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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing and Time (1b)—Reading Logs

One year ago on Round and Square (17 September 2011)—Hurtin' Country: Jolene
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Writing and Time."
[a] Digesting RF
What follows in the next two posts is an assignment I have been handing out in my advanced seminars for the past fifteen years. Although most "class-related" posts appear under a topic linked to a course I am teaching, this one seemed to fit the "Writing and Time" series that I introduced a few months ago. Part of my teaching schtick is to start every assignment with definitions. It started many years ago with a definition of the word "essay." After that, I couldn't resist defining everything.   

I have broken the assignment into two posts, followed by the logs themselves. It has a story to tell about Writing and Time. 
Reading Log 1                  Reading Log 2                  Reading Log 3
Yesterday, I finished with the following sentiment: wasting time in school often gets worse and worse. Today we head for the conclusion of this "reading log" assignment.
Some people procrastinate to the point that they give up on graduate study.  

And they are the lucky ones.  

They dispose of their theses and begin to work for a living.  Some go to law or business school and eventually bill their time on the quarter-hour, but we are getting ahead of our story.  The graduate student who finishes the thesis rarely does so without spending enormous amounts of time…wasting time.  There is nothing quite like having only one thing to do, and all the time in the world to do it.  Such a situation rarely produces the best a person has to offer, and that is just one of the reasons why almost all dissertations are problematic (this is a nice way to put it), yet many books that come from dissertations aren’t half bad.

What happens?  Graduate students become professors, and then they really get busy.  While some become mired in minutiae, almost none procrastinate or are bored.  Yet professors rarely have efficient work lives, either.  They tend to think in the same way as undergraduates and graduate students—they look for large chunks of free time for “reading,” “studying,” and “writing.”  For most of them, their most efficient use of time is spent in the classroom, where time is regulated.  They work; they stay on message.  Professors are paid a salary, but what if everything in a college’s future depended on the productivity of its students and its faculty?  
[c] Incremental RF

Do you think for a moment that an administration would continue to allow the kinds of work habits that cause most students and many professors to fritter away their time?  No, they would likely do what just about every other major profession does: they would find the most efficient unit of time and maximize it.  They would say that it is far too inefficient to wait for an hour (or an afternoon, or a free day, or a weekend, or a “spring break,” or a vacation….or a sabbatical year, or even retirement) to “read” or “study.”  They would recognize what others have long ago known: that a person can get a great deal accomplished in fifteen minutes (which builds imperceptibly once you get the momentum of the first fifteen minutes moving into thirty, forty-five, sixty, and, eventually, the seven hundred and twenty minutes you need to devote to this seminar). 

Moving from “free time” for “reading” or “studying” to efficient use of fifteen minute periods requires a major shift in thinking—a paradigm shift, as it were.  Yet it is the way that busy professionals think about their time.  What can we in academia gain from it?  To begin, we don’t have to go all the way down the road to billing clients, but we might better realize that we do work in the manner of a corporation more than most of us would care to admit.  On a far more practical level, however, we might begin to see that the student (or professor) who says “I will read for twelve hours this week” rarely does anything remotely approaching that.  For fifteen years now, I have told my students that I expect six, eight, ten, or twelve hours of reading a week, depending on the level of the course.  Most do not meet that expectation, yet most of them really mean to.  I have become convinced that we (and I include students and professors in this) will never—never—achieve our most ambitious goals unless we cut the albatross of  “free time” from our thinking.
[d] Simple RF

Toward that end, I have a simple solution (let’s call it a “requirement”) for our seminar: the reading log.  It will begin as an exercise in personal discovery.  Do we really think that we read and write twelve hours for a seminar?  It is easy to see, if we merely assess the situation.  Even if we do put in the time, how efficient was our reading?  The weekly reading log is really very simple, and we will all keep one.  I will go through it in detail in class, but the key point is that you must give a sense of the quantity and quality of your reading time.  I will bend over backward to show that this is not meant to be a cage, but rather a means to release us all from the cage (pardon the Weberian imagery…which can be made Platonic, simply by substituting “v” for “g”).  The bottom line (to misuse an accounting term) is that I will give you 10% “A” (or “95”), simply for filling out the reading log every week.  I am so confident that it will change your (and my) approach to academic time that I am willing to have you log inadequate hours without penalty (and for an “A”, albeit only about 10% of one) in order to gain a new perspective on your seminar work. 

To summarize: 
Fill out a weekly time sheet.  Think of your time as valuable, and think of “billing” a client for the serious intellectual engagement that reading and study (no quotation marks here) entails.  This is not a laughing matter.  Your time is valuable, and I am encouraging you to think that way.  Wasting time, in short, is wasting yourself.  Add short comments on the time sheet noting what you were reading, and explaining (briefly) what choices you made in dealing with “too much material.”  This will be a great deal easier if you actually spend twelve hours with your work, but do so no matter how busy you were in any given week.
[e] Notations RF

It goes without saying (yet I shall say it anyway): you must not lie on this sheet.  It is unethical to bill a client for false time and unseemly to “credit” yourself  for time you didn’t spend productively.  Admit your sloth, and try to do better next week.

Finally, make another set of notations on your sheet that amount to a qualitative assessment of your reading and study.  On a scale of one to ten, give a sense of the quality of the study environment (was music playing and were people coming in and out of your room, or were you focused in your library carrel?) and the efficiency of your reading (did you have to read things over and over, or did you see both the “big picture” and the details?).  In short, did you spend your fifteen minutes on the file (go back to my opening paragraphs) or the sandwich?

Don’t stress over this.  It is meant to be a real learning experience. 

Due before class every Tuesday! 

I have broken the assignment into two posts, followed by the logs themselves. It has a story to tell about Writing and Time. 
Reading Log 1                  Reading Log 2                  Reading Log 3

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