Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Things you don't have to do

I am trying to identify things I don't have to do.
Or at least I don't have to do that much, that well, or for that long.

Over the years I came to a conclusion that in a way it is the key to success: to figure out what things are not quite necessary; the things that can be cut out. The opposite - the important things - are usually quite obvious. Depending on the field, you need to sell more items per year, or secure better prices, or find customers, save money, raise money, publish papers, get better teaching evaluations, serve on committees. The list of things that look good is usually pretty clear from the very beginning.

But the trick to success is in realizing which of the sub-tasks and actions behind these glorious goals are not quite necessary. Because you always have more goals than you can possibly run for, and more battles than you can possibly fight. Something needs to be cut out, and the trick is in identifying the right corners to cut.

In the most wonderful book "Teaching What you Don't Know" by Therese Huston (in case I haven't mentioned it before, it's the best book on teaching ever) she has a chapter about how to properly plan a new course. And, I think, the first advice in this chapter is "Take one assignment out". Just remove it. Because you most certainly overplanned and overcommitted, so pick one assignment and take it out right now. It may sound silly, but after teaching 4 courses for the first time ever I can attest that it is certainly true. It is just one example, but a good one.

Here's another one: in the workshops for new professors we had last year we were thoroughly encouraged not to ever edit student's papers. Never ever. Moreover, we were encouraged not to mark all errors and mistakes in more than one paragraph of the text. Because it takes lots of time, and also students don't appreciate it. You have diminishing returns here, and in fact you have diminishing returns in any kind of "constructive feedback". A person can reasonably take and internalize one point of critique, maybe two. But if you give more then two, they just get despaired, give up, stop reading, open reddit - the details may vary, but they zone out one way or another. So even in grading, supposedly, there is no point in writing exhaustive feedbacks. If I find a way to identify and explain one single point a student should be working on right now, it would be enough, and in fact could even work better than a thoroughly filled rubric. Diminishing returns.

I know these things in theory, but it is so insanely hard to implement them in practice. And I need to identify more unnecessary things to cut out. Especially those that are unnecessary and unpleasant at the same time. Unnecessary pleasant things are actually fine, as long as you don't over-commit to them: they bring you up, and at the same time they are not completely useless. So when I improve the design of departmental web-page instead of playing a computer game in the evening, it's probably fine, as long as it provides similar levels of satisfaction (which it often does). But unnecessary unpleasant things need to go.

I need to hunt for them and take them down one by one =)

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. You also learn to realize that you can get away with dropping the ball on a lot more things than you thought you could, with minimal consequences.

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