One of the things you value about an academic career is the considerable autonomy it affords you. This autonomy is not absolute and always involves making difficult decisions to manage your workload. (see Flexibility, autonomy, and boundaries and Unpacking “busy” the importance of being proactive instead of reactive) The radical reorganisation of your work life in response to the pandemic has created conditions in which I find myself advising clients to really lean into this aspect of an academic career.
In conversations with members of the Academic Writing Studio and more generally on social media, I have noticed that the communications you are receiving from your institutions is often confusing or unreasonable. The changes in policy in response to a rapidly changing situation can create more work for both you and your students. In their defence, those in management positions don’t have a clue what’s going on either. There are potentially wide ranging implications for both university activities and budgets. They’re making decisions with insufficient information and no ability to plan for the future. They are probably doing the best they can.
Being reactive is part of the problem. You might not have to react or respond to every bit of information you receive. Can you be less reactive? You have autonomy. You know what the really valuable stuff is and what your key roles are. Can you make judgements about priorities in your key areas: teaching, writing, etc? And then work with that.
In this context, your judgement may be as good as theirs. Not only do you have considerable autonomy anyway but, in hindsight, they may be happy to accept that ignoring their edicts was the right call. No one can guarantee that and your comfort level with doing that will be affected by your level of job security and the culture of your institution. I’d like you to seriously consider it.
Document your decisions and your reasons.
Feeling out of control is a major contributor to stress. You can’t control the rapidly changing context in which you are making decisions. You can control how you make decisions, using writing to help you organize your thoughts and help you remember your reasoning. This may be a small thing but it will make a difference.
There are many reasons to do this but first among them is that stress and trauma affect memory. You will forget the details. Hopefully no one ever challenges you but knowing you’ve got it written down will help you stop worrying about it. If you are challenged about why you did what you did, you want to be able to say more than “It seemed like a good decision at the time.” Document the principles you were relying on to make your decision. Document how you operationalised those principles. Document how those affected by your decisions responded (and how you gathered that evidence).
For example, one of the Studio members had a one week recess to adjust her courses for remote delivery. She contacted her students to get a sense of the conditions they would be working in, used the training she had taken previously to restructure her courses, adjust the assessment, and consider the ethics of grading in the changed context. She communicated those changes to her students and established a practice of checking in with them weekly. Then her institution created another recess and another demand to rejig things. She realised that the decisions she’d made the first time were still valid. She decided not to change anything. She has had feedback from students saying that they feel comfortable with the changes she’s made and the new demands on them. She is worried about the variation in how her colleagues are reacting and the impact this has on her students but she has no control over that and is confident that her response has been a good one. She also notes that normal processes for evaluating teaching (through peer observation) have been suspended and that junior faculty have been offered extensions to their tenure clock. In this circumstance, I’ve suggested that she document all her decisions, including her thoughts on the ethics of grading, the process for checking in with students, and the feedback she’s had from them. In future, she should evaluate new policies and requests about teaching, grading, etc in the light of the decisions she’s already made and decide whether or not her decisions are still in line with the principles in play.
Use the same process for decisions about your research, your writing, how you manage your research team (if you have one) or teaching assistants, and so on. Documenting your decisions starting with values and principles can also help you make decisions about how you respond to communications from your children’s school, how you organize your family life, and so on.
Your notes serve multiple purposes
As I’ve said about your scholarly writing, writing is sometimes a process that helps you articulate and organize your thoughts. The process of writing down the principles you are using to make decisions and documenting the outcomes of those decisions helps you make rational decisions in a context that is somewhat chaotic. It means you don’t have to start from scratch every time you have new information or something changes. You can review your existing reasoning and make only necessary changes. When your confidence wobbles (and it will), you can review your notes and either renew your confidence in your decisions or make small changes to improve on the decisions you’ve already made. In the worst case scenario, where your head of department, dean, or other senior colleague challenges your practices, you have detailed notes to use in defence of the decisions you made.
Documenting your decisions and their outcomes also helps you remember what you did. This process gives you an opportunity to remind yourself exactly how you are being the kind of teacher/researcher/PI/etc that you want to be. Your gremlins will be chastened.
When the dust has settled and you are going up for promotion or tenure, you may want to use how you handled this crisis as evidence of what a good teacher you are. Or what a good researcher you are. Or how well you manage a team. Or whatever. Having good notes that include the effects of the decisions you made and what evidence you have of that will give you the option to do this. You can’t make that decision now but it would be nice to have the option in future.
This post grew from some notes on an Office Hours call with members of the Academic Writing Studio. Audio version added 9 April 2020.