Reflections on a First Semester of Full-Time Teaching

No one can prepare you for your first full-time teaching position. You might think that the two classes per semester that you taught during graduate school have done the job — well, those and the numerous books on pedagogy, productivity, and time management that you’ve read in the past year. These things will help, but they are insufficient; nothing can accurately convey the madness of one’s first semester teaching full time. But perspectives on the madness can be helpful, hence this post.

1) Workload

The first thing about full-time teaching that will shock you is the workload. In graduate school you likely became accustomed to teaching one, maybe two classes per semester. In your first full-time teaching post you will probably be teaching three or four. The difference in time spent preparing material for these courses is minimal. How much more time does it really take to prepare a lecture/discussion for three sections of one class instead of just two? The truly noticeable change will come not with the number of classes you will be teaching, but with your grading responsibilities. And this, at least in part, will be self inflicted.

Remember how, for various reasons, you assigned three essays per semester to those classes you taught in graduate school? Yeah, you are going to do that again in your first full-time teaching position. And when you do, you will do so with the memory of having thirty, forty, or even fifty papers at once that you had to grade. You will remember that this was annoying, but that you got through it without much difficulty. The problem is that if you are teaching four classes per semester (and you probably will be, assuming the statistics are correct), you are going to be grading upwards of one hundred papers at a time at several times per semester. And there is an enormous difference between fifty papers and one hundred papers when it comes time to grade them.

As you draw near the end of the semester you might rethink your writing assignments. Dropping the number of essays from three to two means that you will have one hundred less essays per semester to grade. Your students will thank you not only because they have to write less, but because you will also be less cranky overall.

2) Subject Matter

Another thing that may throw you during your first semester of full-time teaching is the subject matter you will be responsible for. As a graduate student you aimed to discover a niche in your field that needed to be explored in greater depth or from a different angle. Your job was to become a specialist, and to focus on your niche as if nothing else came close in terms of importance. But your first teaching gig will almost certainly not be tailored to your hyper-focused research agenda. Your first teaching gig will likely require you to be a generalist and to teach at least one course that is outside of your area. Some will be familiar with this challenge from teaching general education requirements as graduate students or as adjuncts. Others will have to learn from experience.

If you teach at a small college (as I do) where virtually every faculty member teaches something outside of their primary research area, you will probably hear the following refrain during your first semester: “All you have to do is stay one class ahead.” Essentially what this means is that you are learning much of the material along with your students; you are doing all of the readings that they are doing, and in some cases you have to do some pretty heavy research to make sure that you are prepared. Granted, you have the tools and categories that your students don’t, but the process can be thoroughly exhausting, and it can easily consume most or even all of that time that you optimistically set aside for “research.” The good news is that it doesn’t last forever; you will start your second semester more prepared than you were for your first, or at least that is the hope.

3) Faculty commitments

I would remiss if I failed to mention the expectations that colleges have of faculty. I am lucky because the college I work at doesn’t really allow faculty to take on committee or advising responsibilities in their first year. But even aside from these responsibilities, my plate is still filled each week with meetings of various sorts: faculty and school meetings, learning community meetings, obligatory lunch meetings, etc. These are certainly nothing to complain about if you like the people you work with (and I do!), but they are time consuming nonetheless!

A seasoned professor in my doctoral program used to remark to new students, “Your graduate school years will be the best years of your life, and you will look back on them fondly because how much free time you had.” Of course, we all assumed she was joking. I mean, how could she be serious? Surely she had forgotten about the stresses of being a graduate student. After a semester of teaching full time I can tell you that she was neither joking nor naïve — teaching full time is serious business, and it does cause one to look back on one’s graduate school years with a certain fondness and yearning for “the good ol’ days.” But at the end of the day it is like any form of employment that is largely self-structured and self-motivated — learning how to manage and divide one’s time is at least half the battle.

Using Scrivener to Write a Dissertation – Why I’m Glad I Did and What I Would do Differently Next Time

My younger colleagues often ask me for dissertation advice. How do you keep your research and notes straight? How do you structure and restructure your argument? How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis? How do you do all of this without losing your precious sanity? Regardless of which question I am being asked, my response almost always involves a common refrain: Scrivener.

