Progress … doesn’t always look like progress (a post [mostly] on research and publication)

I imagine that everyone who reads this blog has at least a passing familiarity with academia–perhaps you are a student, or the parent of a student, in college or graduate school, or a fellow professor or other member of the university world. At the very least, you probably know that professors are required to engage in the “three pillars” of academic labor: teaching, research, and service. Whereas teaching and service are immediately visible, sometimes–especially in the modern academy–progress in terms of research and publication looks decidedly invisible, until you sit down to examine it.

Traditionally, the typical tenure-track professor teaches what’s called a 2-2 or a 2-3/ 3-2 or even 3-3 course load–meaning, 2 or 3 courses per academic term, or a total of 4-6 courses per academic year. In universities with graduate programs, at least one of those courses will be at the graduate level. Within the “teaching” category,  professors are also responsible for advising students and serving on honors and graduate thesis and doctoral dissertation committees. As I have noted elsewhere in this blog, in my experience first as a secondary/high school teacher and now as a college professor, putting together college-level courses takes more time and effort and requires more planning; online courses, even more than that (which, if you had told me was the case when I taught high school, I would have dismissed as Not Even Possible, because high school English teachers work their butts off.) The reason professors, particularly at research institutions, historically have had 2-2 or 3-2 or 3-3 teaching loads rather than the 6-10 courses per year we often see at the high school level,  is to ensure they have the time to produce and write up research for publication. It’s still a significant chunk of time teaching, but there is room in the work-week for research and writing, especially if you were smart and took on just enough service activity–a committee or task force or two–to show you were a team player and a good citizen.

I, and most of the professors I know, do not teach a 2-2 or a 3-2 courseload. It’s becoming more typical, particularly at schools with less funding and schools that brand themselves as teaching universities, to teach a 4-4. I have taught a 5-4 for the past two years. I am not complaining about teaching so many classes; I think it’s clear even with a passing glance through this blog that I love teaching, I consider it the highest form of service to the nation and the global community, and there are few things I’d rather do than stand in front of a group of students who want to be there and watch their minds at work on some interpretive problem or line of inquiry I’ve posed them to grapple with.

What I will say, however, is that when you teach that heavy a courseload, it takes it out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally. I go home some nights and just fall into bed. It’s rare for me to accept an invitation to do something extra during the week, even rarer on weekends. I need that time to recharge myself, to grade student work, and to prepare for the next round of classes. I am most certainly not alone in this. If you know professors, or are related to them, you have probably noticed that they tend to go more or less radio-silent on you from the end of August through December; to have a little burst of social activity from December through the first week of January, and then to disappear almost entirely from your life from about late February through May. They’re “in the trenches”–teaching, grading, advising, mentoring, writing recommendations, serving on committees and task forces, presenting their research at conferences ….. and …. writing and publishing (?)

Maybe professors with less-heavy teaching loads don’t question that last bit; maybe their scholarly productivity is more visible to them, but I swear, sometimes it seems like I am not doing any research and writing. I sneak it in, here and there, a few hours a week, or even a whole morning or afternoon, if I am very, very lucky; no hours some weeks; sometimes, no research or writing happens for ten days or more. I see my students learning, I see the progress in their thinking and writing, I see their grades amassing in the gradbook; I attend the committee meetings and see the minutes written up, sometimes see the product of that service being put to use–teaching and service are concrete and visible to me. But research and publication–sometimes they’re just so invisible in the bigger scheme of things. And it’s frustrating. But … is it real? Or is the relative invisibility of my research and publication work more a product of my imagination than a reality?

I recently took stock of my research agenda, trying to figure out why I haven’t gotten very far. A senior scholar with whom I am friends was surprised: “You are hugely productive for someone who just got her PhD LAST YEAR!”

Really? Then why does it feel like I’m not producing anything?

So, I reflected on it a bit, and I came up with some points that I need to bear in mind, and that I thought it might be helpful for other junior scholars struggling with balancing teaching/research/service to think about as well.

First: you are actually doing so much more than you think that you are. To prove this to myself, I made a list of the publishing projects I am actively working on or have committed to working on. At the present time, in various stages of actual development, I have two monographs, four edited collections, and five articles and book chapters, with two further articles currently under review.

cat ok

That’s a lot.

