Orals: Lists, RABs, and Time Tracking

On this section of the site, I kept track of some of the key readings and reflections that influenced the way that I prepared for my second examination. I did this through making what’s called a reflective annotated bibliography (RAB). Each entry contains a précis, a personal reflection, a list of “quotable” moments from the text, and sources that I’d like to further investigate after reading the author’s argument and works cited page. If you’d like access to these docs, please let me know: I’m happy to share the password.

I am indebted to Mark McBeth’s Queer Lines of Communication class from the fall of 2014 for teaching me this technique. In Mark’s class, our RABs were actually CRABs — collective reflective annotated bibliographies — where we kept track of reading together on a massive, unwieldy, information-dense Google doc. I wrote about these and some tips for putting them together in a guidebook that I designed for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program at the Graduate Center.

This technique, though simple, has been important to my thinking and scholarly development. It reiterated to me a lesson that I also learned in Laura Callanan’s Literary Theory class at Duquesne University in the spring of 2013: reading, writing, and talking about texts and ideas are all collective, active, living practices. They’re not performances for teachers. They’re not (just) demonstrations of prior knowledge. They’re negotiations.

Another thing you can find on this page (and you don’t need permission for this) is my Orals Hours Log (a link to the Google spreadsheet).

In the fall of 2016, I began tracking the amount of time that I actually spend each week on reading, writing, meeting, or presenting something that contributes to my orals exam process. This does not include time that I spend teaching, working, grading, conferencing, doing service work, or doing any other non-research related task.

In the spring, I stopped keeping track, but the hours remained fairly consistent (though they picked up quite a bit in the month before my exam).

I did this in public, and I’m keeping it public, because of a conversation that I had at our new student orientation in the summer of 2016. A new colleague shared with me that an advisor told her that she should be spending 10-12 hours per day on her scholarly work alone.

This is not OK.

This woman is a teacher, she has a lot of civic and family responsibilities, and she’s also — you know — a person.

There’s no guaranteed outcome to getting a PhD in the humanities. For most people, the outcome is not an academic job. And even if we do get a job, a demand to center our research for 10-12 hours per day at the expense of other important things (like teaching, service, being a friend, eating, exercising, childcare, taking care of older parents, coping with a chronic illness, watching Netflix, or the many other things that take up time) — especially if a goal is to attract a more diverse workforce into college teaching — is simply an unreasonable one. Some weeks are busier than others, but we all need to stop pretending that this is what we’re doing. It sets an awful precedent.

I wondered, too: is this what people are actually doing, or what they think they’re doing?

So, I started informally polling friends and colleagues. And, predictably, no one could tell me, with certainty, how much of their time is consumed by their own work. Everyone felt this intense anxiety that they should be working all the time. Many people had the sense that they are working all the time. But no one could actually say whether or not this was the case.

As I began tracking my own work, I realized that I work differently than I thought I did: sometimes more, sometimes less. I think this experiment helped me to work in ways that were somewhat more productive. It was kind of like having a budget. I had a target goal in mind for how much time I would like to spend, and I would often “make it up” in the following weeks if I didn’t reach my goal in a particularly busy week.

That said, I don’t think there’s a universal answer to the question of how much of our time should be consumed by our own work. Because we bring different goals and life circumstances to our process. So it’s important to me to qualify these things: I don’t currently have children, older parents in need of care, or a financially dependent spouse. At this moment in my life, I have great health, a really supportive partner, and a variety of comfortable and easily accessible places to read and write. I live in an expensive city, but I am beyond fortunate to not have any student loans. I’m getting a PhD because I’m fascinated by the topic and because I wanted to vary my teaching and administrative experience. I really want to be a professor or to work in a faculty development capacity, but if I don’t end up with an academic job, then I don’t end up with an academic job.

I say all of this to highlight the fact that the stakes, and the circumstances, might be different for me than they are for you. But also to highlight the idea that working 10-12 hours per day on my own scholarship would be literally impossible for me, and I am an immensely privileged grad student.

Another reason I wanted to track my work is because funded graduate study isn’t like other jobs. My friends from college and from post-college are farmers, social workers, medical doctors, lawyers, school administrators, teachers, fitness instructors, journalists, chefs, entrepreneurs…and they all have different relationships to how much, and how often, they work. But most of them also have co-workers who they see regularly. They have work cultures that model for them what “work” looks like in their field.

In academia — at least, in my experience of it so far — no one talks about their work. Maybe this is because school is really good at fostering immense amounts of shame and an intense fear of failure, and graduate students are really good at knowing how to “do” school. So we all pretend to be really busy all of the time, and then feel guilty if we aren’t constantly working.

It is not OK with me to pretend to be Constantly Productive. It is not OK to communicate, even tacitly, to people who can’t work all the time that they don’t belong. I don’t want to be a part of that. So I’m hoping that transparency, along with owning up to our privileges (or disadvantages), can help to cut through some of the mystery.

I’d love to hear from you about your work: how often and how much you do, and how (or if) you keep track of the balance between your research and the rest of your life. I’m also fascinated by how people might keep track of their work (which is something I’ve inelegantly attempted to do on this Google spreadsheet….is there a better way?). Please feel free to contact me!