Category Archives: the university

No time to think: Juggling full-time work with a full-time PhD

Image David Yu, 2006

I’m just over a year into a full-time administrative post in higher education that I really love. I’m also in my last year of a ‘full-time flexible’ categorization on a PhD intended for those who work full time in higher education (I get to revert to “part time” next year and continue on longer than a typical funded student).

While there are considerable advantages to working in the very field you are studying (“applied” reflective learning at its best), I really discovered how challenging it can be this semester trying to keep up with an extra course in my workload as well as work on ongoing reading for the dissertation (my core course assignment).

The biggest thing I’ve really had to face this semester in taking on an extra course is how to adapt my learning trajectory for the PhD to the concurrent life as an administrator. I had finished my coursework and comprehensive exam before this job really kicked in.

My output, relative to full-time students who may work or serve as research assistants, feels considerably lower as my time to connect to school as a student is very limited. My paid work demands often bleed into my weekends and evenings as well.

Happily, the course I’m in focuses a lot on process and my subject area was to generate as much work toward my literature search and my dissertation proposal as I could (other students had to work toward a media production project but some of us there to expand our understanding to inform our theses were able to substitute the writing for the media production project).

The biggest process lesson I learned related to how academic life fits into a full-time profession. Sadly, I realize how little time I actually had available, how easily work intruded in on that precious time and how difficult it can to be sure you have a good brain when the time arrives and not be caught in some fog that renders the academic time less productive than it should be.

Problem One was the difficulty ‘saving’ one’s quality brain time for the task of academic writing rather than using it to think through policy or strategic ideas for my faculty team at work. Both spheres of my life needed some quality thinking.. and it wasn’t any easier getting that done ‘on the job’ for the job… hence the bleed into the restful quiet of my Sunday mornings when all sorts of insights would pop into my head that, if given a few minutes, would frame up the work week better for me and for any number of people on my team. Times when the thesis got the best of my good thinking time, my work week would often run less smoothly or important plans would be put off, unformed, and people left to cool their heels while they sat on my desk.

My longtime faculty mentor, Dr. Linda Muzzin, once presented a paper about the experiences of Aboriginal faculty that was captured by the phrase “no time to think”. So, my experience certainly isn’t unique. But I have learned a few things in taking a course again after starting work in administration:

  • stop putting the thesis last in the daily roster — the week will fill up and the end of the day you’re too exhausted to ‘think’
  • keep putting family time first — a plan for a short time spent together pays dividends more than the tension that grows when kids/partners become impatient with being tuned out on a regular basis. A ‘family time’ planned together at the start of the day gets me my alone time.. and a nice break when I come up for air.
  • don’t re-invent the wheel — I realized after this comment from Dr. Megan Boler that the rumination of the wheel can pertain to more than missing the relevant work of others in your writing. My search for new and relevant literature was useful. But so was re-visiting of the literature I’ve gathered over the years to start organizing it better. It was very time-consuming, still has more to go but is already turning out to be very, very useful. I needed to stop feeling like I had to have insights from literature read 5 years ago fresh in my brain at all times to start writing and needed to start building something that would enable me to access that literature quickly as I needed it while writing. This was huge.
  • stop spinning the wheel you have — that’s the experience when you keep spinning around the same paragraphs or ideas, week after week. It has been my personal specialty. It’s rumination broken up by the demands of daily work, but rumination all the same. I need to get better at hitting ‘save’ and then ‘moving on’ rather than re-opening and re-saving, in each window of time I have. I’m learning to put something down and move on as best I can. That was another big lesson for 15 weeks.
  • Dealing with Digital. I realize the degree to which digital literature has been killing me the past year or so. 🙂 I used to write in my office where my library was always on hand. Finished papers usually finished with a pile of highlighted journal articles and open books scattered in piles around me. But having digital files of journal articles and e-books have messed up my process. My biggest problem with digital references — finding them. An early session on ‘ref-works’ and the acquisition of a better annotation software that accepts my mark-ups and captures my comments has already saved me a ton of time. Getting used to the process of organizing my comments, along with my material, has been my biggest new process adaptation this semester. The ongoing work will be building a better digital archive of the hundreds of references I have digitized already, but have no idea what folder they’re hiding in (or on what USB, or what hard-drive, and so on).

