Academe comes with a certain lifestyle. You have significant autonomy in your schedule along with an ebb and flow of work that essentially amounts to two intense semester sprints a year that can sometimes leave you gasping for breath and energy. Compound that with the challenge of having the energy — physically, mentally and emotionally — for raising your own children, and it can often feel like by the time you dedicate so much attention to your students, you have little left for the littles at home. Paradoxically, somehow a lot of time goes unaccounted for — time that seems to disappear, especially during the child-rearing years.
As kids grow up, you’ll find you have gaps of time when you are just … waiting. Waiting for 10 minutes to pick up a child from practice, waiting for 15 minutes at the doctor’s office, waiting on hold on the phone, waiting in the line at the store, waiting for water to boil, waiting for your kids to brush their teeth or clean their rooms or pack their book bags. You do so much waiting. You’ll have short nuggets of minutes here and there throughout the day when someone else’s schedule or pace dictates what you do, and you often bide that time while just waiting for the next thing on your work or parenting schedule.
Academics spend this in-between time in various ways. Let’s be honest: a lot of us spend it on Twitter. Some of us deal with email, check in with a colleague or grade assignments — a paper here, a quiz there, carrying the stack around as we go. Or perhaps we use that time simply to stare into space (rightfully so), tidy up or, if you’re really a rock star, plan for the next meal, holiday or playdate.
Nearly 14 years into this academic parenting gig myself, I thought I’d share some strategies for making the most of the in-between time. These are ideas I’ve developed while actively wondering and talking with colleagues about it. What do I do while stirring the pot for dinner? Sure, I can mindlessly watch Chopped or Pardon the Interruption — and I do — but I’ve found that if I feel up for some intellectual activity, there are more productive ways to spend those precious moments. Here are five I’ve found really move the needle. I share them specifically to help academic parents, but all types of busy scholars may, in fact, find them relevant.
Read materials related peripherally to your research agenda. Academic writing coach Joy A. J. Howard changed my world last year when she argued that I had the capacity to read tangential academic work in passing. I had always put off scholarly reading for when I was sitting down, highlighter in hand, with full attention and no possibility of interruption. You can imagine how often that actually happened in this world of juggling work and kids, which led to a growing stack of reading that I kept meaning to get around to.
Granted, reading material directly related to your research will require note taking and thought processing, which probably requires carving out specific time. But reading at the fringes of your field or engaging with interdisciplinary work can be done in snippets and without perfect conditions.
Joy insisted that not everything needed to be read as though preparing for candidacy exams and explained that graduate school had trained my brain to absorb and process information at a high capacity even without a highlighter in hand. Trust yourself, she contended, and as I have since then, my stack of reading has dwindled rapidly. Best advice ever.
Catch up on journals. Ditto for keeping up with all the mail you receive from your professional associations. You can read it in line! You can read it at the park! You can read it anywhere! Really, you can! Read through those journal articles, review essays and book reviews and trust that what needs to be understood will be.
Spend the time on LinkedIn, Idealist or Indeed. If your university is anything like mine, it is focusing a lot on career exploration and outcomes these days. Study after study is reminding professors that they need to understand the value of concepts like the “transferable skills” and “career competencies” that employers desire. Perhaps your institution is pushing you to weave experiential learning into your courses or encouraging other ways of making connections between learning objectives and the workplace. Whether you agree with this trajectory for higher education or not, it is a good idea to have a sense of what your students are up against when it comes to applying their education to opportunities during and after college.
Faculty members do not often peruse internship or job ads to understand what their students are facing in terms of requirements, desired qualifications or the need to articulate what they’ve learned in the classroom. Checking out entry-level positions that students in your field might be interested in will enhance your ability to make relevant connections between what you are doing in the classroom and why they should care. And it’ll probably help you contribute in a positive — and perhaps more empathetic manner — in the next meeting you have with administration about the relationship between the academic journey and career exploration (and, frankly, recruiting).
Monitor public engagement in your field. More academics are stepping out of the ivory tower these days and speaking out on important contemporary issues. That’s a welcome and needed development, aided by the diverse social media platforms now available for communication with the public. Whether public engagement is in your wheelhouse or not, stay on top of where and how scholars in your field and others are contributing to local, state, regional and national conversations. Perhaps you’ll think about ways to connect your research with current issues or generate new frameworks for consideration.
Experiment with learning how to operate the new platforms where your peers are making their mark. It will also help you to stay engaged so that when you are ready, you won’t have much catch-up work. Listening to a podcast, reading a recent column or scanning a Reddit thread are all possible in short bursts of time and require minimal transition time if you are interrupted more than once (which will happen!).
Freewrite. This is another opportunity to trust yourself and your training. Carry a notebook with you or use your phone to capture ideas that come to you in the pickup line at the middle school or when sitting for hours on the sidelines at the sports field. Academics are creative people, and we cannot always control when a new idea sparks or when something clicks about a current project.
With so many interruptions every day, postponing the creative and intellectual process to just when you have several hours of dedicated time can cause months and years to pass without progress. I spent far too long as a parent believing that I could only do my best work if my mind was fully clear and focused. That simply is not true. My mind works on many different levels, and I should believe in myself to have meaningful thoughts at times that are other than ideal. Furthermore, I should trust myself to shape and improve those ideas during the revision process. What is important is moving forward so that productivity remains consistent.
I am not suggesting that academic parents must always multitask or use their in-between time productively. Sometimes in-between time is the best time to breathe, meditate, read fiction or, again, simply stare into space. But it is also very likely that on some days, when perhaps the parenting part of your life has demanded more of your hours than the academic part, you’ll feel a fire inside yourself. That fire is the passion for your field and for your work and, if you’re like me, it gets cranky if it is ignored for too long.
I have not always had time in the last 14 years to engage with my scholarship in a concentrated, intensive way, but I’ve found that giving a few of my in-between times to the strategies above keeps the intellectually demanding part of my brain at ease while performing other relatively mundane domestic tasks. It gives me something new and interesting to think and talk about, which then generates new and interesting work in both my teaching and scholarship.
Keeping that mind-set, and employing these strategies, helps to offset any sense of discouragement and frustration that may arise during the in-between times. And that’s a good thing because, as empty nesters repeatedly tell harried parents, you’ll miss this someday.