Five Easy(ish) Ways To Be More Productive In Your Scholarship With Less Time In Your Schedule

Let me lay all of my cards on the table from the start: I taught for ten years at a year-round private boarding school where I was responsible for developing and implementing the curriculum for three programs (French, English, and AP Art History) and taught 6 courses per term, 5 terms a year. While I was teaching at that school, I also got married, had two children, completed my Master’s degree, and was accepted to a PhD program. During the PhD program I was Wifing and parenting, commuting 40 minutes each direction, taking full-time coursework and teaching 2 classes a term, but still managed to write an award-winning dissertation, publish a few articles, and graduate in four years. I got an Assistant Professorship the same month I earned my PhD. Why did I get that job? Because I had proven I was a multi-tasking workhorse who could literally take on anything I was assigned and deliver on time, with clear results. I needed to be. In my current position I have taught a 5-4-1 load both years–all new preps, two of them online–while also serving on several committees and performing other service duties (and still Wifing, and still parenting….) and also still managed to publish two articles and an edited collection, make good progress towards my monograph, score a couple of revise-and-resubmits, start a couple of new research projects, and maintain a decent conference presentations schedule.

I don’t write all of this out to humblebrag, or to court praise for my accomplishments, but to show that when it comes to milking every bit of time out of a day, I have learned a thing or two over the years. Things that might be helpful to others who find themselves at a teaching university, or in a teaching position, but who still want to be productive scholars (and, you know, have a life.) The reality is, a tiny percentage of us is going to start (or even end up) in a research university during our careers, if indeed we manage to stay in academia at all. Without the resources and support of a research university, the reality is that many of us fall by the wayside in our research and publication agendas. But for me, such an outcome was untenable–I didn’t go back to school to get my PhD just to teach, I could do that already. I went back to school to get the credentials to be a researcher, to conduct that research, and to write and publish that research.

So, that is what I do. And the question people constantly ask me is, “How do you get so much done?” –to which the truthful response is: sometimes, it is just dumb, blind luck; and sometimes, it is sheer desperation because I said I would do a thing; and sometimes, I have no idea how it worked out; and sometimes, I really shouldn’t get it done but somehow do; and sometimes, I actually don’t get it done (I’m also asked variations of that question, like “Do you ever sleep” — to which the response, sadly, is not nearly so much as I would like to.) But I do sleep, and I do spend time with my family, and I do have activities I enjoy outside of work, and I do still publish and present research at conferences. How do I do that, teaching a 5-4-1 course load? THAT question, I have a real, concrete answer to, and I’m happy to share it here for those who might benefit from it.

So, without further ado, here are five ways I stay productive with my scholarship while also managing a heavy teaching and service load:

1. Have a teaching template that you start with for every type of course you teach.

This is, truly, my biggest time-saving device. I teach a wide variety of courses–research and argumentation, World Literature to 1500, the first part of the British Literature survey, specialized courses in my field, History of the English language (you can find a list of all of my courses here.) I do not reinvent the wheel in terms of course development. I have some activities that I know are effective ways of getting students involved in their learning and letting me assess where they are in that learning, and I use those means in pretty much every course I teach. So when I sit down to create a course, I know I am going to be using 3-2-1 preps, and/or Canvas discussion boards, and/or weekly response or reflection papers; I know my students are doing a research presentation either individually or as a group; I know my students are doing some kind of creative assignment that synthesizes their learning with their personal interests; and I know my students are writing some longer document, the form and function of which varies dependent upon the level and nature of the course. That frees me up to think more about what materials I’m using, than what assessment tools I’m using.  I have four essential course structures–one for the research and argumentation course, one for lower-division literature courses, one for upper-division seminars, and one for online courses. Once I have the essential structure set up, it’s just a question of plugging in the specific materials and assignments for a given class, and tweaking as needed. The value of this approach once you’re through your first semester or year of teaching is that it allows you to know what your term is going to look like structurally from a teaching perspective, because you have taught these course structures before. So you know, for example, when the lulls are in your assignment due dates, when you are teaching texts you have taught before and can ease up a little on course prep, when you are doing more student-focused work and don’t need to prep lectures and such–and those are the spaces in which you can use your time for your own research and writing.

2. Teach texts you are working with, or need to work with, in your research.

Granted, in some cases we do not teach in our own areas of expertise, but you can almost always slip at least one of the texts you need to engage in your own research into a course schedule. If you teach an upper-division course, develop it around a current project. I am currently working on my monograph, which is about violence at the feast in medieval British texts. My medieval literature survey course this term is therefore themed “violence and trauma from Beowulf to Malory” and we are reading many of the core texts for my study. Every time I sit down to conduct course prep for that class, I am also working on my own research towards revision of my monograph draft chapters. Every time I’m in class with my students, we’re engaging with the material I need to engage with for my research. Last spring, I taught both the Canterbury Tales and the dream visions in my Chaucer class, which allowed me to re-read and prep for two articles I was revising for publication. Even in a Brit Lit  or World Lit survey or similar lower-division, general education course, you can generally manage to include one or two of the texts you need to read for your own purposes. The more you do this kind of multi-tasking, the easier it is to get both course prep and teaching and research done without extra time and energy. (Don’t forget to add a note of thanks to your class(es) for their contributions in the acknowledgments when you publish the book.)

