Three ground rules for academic work

"8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will"

All happy, energized college faculty members are alike; but every unhappy, exhausted, and demoralized faculty member is unhappy in his or her own way.[1] Some of the reasons for the current plague of faculty unhappiness lie outside the direct control of the faculty member --- climate change, the pandemic, rising costs of living, and so on. But some of these causes are within the direct control of individuals: If not the faculty member themselves, then people directly above or next to that faculty member who could, if they chose, do something to make their colleagues' lives better. To the extent that those people can take action, they should, because they can --- particularly if that person is an administrator or has tenure and therefore doesn't incur the same level of risk with their actions as others.

I want to focus now on one such cause that is 100% within the direct control of others, not only to manage but to eliminate entirely. That cause is the creeping demand of time and energy on faculty outside normal working hours.

Many faculty work at night or on the weekends. Some do so more or less willingly and don't mind it, while others don't want to engage in work in those conditions but see no way out. For those in the first category, that's your choice and it's none of my business. I'm much more concerned with faculty in the second category who feel compelled to be always-on. And when that becomes not a compulsion but an actual job expectation --- for example, your department head is emailing you on weekends about something and wants an answer right away; or your committee chair calls meetings for 8:00pm --- then I am really concerned, as all of us should be.

It's time for those of us who have positions of privilege in higher education --- tenured faculty, administrators, and the like --- to stop playing this game, and take decisive steps to ease the burden on ourselves and others who are clearly struggling. To that end, I want to propose three simple ground rules for faculty work. This goes especially for those who give out that work in the form of service assignments, meeting scheduling, and so on.

Rule #1: Assume faculty are off the grid outside normal work hours.

A reasonable set of "normal working hours" would be 6:00am to 6:00pm Monday through Friday. Outside of these times --- that is, 6:00pm to 6:00am Monday-Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday --- treat faculty, including yourself if you want, as simply unavailable. Assume that for all practical purposes, they have blinked out of existence during those times. To make this memorable, we can call it the 6-to-6 rule.

Following the 6-to-6 rule provides 60 hours per week of availability. This is an exceedingly generous amount of time. In fact, some might say it's more generous than necessary and that 40 hours per week of availability is more "normal". I don't disagree. Sixty hours a week is plenty of time to get whatever work needs to be done, done. If it's not, then the problem more likely resides in the work itself and the people who manage it than it does in the schedules of the people being asked to do it.

As an instructor, a former department head, and committee chair, I've been guilty of just piling on more work to others rather than asking hard leadership questions about how I manage the work. Expecting work to be done at all times of the day and night was not the answer in any of those situations. Instead, I had to ask: Do I need to run meetings more effectively? Is there too much work to begin with and should I find ways to cut it off at the source?

Leaders: Start with the 6-to-6 rule and work backwards. Faculty --- yes including contingent faculty --- insist on this rule. Tenured faculty: Look around at your untenured and non-tenure track colleagues and look for opportunities to advocate on this for them.

Rule #2: Assume faculty check email every 8 hours, twice each day, and no more.

Being constantly connected to, and interacting with email is at least as bad for you as working into the nights and weekends. In fact it might be worse, given that stopping work to check in on a single email can require up to 23 minutes to re-engage with your work once you are done. Compound this with constant email pings all day long, even if you assume the 6-to-6 rule, and our attention is so divided and subdivided that it's no wonder people are exhausted.

Email is probably unavoidable for committee and related work. And I'll grudgingly say that email can be a pretty good tool when used responsibly. But when it's used irresponsibly then it becomes like an invasive species, worming its way into every corner and slowly choking the life out of us. Do not assume that faculty have email constantly open and immediately drop everything to check and act on emails the moment they arrive. A safe assumption would be that people check their emails at 8:00am, then at 4:00pm, and that's it.

