Productivity in Academia

When the email came asking me to write a blog post about productivity in higher education my first reaction was to wonder exactly what that is. Productivity in higher education? Hmmm.

Well, every spring we have to complete about a thousand (four) different forms that each tell a different story about our productivity: how many articles I’ve written, how many conference papers I’ve refereed, how many courses I’ve taught, how many committees I’ve served on, and oh so much more. One form, for the state, asks me about 50 (well, it used to be 50, now it’s 17) questions about the tiniest categories of publishing productivity (for example: How many non-refereed works (such as newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, etc.) authored or co-authored by you were published by commercial or non-commercial organizations?). Note that the work they want to know about is non-refereed, published by commercial or non-commercial organizations. There’s another question that asks about refereed work. And one that asks about conference presentations, and another one about, well, you get the picture. It’s enough to make you feel really unproductive.

But as a part-time administrator (I chair a department) I rarely measure my productivity in publishing any more. Much as that’s what my institution would officially like to see from me, it’s not what they really want. What they really want is for me to make the department run. And that’s another task entirely.

Like most of us, I suspect, I spend an enormous amount of time answering email. I have to do this because I have fire after fire that I must put out. Just this morning, a faculty member’s Spring ’12 schedule went awry, a job description had to be reworked, all Fall ’11 syllabi had to be collected, two committees needed meeting agendas, I had to respond to a software testing question, new curriculum submission forms needed repatching, and that’s just the morning.

When I sat down this morning my intended task was to work out a course-scheduling puzzle. But each item in the paragraph above took me farther away from the task I needed to do. It’s always like this. I start out working on a project and then something happens and I think this should take 60 seconds (five minutes). And it takes four hours (really). Or it takes 60 seconds (five minutes), but then I get 40 more of them.

I’m not sure what the solution can be here. I’ve tried quitting my email program. But like an addict, I start to feel withdrawal if I can’t keep checking it. I am getting better at closing it up and leaving it alone, but that’s not always the only problem. Those other attention grabbers are on my plate even without checking my email. I wish I had a solution to offer beyond close that mail program (we’ve all heard this) but I don’t.

I feel the need to be productive every minute. When I went to pick up a colleague in her office at an appointed time and she was still working on her email I had to sit down in her office and wait. For five minutes. I was nearly jumping out of my skin thinking about what I could have been doing for those five minutes. I thought my head might explode with anxiety.

I’m trying to relearn focusing my attention the way I did before I became a multi-tasker. If I can simply stay on one task until it is finished, I can get it done and off the plate. In a world where all my tasks are intertwined with someone else’s tasks, that’s not always simple. But I’m getting better. Now if my productivity form could find a way to reflect that, I’d be a happy camper.

Stephanie Gibson is the executive director and division chair of the School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. She is the director of the M.A. in Publications Design program.

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