Developed initially for novelists and other creative types, Scrivener is writing software that has earned quite the following in the academic community. In this post I would like to outline why I chose to use it while writing my dissertation, why I am glad that I did, and what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.

[N.B. — Initially designed for Mac, Scrivener is currently available for Mac and Windows. Everything in this post is in reference to the Mac version. I have never used Scrivener for Windows.]

Why did I choose Scrivener initially?

A fellow graduate student introduced me to Scrivener years ago. I will confess that while he was explaining several of its features, I found myself wondering why he was so excited. How could this software be useful to ME, someone responsible for writing serious and scholarly things? I already had Microsoft Word, and it had brought me through college and two masters degrees, right? So what, I asked, was the point? I concluded (hastily, in hindsight) that it should be placed alongside font selection as one more way that graduate students could procrastinate while still appearing productive.

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About two years later and after several other encounters with devotees of the software, I passed my comprehensive exams and jumped headfirst into the dissertation. And because I was a graduate student, I also began to search for clever and efficient ways to procrastinate: I started printing out test pages to determine which font I was going to use; I began experimenting with alternative/therapeutic lighting schemes and furniture/book arrangements in my study; I discovered that not all note-taking paper is created equal; and I learned that Microsoft Word is neither the only nor the best word processor for long, book-length documents. Realizing that I was deceiving myself into thinking that such pursuits were good uses of my precious time, I devoted one day—and one day only—to figuring out which font, paper, and word processing software I was going to use.

I downloaded a few options to start with: Nisus, Mellel, Bean, LaTex (which I never did figure out). After toying around with these a bit, I remembered Scrivener. I’m not sure why, but when I opened up the software for the first time something about it just clicked with me. Perhaps it was because I found the programs I had looked at thus far to be downright clunky, but Scrivener’s user interface struck me immediately as clean, well organized, and intuitive in many ways. After about an hour with it I was hooked; I took a few of the tutorials and had a detailed outline set up in no time. So yes—ironically, what began as an attempt to procrastinate ended up yielding what I now consider to be the single most important tool in my toolbox.

Why am I glad that I chose Scrivener?

Anyone who uses Scrivener on a regular basis has an opinion regarding its most useful components. Below are three of the features of Scrivener that I found to be the most helpful in the process of writing a dissertation. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

1) Outlining — One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to in Scrivener is the “binder” that is situated to the left of the text input window. The binder is divided initially into three sections: draft, research, and trash. The draft and research sections allowScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.58.21 PM you to create outlines to guide you in the process of writing and research. These can be about as detailed or broad as you want.

The outlines you create are actually systems of tiered text files. So, let’s say you make an outline for “Chapter 1.” Under this broad rubric you construct five headings, and under each of these headings you create three subheadings. The benefit of this—aside from more or less requiring you to outline your project before you start writing it—is that the system of text files allows you to skip quickly from one section to another, which helps move you away from thinking of the whole thing in strictly linear terms. Most of us don’t think in straight lines from start to finish, yet the expectation (for whatever reason) is that we need to write this way. No wonder the experience of staring at a blank page is such a common one!

Scrivener’s outlining feature certainly does not eliminate writer’s block, but it does remind you that your larger project is made up of individual components, and that you don’t necessarily have to work on them in order. In fact, the whole thing may move along more quickly if you don’t work on them in order!

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2) Automatic Writing Goals — If you know roughly how long your project should be, and you know when you want to have it completed by, Scrivener can help you figure out how many words per day you need to write every day in order to reach your goal on time. I am aware of no other program on the market that has a feature like this.