3. Don’t be in charge of your courses all of the time.

We are the subject experts, and it is our job to impart our knowledge to our students–but that doesn’t mean we have to walk in at 8:00 a.m., start lecturing, and stop right at 9:15 a.m., and repeat the performance ad nauseam. Remember, every lecture you prepare takes an hour or more of your time; that can add up quickly. While many professors complain that today’s students do not want to work, in fact in my experience more do, than do not–they just are often afraid of disappointing you, not performing to your standards, letting you down, or failing. Millennials are deeply generous students, on the whole. They are also typically pretty self-aware in terms of their own strengths and interests. If you, as the professor, give them a chance to use their particular skills in pursuit of knowledge that is interesting to them, amazing things tend to happen. In every on-the-ground course I teach, each of my students is responsible for either leading the discussion on a text, or presenting research related to the subject matter (or, in my upper-division courses, sometimes both) once per semester. I set aside several days in the course calendar for them to sign up for such activities, and give them clear guidelines for my expectations; I also encourage them to visit me during my office hours to go over what they’re going to present, and encourage them to make use of any aids or skills they have that are particular to them, such as graphic design, artwork, and similar. Some of these presentations are the bare basics; some of them aren’t even adequate; but in some cases, they’re the best thing we engage with all term, and in every case, it is a chance for the students to have some ownership of the course, to be invested in it, however minimally, and to see what others besides the professor are engaging with in thinking through course materials–all very valuable outcomes. As I tell my students, “I already know what I think of these texts. I’m far more interested in what you think of them.” This structure of lectures interspersed with student presentations creates an active-learning, student-centered, inquiry-based course, wherein I use my expertise to elaborate on or fill in the gaps in their research, rather than just delivering mine to them all of the time. That frees up some of my prep time as well, to allow me to conduct some research or do some writing for publication, not just for course lectures.

4. On that note–use course lectures as trial runs and drafts!

I don’t know why more scholars do not use their classes to refine their thinking, and their scholarship to enhance their classes, but really, at their best teaching and researching are synergistic practices. My job talk, which focused on the violence at the feast in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, doubled as a course lecture in my first Brit Lit I survey when we read that text; then I used the feedback from my students in that course to revise that talk for a conference paper, and that conference paper is now on its way to becoming a publication. I have used other portions of my dissertation as lectures in other courses when they have been apt and aligned with the texts or subjects we were covering, and I have used close readings and bits of research for other projects here and there, and that practice never fails to yield some important insight into what needs to happen in the development of that material towards publication. It’s also more interesting to students when you engage them with your own research interests; first, because they can see your investment in what you are doing and second, because you are modeling for them how you read a text, and what the kinds of scholarship you are asking them to engage in can produce. In my book, that is a win-win.

5. Work closely with your department chair concerning your teaching schedule.

I need at least one day per week that is free and clear from teaching responsibilities; preferably two, in order to recharge, to have the time to prep, and to get research, reading, or writing done. That’s in addition to weekends, which I need for both catch-up and family time. So, when it comes time to schedule my classes for the next term, I respond to my chair’s email on the matter immediately, letting him know the range of days and times I am hoping to work within. Thus far, he has been able to accommodate my requests without issue. If you are a tenure-track or full-time professor or lecturer, unless you are completely inept, a total jerk, or too lazy to carry your own weight in department responsibilities, your department wants to keep you around. As long as you are making reasonable scheduling requests, you are likely to find them honored. Full disclosure: my requests are to teach any time between 9:00-4:00, preferably either on a MWF, MW, or T/R schedule, except in the Fall term, when I am automatically teaching History of the English Language from 4:00-5:15 to accommodate teachers who need the course for their graduate work. This allows me to be certain that I will have at least Friday, possibly MWF, possibly T/R, free and clear of courses. I may need to schedule office hours, or attend committee meetings or perform other service responsibilities, but otherwise those days can be used to research, write, grade, or prep as needed. I am aware that my chair is more generous than some in his accommodations, and I am aware that, particularly for adjuncts working at multiple institutions, this kind of scheduling may not be feasible. But if it IS feasible, you should seriously consider it. It’s true that teaching 4, or even 5, classes straight through on MWF or T/R is a long workday, but the payoff is a large chunk of unscheduled time you can turn to your own needs. The key at that point, is to make sure you do not use the entire day prepping for classes or grading student work. It’s fine to take an hour or two for that work, but otherwise you need to commit the time to your own research and writing.

There’s no easy, one-size-fits all answer to how to free up more time for your research and scholarship. But as I hope I have shown here, it is possible to multi-task and to combine your teaching and research productively and profitably, both for you and for your students.

What about you? What are your tricks and tips for managing a scholarly research agenda alongside a heavy teaching and service load?




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, Teaching, Time Management, work-life balance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Five Easy(ish) Ways To Be More Productive In Your Scholarship With Less Time In Your Schedule

  1. Pingback: Five Ways to Stay Motivated | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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