Karen Cardozo on Work-Life Balance, from TTII, Sept. 25th at UMass

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts faculty member Karen Cardozo send us her presentation on Managing Work-Life Balance, one of the fabulous sessions at the September 25 Teaching at Teaching-Intensive Institutions event at UMass Amherst.

Managing Work-Life Balance Under a 4:4 Load
Karen M. Cardozo

I’m going to offer you all kinds of specific and pragmatic tips, I promise, but I want to start with a broader discussion about the overall issue of self-care.


In the end, it’s not the specifics of the institution that matter as much as the question: do you have a regular and reliable practice of self-care?

I begin with the imperative of self-care because academe is a culture of few boundaries – whether it’s because the rhythms of teaching and scholarship mean that you rarely “punch out” on the job, or whether it’s because technology from smart phones to learning management systems means you can work anytime, anywhere. The only boundaries will be those you make, and keep, for yourself.

A second and related point is that fear and fatigue are antithetical to the creativity and productivity that will allow you to succeed and thrive over the long term in an academic career. Paradoxically, resting and rejuvenating are actually what allow you to innovate in course designs, writing and other aspects of academic work. And yet, whether it’s the evaluative committee looming over your dissertation or your tenure file, the whole process is steeped in an aura of anxiety about whether you will pass muster. The way around this isn’t through ratcheting up the stakes and anxiety, it’s through the self-care that allows you to claim and live your academic work with a calm purpose and integrity.

I’m saying this because I started my PhD program in 1995 with a 3 month old and I finished in 2005 with a 10 year old and six year old. What I thought was a huge burden – the juggling of family and the doctorate – was actually my saving grace. The “distraction” and enforced boundaries of childcare pickups, etc. forced me to put my PhD in perspective. I didn’t always do it gracefully or well: there were many nights of pancakes for dinner and kids being amused by a video while I did academic work, but the number one thing it prevented was my falling under the illusion that academic work is the only thing that matters. In addition, having kids is a boot camp in time management, so I learned to be enormously productive, which has served me well ever since on the job. I don’t waste time and I don’t aim for perfect: I know what’s important and what’s competent work – I achieve it and move on.

One other point that comes from life coach Martha Beck’s distinction between your essential self and social self: when you follow your essential self, work feels like play. So a big part of the “balance” is choosing work that suits you. By all means learn to say “NO,” but not the knee-jerk “no” that well-meaning mentors advise about avoiding academic service etc. Rather, when you say no to activities that run counter to your essential self and YES to activities that fuel your essential interests, you will feel energized rather than drained by the work, and your juggling act will feel more joyful.

Interactive break: Let’s talk about self-care practices, and brainstorm some strategies before discussing concrete tips on how to strive for work/life balance in the teaching-intensive context.

Constructing the courseload

  • In hiring negotiations, consider bargaining for a course release in your initial semester/year.
  • Reduce # of discrete preps – double sections whenever you can for reduced preparation time.
  • Stagger deadlines and mix assignments across courses: don’t give everybody midterms the same day and find yourself grading 200 essays! Consider whether all courses need the same pedagogical structure and if not, mix it up. For example, in some upper level classes I assign short weekly papers and no midterm. In intro classes the midterm is more important for integration of course concepts: it is a necessary learning opportunity.

Scheduling courses and office hours

These are highly personal preferences depending on your lifestyle; sometimes you can’t control things depending on department needs but as much as you CAN, consider the following:

  • Clustering by days of the week: would it help you to put most of your teaching on a few days so other days are free for administrative or scholarly work?
  • Strategic times of day: if you have kids, or are working on a writing project and morning tends to be your freshest writing time, consider afternoon classes. Paradoxically, having young kids may actually mean that evenings are better teaching times: if you have a partner or other child care to handle bedtime a few days a week – you might feel better using the less “productive” evening time for teaching, and saving your daytimes for scholarly work or childcare.
  • Don’t go to campus just for office hours! Schedule around your teaching times as much as possible. With an LMS you can also consider virtual office hours conducted from your home.
  • Consider creative multitasking – for example, I conduct some meetings while walking my dog. I used to race around trying to fit in her walk, when I realized that certain students actually related better on the move and loved the dog. It’s also a great way to conduct informal meetings with colleagues, of the “we should get together and discuss x or y” variety.

Creating synergies between teaching and scholarship
So, what do you to keep your intellect alive, and to advance scholarly projects you care about? Work them into the teaching as much as possible

  • Course topics—design courses that will support the scholarly work you want to do
  • Scholarly topics—write about your teaching. You may be holding on to a fictional “research agenda” when there could be an emerging and more relevant one right in front of you; your teaching-intensive tenure criteria will support this work
  • Research assignments or research assistants – you can kill two birds by mentoring your students on research while they help you advance your own work; assign them the lit reviews you need!

Socializing with Academic Colleagues
This is a tricky one, because dissolving the boundaries between work and social life can be both what allows you to enjoy the job more, and prevent you from ever separating from it. Get the lay of the academic land before you decide with whom you will share your precious personal time.



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