When do academics celebrate the new year?
This is a serious question for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, where the beginning of the calendar year in January is more like the middle of the academic year. It seems like a weird time to talk about new beginnings, or put the old year behind you. You probably don’t have enough time to stop and reflect on the year that’s past and make resolutions even if you wanted to. (If you are a southern hemisphere academic, you can translate most of what follows this intro to January 1.)
You probably default to the beginning of the new academic year according to your institutional calendar. The exact date will vary depending where you live, but it’s probably sometime in the autumn. Students are arriving and returning. Orientation and welcome events are happening. The mood might feel somewhat celebratory.
As someone who has been helping academics find time for writing, and prioritize their research & writing even in the part of the year when you are teaching, it has taken me quite a while to notice the drawback of defaulting to this autumnal date. It’s not like I haven’t noticed that many academics put a lot of pressure on the summer for getting any “real” writing done. I started A Meeting With Your Writing back in 2011 to help take some of that pressure off.
Starting your new academic year earlier
It’s only in the past year it’s clicked, that by starting your new year on the first day of the new teaching term, you are implicitly prioritizing teaching and making writing the last thing you do in the year. No wonder there is a lot of pressure on summer. You feel like you are behind before you even start.
priority (noun): 1. The fact or condition of being earlier in time or of preceding something else. 2. Precedence in order, rank, or dignity; the right to receive attention, supplies, etc., before others. (OED)
What if you start your academic year 6 to 8 weeks before the students start arriving?
Make your writing a priority in both definitions of the term. You have a lot more control over your time, and how you allocate it, during the summer. You can allocate your best time to your writing and research in the quantities that are appropriate. If you want uninterrupted days devoted to writing, you can have them.
You can’t allocate all your time and attention to your writing, even if you wanted to, because you do have responsibilities to other parts of your job. But you *can* fit those things in around your writing for a change.
Let’s face it, it’s not even possible to do the kind of intense intellectual and creative work you find it hard to find time for at other times of year for 8 hours a day, 5 days in a row. Yes there are less intensive things that will move your writing projects forward. But equally, you could give some of your time to your other responsibilities.
Start your year with a blank slate. You have goals for this year and you can get them going off to a good start. By the time the new teaching year starts, you will already have some momentum built up and, crucially, a lot of the year left before you need to have reached your goals. You are, by definition, not behind.
Take time to finish the old year first
If your year were to start in mid-summer, weeks before the students arrive, then it also ends in mid-summer, weeks after teaching and exams finish.
You don’t have to rush from your grading deadline right into your writing. You’ve now got time to transition and get your head round things a little more. I’ve already written about what that might look like for teaching.
You can also use this period to review your writing over the year, to figure out if there is anything you want to finish, or any milestones you could reach before you start your new year. The possibilities here are probably limited, but sometimes there is one project that would benefit from a bit of a deadline.
Of course, almost everyone arrives at the end of the teaching year exhausted, even when there isn’t a pandemic. If you think of your year as starting in mid-summer, what opportunities for rest do you have before that happens? This might not be your big family holiday. I’m thinking something like a couple of days off to do nothing other than rest your mind and body. Or working shorter days or shorter weeks if this is more feasible.
The pace of the summer is different from the middle of the year, too. It is objectively difficult to go from full steam ahead, where you are possibly working extra hard to meet tight end of semester deadlines, to a more relaxed pace. Taking a few weeks to consciously slow down could be really helpful.
Beginning of the year writing goals
Shifting your thinking about when your year starts, can also shift your expectations for your summer writing. I’ve written about this before as well, but I think it’s worth revisiting in the context of this way of thinking about beginnings, endings, and annual cycles.
- How could the writing you do in the approximately 6 weeks before the students arrive lay a foundation for this year’s writing?
- If this is the beginning, and the wrapping up stages might happen later in the year, what would be the best thing to work on?
Your sense that summer is the only time available for “real writing” points to something important. There are certain kinds of writing that really do benefit from longer intense periods of focus. There are certain kinds of writing that benefit from not having quite so many other things competing for your attention on a daily and weekly basis. Summer is a good time to do that kind of writing.
- Taking that seriously means thinking about the kind of writing tasks you could do in weekly longish sessions (of 1 to 2 hours), even if you can only fit in one of those a week.
- Taking that seriously means thinking about the kind of writing tasks you could do when you do have other things competing for your attention.
- Taking that seriously means thinking about whether some of the things you need to do to finish a project would be better in lots of very short sessions.
However, if you were to focus your best time each day/week on longer intensive writing sessions focused on those things, it can become difficult to continue this when also teaching. Even if you can carve out the time, what would that look like?
Writing to articulate the ideas for yourself? Reading and writing about what you’ve read? Drafting? Perhaps the big first revision where you decide what the argument is, commit to it, and make big structural revisions…
And in the rest of your day/week, you could work on some of the less intellectually demanding tasks, but I suggest you limit that to the things that would make it possible to do more intellectually demanding work next week. You need some of that lower intensity time to go to preparing your teaching, and checking in with the MA/PhD students you supervise, and maybe some tasks related to your administrative or service responsibilities.
If this is the beginning of the academic writing year, you want to set yourself up to maintain it, even if the quantity and quality of time will vary.
Support to make a plan
I’m offering it to non-members for just £15. The synchronous part of the class will be held on Friday 4 June 2021 and is structured to allow lots of time for coaching you through some of the things that make this kind of planning difficult.
An annual plan provides a framework for making more detailed plans for shorter time periods. The Studio has a structure to support that, such as Quarterly Planning Classes and Office Hours to get help with whatever is not going to plan, and so on.
If you like the class, your class fee will be discounted from Studio membership if you sign up before 30 June.