Choose two out of three

Academic labor is typically framed as falling into three categories: teaching, scholarship, and service. There is also a common saying about tradeoffs in computer systems research: “X,Y,Z, choose two out of three.” Lately, I’m finding that in any given week I can be caught up on work for the CS program, or I can be caught up on grading, but not both. It’s a little harder to define being caught up on scholarship—meeting deadlines perhaps? In any case, if I meet a deadline for scholarship, I’m surely not caught up on everything else.Looking over my time logs for the last several weeks:

  • Week of September 12: Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. Lots of time on professional activity and with students; little time left for anything else. (See my earlier blog post.)
  • Week of September 19: I spent twice as much time on CS167 as usual to get caught up on grading and prepare the first midterm exam. This week might be the exception to the rule, as I also spent significant chunks of time polishing my tenure materials due on Friday and interacting with alumni at Reunion Weekend. (It was a long week.)
  • Week of September 26: In anticipation of the first midterm in Discrete Math, I spent twice as much time on the class as usual, catching up on grading and preparing practice problems. I also spent more time than usual on “Overhead”, which probably means I had a lot of email to handle.
  • Week of October 3: October break. My colleagues and I went to the CCSC-NW annual regional conference at Lewis & Clark College in Portland; that’s professional activity. (Next year it will be at WSU Richland, and I’ll be program chair.) For the second week in a row, I spent an unusual amount of time on Discrete Math, writing the exam and then grading it.
  • Last week: Some catch up on grading in both classes (though I’m behind again). Spent more time on service than usual, with time evenly divided between work on the major proposal and interacting with prospective students on Visitors’ Days.
  • This week: CS 167 has needed a bit of extra prep. Tuesday was a day of departmental tasks, including more work on the major proposal. This morning I am enjoying a bit of time to myself, but there are also the SIGCSE BoF proposal due tomorrow and still more departmental tasks to get done. The piles of grading loom ominously.

But the traditional division of teaching, scholarship, and service doesn’t accurately reflect how I experience my work on a day-to-day basis. When I think about my energy levels over the course of the day and the week, I think about three orthogonal categories of contact time, focused work, and administration.

  • Contact time includes classes and office hours, but also meeting prospective students, department meetings, committee meetings, research meetings, and time spent at conferences.
  • Focused work includes not only reading and writing for scholarship, but also writing this blog, drafting documents for the CS program, reading my textbooks carefully, working through examples for class, writing exams and new homework assignments, and some kinds of grading.
  • Administration is not just replying to email and filling out forms related to my role as program founder, but also includes teaching tasks such as recording grades and sending reminders to students, as well as professional activities like emailing potential conference sponsors, wrangling panelists, collecting references, checking formatting requirements, and filling out paperwork required for publication.

So, these three kinds of work span all three of the traditional categories of teaching, scholarship, and service.

Does the “choose two out of three” rule apply here, too? Sort of. A day might include all three kinds of work, but not in equal measures.

I’m an ambivert. I enjoy spending time with people, but it takes effort. Days that are mostly spent in contact with other people are exhausting. I’m no good for focused work on these days, particularly on days when I am running from meeting to meeting or continually interrupted by students and colleagues. Administrative work is more compatible with contact time, as it requires less focus. Often these meetings and conversations generate administrative tasks, which I like to take care of right away if I can.

My best time for focused work is in the morning, before I get distracted by other people’s needs. (Thanks to David Whyte and David Allen for this insight.) For example, I’m writing this blog before 11 a.m., on the back porch with only my sleeping cat for company. I relish the summer, when I can spend whole days in my own company. During the academic term I typically have to emerge into the world of people around midday at the latest, whether to teach a class or meet with colleagues. The time spent alone gives me energy and helps me prepare myself.

I rarely schedule office hours before 11 a.m. I will attend morning meetings if I have to, but I really resent them. They suck up my most productive time and make me feel off-balance and unprepared for the rest of the day.

Morning teaching I don’t mind at all. Teaching requires focus, and I am most able to prepare in a focused way within the hour or so before class. So a seamless flow from teaching to prep to teaching suits me, and I feel I’ve accomplished my most important tasks before lunchtime. This semester has been difficult in that I am teaching at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. I find it hard to focus on any non-teaching tasks until after 4 p.m., when I often have either a meeting or students waiting outside my door.

Days that start on administrative tasks rarely move past administrative tasks. Sometimes these days feel productive because I can check a lot of things off my list; other times not, because even if the tasks needed to get done, they weren’t things I had planned to do. (See my Grinnell colleague Sam Rebelsky’s essay, “Nibbled to Death by Ducks.”) If I’m lucky, I’ll manage a transition to grading, which requires focus but is structured and repetitive, or get absorbed into some relatively straightforward writing task.

So with this blog post done, what’s on tap for the rest of the day? I’m feeling the weight of a pile of administrative tasks left over from Tuesday, including a some urgent matters of departmental business and also several odds and ends related to professional activities. I’m sure my inbox has filled up again after emptying it out yesterday afternoon. But if I’m smart, I’ll leave these administrative tasks for the afternoon—even the ones related to scholarship—and try to stay focused for a bit longer this morning. In particular, I agreed to serve as an external evaluator in a tenure case; the letter is due in a week, and I have their dossier yet to read. I also really do need to catch up on grading for Discrete Math.

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