Doing Less

Like many others, I find that I am trying to do too much in my academic university role. Especially since at the age of 61, I get tired more easily and cannot do as much as I did 10 or 20 years ago. So I need to do less. Of course much of this is “strategic”, in the sense that I should be selective about the projects I get involved in, the papers and proposals I write, etc. But at a more “tactical” level, its also possible to reduce time spent on some activities without having a major negative impact on my research and teaching.

Less reviewing

Like all academics (especially those who have been around for a while), I am constantly asked to peer-review papers. Whereas 10 years ago I tried to say “yes” to reviewing requests if at all possible, in 2022 I am more selective. Since I am a big fan of journal publication, I usually agree to requests to review for journals. But I think carefully about requests to review for a conference, and decline more than I accept.

I sometimes feel bad about this because the quality of reviewing at conferences is often poor, and perhaps my efforts would help. But on the other hand, I feel that the publishing serious work in conferences is wrong in principle, the CS/AI/NLP/NLG fields would be much better off if (like almost all other scientific fields) serious research was published in journals, and conferences focused on work-in-progress, speculative ideas, discussions, etc. Of course I can’t change the field on my own, but I can “vote with my feet” by focusing on journal reviewing. And this has the nice “side effect” of reducing my reviewing load…

Less time in meetings

I often spend most of my day in meetings. This is probably obvious, but one thing that I have found to be useful is to set and keep to time limits. If a student or colleague wants to talk to me about something, I set up a meeting for 30 mins (or whatever), and stop the meeting when the time limit is up. Similarly if I am in a university admin/management meeting, I will make my excuses and leave when the meeting’s allotted time is up. I think this usually works well, and stops discussions from meandering aimlessly. It also encourages participants to be organised. And of course if there really is more to discuss, we can always set up another meeting.

Also, when talking to students, I often recommend that they have followup discussions with other students or with research fellows who are knowledgeable about the topic. Younger people often have more time and energy to give advice than I do, and also giving advice often helps the advice-giver as well as the advice-taker.

Less willing to go beyond agreed workload

I work part-time at the university (rest at Arria). I get a formal “workload” at the beginning of the academic year which takes this into account, and specifies what I am expected to do for the university. However, once the academic year starts, people often ask me to do more than is in my workload allocation, especially for “small” tasks such as project supervision and marking (which collectively take up a significant chunk of my time).

Of course if there are special circumstances (eg another faculty member is sick), I’m happy to pitch in and help out even if this goes beyond my notional workload! But I suspect that what usually happens is that people forget that I am part-time at the university, and on small tasks ask me to do the same as my (fulltime) colleagues. I am no longer willing to accept this.

Less time preparing lectures

Students primarily learn from practicals, labs, assessments, and projects; they dont learn much from lectures. This of course is well known in educational research, and its something I’ve seen time and again in my 25 years of teaching. Because of this, I’m spending less time preparing lectures. When I’m preparing or updating teaching material, I spend a fair amount of time on labs and other “hands-on” material, but less time preparing lectures.

In fact, my university currently expects lectures to be pre-recorded. Which makes them even less effective since there is no opportunity for interaction, discussion, questions, small exercises, etc. Indeed, since there are many excellent videos on YouTube (etc), in some cases I now tell students to watch Youtube videos instead of preparing and recording my own lectures.

Final thoughts

The above ideas are all tactical and incremental, but I think collectively they do have an impact. Its also important to be strategic, and indeed over the past few weeks I have declined to supervise a PhD student interested in NLG, and declined to get involved in a proposal idea suggested by some colleagues. Hopefully the combination of tactics and strategy will make my university role more managable!

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