Time management

You can say a lot about the outdatedness of academia, but in terms of flexible work regimes we are still at the forefront. The official version justifying this lack of rules about when and what to work is that we need a certain freedom from hierarchies and institutions to be able to produce new thoughts. But instead of strict and formalized hierarchies, academia has devised its own set of tools that keep the workers at bay: struggle for recognition from your peers and fighting for funding reading the lips of the funding organizations. Having acquired millions of research funding then is celebrated as outstanding academic success and results in being showered with recognition. With other words: precariousness and vanity keep academics busy - usually in this order: first many years of precariousness and then a good deal of vanity - or maybe it is just habit to continue to thirst for recognition. How would you think new thoughts when you want as many others as possible to think that you are smart while looking for ways to secure a job for you or colleagues you care for? And indeed, the dominant type of academic is smart in the sense that s/he is mentally flexible to think all kinds of thoughts, good and bad ones, smart and stupid ones - innovative to the degree that is necessary to receive recognition and funding. And those thoughts can be thought, talked about and written down everywhere and at any time (as long as there is a decent Internet connection).

One problem with this temporal, spatial and mental flexibility is that it easily becomes counterproductive. Without a clear mission, without anybody telling you to do this and not that, work becomes boundless and directionless. My whole academic career I have searched for ways to devise systems which help me to sort and prioritize different tasks in order to make them more manageable. Being a good supervisor, teacher, project manager, entrepreneurial academic, reader, writer, sage, oracle, critic - all these ambitions require each their time and space and most of the time I have allocated these resources according to what was needed at any given moment. The result was an episode of being overworked (my way of burning out is to end up at the hospital with some mysterious infection) some years ago. Currently, my way of segmenting is to shove all meeting related work into Mondays and Fridays and to try to get writing/reading time the rest of the week. This works so so, but is definitely an improvement. But the real remedy, I begin to wonder, would be a better inner compass of what is important and necessary work, a sense of direction. My problem is that I feel a slight unease when I meet academics that are actively pursuing only one of the many roles that I have listed above: for example researchers that do whatever they can to escape teaching to be able to focus on the o so important research. Or the teachers that have not read or written a new article for years. Or the academic entrepreneurs who only more or less by chance do their work in academia. For me it is the combination of all of these things which carves out a unique mission for universities in contemporary society: being a place where people learn together, which involves teaching, supervising, reading, writing, acquiring and managing projects, critique, and doing all of this broadly and to the best of our ability. Well, I guess, I am back to time management as the best option (and saying no once in while).

Thomas Berker
Professor of Science and Technology Studies