Writing and Time

If you’re an adjunct, scrambling to make ends meet, how do you find time to write? Well, if you look Jill Carroll’s advice on time management for adjuncts in The Chronicle from 2001 , you’ll see all kinds of solid tips…and no mention of writing. Well, that’s not quite true: the word “writing” shows up in the biographical note on Carroll at the bottom. Since Carroll is an adjunct who manages to publish, this suggests that time management tips may free up time to write.

This is no surprise. In fact, that’s old news…to writers, anyway. Anyone who wants to freelance, or to write creatively, must either let the grass go uncut, get good at time management, or both, in order to find time. For many of us, though, the time isn’t enough. Unlike, say, someone working in an office or with a set schedule, adjuncts find their schedules shifting around. I know one of my biggest frustrations is with the X factors in grading. I’m thinking in particular here of the student or project that blows up: plagiarism, combined with grade appeals, pleas over X (visas, illness, etc.), that leads to more time spent on one problem student than the entire rest of the class. It’s easy enough to plan what to do, but some institutions have requirements that fight time management. As one easy example, the institutions for which I teach require that all student emails be answered within 24 hours. One student sent 96 lengthy emails over grades, plagiarism, and emotional distress. I could group some of my answers, but that’s still quite a number, and hard to schedule.

Again, this too is no surprise, either in academia or outside of it. In Born Digital, their recent study of the recent generation who grew up online, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser note that one of the defining characteristics of our age is “information overload.” They argue that previous generations suffered from an information deficit, and were continually seeking more information to enable them to make better decisions. We, on the other hand, need new skills: we must learn to sort, or even triage, the flood of data washing over us every day. This is producing new techniques for time management. David Allen touts his Getting Things Done system as designed for these new challenges.

Some people are generating alternatives. I’ve tried workshops by life coaches (with limited success), and others are now doing online writing coaching specifically for academics. What’s striking about this pitch for the Academic Writing Club is how it blends the tone of an infomercial with extreme rationalization: The cost per day is spelled out.

If hiring someone to keep you writing and help you get the tools you need to do so seems too strange, consider the tactics suggested by Palfrey and Gasser—use filters, as often as possible—or by Dan Poynter, an longtime freelance writing teacher: use a clock or timer. Break your project into component parts, estimate how long each will take, set the clock and force yourself to work. Other freelance writers I know take more severe versions of these steps, such as blocking themselves from addictive websites until a writing project is done.

Though the focus was different, this discussion reminds me of a book by one of my professors when I was an undergraduate, Evan Watkins’ Work Time. I’m also struck again by how much things have changed related to writing, even in my brief time in academia. Throughout graduate school, the message was strongly communicated that taking one’s time on writing was a good thing—acceptable, even desirable. There was a sense that good scholarship took time.

Now, I not only find myself pressing in the opposite direction—what can I get done as fast as possible—but also continually calculate the expense of an action. In that I am no different from the folks at the Academic Writing Club (I sound like I’m about to say, in the best infomercial fashion, “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client!”). In that I must state the obvious: being an adjunct has taken all the liberal arts out of being an English teacher. It’s made it rational, goal oriented, and time bound. The core idea there—that liberal arts are freeing—seems to have been reversed. As an adjunct, time is my master, and my writing its…victim? Monster?

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