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Dairy of a History TA: Thesis Time, E-mail Time, Me Time

Posted by Neal Adolph
6 May 2013 - 4:29pm

My semester is over. I finished marking my students’ finals in record time and chained myself to my desk on some beautiful Vancouver spring day in the process. However, I’m no longer a Teaching Assistant. I have graduated to the much-more-impoverished position of Former Teaching Assistant. Although being unemployed does not excite me at all, I appreciate the opportunity to focus on my own work a bit more.

For many of us, being a teaching assistant comes at the definite cost of distracting us from our work. This has the adverse effect of potentially keeping us in the program longer, which makes it less and less likely for us to receive financial aid or teaching assistant positions. So we need to find the balance between teaching and getting our own work done.

There are a couple things I do to make this work out to my benefit because, ultimately, I don’t want to be paying tuition to complete a Masters in Canadian History any longer than I absolutely have to. I know the economy out in the real world isn’t great at the moment, but the potential of going into debt for an M.A. is not all that exciting, so I want to try and jump into the economy as soon as I can. Determining how many hours I devote to teaching, then, starts with focusing on me time.

This sounds a little hard-edged for many. I am unashamedly selfish on this one, though. Educating is a great responsibility - it is one of those positions that, in a job market that has seen a growing trend towards temporary careers, is still considered a calling. It is a noble deed - all the nobler if you believe absolutely that the things we teach our students will enrich their lives (and, assuming that history has enriched yours as a T.A., then you likely believe this). It also feels good when it is done well, and is terrifying in the moments when you are less prepared than you would like to be.I like teaching, but it is a time trap. It can steal all of your energy, and convince you that your charitable donation is necessary in the process.

So in the interests of preserving your energy and completing your program, focus on me time when thinking of your semester. First, figure out your goals for the semester. What do you want to get done on your research project, and when you are you going to get those things done by? Mark them on a calendar. Name them. This past semester I wanted to write the last 60 pages of my thesis and start doing revisions, present at two conferences, and participate in various departmental professional activities. I opened up Google Calendar, named my goals and set my deadlines:

Chapter 2. January 30th. Chapter 3. March 3rd. Conclusion. March 7th. Introduction. March 15th. First Draft of B.C. Studies Conference Paper. April 15th.

My calendar was awash in me-time.

Then I looked at my teaching responsibilities and added them to my calendar:

Two pop quizzes. 10 reading responses from each student - 300 words each. One midterm in February. One Final in April.

I made some necessary adaptations to my goals - added a day or two for personal deadlines, took a day or two off. My goals were crowded, but still possible. That is, possible if I worked every day on achieving them. And I’m a graduate student. I’m mostly OK with working everday on achieving my goals by this point (and the added benefit is that I can graduate and jump into a job market that offers minimal employment to the young, overeducated, and under-experienced sooner rather than later).

So I looked at my weeks. Attending lecture - Wednesday and Friday, 1330 to 1430. Teaching Seminars - Wednesday, 1530 to 1830. Makingroom for two office hours - Fridays before and after lecture. Reserving time to attend departmental meetings or colloquia - Thursdays at noon. And remembering that I actually need to chat with my advisor while I'm working - Thursdays before departmental meetings. I added in time to go to the gym, attend that boot camp course I signed up for, and to attend choir practice. I made space for transit time to and from school (35 minutes each way if the buses are perfectly timed). I also have to eat, eat healthy, and eat regularly - I added in meal prep time.

Oh yeah, I made e-mail time.

This is one of the first things that one of my teaching assistant colleagues suggested. “Make E-mail Hours, which are the times at which you will read and respond to all of the e-mails you have received from students since your last e-mail hour. And don’t attach your school e-mail to your phone so that you can get beeps whenever one of your students sends in a late assignment, or e-mails and excuse for missing seminar, or asks a totally relevant and fascinating question that is fun answering.”

My week was looking pretty full. I coloured in the rest of my calendar with THESIS WORK TIME. If you read about how good writers get through the process of writing, they do it by creating "holy" hours during which they cannot be interrupted. They just sit and write and write and write. And revise. And send stuff to editors, then write more, then drink tea and read. Then go for a walk. Then relax, sleep, go and write more when they wake up the next morning. It is a regimented process - nothing magical at all. So don’t just colour in the rest of your time as THESIS WORK TIME. Find blocksof time and reserve them for writing. And keep them reserved - they are the holy hours during which the only thing that matters is you working on your thesis.

This won’t be enough though. Setting time aside for yourself is not enough. In the next posting I will outline how putting me time into my scheduling has actually been a great help for my students in the classroom.

What are your strategies for balancing teaching with thesis work?

Photo:Classroom of Laidley Spring School on the Matador Co-operative farm about 40 miles north of Swift Current, Sask. Teacher is R. L. Moen. Credit: Gar Lunney/National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque/Library and Archives Canada/PA-159647. Copyright: Expired