So, for example:

  • Don't send emails at night or on the weekends. You can write an email whenever you want. Just don't send it in violation of the 6-to-6 rule. Even if you're not asking a person to do work outside the window, an email arriving at 1:30am or on a Sunday morning sets an expectation that "this is an OK time to conduct business". Learn about schedule send; or just compose your email in a Google Doc and then copy/paste/send when it's normal working hours again.
  • Don't use email for discussions or voting except for less serious or less sensitive matters. Email is OK (not great, but OK) for discussion of non-critical issues that would otherwise take up time in a meeting. This can make meetings more efficient. But when it it gets to the point that email is being used as an overflow space for significant work that should be prioritized in a meeting, something's wrong. Email discussions on significant issues privileges those who engage in unhealthy email behaviors and penalizes those who are trying to do better.
  • Don't expect replies within 8 hours of your sending the email. If you need something faster than that, pick up the phone instead (as long as it's between 6 and 6) --- or just plan things better.

Rule #3: Be ruthlessly efficient with person-to-person meetings.

A lot of the out-of-bounds work I am railing against here seems to come from service work, like committees and so on, that revolve around meetings. And much of the work that is out of bounds, comes from bad meetings. You know what this looks like. There's no agenda; or there is a agenda but the agenda items are vague or there's way too many of them; or the agenda items are reasonable but there's no action items and no time boundaries; or we get to the meeting and people are allowed to talk, talk, and keep talking without imposing any kind of limits, because we think "talking" is the same thing as "faculty governance"; and so on.

In my third year at my current university, I was elected chair of a university-wide committee. Although I'd chaired committees before, I'd never been chair of a committee with that kind of scope, I was still learning the organization, and I was pretty terrified and intimidated. I remember literally Googling "how to run a meeting". This is what I learned:

  • All information transfer should take place before the meeting starts. Background reading, subcommittee reports, reports from administrators... anything that can be put into a document or a video, should be put into a document or video. Then make the information available at least a week in advance to give everyone time to absorb it and formulate questions on their own schedules.
  • Get your agenda to do heavy lifting. Craft an agenda with a reasonable number of items that can be addressed within the scheduled times. For each item, include an action item underneath it that states what needs to be done about the item, and what decision needs to be made during the meeting about it. If an agenda has no action item, consider removing it from the agenda and putting it in the pre-meeting info dump instead.
  • And especially: for each agenda item, include a time block during which discussion and decisions will happen on that item. Then, manage discussion assuming that the time block is inviolable and when the block is over, end discussion and take action, and move on to the next thing. This may mean you have to cut discussion off. It may mean that you have to approach the people who like to dominate discussions prior to the meeting to explain that they don't have unlimited latitude to talk. Whatever it takes, keep things moving according to a predetermined schedule[2].

The problem with many meetings is that there is not enough of a sense that time is scarce. Instead, start by assuming that the meeting ends when the agenda says it ends and work backwards.

Unofficial Rule #4: The rules can be broken but only in extraordinary circumstances.

Sometimes these rules just don't fit. In March 2020, I was chair of the Math Department, and we had 10 days to transition from normal operations to being completely remote. Absolutely there was work being conducted 24/7, and violations of Rules 1-3 were happening all over the place. More recently, back in August, our faculty senate (on which I currently serve) had to deal with a sudden and time-sensitive resolution about vaccine mandates, and once again we broke most if not all of Rules 1-3. I didn't like it either time, but there was nothing that could be done about it.

But these kinds of basic rules violations are for situations like global pandemics, natural disasters, and the like --- situations that come up a handful of times in one's career. It's not for situations that are easily avoided, such as poor clock management during a meeting or emails sent at 2:00am. Basically, if you're tempted to break these rules, ask yourself: Is it a new pandemic? Is campus on fire? Is a meteor striking the Earth? If the answer is "no", then stick to the rules.

Roughly 100 or more years ago, people fought hard against the creeping demands that industrial work was placing on people --- children working in factories, 70-hour work weeks, and the like. We ended up with a humane set of laws and principles that provide time and space for people to lead meaningful lives. In higher education, it feels like we are now giving up those advances one email, one bad meeting at a time. It's time to stop.

Tolstoy, probably. ↩︎

However --- it's within the chair's prerogative to give more time to an agenda item if doing so will bring it to a better place. But if you do that, you have to take time away from something else. Operate on a zero-sum principle. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.