I knew that my dissertation needed to be around 65,000 words, not including footnotes, and I also knew that I wanted to finish writing it in one year (that didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). So I opened up Project Targets, entered my figures, told Scrivener to Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM“automatically calculate from draft deadline,” selected the days on which I planned to write, and that’s it. Turns out that if you want to write 65,000 words in one year, and you only want to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you can accomplish your goal by writing 414 words per day. If you set a more aggressive schedule, i.e., write on every day of the work week, that figure drops to 249 words per day. Either of these is entirely manageable and a lot easier than sitting down every day not knowing if you are ahead or behind. If you get inspired one day and write more than you are supposed to, Scrivener will update your goals so that you will write less the next time. Alternately, if you take a week off of writing, Scrivener will have you write a few more words to catch up.

This feature was valuable to me because it showed me that the only way to complete long writing projects is one piece at a time. And it reminded me throughout the process that regardless of how small an accomplishment it seemed at the time, writing 400 words was in fact bringing me closer to my ultimate goal, namely, finishing.

3) Design and Stability — One of the first things that really struck me about Scrivener was just how smart the layout is. It’s clear that the software was designed, from start to finish, by people who could imagine themselves using it on a regular basis. Nearly every aspect of the user interface, from the layout of the toolbar to the color of your backgrounds, can be easily customized to fit your own needs and preferences.Like any software, there are some learning curves. But if you are willing to spend a little bit of time working through the tutorials that come packaged with it, you will figure things out quickly.

One final point of praise, related to design, is that Scrivener is a remarkably stable program. In the two years that I spent using it to write my dissertation, it NEVER CRASHED ONCE. Anyone who uses Word will marvel at that last sentence. Go ahead. Marvel. I imagine there are ways to crash Scrivener—the point is that you are going to have to work at it. Even if you did crash it, however, Scrivener automatically saves your work every two seconds. So even in the unlikely event that you throw more at it than it can catch, odds are you will lose maybe a total of five words.

What would I do differently next time?

By now you can tell that I’m a huge fan of this software. I could certainly have written a dissertation without it, but the task would have been much more arduous. To close out this post, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what I would do differently next time. While I will never (ever) have to write another dissertation, I have recently started work on another project in Scrivener that should keep me entertained for at least the next year. So what am I doing differently now?

1) Use the research section of the binder more — Scrivener is first and foremost a writing tool. But it also sports a number of features that can help you organize the nuts and bolts of your project. One of these is the research section of the binder (mentioned above). This section can support pretty much any sort of file that you can imagine. In the project I’m working on currently I am keeping images and article .pdfs in the research section as well as outlines and notes. Scrivener’s split screen mode makes switching between your writing window and .pdf viewer unnecessary; you can have both open at once. While I am still using bibliography software for citations, I’ve found that using the research section is helping me stay more organized.

2) Take more snapshots — A snapshot enables you to save a version of your project that you can later go back and compare against newer versions. It is similar in many ways to Word’s “track changes” feature, though more smoothly executed (surprised?). I knew that this feature existed when I started using Scrivener, but I didn’t start using it until I was Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.00.18 PMfinishing the final chapter and beginning to edit. To be sure, the editing phase is the point at which snapshots are most valuable; if you find that you were a bit too zealous in your cutting, you can always go back and retrieve what you have chopped out.

In the project I am working on right now, the first thing I do EVERY TIME I open the file is take a snapshot. It takes seconds, and I have peace of mind knowing that there is a limit to how bad I can screw things up if I’m having a bad/off day.

 

3) Use the scratch pad. This is a feature that I rarely spend time telling others about because I don’t think all that many people would understand the idea behind it. The scratch pad is tucked away in Scrivener’s “window” menu (I think it is also possible to assign a keyboard shortcut that will open it). When you select it, a little text entry window appears. In this window you can do some free writing, record a stray thought that may have entered your mind, or sketch an idea you have about reorganizing a chapter, etc. You could use it to write out a grocery list if you want.

What the scratch pad does is give you a blank document quickly, before you have to waste a whole lot of time deciding where to type whatever might be on your mind. It’s akin in many ways to keeping an index card and a pen with you at all times, just in case something pops into your mind and you don’t want to forget it.

