The Slow Grad Student

Even before I moved to the birthplace of countless task management systems, to-do list apps, and productivity manifestos, I was a time management enthusiast. From middle school on I would craft detailed weekly assignment schedules for myself and my long-suffering younger sister, also homeschooled. I reverentially checked off each task as I completed it; my sister cavalierly obliterated hers with black marker. In university, I kept David Allen’s Getting Things Done (fondly abbreviated “GTD”) checked out for months at a time. Since starting my PhD I’ve attended multiple workshops on time management for grad students promising to help us get our lives together with timeboxing and color-coded Google calendars.

Now color coding and making lists of actionable items aren’t necessarily unhealthy responses to the anxieties which come along with a heavy, varied workload. However, as Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber point out in The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016), time management becomes problematic when it shifts the burden of responsibility for a culture of overwork and pressured productivity onto individual scholars. It’s not the system that’s the problem, it’s silly old me, inadequate as usual.

Berg and Seeber conduct the first review I’ve seen of time management literature aimed at academics, noting that much of it seems either “Machiavellian”—shift as much as you can onto your graduate students or research assistants! (18)—or geared towards providing us with “yet another club to bash [ourselves] over the head with” (Rettig 27, qtd 22). They quote suggestions to work 55 hour weeks (more before tenure), fit in reading at the park with your kids, carve out 12 hour grading marathons on Sundays, wake up at 3:30am to get some writing in.

Their criticism of this literature echoes writers like Cal Newport and David M. Levy, who have spoken out against the “fragmentation of attention” ushered in by the tech boom and a corporate culture of constant connectivity. Over-planning our time and fostering a sense of time-poverty can interfere with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as “flow,” impeding our ability to produce creative work. “We need…to protect a time and a place for timeless time,” Berg and Seeber argue, “and to remind ourselves continually that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work” (28). They go on to suggest several concrete strategies for protecting what Newport calls “deep work”: become deliberately less connected, say “no,” schedule a rhythm of uninterrupted “timeless time,” take breaks, focus on shifting “our perception of the passing of time” (32).

Berg and Seeber focus on faculty, but a lot of what they have to say applies equally to graduate students, with an important difference: as both students and researchers, we are subject to the pressures of the publish-or-perish competitive culture, but also subject to our advisors’ and professors’ perceptions of/participation in those pressures. By this I mean both that our advisors play a huge role in shaping our time management norms (“don’t say yes to too many departmental service tasks” versus “here are fifteen hours’ worth of research tasks for my project for you to complete”) and that when our professors are overworked and overcommitted, the quality of pedagogy and advising they bring to the table is significantly less.

How do we navigate as individual grad students relating to individual professors within the broader academic culture? How do we maintain our sense of agency when there are so many systemic factors at play? And as small fry in the academic sea, how much can we do to protest the culture of busyness without risking our own place within a system where our position is far more precarious than that of our tenured advisors?

I see one promising possibility in Berg and Seeber’s call to stop seeing the “time crunch” as a “personal issue.” As individuals, we may not have control over the system or how we will be evaluated on the job market, but we can try to change the way we talk to our fellow grad students—and our advisors—about time, tasks, and working hours. We can take advantage of the flexibility many of us have in our schedules especially at the dissertation stage, not to work longer hours, but to maximize “timeless time” for creative work—and help others give themselves permission to do the same by opting out of the competition around working hours.

Above all, we can recognize that our professors have no more or less time in their days than we do. If we continue to subscribe to the cultural stereotype of the absent-minded professor with time to spare, can we really expect our advisors to let go of the idea that grad students are lazy procrastinators who don’t know how good they have it?

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