re burned out. Why doesn’t everybody?Those of you with more experience navigating “breaks”: what’s your strategy for time off without guilt? How do you keep your standards high while acknowledging your physical limits? And fellow new faculty: what are your expectations for yourself? Do you feel like you can take enough time for yourself and your family without sacrificing your career?


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Lost in Space/Seminar

One of the things I love about living in Philadelphia is that there are a lot of colleges here, and that means a lot of math talks. I could easily fill at least half my time just attending (and navigating public transportation to get to) talks in the area. Going to good talks makes me feel connected to the world of mathematics in a way that nothing else quite does—seeing “live math” can be a little bit like seeing live music crossed with solving a puzzle, two of my favorite things. In the best of all math talks, I have to remind myself not to interrupt with loud cheers at the good parts. I take this as a sign that I chose my job well.

That said, it happens sometimes that I go to talks and find myself just not engaged for one reason or another. Maybe I had an intense day teaching and spaced out for a few crucial minutes at the beginning. Maybe I followed for the first 20 minutes and then the speaker stepped to a whole other level of specialization. Maybe the speaker is very quiet and I can’t hear what they are saying. I’m assuming this happens to you sometimes, too? However it happened, there are still 40 minutes left and you realize you have no idea what is going on. What do you do (besides play Seminar Bingo)? How do you make the most of those 40 minutes of your life?

Here are some of my strategies:

1) My first priority is not to fall asleep. So I will do anything at all not to fall asleep, even just draw circles on a piece of paper, get up and stand up at the back of the room, or leave if necessary.

2) Sometimes I start working on my own math on paper or on a computer. This can feel productive, but I honestly don’t enjoy this much because it makes me feel self-conscious and somewhat silly. It just feels weird to blatantly ignore someone who is speaking in front of me.  Why am I there?  If I’m really going to check out to that degree, and the room is large enough that it wouldn’t be noticed, maybe this is okay, but I might as well just slip out of the talk and work somewhere quiet. If it is a fairly small room and it is possible that the speaker can see my lack of attention, I feel like I should keep looking back up and give the appearance of following the talk, which actually feels kind of creepy and ridiculous—I feel like I’m lying if I nod and smile when I really have no clue what is going on.  So maybe it is better just to commit to checking out and be obvious (though quiet) about it.  Just to be clear, I don’t always think other people are being jerks when they are clearly working on something else during talks.  It just feels wrong for me.  However, if the room is fairly large it can still feel better than leaving the talk.

3) Sometimes I work on my own math in my head. This feels less productive than working on paper or computer, but also less silly and embarrassing. I just maintain general eye focus on the speaker while my mind wanders.

4) Sometimes I try to take lessons in style from the speaker. If they are a really good speaker, I try to figure out why I enjoy listening to them even if I don’t understand the talk. If the talk seems ineffective, I try to figure out why. Oh, maybe it’s because they never explained any of their abbreviations! Oh, wait, I think I did that in my last talk. Never again! Sometimes this study can get so interesting that I take notes, then find myself a little bit in situation 2 above, and then need to check myself and go back to 3.

5) If the talk feels like it should be accessible, because it is for a general audience or it is close to my area, I just refocus and try to filter something, anything mathematical from the talk that I am watching. I make it a sort of game: I am a detective, what can I figure out about this story given these clues? That makes confusion less frustrating, partial understanding much more rewarding. If I have a lot of energy I will take notes and organize the information as much as I can; if not I will just listen to it as a story, look for the big picture.