The learning I’ve gained about process in this course may not seem like much, but I’ve really seen that the tools you use to approach ongoing study matter as much as the insights you might have, particularly when you have so little time to devote and no time to waste time ‘spinning’. The weeks in administrative life fly by as it is, and the demands on academics are huge to find the best ways to continue generate truly original insights that they can then bring to others through publication while also juggling the service and administrative demands of the job.

There’s a growing push inside the college system for administrators like me to work toward doctoral credentials. In looking at a twitter feed on the topic of part-time PhDs this past week, I noticed that people are commenting that subject you study and why can have an impact on your ability to manage the load.  When your time is so limited, it is understandable that one could get tempted into believing you should just ‘shop’ a course calendar to find pre-determined insights to pluck and drop into your work. More open or challenging courses would seem unreasonable to explore as ‘not relevant’ to what you need today. But what about what you don’t know today?

Sure, it is easy to get frustrated by ideas that are slow to come on because you just don’t have the time to percolate them that you used to have before working full-time. But indulging the temptation to keep to what you know now might limit the student life you’re engaged in to ideas they already know to be true, rather than opening the experience up to the truly transformative learning opportunity that graduate school can (and should, in my opinion) provide the individual who undertakes it.

In my own case, the readings alone were readable, but not always ideas I could process quickly or reference back fluidly. So those weeks, being an administrator while being a student was frustrating as the hours needed to truly capture the insights were not available to me. That said, when things worked, nothing beat the satisfaction of the weeks in which the ideas did gel, the insights were captured and I was able to join the class and share in those great classroom moments and discussions as both a contributor and receiver to push our collective understanding further along. On those nights, I would always leave class exhilarated and full of ideas, much as I did almost every night during those first couple of years when I started the doctorate.

Life lived with an extra course inserted into it was close to impossible at times to manage, but looking back, I still managed to get a lot more out of it toward my dissertation phase than what I’d initially read on the course description. In struggling (and sometimes failing) to make the course ‘work’ inside the new realities of my life, I was forced to dig for better tools and strategies to cope that will be really useful in managing the independent work of thesis completion. I am grateful to the course for not only the interesting literature reviewed and discussions had, but also the pedagogical structure that asked me to consider process as one of my key learning goals to document. It required me to give the time to consider how the process was going to have to be set up in order to work effectively for me at this time in my life.


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My Friend Flikr

Job One today was to do a bit of DIY learning on one of the tools mentioned in class — Flikr. I am also attempting to tie my twitter feed account ffi_maija to this blog and to all other social media, connecting it to through my gmail. Done and done.

no telling where the money went

by Adam_T4 Creative Commons license through Flikr

The work made me start to think about privacy/copyright issues and the puzzle of how creative work and mediated content and innovative platforms become controlled or captured by the market economy. I work in a context in which intellectual property is discursively framed as a value to exploit — where applied research tends to be defined narrowly as commercializable research. Hanging out again at the university this semester, I’m aware of the degree to which words like ‘brand’ have entered my lexicon in little over a year. At the university, the conversation shifts to the thinking of the new paradigm in which inquiry and exploratory work benefit from free exchange. It is a much more free and accelerated approach to creativity.

The professional challenge (the “applied” research, if you will) becomes stretching the view to include more of the publishing spectrum as a means to the end of ‘gainful employment’ for these students. I’m doubtful you can breed creativity and innovative thinking in tomorrow’s creative class by keeping the connection from concept to commerce so short and tight in school.

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Researching teaching: Post 2 in the series on the gap between universities and those who rank them

I blogged yesterday about an alternative way to approach what I saw as a gap between what universities say they’re doing for society and what the public wants them to do for students. I was writing in reaction to a conference panel I observed in which the presidents of the universities of Toronto and Alberta deliberated university rankings with three representatives from the media organizations who generate them.  I found the administrators to be resigned to the rankings but short on ideas to address the knowledge gap.

It struck me that there was one very quick, decisive and brave action that university presidents could take to demonstrate that they are serious about ensuring high quality undergraduate education and experience for their students.

They could, with a  pen-stroke, promote the scholarship of teaching to as high a status within collective agreement faculty evaluation criteria as traditional “discovery research”.