What makes the scratch pad different from all other text entry windows (as I understand things) is that the text you enter in it isn’t really linked to any project in particular. If you have a Scrivener file set up for your dissertation, another for your blog, and another for, say, teaching resources, all of these would share a scratch pad. So, if you are in your dissertation and open the scratch pad to make a few notes, those notes will be there when you open up the scratch pad while you are working on your blog. I use this feature when I am in the middle of writing for one project but have a thought related to another; the scratch pad lets me record that thought quickly without worrying about getting too sidetracked or forgetting where I put the note to myself.

At the end of the day, being a successful writer, i.e., completing what you set out to write without losing your mind, is as much about having the determination to sit in one place for long periods of time as it is about anything else. But coupling this determination with the right tools can make your task a little more pleasant.

If you found this post helpful and are considering purchasing Scrivener, please consider doing so through the following link!

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Obligatory “Most Popular Posts of 2013” Post

Another year in the bank (almost). And that means that it’s time again to look back and see why people continue to wander to this blog that (let’s be honest) has seen better years. So without delay, I give you some of the most posts of 2013, none of which were written in 2013.

  1. Using Scrivener with Bibliographic Software — This is the single most read post on this blog, receiving more hits per day than every other post in this list combined. “Scrivener“, for the uninitiated, is one of the greatest pieces of word processing software in existence. Without it, I would still be stuck in the drafting stages of my dissertation. If writing is a part of your livelihood, you need to take a look at Scrivener. This post was intended for academic authors (like me) who use Scrivener in conjunction with bibliographic software. The title is somewhat deceptive, I suppose, as the only bibliographic software I talk about in the post is Bookends, another “must-have” for (mac-using) academic authors. I hope that the amount of traffic to this post means that people have found it useful!
  2. Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness — In second place we have an entirely non-original post from almost three years ago. So far as I can tell, the reason this post is so popular is that 1) the image I have posted is one of the higher quality ones out there and 2) a few people “pinned” this post, causing it to shoot up the ranks in Google image search. Click on the link above if you have no idea who Ron Swanson is or why you should care about his pyramid of greatness.
  3. The Shadow of the Galilean (Review) — This post receives pretty insignificant traffic for most of the year, but it peaks toward the middle and end of the fall and spring semesters (when papers are due). I think I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before. My guess is that I am not the only one who assigns it for reading in a college-level New Testament class.
  4. Why Writing a Dissertation is Harder than Having a Baby — Like post #2 (above), the content of this entry is also largely not my own work. I posted this in the fall of 2010, just over a year after entering the doctoral program at Marquette. Since that time, I have written a dissertation and watched my wife give birth. I continue to find the post amusing, but I now question the accuracy of its central claim.
  5. How to Write a Paper Proposal — This is the oldest post on this list, written in the summer of 2010. As the title implies, it’s about how to write a paper proposal. I’m not entirely sure that I was qualified in 2010 to write a post like this. Truth be told, I still have some doubts. I leave it up because about once per month I receive a kind e-mail from a stranger telling me that they’ve had a paper accepted at a professional conference and that they used this post as a guide. To me, the central points in it are 1) be bold, 2) be clear, and 3) be concise. Come to think of it, those are pretty good pieces of advice for graduate students in general.
  6. Dissertations, Fonts, and Wasting Time — And finally, a post about one of the greatest time-wasters that continues to taunt ranks of graduate students like myself: choosing a font. This post was written almost exactly two weeks before I began writing my dissertation (I know that because I wrote it on the day before my daughter was born). It originated as a sort of “aha moment”/confessional. You see, I love fonts, and at several points during my graduate career I became convinced that most people cared as much about fonts as I do. Hence, I spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over which typeface to use for which paper. Does Garamond seem to flashy? Does Gentium Greek go well with Palatino Roman? Ugh. I remain convinced by the wisdom offered at the end of the post: nobody cares. The ironic thing is that people who find this post typically do so with search strings like “what is the best font for a dissertation” or “most impressive dissertation font.” As long as it looks nice (i.e., isn’t too big and has serifs), it just doesn’t matter. You will note that when I spoke of my love for fonts earlier I did so in the present tense (“I love fonts”). You see, I continue to live with my addiction. I still love fonts and I will, on occasion, allow myself to indulge. But then I snap back to the mantra that I used to overcome my tormenter: “Do your work. Don’t be stupid.”

