Sunday, February 9, 2014


When I lecture, I usually begin by saying something about time. This is lecture x, we're n weeks into the course, we'll cover q next week, etc. At some point, x and n start to get large, and I have this meta moment of surprise that n weeks has gone by, and I start thinking about time.

If you ever go to an academic career mentorship thingy, you will inevitably see a picture of a three-legged stool, and the legs will be labeled with: Research, Teaching, and Service. Then there is this whole conversation about balance, and how when you go up for tenure/promotion, the Service leg should be, say, 2 inches long, and the others vary depending on where you are, but likely both will be very long. (The stool analogy, of course, breaks here. Floating? Frictionless pullies? Eh.).

Rarely do these career talks discuss the day-to-day aspects of professorial life. Some people, maybe Boice or Gilbreth, actually use(d) stopwatches to track every moment of their time. While I don't have any colleagues quite like this, I certainly detect a degree of time optimization awareness that is directly proportional to seniority. (Up until the Emerati, in which case the trend reverses).

What I find a bit troubling is that in the middle of that line are faculty at the associate level -- where they have all the same challenges as before, but now they also have a doubled service load. So they pretty much never have time for a shoot-the-hay chat. Which, frankly, is just about the most fun aspect of our job -- chatting with smart people who share your nerdy interests*.

I suppose I never envisioned a life of the mind, but certainly did imagine less busybusybusyAlwaysbusy culture. I think this is endemic to academia; I don't believe one style of institution or discipline plays a big role.

The good news, for any readers who are faculty-n00bs, is that there is a lot of "on-the-job training" as it were. After you've taught a class a few times, your preparation time dwindles down to nothing. After you've read 50 grant proposals / journal papers / grad applications / etc, you become crazy efficient at skimming and separating the cream from the cruft. And, of course, talks and posters and all that becomes a cinch.

Some things always take a lot of time no matter how you dice it. Writing strong grant proposals, handling personnel issues, and, for me, writing bios***. Though usually you reach a point where most things are good enough. You trust your students and collaborators a bit more than you started, and no longer need to read every word.

(*) That's not to say I don't enjoy chatting with students. But, sometimes you want to talk about nerdy stuff with people from your nerd-era. e.g., the oldest grad students in my department don't get my lame jokes like, "Wow, that seminar felt like handshaking over a 1200 baud modem", or "Wow, that faculty meeting felt like compiling COBOL code on a PDP-11**."

(**) I'm not that old, I'm just making stuff up here. Though just last week, I overheard an undergrad saying something like, "OMG, it took 30 SECONDS to compile my program! SO LONG." And I'm just laughing.

(***) It's my BANE. And not the Christian kind, sadly. Oh, wait, that's Bale. Well, anyway, he probably has his own biographer, the lucky duck.


  1. I hear ya about the no-time-to-chat connundrum. I've had "take visiting faculty to lunch" on my to-do list since *October* and it still hasn't happened. (and I'm supposed to be mentoring them, as chair! Mentor fail!)

    I don't fully agree that teaching prep time dwindles to zero the more times you teach a course. It definitely decreases a great deal (unless you're radically changing up the course structure or projects or what have you), but I've found it's not so much the time but *how* I'm spending my prep time that changes. (Or maybe that's just how it is at teaching-oriented institutions?)

  2. I hadn't realized you were chair - congrats!

    It's interesting you say that re mentoring, I've wondered a bit about chair-as-mentor lately. I met a few people who have great relationships with their chair and enjoy their chair serving in this role. But I think it's nice to have a formal mentor who is not the chair.

    Re teaching: Perhaps not dwindle to zero, but for courses I've taught before I hardly spend any time on lecture prep. I just tweak, not add massively new content. (Maybe 1-2 new lectures, out of a big N). Assignments, help files, etc - those are all the same. What do you find you're changing in your courses?

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