• October 20, 2014

Doing Academic Time

Doing Academic Time

Illustration by Mark Shaver

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Illustration by Mark Shaver

We all repeat the cliché that time is relative and make jokes about the pace of "academic time." But in fact, in the academic world, time's relativity takes specific forms that merit our attention. Time can seem to alternately stand still or speed up depending on our unique positions in our institutions.

Consider a typical occurrence: A faculty member is charged with misconduct—such as doctoring research results or sexual harassment of a student. A committee is formed to investigate. The inquiry seems to slog on and on. Days, weeks, even months go by, but the professor under investigation hears no word.

In academic time, it all seems to take exponentially longer for the professor than for the other concerned parties. To committee members, the investigation may not seem long at all. After all, people need to be interviewed, documents read, meetings attended. But to the accused, it seems like a lifetime. A professor under suspicion lives moment by moment in anticipation of a verdict.

An outsider to the academic world might conclude, too, that the committee has taken an unjustifiably long time to arrive at a decision. But often there is good reason for that. Academe places a high value on due process, but investigative committees are typically composed not of professional investigators but of fellow faculty members. Proceeding on academic time, in part, means facing the challenge of scheduling meetings for busy people with conflicting schedules. It may take days to find a date when all or most of the committee members can attend a single meeting, much less the several meetings necessary to complete the investigation.

Likewise, for those on the track leading to the awarding (or denial) of tenure, academic time plays a cruel joke: It can seem like a lifetime while simultaneously seeming like there are not enough days to complete all the projects you had hoped to.

Even when all the tenure recommendations have been forwarded to the provost's office from the departmental, college, and university levels—and are uniformly positive—the time until a final decision is rendered may seem excruciatingly long. I know one assistant professor who literally worried herself sick during the two-month period between when the glowingly positive recommendations for granting her tenure were submitted to the provost and when he finally issued a (positive) decision.

Students experience the vagaries of academic time as well. Grading is a good example. Students want their tests or papers to be graded and returned immediately, while the professor may need to take a week or two to do a thorough job. The professor believes she is returning the grades in good time, whereas the students have been anxiously waiting for the verdict on their work.

One type of academic time that is increasingly garnering national attention is what we usually call "time to degree." Governing boards are increasingly pressuring their institutions to decrease the average time it takes for students to complete a bachelor's degree—four years rather than five, or five years rather than six. Aiding students' progress through their studies helps an institution operate more efficiently. Students making steady progress are most likely to graduate and open up room for other students. Everyone benefits.

Time to degree is also a concern on the doctoral level. Professional associations are increasingly speaking out about the unreasonably long time it takes to complete a doctorate, especially in the humanities. Reformers in the Modern Language Association, for example, are recommending allowing alternative types of final projects to replace the traditional monograph-style dissertation, reconceiving scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms, and embracing open-access dissemination of scholarship. Such measures arise from a widespread conviction that the time-to-completion for the doctorate in the humanities has become intolerably long—an average of nine years, according to some accounts.

Digital culture has further relativized academic time. Thanks to the immediacy of e-mail, many people have come to expect an immediate response to their messages and are annoyed when they don't get it. I know a famous scholar who repeatedly frets when he fails to receive an answer to an inquiry to a colleague or journal editor within an hour or two. If he hasn't heard after three hours have elapsed, he begins e-mailing friends of his interlocutor asking if that person has taken ill.

But not everyone has the same expectations when it comes to e-mail. Several time-management gurus recommend that you check and respond to e-mail only once a day. That practice helps you focus on real work instead of being distracted by other people's problems.

Digital culture has also affected our collective attention spans. Brain scientists are noting that the typical attention span is decreasing, and many professors report that their students cannot pay attention to any one subject for greater than 20 minutes at a time. This collective short attention span presents many challenges for modern classroom instruction. What seems like an eternity to some students turns out to be only a third of a typical class period. Academic time in those cases has shrunk drastically.

Then there is academic time on the meta-level. There is a distinct cyclical quality to faculty time: Professors live their lives in semesters or quarters, punctuated by breaks. And typically there is a cyclical nature to the semester itself: A term always seems to begin at a frantic pace and then drastically slow down sometime after midsemester as students show signs of fatigue and restlessness, only to speed up again as the end of the term looms.

And, of course, academic time spans an entire career. The first years of a typical career are hectic as junior professors frantically attempt to establish themselves in the profession and publish enough research to warrant tenure and promotion. Academic time may then slow down after tenure has been awarded, before exhibiting a renewed spurt of activity as the now associate professors seek promotion to full professors. Academic time for senior professors is likely to be far less hectic than for junior scholars.

Administrators tend to experience a much different sense of time from faculty members. While most administrators will be aware of the beginning and ending of academic terms, their daily lives are not structured around the cyclical rhythms of semesters or quarters. Their lives are usually experienced annually—specifically, from July 1 to June 30 (the typical fiscal year for institutions of higher education).

A provost, for example, will most likely experience the year in terms of clusters of activities: the hectic rush of events during the beginning of the fall semester—new-faculty orientation, academic convocation, and other beginning-of-the-year events. Then, in early spring, the provost's office will be deluged with thick tenure-and-promotion binders. The summer may be filled with deans' retreats and professional workshops sponsored by various associations.

Of course, the fact that academic time is not in sync for faculty members and administrators is sometimes the cause of conflict between them. An administrator might be eager to move forward with a project, but the faculty leader might reply, "We won't be able to consider this until after the faculty return to campus in the fall."

Even institutions themselves have their own temporal rhythms. The summers are time for resurfacing parking lots, restriping campus streets and parking slots, undertaking major renovations and infrastructure repair, and beginning large-scale construction projects. In many colleges, a battalion of painters will descend on the campus brandishing brushes, rollers, and turpentine. Facilities workers will trim trees, nurture flower beds, and resod areas that need it.

Academic time for institutions typically follows a five-year cycle, which is usually the span of strategic plans and master plans. Those planning cycles are meant to pull us out of our routine annual or semester sense of time so that we can reimagine academic time over the long term for the good of the institution.

Clearly, the ebb and flow of time and our subjective experience of it varies according to our particular positions within our institutions and where we are in our careers. In many ways, it is precisely our positions within academic time that help define us, for we are all sentenced to time in the academic world.

Gary A. Olson is a scholar of rhetoric and culture and president of Daemen College, in Amherst, N.Y. His most recent book is "A Creature of Our Own Making: Reflections on Contemporary Academic Life" (SUNY Press). He can be contacted through http://garyaolson.com.

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