Thanks as always for reading, and best wishes to you and yours in this new year.

To Burn or Not To Burn the Midnight Oil

Today over at gradhacker.org, Eva Lantsoght has a fantastic post on graduate students and sleep deprivation. She refers to lack of sleep as “the silent creativity killer,” and with good reason. Some of the symptoms that she cites are:

  • decreased quality and accuracy of work
  • inability to think and judge clearly
  • reduced ability to make decisions, particularly ones that require both emotional and mental thought
  • and diminished memory of important details

All of these, one could argue, are essential to one’s success in graduate school. Because the problem of getting too little sleep is not isolated to graduate students, I think many will benefit from what she has to say.

Her article reminded me of my own foray into voluntary sleep deprivation as a new graduate student.

As an undergraduate I was always able to pound out those delightful 3-4 page reflection papers on this or that topic with relatively little effort (I shall refrain from commenting on how good I feel these papers actually were, particularly in retrospect). Reading assignments were generally manageable, and I never really studied much for tests (your mileage may vary). When I did sacrifice sleep, it was typically so I could do fun things. When I stayed up too late, I was able to sleep in the next morning and not really suffer for it. I made every effort to schedule my classes in the afternoon, or at the very least, not at 8:00 am.

Upon entering graduate school, I quickly realized (as many do) that graduate study was going to require more work than I had previously become accustomed to. Reading assignments increased from manageable gobbets of introductory texts to lengthier sections of more sophisticated books and articles. Papers became longer and more complex, and exams were not the type that you could fudge your way through. To compensate for this, I decided (as many do) that the way I was going to handle my new work load was to stay up late.

At least a few times per week, I found myself hunched over my work at 1:00, 2:00, even 4:00 in the morning, coffee in hand, attempting to make some headway. Before long, I was sleeping in past 10:00 on a regular basis. When I finally made my way out the door, half of the day was gone, and the cycle would repeat the next night. My classes were mostly in the afternoon (some things never change), so the only thing I really missed out on was breakfast (the most important thing after family). But this schedule also left me thoroughly exhausted all of the time.

The image of the graduate student burning the midnight oil is frequently sold as “the way things have to be.” Veteran students tell incoming students, “get ready for some late nights” and “say goodbye to getting 8 hours.” Their advice is not unlike that received by so many new parents. The difference is that for new parents, this IS actually the way things have to be — you can’t simply allow a screaming, hungry newborn to “work through” whatever is bothering them.

The fact of the matter is that for graduate students, sacrificing sleep is only one way of doing things. Granted, situations may arise in which you have to stay up late in order to accomplish a task that you’ve put off (because of procrastination, other engagements, etc.), and then arise at the usual time the next morning to fulfill whatever obligations the day may hold. Problems arise when the occasional late-night-followed-by-an-early-morning becomes your norm.

I credit beloved spouse for finally snapping me out of my bad sleep habits. She is an early-to-bed type, and once we got married, so was I. At first, the mandated 9:30 bedtime didn’t come easy, and I would often lay awake thinking about the work that awaited me in the morning. But the side effect of going to bed early is that you are (typically) more prone to rise early. And rising early means that you get started on your work earlier, which means you don’t have to stay up late worrying about it. See where I’m going with this?

While I do think there is some truth to the old “early bird gets the worm” adage, it would be folly to apply it to everyone. Many people (myself included) are not natural “morning people.” I have met enough “night owls” that I cannot deny their existence (although I would draw a fine distinction between people who do their best work at night and people who claim to be night owls just so they can avoid going to bed). The point is not that there is an inherently better or worse time to get one’s work done. The point is that productivity becomes more difficult when it takes priority over the rest that your body needs in order to function. Lantsoght closes with sound advice in this vein:

Sleep is not a luxury, but a basic need. If you want to boost your performance, start to discover which sleep schedule really works for you. Truly listen to your body and try to find out how much sleep you really need and which are your ideal sleeping hours.

