Starting a New Term by Meggin McIntosh, PhD

Mar 11th, 2014

The cycles of academic life help us stay fresh and allow us to refocus.  The beginning of a new semester (trimester, term) is a time to renew our commitment to being more organized this term than last term.  Here are ten tips for starting your new term in a productive fashion.

Note:  If you are reading this and it’s NOT the beginning of the semester, print this out so you have it handy for next term.

  1. Designate a shelf in your office for each class you are teaching (if at all possible).  If your office is so tiny that you can’t do that, then at least clear off a “class” shelf.
  2. Block in grading time on your calendar.  Get out all of your course syllabi and make note of when you have student assignments coming in (particularly big tests or projects).  Then, go immediately to your calendar and set aside time (like it is an appointment) to grade whatever  is getting turned in.  If you want to “find” time after students have turned in their assignments, you will not find any and will end up going nuts, smushing together other activities, or eliminating high priority projects (like your writing) in order to get your grading done.  What I’m suggesting is a much better plan. Believe me.  I have learned the hard way on this.
  3. Make sure your course meeting times show up in your calendar/planner.  You want any and all appointments to be displayed so that you can plan around them.
  4. Prepare a notebook for each course with the appropriate dividers.  I always had a divider for “class list,” “syllabus,” “notes,” and the like.
  5. Determine your office hours for this term and put them into your planner and then post them on your door (and website).
  6. Move last term’s “stuff” out of your daily space.  That is, if you still have course notes, class rolls, books, and the like in your easy-to-reach-without-even-getting-up space (and you are not teaching that class this term), then you need to move these items to your reference area to make way for this semester’s materials.
  7. Get out your notes, books, and other materials for this semester’s courses and put them on the nice clean shelf you have designated.
  8. Record all recurring appointments, meetings, etc. into your schedule.  The idea is that you need to have a decent sense of how much of your time is ALREADY COMMITTED.  If you don’t mark in as many of these known meetings, etc. as possible right from the beginning of the semester, you will end up promising time that you don’t have available to promise.
  9. Block in prep time for your courses.  Think carefully about whether this is a new prep or a course you have taught multiple times.  A guideline for new courses is easily 6 hours of prep for every one hour you’re in class.  For courses that are familiar, it might be reduced to a 2:1 ratio (although that was never true for me; I have trouble leaving well enough alone).
  10. Block in your writing/research time.  If doing scholarly work is part of the professional expectation for you, then you must treat this time as sacrosanct, just like other appointments.

I teach workshops at colleges and universities around the country and know that if faculty implemented the ten ideas I’ve shared here, there would be a dramatic decrease in stress and a dramatic increase in productivity.  Try any or all that you aren’t currently implementing and see what happens.  Surely it’s worth a try!

And if you want to get your current semester organized or prepare for the next, I highly recommend If You Do Nothing Else This Semester. With the strategies I present you will get the strategies you need to not only have a successful semester, but a successful year.

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