On academic split attention

Academic juggling. Credit: public domain

As a tenured professor, I ostensibly have three jobs: advance discovery through research, advance the next generation through teaching, and advance my university and the broader academic would through service.

Of course, it’s way more complicated than that. In research, I’m a manager, a fundraiser, an entrepreneur, a marketer, and a public intellectual, not unlike a CEO of a company, growing a startup’s culture, it’s people, its brand, and it’s position in the world. As a teacher, I hire and train TAs, I teach classes, I develop curriculum, I train doctoral students to teach. In service, I’m an event planner and a academic community builder through conferences, an arbiter of truth in peer review, and a recruiter in admissions. Since I now also oversee our undergraduate Informatics program, I also have a fourth set of administrative responsibilities, shaping curriculum, recruiting guest faculty, developing and maintaining partnerships with industry, engaging with alumni, and an arbiter of who has the privilege of learning in our community.

Being a tenured professor isn’t one job, it’s twenty!

When I share this scope of responsibilities with people in industry, they often wonder: how can any one person excel at all of these while doing them all at the same time? Why are all of these jobs the responsibility of one person? Is there any synergy between the three, or is it just an accident of history? Over the past year of juggling my job as a professor with an administrative role, I’ve certainly been asking myself these questions as I’ve learned to handle a new level of split attention.

One reason for combining research and teaching roles is that research needs subsidy. By teaching regularly, I bring in tuition to the university that covers my 9-month salary. In way, this is just classic trade: I share my knowledge, students learn, and in return, they give me resources to advance knowledge. In principle, that arrangement can work out quite well, because the discoveries my research communities make can, should, and do eventually shape what I teach, ensuring that students always have the latest knowledge.

One reason for research, teaching, and service to be combined is that the running of a university and academic communities requires deep knowledge of how academia works. And because discovery and dissemination can work in such diverse ways, that means all faculty need to be deeply engaged in the decisions about how to evolve academic institutions. This model of shared governance ensures that what happens in academia is a reflection of diverse perspectives about knowledge, not purely of the revenue motives that might drive administrative decisions, academic conferences, or academic publishing.

A third reason to combine research, teaching, and service is to preserve the intellectual freedom that comes with tenure. To truly advance knowledge, tenured professors must know that they are truly free to explore their curiosities. The moment they tailor their focus to what they think someone else wants them to explore, the less innovative and disruptive their work will be. All the ways of subsidizing research other than teaching—federal grants, industry gifts, private foundations, entrepreneurship—greatly warp the conditions for discovery. By giving faculty a base amount of salary to do research, they can express their intellectual freedom in their teaching and their running of the university.

The three reasons above—dissemination through teaching, isolation of administrative decisions from profit motive, and preservation of intellectual freedom—seem right to me in principle. And because I try to live by principle, they feel consistent with my experience. In practice, however, these principles rarely play out so cleanly.

First, professors aren’t great at saying no. We are curious people! We want to learn more, faster, and so we rapidly accrue untenable volumes of responsibility, all but guaranteeing that we do some things well, but many things poorly. I’ve tried hard to focus, declining most things outside the scope of my interests and goals, but looking at my own commitments for the next three years, there’s no way I won’t drop by the ball on some. It’s too hard to predict workload to avoid being overcommitted. The only way to free time is to continuously decline countless exciting opportunities.

What usually loses when professors run out of time? Teaching and service. Am I more likely to read that interesting paper written by a colleague or improve the class I’ve been teaching for the same way for ten years? Because of intellectual freedom, always the former. Am I more likely to meet with my doctoral student about an interesting new invention we’re testing or to address an administrative inefficiency? Because I’m a curious person, always the former. In the unstructured, intellectual-free context of professor life, research will always win, because curiosity is always more powerful than responsibility.

Another factor that causes teaching and service to lose is that progress in both are hard to measure. When I publish a paper, I get all kinds of feedback: it appears in a journal or proceedings, people read it, they cite it, and it sometimes affects industry and other practice. I see the impact. When I teach, I can hope that I’m educating my students well. I can try to measure their learning with homeworks and exams. I can read students’ descriptions of their experiences in my courses. But ultimately, these are all weak evidence about how I might be changing the course of someone’s life. The real evidence comes ten years later when a student returns to me, and describes my impact.

Service is even worse. When I review a research paper, I do so anonymously and get little to no feedback on my critiques. It’s purely altruistic. When I make improvements in an academic program, I can hope that it changes students’ experiences for the better, and that the knowledge they have is more relevant, but I won’t know for at least a year or two. When I contribute to running a conference or editing a journal, what I get in return is a subjective shift in my reputation, which is a critical but gelatinous currency for long term investment.

Because these feedback loops in research, teaching, and service operate on such different time scales, the result is that most tenured professors spend most of their time on discovery. It’s what they were trained to do, and it’s what they’re most interested in doing. Teaching can become an afterthought unless a professor really has a passion for it, and we avoid service at all costs. And because of intellectual freedom, there’s no one that can change this behavior other than professors themselves.

I’ve been trying a time-boxing experiment over the past year ensure that I give sufficient attention to my teaching, service, and administrative responsibilities. I divide my week into three chunks:

  • On my two research days, I fundraise, meet with collaborators and doctoral students, read, write, I review papers. My mindset is focused on my lab’s discoveries and the next century of our planet. By dedicating my entire day to this, I can focus on excellent research, without the distraction of my role as a teacher and administrator.
  • On my two teaching days, I develop curriculum and materials, I meet with TAs, I teach classes, I hold office hours, I prepare for class, I assess, and I give feedback. I focus all of my attention on my students, making sure that I can give them everything they need to excel in the world. If I think about research, it’s to identify where my entire field’s research belongs in my classes and my students’ lives.
  • On my single service day, I do faculty meetings, I meet with industry, I do my administrative work. I fit whatever priorities I can into this day, knowing that I won’t return to it for a week.

The upside of this time-boxing is focus: I can really pretend on each day that I only have one job and ensure that I do it well. It also forces me to remember that I have limited time each day, helping me decide what’s important and stay focused on getting it done. The hypothetical downside is that is that everything moves at a fraction of full-time speed. In practice, however, research can wait a day, students can wait a day, and service to academia is really about interacting with other professors on the same slow time scale. Administration is the only thing that really suffers here: academia is slow to change because it spends less than one day a week changing itself.

I have some strict practices to achieve the time-boxing above. I ruthlessly avoid scheduling research meetings on teaching days and teaching meetings on research days. I have to make exceptions, but when I do, I really feel the negative consequence of it on my focus, so I stay motivated to enforce my self-imposed rules. I also ensure that each Friday when I plan my next week of work, I select due dates for action items on my to do list that they always coincide with the right category of day. I aggressively use the email snoozing features on my clients to ensure that research, teaching, and service emails appear on the right day.

In my experience, the outcomes of this discipline is better research, better teaching, and better service, with a dramatically reduced sense of busyness. On research days, I feel the sense of freedom and openness that I did in graduate school. On teaching days, I feel fully engaged as a mentor and educator. On service days, I feel less frustrated by not being able to get to all my other duties, having committees the day to giving, not getting.

While this is just another form of split attention, and it reduces the pace of all three roles, I do actually think that the reduced pace is well worth the potential for synergy between the three roles. Professors just have to structure their time to pursue these synergies!

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