Today was the last day of my first year as a lecturer. It has been an AMAZING year and I marked it by travelling to Swansea for the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals Cataloguing and Indexing Group biennial conference, not the usual haunt of a historian, but then seen as I’ve taken such a circuitous route to where I am now it would seem a shame to cast off where I’ve been. Indeed that route is one of the reasons for writing this post. Prior to joining Sussex my job was a very traditional 9 to 5 affair. Yes, there was the occasional conference trip or meeting away from the office or evening seminar/lecture to attend, but for the most part I got up at the same time, got on the same train, arrived at my open plan office at the same time, and worked in and around my desk until 8 hours had passed (including lunch). This scenario differs from a lectureship in a number of crucial ways: the cycle of academic terms mean that there is little regular rhythm to work patterns; campus architecture tends to mean working in a small office either on your own or with one or two colleagues (I have my own office); and the locations and times at which work takes place are more flexible. None of this surprised me – or will I expect come as a surprise to you – and as I saw strengths and weaknesses to both work patterns and environments I took the decision early on to set myself some ground rules for my new job. This post documents those ground rules, why I decided to set them, and how they’ve gone over the year.
- Keep my door open: Starting with environment, when I’m in the office, my door is (almost) always open. Having worked in a large open plan office for over two years, it seemed odd to close my door when headphones could ensure that noise didn’t distract me. As it happened, the occupier of the office opposite to mine – none other than Tim – takes the same approach. And so some of the collegiality I enjoyed about working in a bit office has, I’m pleased to say, been maintained.
- Start every day by reading something: Most of my ground rules are however, about work patterns. Where possible, I start my working day by reading for at least 30-60 minutes (it is, of course, tricky when I have a class at 09:00 but I still try). And by reading, I don’t mean email, but something intellectually stimulating, preferably some History: be that a book or article I want to read, a book or article I need to read for class (and there’s been plenty of that given that I’ve been teaching areas of History and Art History I haven’t taught before), or a blog commentary on some aspect of historical research or practice. The initial purpose of this was to help me transition to a role where more reading was required than in my previous role, but it has had the additional benefit of carving out space to explore new things, especially when I’ve read all the stuff I need to read and slipping into email might be all too easy.
- Finish every day by learning something techie: The accompaniment to the ‘History Hour’ above, is that I’ve tried to end every working day with 30-60 minutes during which I learn some code, try out some research software, or brush up on my general foobar. The purpose of this is twofold: to give me space to keep up my computational skills (I tend to forget code syntax rather quickly), and to give me space to solve computational problems arising that might otherwise take over the rest of the day and wipe out any carefully laid plans. I tend to find these kind of problems curiously relaxing – for example, how I do X in [R](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_(programming_language) and/or shell given that I already know Y – and so putting them at the end of the day is intended to help me wind down. On occasion, my curiosity has been such that a problem has not be left to the end of the day, but when that has happened I’ve given myself a deadline – typically an hour – after which I force myself to move on and come back to to the problem the next day: as Greg Wilson once pointed out to me, it is amazing how often a problem with code isn’t solved by spending more time on it but by taking some time away from it.
- Work 8-5ish: Combined with my start and end of day activities, I’ve tried to force some overall structure into my working week. Whilst I love what I teach and research, I have no intention of letting it taking over my life, so I work a ‘normal’ day: that is, I get up, prepare for work, go to my desk (either at home or at the office), read some history, work, take short breaks when needed, do something techy, finish work around 5 or 6, relax in the evening. The occasional conference trip or meeting away from the office or evening seminar/lecture has meant that this isn’t always possible. But it has proven my default and has – by and large – been uninterrupted.
- Don’t work weekends: Following on from working a normal working week, I made a decision to not work at weekends with three necessary exceptions: if I’m travelling for work, if a conference I’m at is over a weekend, or if I’m needed at a School Open Day. Every Friday I put my out of office on to cover the weekend, indicating that I don’t check email at the weekend and will respond, if urgent, on Monday. The latter is intended to manage the expectations of both students and colleagues, and has, so far, worked.
- Take leave: This may seem an odd ground rule, but a lectureship offers a great deal of flexibility to come and go, to do this now and and that later (especially outside of term time). Given that where possible I want my evenings and weekends to be free from work, I’ve been keen not to exploit that flexibility and to in turn retain a ‘normal’ working pattern. So, alongside taking leave for holiday (the traditional academic big chunk in August), I have also ensured that when I have something on during the week that (just as in previous role) I book holiday to cover it and manage the days I have left. This underscores the fact that my job is a job and not a lifestyle choice.
- Remember that I could always do something else with my life: I work 8-5ish, don’t work weekends, and take holiday because much as I love what I teach and research – and so, in turn, my job – I know I could always do something else with my life and still be happy. I know that because I’ve had other jobs, both before and after my PhD. Of course, that is not to condescend other professions I feel I could turn my hand to: I don’t consider them inferior to what I do, they certainly aren’t my backup choice, and I know they can be just as hard to get into as academia. Rather, for me, as enjoying life comes first and my job second, I fully intend to work my hours and days rather than break myself for the job. Of course, this is my choice: if you choose to work more than me, fine; if you choose to work flexible hours, fine (indeed, I am aware that for some people the flexibility that academia offers is super important to them keeping a work-life balance). I just don’t want to do that. And yes, I’m realistic. I’m fully aware that I’ve only been at this 12 months and that the reputation academia has suggests that my workload may get such that there aren’t enough hours in my five 8-5ish work days a week to get the work done, even with careful planning (I should say that I am, and always have been, something of a planner). And so this ground rule is super important to me, because it ensures that should my workload prove incompatible with my other ground rules, I put some serious thought into whether academia is the career I want.
All this works for me. I don’t expect it would work for anyone else. Nevertheless, I’d love to hear what similar ‘ground rules’ colleagues in the sector use to make academia work for them.
Update 01/09/16: Since posting this, I’ve had a number of interesting discussions with people about what I wrote and similar things they do. This update isn’t about documenting those. Rather it is a response to a request from Adam Crymble:
@j_w_baker I like your policies, but I’m a bit miffed. This isn’t possible if (like many) you have to write endless new lectures.
— Adam_Crymble (@Adam_Crymble) September 1, 2016
@j_w_baker I think you would do a service to those struggling by disclosing the particulars of your job (which is unusual).
— Adam_Crymble (@Adam_Crymble) September 1, 2016
As Adam suggest, my job is a little unusual and I concede that this does make a difference. Without going into the particulars of my contract, I am located in the School of History, Art History, and Philosophy (HAHP) but my post is funded – with internal money – via the Sussex Humanities Lab (SHL). As SHL is research focused, I teach/mark approximately half that of my colleagues in HAHP. It is expected that the time I spend not teaching/marking is spent on activities that lead to research funding proposals. The things in the mix to consider then with respect to whether my job is unusual (and what that means for the working pattern I am able to maintain) are: I have the same amount of hours in my contract as everyone else; I have administrative, professional, and collegial responsibilities towards two seperate groups in my organisation (HAHP and SHL); with my SHL/HAHP colleagues, I have been devising, delivering, and evaluating a new ‘Digital Skills’ strand within our Year One History and Art History curriculum; I have front loaded the majority of my teaching into the Autumn Term to free up the Spring Term for research (though this year I will be teaching a new module in the latter), so that in Autumn I do a similar amount of teaching to everyone else in the School (the marking isn’t front loaded). I hope this update discloses sufficient information so as to clarify what Adam means.