Mastering the Workload

For over a week I passed the cherry blossoms on my way to the office with a thought of stopping to walk among them, lie under them, sit on a nearby bench, maybe take photographs. I wanted to be part of them and part of spring before it passed. But I had no time–not to go to the water basin in the city, not even to pull over on my walk to the office. And I didn’t have the mental space to take in something so hard to take in to begin with–the marvel that is spring. But I’m not really talking about the marvel that is spring. I’m talking about work.

A week of nonstop conferences had rolled right into a week of nonstop grading on top of classes and meetings. The ins and outs of 85 research projects filled my thought, blocking the view of just about anything else. You know how it is when you’re working on a project and you stop working on it, it’s still there in the background and you’re actually still working on it? Or how it is when you have a conversation, but you run out of time, and you keep thinking about other things you want to say? Take those things and multiply them times 85. So I could not see the cherry blossoms.

Then one morning, again on my way to the office, I again saw the cherry blossoms and again lamented my lack of time, and whether I was tired of that thought or close enough to the end of my grading I don’t know, but I finally stepped off the path and took some photographs. It took just five, maybe seven, minutes. But it felt so good. It felt so important.

As I walked to my office I had a new feeling. I was no longer the victim of my workload or of time. The day wasn’t already written–an interminable scene of me and my laptop and my students’ work a burden on my shoulders. The day had possibilities.

I was reminded of something I know but don’t always have the discipline to live by–we need to win our work back from its circumstances, especially in academia where the semester stops for no one, where–if you’re a composition teacher–you’re likely managing some 90 students, and if you’re like my average student, you’re taking five classes and also working a job. Each project becomes a mere task–something to get through as quickly and expediently as possible because the tasks just keep coming.

I’ve long felt this situation is exactly inimical to the thoughtful, exploratory, earnest process we want our students to engage in as thinkers and writers. We want them to pay attention to details, pursue curiosity, be willing to be surprised, and reflect on what they’re doing. Yet we require them to work in a context of serious busyness, time pressure, and evaluation, not to mention economic debt. What should be a joy-filled and soul-filled adventure of learning becomes a shallow and calculated game of penalties and rewards. That so many of my students do care and try and are patient with surprises, that some are hugely ambitious and artful and idealistic is something to celebrate. I just wish such successes weren’t in spite of the circumstances of their education.

But for now wresting work from its circumstances is a worthy struggle. I try to resist the urge to see my day as a number of papers to get through even while I have to count them up and estimate the time they’ll take and get through them all as quickly as possible. I try to think of the person behind the paper and take the time to hear their voice even while I must dissect the paper like a specimen and assign it a grade. I try to care about the ideas and not just the writing. I try to describe what’s been done well and not just explain how to get a better grade. The work of teaching is not as black and white as this–the dissecting is helpful; grades can be clear and motivating–but it’s at least a precarious balancing act.

Sometimes it’s hard not to play the game of getting things done. Common sense says I have to. It’s called time management. It’s called sustainable work habits. It’s called wisdom. Some students, too, play the game. They come to class for the points and listen between texting and doing homework for other classes. They do just enough of the assignments to get the grade they’ve decided they need to pass the class or to keep up their GPA. They strategize and call it professionalism, taking pride in it. I get it. But I’ve also been at this long enough to know that it’s worth stopping for the cherry blossoms, that I feel most proud of a professionalism that takes the time to care, to master the workload instead of being mastered by it.

One response to “Mastering the Workload”

  1. Brilliant piece. Three thought-friends came around while pondering it – inspiration, understanding, and hope.
    Cherry blossoms will never look the same again.


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