Number 5 is the most satisfying, and this practice has really paid off for me a few times in the last two years. One of my projects is implementing an algorithm (mostly devised by many other people) to solve a particular equation in the group of S-units. My collaborator and I had to solve this equation to do another project, and we decided to try to generalize our code. It turns out that solving the S-unit equation shows up in a lot of other people’s work as well. In the last two years, it has happened 4 or 5 times that I find myself a bit lost in a talk, trying to get some big picture idea of what is going on, when all the sudden here comes the S-unit equation. So then I suddenly have a strong connection to this part of the material and tons of questions spring to mind. In some cases I then get to talk with the speaker about our project, and through this conversation manage to fill in the blanks that left me lost in the talk, so I learn a lot of new, very relevant math. Even if I don’t manage to talk to the speaker or totally understand their talk, I can connect my work with another general area and have a new example of how our work is valuable in the larger world! Hooray!

Every time method 5 pays off, it makes reinvesting in talks easier. But I mention 1-4 because I am being realistic—I don’t always have the energy or desire to really wring all the content out of a talk when I feel confused.  So, I would really like to know—what are your seminar strategies? Thoughts on getting the most out of talks once you realize you are lost? Is it better to leave the talk or to fall asleep? What do you think about working on other stuff during a talk?  Is it worth being there even if you are not paying attention?

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Writing (Groups) Across the Curriculum

Two years ago, I met my new colleagues at my previous institution at our very thorough new faculty orientation. Together, we learned the details of everything from the faculty governance structure to the learning management system. We got to know each other a little bit during those two days, and at the end I got everyone’s email addresses and set up a Google group so we could all stay in touch.

What grew out of those first two days ended up being pretty remarkable. While we certainly used this email list to organize social gatherings, one member also used it to start a small group dedicated to supporting our academic writing. She, a historian, had been a part of such groups before, and shared her experiences with how they helped provide accountability for the goal setting I’d mentioned a few posts ago.

Some groups she’d been in met to share their progress towards their goals, and some met to provide a block of quiet writing time where, hopefully, you’d be too embarrassed to check Facebook when you were supposed to be writing. We ended up forming both.

She asked for some funding from the Provost’s office to get us all a couple of books on successful academic publishing, which she received in addition to some money for refreshments. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t even cracked either book – Getting it Published by William Germano, and Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher – but I found the time spent with others invaluable, even though there wasn’t a single other mathematician in the bunch.

We met monthly to check in with each other. We shared our successes with grants and publications, our frustrations with students (and faculty and administrators), and our plans for the future. We helped each other navigate the decades of politics that formed the undercurrents of campus interactions, and those who were on the tenure track started meeting over the summer to put their promotion binders together. When I was on the job market, they gave me more and better advice than I’d ever gotten about how to navigate the hiring process. I went from not knowing a soul in town to having a crucial support network in less than a year.

Smaller groups of us met weekly for writing time. A psychologist and I shared our Tuesday afternoons for a couple of semesters in the quiet (and snack-filled) Center for Teaching and Learning. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know anything about each other’s research; we just needed accountability for a few hours, outside our offices and with no excuses. Like an academic gym buddy.

So of course I wanted to catch lightning in a bottle again when I started this job. We’re a much smaller school, so we had a smaller incoming cohort, but again I got email addresses and made another Google group.

The Hood new faculty writing group pretends to act naturally while being photographed

The Hood new faculty writing group pretends to act naturally while being photographed

It took a few weeks to get going, but now we meet every Thursday afternoon for a mix of socializing, snacks, informal progress reports, and quiet writing time (and occasional dinner and drinks afterwards). No two of us share a research area or even a department, but we share in the joy of publishing and the agony of grading. And most amazingly, every week, we all manage to get a little writing done. We’re even doing a Thanksgiving potluck for anybody else who’s staying in town.

I haven’t asked for funding for our little group yet, but I plan to soon. Another group member is also a fan of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, and we’re going to work on Making the Ask for the Faculty Success Program together. And when it comes time to start working on our pre-tenure review binders, we’ll help each other put it all together.

While there’s no part of academic life that any of us individually have down pat yet, collectively we’ve almost got our act together. And apparently word has gotten out that this year’s cohort of new faculty is organized and came out of the gate swinging, which people are more than happy to give me credit for. Even though all I did was make a Google group and reserve a conference room once a week.

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