Tomato Timers, Research Days, and Coffee with your Project: How to balance Teaching and Research

This post is part of my advice series for ECRs and grads, check out the full list of topics here.


Image source here.

Last week I had a meeting with a colleague and we were talking about how to keep your research going during term time. Often this just isn’t possible, especially for academics with heavy teaching schedules (in particular, precarious academics, who often have to factor in a lot of travel in addition to teaching, preparation, and marking), and this is not to mention family and caring responsibilities, health and disabilities, socialising, and so on. Here in Oxford we have short but incredibly intensive terms, where it feels like it’s all systems go from the moment 0thweek begins!! But I have often found the transitions between term and ‘vacation’ quite challenging. Firstly, you’re exhausted from term, but secondly, you have to ‘gear up’ again and ‘get back into’ your research, if you haven’t had chance to do any during the term. This can feel disorientating and it used to leave me feeling inadequate because not only had I not done anything during the term, I now had to spend the beginning of the vacation figuring out what I was supposed to be doing!

It’s taken me a long time to be able to juggle research with teaching, and I don’t always do it well- or indeed manage it all of the time! But about four years ago I realised that I really needed to keep the research going at the same time as teaching– in part for my confidence (it reminds me that I’m a researcher and writer as well as a teacher) and in part because if I’m doing my own intellectual work, I think it makes me a better teacher because I’m using my brain and actively engaging with many of the issues that my students are grappling with– how to improve my writing, how to find the right angle on a text, how to interrogate secondary criticism… I’ve gradually learned that I thrive when I have multiple projects on the go and that I can derive a lot of intellectual energy from switching between different topics, but equally that I need to make sure that I block in time to relax and unwind too.

This blogpost certainly isn’t meant to guilt-trip anyone in thinking that they need to be working harder or that they should be sacrificing downtime for research time. Nor is it exactly about ‘smarter working’ (that sounds like business-speak!). But for me, I have found that if I do keep my hand in, even in a small way, with my research and personal writing, that it makes me feel more secure and in control during term (see my post on imposter syndrome here, if your struggle to carve out time to research might be tied up with those issues) and that I get into the swing of things during the vacations much more quickly. I also thought it might be a useful discussion for those of us, like me, who are not entitled to regular research leave. It’s no good ‘waiting’ til you have the perfect clear schedule and free time ahead of you, as for most of us, that just ain’t gonna happen!

So here are some suggestions of things that have worked from me, plus lots of great ideas crowdsourced from twitter. Please do tweet me or comment below if you have other ideas!

When I was chatting to my colleague, I mentioned a fantastic blog by the brilliant Raul Pacheco-Vega (if you’re not already following him on twitter, you should be!). He has a great page on Organization and Time Management on his blog which includes lots of great suggestions, including the ‘Accomplish 2 Things Before Anything Else Happens’ approach, how to balance the TOTOs (Text that I Owe to Others) and TOMs (Text that I Owe to Myself), and the amazing MEPFED and WOPED techniques. Moving Every Project Forward Every Day (MEPFED) was so helpful to me a couple of years ago when I had a term where there were a large number of significant deadlines towards the end of the term. All of the tasks needed extending thinking time and it wasn’t going to work to do an intensive week on each one- I need to keep all the balls in the air at once! At first I found this terrifying (I used to be a ‘one thing at a time’ worker!) but in the end, I realised that I was able to switch between the projects more easily as they were all percolating away in the back of my mind. The other acronym is Work on One Project Every Day and it’s well worth checking out Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post to find out more about both of these techniques.

Image result for notebook imageOne way that I keep research going in term time when I don’t have a lot of ‘brain space’ is to do small things that are not directly writing-related. Eg, printing out articles, researching on bibliographies, acquiring the relevant primary texts, so that when I do have a spare hour, rather than wondering what to do or where to do it, I have something to hand immediately. I also keep a running notebook of all my projects where I list the ‘next thing’ that needs doing. Again, that takes the ‘thinking’ out of the research and makes it less overwhelming. The ‘next thing’ might be to read a journal article or to sketch out a plan for a section or just to write a paragraph on something.

Something else that I do is to block out some time and made a real commitment to myself that I am going to make headway on a certain larger task- whether that’s writing, thinking, making decisions about a project, and so on. I’ll often tell people (and twitter!) what I’m doing so that I have accountability, and it means that I’ve made a commitment to myself to do it. Sometimes this might be a task that I’ve been worried about or have been avoiding. Having a space of time marked out stops me worrying about it on other days (‘I’ll do that thing on Friday’!) and often when I get down to it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought!

Image result for coffeeOn twitter I’ve seen the great suggestion of ‘taking your research out to lunch’ or for a coffee. I love this idea. You can take yourself off to your favourite café with a notebook and in a no-pressure environment, jot down some ideas, do some thinking, and it can be really generative. I often do free writing in a notebook and just write to myself about my work- how’s it going? What’s interesting me about it? Where do I need to go next? What’s missing in my research? Why am I excited about it? This is a great way to get your enthusiasm back if you’re flagging a bit during term.