Search Strings in 2012

As this year draws to a close, I thought it might be fun to see how and why people make their way to this blog. Below are the top ten search strings from the past year, followed by what are arguably some of the more unusual.

  1. “ron swanson pyramid of greatness” — without a doubt, the single most popular post on this blog is (almost) entirely non-theological. Nearly a quarter of all visitors arrive seeking the path that will lead them “from boys to men, from men to gladiators, and from gladiators in Swansons.” Namaste.
  2. “easter cartoons” — A collection of delightful images.
  3. “roller coaster” — I once compared dissertation-writing to the riding of roller coasters…not sure if this is what you were seeking.
  4. “shadow of the galilean summary” — This search string seems to be popular right around mid-term time. I can’t help but think that desperate undergraduates are in search of Cliff’s Notes for this fantastic book.
  5. “how to write a paper proposal” — I’m glad to see that this post is still getting some mileage.
  6. “petaus” — A post that (surprisingly!) became a small section in the dissertation! Win!
  7. “enchiridion biblicum” — A fantastic collection of works related to study of the Bible from a Catholic perspective.
  8. “the shadow of the galilean” — Yep, on here twice.
  9. “harold camping” — A throwback to a meme that has thankfully died out.
  10. “noah’s ark” — Apparently the Dutch recreation of the Ark has in fact sailed?

And now, for the humorous and the downright strange:

  1. “nuhun gemisi” — “Noah’s Ark” in Turkish. See 10, above.
  2. “my family has left me” — I’m terribly sorry. Let me know if I can help.
  3. “bogojavljenje” — “Epiphany” in Serbian, in search of this (I think?).
  4. “creepy moustache meme” — No idea.
  5. “naked gardening” — Probably a reference to this post, although I’m not entirely sure they were searching for this.
  6. “cosmic jewish zombie” — Looking for Jesus? Aren’t we all.

Thanks to everyone who reads, and have a blessed 2013.

Pavlov Strikes Again?

I have been finished with coursework for nearly a year. For two semesters, I have not had to worry about that end of semester crunch that plagues so many graduate and undergraduate students. Yet the crunch, it would seem, is unavoidable. For whatever reason, I find that this point of the semester is characterized by anxiety. I constantly feel as if I’m not getting enough done, like I shouldn’t be taking a break for lunch, like I should be drinking even more coffee than I normally do.

To be sure, the end of semester crunch is more or less a fair wages for many students. Undergraduate and graduate students alike are horrible procrastinators with an uncanny knack for putting off papers until one week before they are due, so it is difficult to feel too bad for them (I speak as one with procrastinating tendencies, by the way).

The way I see it, there are a few explanations for this post-coursework phantom crunch.

  1. Pavlov – I suppose it is perfectly possible that the stress experienced at this point in the semester is simply a learned, conditioned stress. I began college in 1999, and with the exception of one blissful year during which I took a break from school, each semester has ended the same way: papers need to get written, exams need to get taken, and neither of these things will happen on their own. After more than 10 years of experiencing the crunch, does it just become engrained? If this is the case, then hopefully it is also the case that one can become de-conditioned.
  2. Contagion – Perhaps the crunch is communicable? After all, a good number of my colleagues are still in coursework (and are still procrastinators), and thus they continue to experience the crunch in a very real way. Could it be that my taking occasional lunch breaks with these people has exposed me to some sort of condition that one may contract like the flu? If this is the case, then perhaps we should make the library a sort of quarantine for those still in coursework.
  3. Sympathy – I’ve heard of husbands who gain “sympathy weight” when their wives are pregnant, or there are those who will throw up when they see others do the same. Maybe the post-coursework crunch felt by some of us is a sort of subconscious “sympathy stress” that we manifest in order to somehow make others feel like there is someone there who knows what they’re going through?

Whatever the cause, the post-coursework crunch is annoying precisely because it is mysterious.