Embracing Academic Seasonality and Rhythms

by | Sep 18, 2018

One of the supreme pleasures of academic, altac (alternative academic), or academic-adjacent careers is the relatively predictable schedule that allows us to plan out and complete giant, complex projects like books, dissertations, event series, and podcasts.

For instance, most academics spend much of their summer writing because they know they’ll have less time during the school year to devote to research and publishing.

Even if you have a favorite or a not-so-favorite part of the year, embracing the seasonality of academic life can mean more creativity, productivity, and inspiration for those projects while also helping you prioritize self-care and avoid burnout.

September as the new year

If you’re anything like me, you know fall is the real beginning of the year. September finally arrives after the brutal heat of August, temperatures and social lives cool down, colleagues return from research trips, and our creative energy starts flowing again.

Fall, thus, is my absolute favorite time to begin new projects. The academic year lends itself to beginnings in this season and harnessing this energy can give you a lot of inspiration and momentum for that new book, film project, or event series.

Let weather be your guide

Weather can be a delightful way to schedule the kind of work you do. For instance, winter can be great for reading and writing because you often want to or have to be inside much of the time anyway. It’s a perfect opportunity to cozy up with a bunch of books you’ve been meaning to read, finish that book proposal, or make yourself a pot of your favorite tea to drink while writing and revising that journal article.

Conversely, you can embrace the summer warmth by writing or grading outside, moving your normal work space into the fresh air. Try a new spot, whether it’s a beach chair, patio table, or even hammock. When the summer heat starts to get too much for you, consider retreating to air-conditioned archives and libraries. You might schedule these trips for the brutally hot end-of-summer months.

Use the semester

The first few and last few weeks of any semester are always super busy. This happens every single time and yet many folks assume they’ll be able to get the same amount of writing and other work done as they did in the middle of the summer when they didn’t have a rush of new students and committee meetings. This inevitably causes disappointment and unnecessary stress.

Instead, set yourself up for success by assigning the first few and last few weeks of the semester to the course preparation, grading, and administrative work that you know you’ll end up doing anyway. This may mean submitting your conference abstract, grant proposal, department review, or revise and resubmit ahead of time.

Schedule your grading

You put a lot of time and energy into creating your course syllabi and spacing out the assignments with your students’ schedules in mind. For instance, you know not to have multiple assignments due the same week or right before a big midterm because students won’t do well. When putting together your syllabi, however, make sure to schedule on your own calendar when you will grade all of that stuff. Block that time off on your calendar so it is protected.

This forces you to be smart about the length and types of assignments as well as contextualize those assignments and grading in relation to your other professional and personal commitments. The goal here is to avoid having assignments due (and thus your grading required) the same week you’re away at a conference, hosting out-of-town guests, or plan to submit your book proposal to publishers.

Be realistic about travel

Hardly anybody gets as much done on the road as they do while at home. That’s okay. Avoid making yourself feel bad and instead assume that you probably won’t finish all your grading, stick to your regular writing routine, or plow through that stack of letter of recommendation requests while at a conference.

Instead, as much as possible, try to finish high-priority tasks before you leave and identify a few light, low-priority tasks that can be done offline like on a plane or in a hotel room with no wifi. If you have down time during your trip you can tackle one of those. If not, you know you can get to them when you return home.

Try not to let the academic job market derail you

There’s a lot of great advice out there on how graduate students and early-career faculty can juggle applying to jobs while also completing their books and dissertations, teach classes, and the like. But what about those academics who are not on the job market themselves?

Even if you’re not applying for academic jobs, the academic job season still affects your life in predictable (and often unpredictable) ways. For instance, if your department is hiring, you will probably be expected to attend a bunch of job talks in a particular month or even turn one of your class sessions over to a teaching demonstration. You might also be asked to chair or sit on a search committee, in which case you should plan to be buried in applications and interviews for much of the fall and early spring.

Plan for this by getting other big projects done ahead of time or time blocking protected work time on your calendar that can be given over to academic job market tasks if needed. If you think your class might be one that might have to be used for teaching demonstrations, build in a catch-up day that you can use either for that or for any other unpredictable event during the semester.

The vast majority of academic life is seasonal and embracing that seasonality can help you avoid unwanted surprises that interrupt your plans. Figuring out what seasons work best for your goals and projects can be challenging but it is one that pays off handsomely. And letting the seasons shape your approach to your projects can ultimately mean a more holistic and meaningful professional life.

Author: Cathy Hannabach

Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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