How do You Prepare for the New Academic Year?

August 22, 2013

By Bryn Harris

With the new academic year upon us, we share our strategies for preparing for the fall semester.

Being a university professor has to be one of the greatest jobs in the world. It is hard to imagine a career that would match it in terms of flexibility with regard to topics of study and scheduling. With the exception of service obligations and teaching, you really do make your own hours. Indeed, to a large extent you can choose how much time you allocate to the big three areas of effort: research, teaching and service. For many of us, this is a tremendous asset, but it can also lead to stress and undermine our success when we do not set clear priorities and devise mechanisms to structure our time. The parameters of this blog will not allow me to go into any significant detail initially on this topic, but let me hit on some important themes here and we can follow-up with discussion or perhaps another thread. Two notions guide my advice for beginning of the semester planning:
1.     Because we have so much control over how we allocate our time an important skill to develop as a university professor is regulating our motivation. This involves forethought and planning.
2.     Often, the frequency and proximity of the feedback we receive about our work is high and closer respectively for teaching and service than it is for research. For many of us it is important to supplement feedback on our progress in research by goal setting and keeping track of our progress.

I believe it is important to take a significant amount of time off in the summer. For me personally, I need the time to think about other things, to reenergize and to pursue other interests. For me, getting geared up for the new academic year is all about planning and preparing to get started on the right foot and to keep my motivation high for those things that are most important to me. The key things I do to keep motivation high are to positively frame my work, to set short and long-term goals, to plan how much time I will allocate to achieving these goals (protecting time), and to pick two or three things that will take priority over all other tasks. Planning is so important at this time of the year, because when the semester gets rolling, it is easy to become overwhelmed and to get into what I call “survival mode.” Survival mode is when you are reacting instead of acting- like riding in a rollercoaster as opposed to driving a car. It is not fun. Planning ahead and setting clear priorities will help you make the most of your time when you get into those situations. Right now I am planning studies and writing projects I will complete over the fall semester (detailed plans) and spring semester (less detailed plans). Though in past years, I have instead allocated time for reading about a new area of interest to get to that point where I can design and write-up those studies.

A key motivation killer is getting overwhelmed. For me, writing down the things I need to do helps me keep from getting to that point. Well, that is one part of it. Sometimes that list can be intimidating itself, but when you plan when you will do each task in your calendar or whiteboard, it has the magical effect of making it much less so. We have so many little tasks to do to get ready for the new semester (updating syllabi, setting up blackboard/WebCT sites, finishing up tasks that were supposed to be done over the summer…) that we can easily fill up our days and feel like we have not accomplished much at all. Also, a lot of valuable time can be spent spinning our wheels because we don’t know what to do next. This is especially true when we finish a big task. When you have a well thought out calendar, it is possible to reward productivity on difficult tasks with something else that we might think of as more fun. I like to schedule more fun kinds of tasks later in the day. Like writing this post for example. I worked on a grant budget this morning (not that much fun for me), and I am now doing something much more fun (the good old Premack Principle works for us all). It is quite possible that I will go for a sail when I am done writing this because I finished my tasks for the day—it is still summer after all.

The beginning of the academic year is exciting yet also anxiety provoking. The summer always seems too short, and my ideas for preparing for the academic year far in advance are never realized. However, in the past five years, I have learned a few strategies that help start the academic year positively and efficiently.
1)   Time Management – This is the concept that seems to be the most important to my productivity. Of course, it is also critical to consider when preparing for the new year. Now that I have an 11-month-old son, I find it even more important to create work time and family time. My husband and I discuss childcare, family obligations, and other issues far in advance to eliminate the dreaded “I thought you were picking him up?” scenario. I also spend some time at the beginning of the year creating yearlong goals for each of my responsibilities (research, teaching, and service). Lastly, on Sunday evening, I go over my weekly, monthly, and longitudinal to-do lists and make sure I am focusing on the most important tasks during the week. As an early career scholar it is easy to spend a lot of your time working. However, if you are more purposeful with your time, I think you will find you feel more productive.
2)   Calendar Creation – I allocate some time in mid-August to prepare my semester-long calendar. I teach two days a week, and I try to use those days to work on course preparation, grade, advise/mentor students, and attend meetings at my university. I then allocate other days of the week to research and service tasks. By blocking off time in my calendar for specific tasks, I find I am more productive in those areas. In terms of my courses, I make sure that assignments are not due at the same time so that I am not struggling to provide feedback in a timely manner. I also upload all materials to our online course management system one week prior to class and request that students print materials themselves if they wish.
3)   Grant Submissions – Grant RFPs always seem to have such short deadlines! At the beginning of the year, I email the director of grant services at my university to inform her of the grants I intend to apply for the year. She sends valuable reminders to me prior to the RFP, during the grant writing process, and also informs me of other grants I may be interested in. This assistance is invaluable! While I understand that not all readers will be writing grants, my advice would be to find people at your university who can support you in your endeavors – you do not need to do this alone!

As Rob notes, one of the greatest advantages of this career is the flexibility, but capitalizing on this freedom and avoiding its potential pitfalls requires intentionality in one’s professional activities. Thus, for me, August is a time for reflection and strategizing. The beginning of a new academic year provides a natural point at which to reflect on the activities of the previous year, but more importantly, to think back on my own practices to consider what worked and what didn’t, what I did well and what I can do better.

I am a list-maker, so this is a great time to consolidate my various project lists for research, teaching, service, and professional development (which can get disorganized when I kick into survival mode at the end of the semester) to re-prioritize and strategize for how to accomplish my goals given what I’ve learned over the past year and how each project aligns with my annual goals and long-term targets. This year, I attend primarily to my research projects, thinking carefully about where each project is, how it fits (or doesn’t—file-drawering is a topic for another day) with my research agenda and long-term goals, and on what timeline it should move forward. Once I’ve developed a plan for the term, I work out from there to account for my other responsibilities. Building my annual plan around research works for me because my position is more heavily loaded on research and I am not teaching this fall, but for others, having teaching activities at the core might make more sense.

Like Bryn, I set aside time to revisit my calendar, entering all obligatory activities (e.g., faculty meetings, committee meetings, research group, spring classes) for the academic year and preferred activities (e.g., spin class) so I can build in office hours and writing time. The two days of the week in which I have standing meetings are the ones I reserve for teaching/advising and service activities. I’ve learned that compartmentalizing each domain in this way can help minimize the overflow that often crowds out writing time.

I am also not one of those people who can progress on papers when writing in small chunks of time, so I like to block out larger segments of time for research activities and writing time. My intent is to align my actual apportionment of time with my workload. By scheduling out the obligatory events for the year, I can then fill in research and writing time and develop targets for each project that account for the real constraints on my schedule. Color-blocking (i.e., red for teaching, orange for advising, green for meetings, blue for research activities, purple for writing, etc.) provides an easy visual  that I use to determine whether my actual time allotment corresponds with my workload and goals. I then make the adjustments necessary either in specific activities or in my commitments to bring the two into alignment.

Having done these two main activities, I feel invigorated for the new academic year. There are certainly smaller tasks that must be done, but the project lists and calendaring provide a road map for the coming term. I have a plan and I know what I want and need to accomplish over the months to come. I’ll revisit my project list every few weeks and tweak my calendar as necessary, but for now, I’ve got a clear (color-coded) vision of what the fall semester holds.

What do you do to gear up for the new academic year?

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