In the humanities, especially, it’s pretty easy to consider the academic life as an essentially solo act, punctuated by meetings we often don’t want to go to, and classes we fuss over as our main chance to interact with human beings. But we’re actually pretty deeply intertwingled with one another, and the fiction we tell ourselves otherwise can generate some pretty rotten effects.
Recently, I did a pretty rotten thing. I was on a committee of three people who’d portioned out a fraction of a load of work to each member, to be collated into the One Thing before the meeting. Well, the meeting was in the afternoon of the day chosen to consider the One Thing, and I did my part in the late morning. This was the 11th hour, if you will. But what I was thinking was: “I’ve still got 90 minutes before the meeting starts, and I’m done!”
Except I had to send my part to someone else to collate before the meeting, and he had asked to have it the day before. So what happened was my 11th hour () became the 11th hour of the 11th hour for the committee member who had to integrate my work into the whole. The third member of our group had got his work done in plenty of time, so at least it was just me who was pushing the edge, but still: while I was happily eating lunch congratulating myself on my timely completion of an onerous task, I had dropped a big last-minute job on someone else, who hadn’t been expecting to use that 90 minutes to add my work into the group project.
By seeing myself as a solo agent, I conveniently forgot that nearly everything I do requires someone else, at some point, to help me out.
Consider these cases.
Have you ever been in the photocopier room on the first day of class? If your department is like any of those I’ve ever been a member of, there will be a steady parade of increasingly frazzled teachers photocopying enough copies of their syllabus to hand out in … 30 minutes, two hours, tonight, 10 minutes. There will be a lineup. Tempers will fray. Paper will jam. People will be running their hands through their hair fairly violently while passive-aggressively harrumphing. But you see, the photocopier is a shared resource and even if my syllabus is technically done “in time” for the first class, it’s hardly fair to expect sole use of the photocopier!
What about filling in those forms that your department might send, about naming which courses you want to teach, and roughly when and where? If I hand that back at the 11th hour, or, as is sometimes the case, beyond it, it probably means that scheduling officer, either a faculty member or staff, is going to have to stay at the office very very late, or work a weekend–because you can be sure I’m not the only one that left it until the very last possible moment. And what if I’ve inadvertently double-booked myself, or too many people have tried to get the same room at the same time? Is the deadline now impossible to make, unless someone exerts a heroic effort on my behalf?
Or those copy-edits I was meant to turn my attention to? Maybe I’ll only be one day late on handing those in, but have I considered that the collection editors have their own deadline with the press that I’ve just made it harder for them to meet without panic or overtime? I know when I was working on the handbook I edit, once it left me it went to an editor, then back to me, then to a copy editor, then back to me, then to a proofreader, then back to me, then into production. It really became clear to me that there were a lot of people each counting on all of the others to get each part done in a timely way, or everyone else would have their own time compressed, then compressing further the time of the next person in the process, and so on.
There’s a lot more of this going on in the academy than we realize.
The grant application has to be signed by your chair, and your dean, and the research office before it gets submitted. The administrative assistant has to check to completeness and the documentation of the yearly expense claims before forwarding them by a university-imposed deadline. A collaborator had booked a specific day our of her week to incorporate her material into your shared bibliography. The committee can’t deliberate until every member has done their prep work.
I am, and you are, probably, a pretty serious procrastinator. I procrastinate on getting my syllabus finalized because I want the class to remain in the ideal state it can only occupy in my mind. I procrastinate on my writing because I find it terrifying. I procrastinate writing letters or peer reviews and answering complicated emails because they are a lot of work. I used to think the only person who was made to suffer under my last-minute regime was me. But that’s not true at all: the admin staff get frazzled, my students are left confused, academic authors are made to wait for decisions on their manuscripts, my colleagues have their time wasted waiting for me.
I used to think, that is, that my not-optimal time management was my own problem, and if I could live with it, then, there’s no problem. That’s just not true. Not true at all.
I’m going to be thinking a lot harder about this problem of the 11th hour of the 11th hour, and change my own practices accordingly. Do you have any strategies? Do you have any more examples of the way the 11th hour problem can create a cascade of stress and panic?