Why doesn’t it feel like very much?

There are a few reasons, I think, that I didn’t notice how productive I actually have been and am being in terms of research and publication. First, of course, is that I’m fitting these projects in here and there, as I can, because on my teaching load I can’t give them large or even regular chunks of time–so, it doesn’t feel like I’m getting very far. But, as Paul Silvia notes in How To Write a Lot, doing a little bit here and there on a regular basis actually produces a lot of scholarship–if you just wrote one page per day, you’d have 365 pages of manuscript in a year. That’s progress!

Second, I’m always thinking about one or more of these projects–so it always feels like I’m not working on them because I am thinking about working on them–yet, by thinking about them, I am actually working on them; they’re on the “back burner” getting some intellectual attention, if not actual, physical butt-in-the-chair writing attention. When I do sit down to work on something, I typically find I’ve resolved a problem I was having in the writing up of an idea, and that resolution paves the way for a better and more productive writing session when it does happen. That is, I’m working out the logistics of an argument or project regularly, leaving the writing time for actual drafting and revision. That’s progress.

Third–academic publishing moves slowly. A typical article’s trajectory is submit, wait 3-6 months for editorial response, revise and resubmit, wait another 3-6 months for another response — it takes on average a year from initial submission to press to publish an article in the humanities, with some journals taking 2-3 years dependent upon their backlog–and that is if the article is accepted as a revise-and-resubmit. Some articles take longer than that. Some articles require substantial rewriting. Some articles are scrapped and begun over again from scratch. Some articles are abandoned entirely because they just aren’t going to work. So, once you have submitted an article for review, suddenly you’re not doing anything with it; suddenly, you’re just sitting around waiting, and nothing happens (or, it feels that way, even though you’re still teaching, working on other research things, doing service….) Article limbo makes it hard to feel like you are getting anywhere. So, this past summer I revised and submitted two articles for review. That’s a productive summer. But it doesn’t feel productive because I’ve not had a response on them yet, because nothing is budging on my CV, they’re just “under review.” I need to learn that that is completely okay, and that “under review” is progress.

And if articles move slowly–books can move even more slowly. The edited collection I started working on in late 2014 is just coming out this November, and it was a smooth process with no bumps in the road during production. It just takes time to publish a scholarly book, and there’s nothing to be done about it. There’s a reason people on the tenure track get 6 (7, but really 6) years to get their first book under contract and in press. Typically, your dissertation is the seed of your first book, but sometimes that isn’t as straightforward a transformation as it was supposed to be, sometimes you have to conduct a lot more research and rewrite substantial portions of it, sometimes you scrap the dissertation, taking out an article or two and starting over on a different project, entirely. If it took you between 1-3 years to write the dissertation as a graduate student possibly teaching 1-2 courses a term, it’s going to take at least that long to prepare a monograph for submission as a professor teaching 2-4 (in my case, 5) courses a term. And in my case, my dissertation is turning out to be two books, so I had to begin by dismantling it entirely and planning and beginning work on an entirely new chapter for the first one. On the plus side, I have a lot of good work to do; but of course, it doesn’t feel like I have any time. Yet, in the year since I graduated, (after taking the first six months off entirely to get some distance from the project) I’ve separated the seeds of Book One from the seeds of Book Two, identified the materials I need to consult to expand and develop both books, revised Book One’s introduction and first chapter, and begun work on the new chapter to be added to it. That’s a substantial amount of work to have completed on a book project. That’s progress.

Could I be doing more? Sure. If I taught a 2-2 or a 3-2, or had a course release or a semester sabbatical for research, if I had more time to devote to it, I might get more research done; more of my work might be polished and sent off sooner to publishers and journal editors. But I would still run into the pipeline issue described above, and it would still sometimes feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere. What does progress look like, when it comes to research and publishing? It’s most visible when you are holding the published material in your hands, when you move an entry from “under review” into a publishing category on your CV–but sometimes, you have to look harder. Sometimes progress doesn’t look (or feel) like progress–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

What about you? How do you handle concerns that you might not be productive enough as a scholar, especially if you teach heavier courseloads? What are your strategies for maintaining scholarly productivity?



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Academia, New Faculty Experiences, Research and Scholarship, Time Management and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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