This measure could come direct from admin at the bargaining tables and promoted widely to the public. I can hear the announcement now. We take teaching so seriously, we want to reward those professors from any discipline who are so inclined to devote themselves to its study. And we intend to recognize this work on par with research that generates more traditional knowledge advancements in their own disciplinary fields.


I know that there are some schools (and definitely many departments and disciplines) that do this already, such as this example encouraging such research in the K-12 panel.  What’s important to note is the distinction between this idea and initiatives to improve courses, such as Stanford’s support for its faculty, or other teaching support services on campus.

It isn’t about improving teaching within its own envelope, as a function separate to research.

It is about encouraging an attitude toward one’s teaching that engenders formal research about it. It is about thinking through, as a scholar, how you teach and generating studies to assess what you do now, adjustments you make, and what works (or what doesn’t) for students.

It is about generating publishable, peer-reviewable scholarship — either within your field’s literature or within higher education generally — about how you disseminate your field’s knowledge in your classroom and how you might work toward performing that function better.  And it is about having that research count.

This isn’t a new idea. Ernest Boyer’s 1990 report for the American Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended broadening the definition of scholarship to include teaching and, later, engagement. Boyer notes:

“Research and publication have become the primary means by which most professors achieve academic status, and yet many academics are, in fact, drawn to the profession precisely because of their love for teaching or for service—–even for making the world a better place. Yet these professional obligations do not get the recognition they deserve, and what we have, on many campuses, is a climate that restricts creativity rather than sustains it.” (1990, p. xii)

A 2005 U of Alberta’s Senate task force report offering recommendations, titled “Student Engagement: A Shared Responsibility.” Recommendation 4.7 (on page 53) makes clear that teaching is perceived as having less value than research, all the while noting the importance of good teaching to student success. The recommendation calls for a “balance” between teaching best practice and research activity through a transparent assessment of faculty evaluation processes. But as one pull-quote notes:

“Rarely does a chair muster up the courage to go to Faculty Evaluation Committee to reward an excellent teacher
– one has to produce a huge teaching dossier. In contrast, it is very easy to present someone for a merit increment
for research – simply list the journal articles.” – Association of Academic Staff: University of Alberta executive member (p. 53)

As I read (with Boyer’s recommendations in mind), I started to feel downright odd about the degree to which a university would twist itself into knots to avoid placing faculty behaviour (through teaching) anywhere near the matter of student engagement or connect that relationship directly to the subject of scholarly scrutiny.

Most of the recommended initiatives and best practice examples seemed to tend toward the new student services “relationship-management” model of organizational communications and culture functions.

While any attention on the subject is better than nothing, this attitude places the faculty member at the periphery of recommendations  (such as smaller ratio classes, grouping students into learning communities, and so on). There also is little attention paid to ensuring such enhancements will be assessed scientifically for their effectiveness.

I saw very little that would push for greater recognition of faculty engagement in research to improve their own (or their discipline’s) pedagogy and student engagement practices.

Why not develop recommendations applicable to any discipline at the university that mimic what already exists at the Alberta Teachers’ Assocation, where they offer the Educational Research Award? “Valued at $5,000, [it] is presented annually to a faculty of education member or sessional lecturer at an Alberta university who has undertaken high quality research on classroom teaching and learning.”

What about a recommendation that puts the researcher within any discipline  — the ‘frontliner’ in the teaching enterprise — in charge of making engagement and learning better?  Why wouldn’t a report intended to come up with ways to engage students encourage the very researchers who stand before them in a classroom to research and innovate the dissemination (through teaching) the material from their own discipline?

You can research teaching. You can design new teaching initiatives, engagement cultures, and so on, and then study them. Scientifically. Write papers and subject them to peer-review processes. See what worked (and what didn’t). You can use science to make student learning and engagement (and by extension, their “experience”) better.

Teaching can be the focus of research and innovation, too.

Why this seems a logical answer to me (and not top of mind to the esteemed administrators on the panel) has to do, I think, with the culture of academia generally. In my next post, I’ll offer my take on one reason why I believe university administrators have failed to embrace Boyer’s recommendations and why they will probably continue to do so (to the academy’s detriment).

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