23 nov. 2009

Study Hacks is a good blog about the work part of academic work, whether it be an undergraduate trying to complete a degree or a faculty member. (Hat tip to Jordan Davis.) Many of the principles this blogger enumerates are ones that I have found, independently, to work for me. For example, the distinction between "hard work" and "work that's hard to do."

He (Cal Newport) advises students to become experts in their majors rather than running around doing a thousand different things or taking outlandish course overloads and quadruple concentrations. He has some books on study habits that I haven't read, but if his study tips are the same as those on his blog then I would recommend these books highly.


How much work does the academic job take to do? I would say that if you teach six hours a week, you need no more than two hours, on average, for every hour of class, including grading and preparation and consulting with students. Some weeks it will be more, some less. So that's 18 hours for a 2 course load. [For a four-course load it would be 36, but some of the preparation time will be duplicated (multiple sections of the same course) or some of the material will require less preparation (more basic classes) in the kind of institutions with 4/4 loads.] So if you teach 2 courses a semester that's 18 hours a week. If you are actually writing anything during the semester, that leaves 22 hours during the working week, during which you should be able to fit 10 hours of writing and maybe 2 of going to the library. You still have 10 hours left for service assignments, meetings, lectures, dissertation chapters, etc... If you're like me, though, you won't be writing 10 hours a week unless you have an impending deadline or you are on a research grant. If we all wrote 10 hours a week all the time everyone would have 15 books.

Something does not compute. It is actually very hard to keep track of time, since only classes, office hours, and meetings are scheduled, and work takes place in the office, at home, in the library, and in the coffee shop, and any time between dawn and midnight seven days a week. The diffusion of time and space makes things easier in some sense, but less easy in another, since the work expands to fill the time available for it. From the point of view of the non-academic, we are never working, whereas from our point of view, we are always working.

Newport recommends deep focus: highly intense work for short bursts. That's probably the best for academic work. Teaching is intense, and so is writing. If you measure your work in hours, boasting about how many hours you work, you are not really giving your time its proper value at all. Better to count the hours you actually produced something worthwhile.

I recommend treating your academic job as a 9-5 gig, as far as that is possible. Start on Monday doing as much as possible of the week's work on that day. Start priding yourself on efficiency and quality rather than on the quantity of hours or how late you stay up.

It's possible that I'm just a bit smarter than you and so my advice won't transfer. Newport, however, offers similar principles to everyone who looks at his blog or buys his books. He believes good students are just like anyone else, but have learned how to channel their energies more effectively. I'd say it's even more important to work in this way if you're not smart, since efficiency becomes all the more important. Honestly, though, a lot of what we call being smart is simply putting these principles in action in the first place.