Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The first semester of teaching, and my current struggles

Most of the time, I'm broadcasting joyful stories on my blog, sharing what I learned throughout the years as a researcher - few as they may be, I've had my fair number of Euraka moments, which I love to share with my readers.

But at the same time, I value authenticity - in academia, as well as in the web 2.0. People that are walking good news machines look just phony to me.

So today, I want to dedicate a post to the struggles I am encountering in my first semester as an assistant professor.

Sure, I had a few of mitigating circumstances: I have moved countries (and I still am trying to get all my paperwork settled and get the local drivers' license, for example), and I skipped the post-doc and went straight into a faculty position.

Besides that, I am combining two jobs: my part-time research position in Delft with my professorship in Quito - and I want to do great for both institutions.

At USFQ, I'm currently in charge of putting together a laboratory, and teaching 3 new courses, which I'm developing from scratch, with my own examples and material for the most part. And it all takes a lot of time.

I wrote a post about my schedule for this semester earlier. So far, I've been mostly following my weekly template, with the following exceptions:

1. I forgot to schedule time for grading


Grading takes time - and in setting up my weekly template, I only calculated the 4 hours that it takes me to prepare 1 hour of lecture. I didn't calculate in the time it takes me to grade, to put the grades into a digital system, and to write out a detailed solution of the homeworks and midterms to hand back to the students so that they have a full solution of their work. And that, too, takes me more time than I'd imagined.

2. I'm preparing courses on a weekly basis


Instead of preparing my classes the day/night before, I'm currently batching the preparation of classes on a weekly basis. One week I try to prepare a number of classes of one course, and then the next week I go onto the next class. I'm about a month ahead of my lectures at the moment, so I can take the liberty to arrange things a little differently.

3. I have two major research tasks to fit in there


I only scheduled time for my research for Delft, and not for the research I need to do for putting together the laboratory - so I'm still struggling how to balance these 2 research responsibility without dropping the ball on any pending things.

4. I still have more admin stuff coming up than I'd like

I schedule an hour a day for mail/admin stuff, but I end up running around and trying to get things arranged more often than I'd like. Since I still don't have a computer in my office, and have been on and off the possibility of printing from my laptop, most of the time, I have to bring files to the copycenter to get my prints - and that takes time to get there, time to wait there - very often 20 minutes in total.

5. I find it hard to switch tasks during the day


Even though I do well on working in shorter chunks, I tend to start lagging behind my schedule as the day progresses. I find it hard to cut off one task (for example, writing a paper), and then move to my next task on my schedule (for example, preparing class). Especially when I get engrossed in a task, I tend to lose track of time, and need to either move things around in my schedule or (very often) just work later into the evening.

Give these challenges in my schedule, I've been having a hard time juggling all the tasks I have at hand, and a few tasks are balls that I've been dropping too often instead of keeping them in the air:

1. Replying emails


I don't consider replying email as an important task, but I tend to let messages bulk up into my inbox without getting back to people in a timely fashion. As I start to lag behind on my schedule during the day, I often give up on my allotted time for archiving and replying mails. And too often that is something I end up doing over the weekend - say, on a Saturday night.

2. Keeping in touch with my family

Not enough Skype dates with my friends, and not enough calls home. The time difference is one of the factors that make it hard for me to make calls during the day, but I want to keep in touch and I enjoy so much being able to talk a bit of Dutch every now and then.

3. Exercise


I know I'm a big evangelist of living a healthy lifestyle, but I'm currently having a hard time combining everything into my days. I've been practicing yoga from home, but I still haven't signed up for a gym and I haven't pumped iron in months.

4. Self-care

Reading, studying, meditating, playing music, drawing, writing - at the end of my PhD, I had a schedule that worked very well for me, and I managed to find time for my other creative endeavors. But at the moment, I just can't seem to make my schedule work.

5. Sleep

I hate to admit it - but I'm not getting enough sleep, and I'm feeling tired most of the time and progressively tired towards the end of the week. A bit of sleeping in on the weekend is not what I need, and throws off my sleeping schedule more than it does any good in helping me get over the fatigue.

I know the first months in any new job are challenging, and I remember that, when I started my PhD, it took me some time to get my life on the rails. Eventually, things will start working out - but at the moment, I'm just trying to hold my breath until the semester is over.

How was your first semester of teaching? Do you have any good advice for me?

3 comments:

  1. Could you share your PhD schedule?

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  2. Dear Eva, In my first years of teaching at university, I was surprised to note how little most students valued my detailed comments on their papers. We've got a system in my department where students can collect their grades from the departmental office and only go to see the lecturer if they want to have feedback on their paper. It turns out that only about 10 per cent of my students come to collect their paper and listen to my comments. I don't know about your students, but you might bear this in mind when you are tempted to grade too painstakingly. Best wishes!

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    1. Thanks! I'm mostly giving computational problems in my classes, so I don't write much explanations on their solutions (only things like "-2 , units missing"). But I do make a full solution with explanations, of which I give all students a copy so they can study for the exams, and that takes me some good time as well...

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