Here are some of the great suggestions from twitter…

Liz Gloyn (@lizgloyn) tweeted: ‘block out a research day and observe it. Put it in your email signature and on your office door. Ignore email. Yes, an emergency deadline might mean you lose a morning or afternoon, but if you have the habit, you’ll get something done each week.’ I really like the idea of putting it in your email signature or on your office door- it shows your commitment to research very clearly.

Jennifer Brown (@jennifernbrown) tweeted that she tries to ‘write or read a bit every day that is researched related, even if it’s just a few notes in an article. I try to protect a research day once a week. I aspirationally submit to conferences with things I would like to write about so I have deadlines’. I definitely agree with the point about conferences. I’ve found that to be a great way of generating articles and new research ideas over the last couple of years. And just making a few notes on an article always gets me thinking (and can be better than the ‘blank page’ of Microsoft word, when you’re starting a research morning!)

Image result for two tomatoesI was talking about the Pomodoro technique or the tomato timer with my colleague, where you work for 25 minutes intensely (no phone/email/social media distractions). I also recommend this technique to my students when they need to break down a big project into small steps or if they are struggling to get started. 25 minutes is a tiny amount of time- but you can get a huge amount done if you really concentrate! Lena van Beek (@thiliel) tweeted the suggestion that you have ‘two tomatoes each morning to yourself’ and I really like this idea- it’s sustainable, won’t take over your day, but it will mean that you get a little bit of research ‘me time’!

On twitter we talked about blocking out a research day by clustering teaching, although this of course isn’t feasible for all timetables. Charlotte Cooper (@ciditcharlotte) also made the point that such days can easily be ‘engulfed in admin’ and I’ve definitely found this too (that email that you can’t put off any longer, etc!). So Charlotte tweeted that she is currently trying to do 200 words a day which has been ‘working surprisingly well’ and is a ‘very satisfying way to get to 1000 words a week.’ This sounds like magic to me and I think I’ll be giving it a go!

@alkenney made a great suggestion about going somewhere different to work on research and having a routine to do this- ‘coffee shop, headphones etc, are all part of the ritual to get me in the headspace’. She also said that she reads at night before bed, which is a way of minimising screen time. I’ve found this technique useful recently when I’ve been struggling to get to sleep at night because of particular anxieties, so reading a research article means that my mind is full of Chaucer before I turn the light out, rather than other things!! Sometimes I do need to switch off with a good crime novel though (and on the subject of which, read Elly Griffiths’ Dr Ruth Galloway series if you’re looking for a good book!). All of these suggestions need to ‘work for you.’

In terms of timing, Magdalena Ohrman (@MagdalenaOhrman) made a great comment: ‘tailor the time you block out to how you actually work best when doing research- spurts or steady stream. I work in spurts and have done so much better since blocking two days every other week rather than aiming for the traditional day.’ This is a fantastic idea and I’ve never really thought about organising my time in this way before. Having a heavy teaching week but then blocking out, say, one and a half days the following week would really work for me I think! I definitely try to keep mornings for writing where I can (I’m definitely a morning person!) but that doesn’t always work of course.

Natasha Simonova (@philistella) and I were talking about the intensity of the short terms in Oxford and that it’s important to forgive yourself if the research doesn’t happen, with all the tutorials, essay-marking, pastoral care, etc that goes on. Natasha commented that she tries to keep ‘smaller and more admin-y tasks ticking along so they don’t clutter the vacation, but proper reading and writing takes time.’ I completely agree with this and I often don’t have the brain space to do ‘big’ thinking during term, but what I can do is things like editing, making bibliographies, reading articles, printing out articles and making reading lists for when I do get chance to go to the Bod, doing a small amount of close reading…etc. Every little helps and it all counts! As Kylie Murray tweeted, even five minutes helps!

Kaitlin Walsh (@theotherkait) made a suggestion about incorporating research into your teaching. There is certainly the potential for that in the Oxford system, for example, having a week when I might teach my own research (I have a Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich week in Michaelmas Term and I always use that opportunity to update my reading lists and make sure I’m up to date in the field) but it can also work in other less directly-related ways too. More recently, I’ve been thinking about my own written style (in part because my current project requires a different kind of writing and a different kind of voice) and this term, in conjunction with my colleagues and our artist in residence at Univ, Melissa Murray, we have been playing around with ‘creative’ responses to texts, or the ‘non-essay’ essay (more on this in another post, and some evaluation on how it has worked). I always find that talking about ideas with my students really helps and they are usually really happy to be ‘guinea pigs’ for a new theory or teaching model! Talking with them about methodologies and ways of learning is also really helpful too- I tend to find that it helps them to be more reflective on the ways in which they are learning and that this empowers them in their working practices, as well as being incredibly stimulating for me.

Thanks for reading and as ever for all the great twitter discussion. Let me know if you have any comments or suggestions! Recently, the writer Joanne Harris tweeted ‘every word you write is an act of courage’ and this resonated with me. So keep being courageous and keep being kind, folks, to each other and to yourselves.

Image result for have courage and be kind

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