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Making "Thinking Time" for Curricular Development

In academia, we often hear faculty discuss the need to find time to write.  I've recently been reading Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space, in which she discusses the need for those very things in writing.  In the first chapter, she notes, "[A]cademics talk constantly about making time, finding time, carving out time to write. We fantasize about having more of it, and we bemoan our chronic lack of it."[1]

I find the same is true for developing and assessing curricular programming. As librarians, true public servants, our profession is rooted in our service to others. Even if we are not scheduled for the reference desk or to attend a meeting, our "availability" is our calling card and in some cases our badge of honor.  It's expected that we will stop what we're doing should a patron come to our door or call on the phone.

The problem is that without free time to think, to think uninterrupted, we cannot innovate.  We keep with the status quo because what we're doing now has served us okay in the past and we are barely keeping our head above water balancing the many interrelated aspects of our jobs. I've recently had many conversations with other librarians about the fact that, with smaller budgets and staff sizes, many of us are doing two to three jobs.  There were so many points this past semester when I was only prepping in the hour or so before class, simply relying on last year's materials.  This is not the kind of teacher I want to be, but mid-to-late semester I didn't find I had the wherewithal to do more. For one of our programs I was struggling simply to get materials ready for the others who teach in the program.

It's had me thinking about what I can do to build time into my schedule to think and plan--not just update materials from previous semesters or review my slides from last year.  It is necessary if our library's educational programming is going to continue to move forward, which I very much hope it will both for our students and for myself.  In the past few weeks, as I've reclaimed some of that time and thought deeply about the future our various instructional programs, I've been more energized and excited than I've been for months.  Thinking time can reinvigorate us and remind us what excites us about librarianship.

In Sword's book, she mentions a number of reasons why adopting a daily writing routine is beneficial: (1) it helps battle procrastination; (2) it demystifies the writing process; (3) it keeps research at the forefront of your mind; (4) it helps you develop new ideas; (5) it adds up incrementally; and (6) it helps you figure out what you want to say.[2]  All of these reasons can be analogized to instructional planning as well.  Taking time to think daily (or at least on a regular, scheduled basis) about instruction is a key ingredient for making us better teachers and for developing courses, workshops, or educational programs that will most benefit our students.

Summer, traditionally a bit quieter than the rest of the academic year, is a good time to begin building new habits, but how can we start to build thinking time into our daily schedules?  There are a few things I'm going to try.  The first thing is moving offices (I realize this is not a possibility for everyone).  I'm currently in an office that has three doors--two to the Circulation Desk/reserves area and one to the law library's Collaborative Commons.  This means I'm central to the hub of activity in the library and that dozens of interruptions per day is common--even when I'm not the on-call librarian.  We had an empty office in a less public space in the law library, so I approached my director about moving to give me more time and space to think--and ultimately be more beneficial to the law library.  Luckily, I have a director who values my need to think and helped to make arrangements for me to find that time.

As a profession, we need to be willing to have more transparent conversations with our colleagues about our needs and to be open to finding solutions that allow us to do our best work.  While moving offices may not be an option, there may be other ways to find time to think--brainstorm them and then talk to your supervisor about them.  Maybe you think best in the afternoon and want to avoid continuing to be scheduled for reference shifts at that time.  Maybe your library has an open-door policy, but you can carve out certain times each week when you can shut your door or even go to another location where you're less likely to be disturbed.

The second thing I'm doing is scheduling thinking time into my calendar, separate from class prep time.  My brain is most capable of doing deep thinking first thing in the morning, so I'm scheduling the first few hours of each day for thinking and protecting that time the same way I would if I have a committee meeting or an appointment scheduled with a student.  My email and phone will be off or silenced during this time, my door will be shut, and I'm going to share with my colleagues that a shut door means I'm not available.  That last piece is a little stressful for me, as someone who's always had a complete open-door policy with both her colleagues and students, but I know that this time is going to be more beneficial for the library than answering non-emergent questions that may arise.  We have a tendency in librarianship to treat every question or patron need like an emergency, when in fact, they rarely are. Practicing this schedule-blocking during the summer should help me build the habit so that when the fall semester begins, it'll feel normal.

Thinking time is valuable to all librarians, whether doing instruction, access services, technical services, public services--or more likely some combination of the above.  Innovation in any of these areas requires time and space, but no one's going to carve it out for you.  You have to take the initiative to make solutions that will give you time and then build it into your schedule and guard that time fiercely.  You'll be a better librarian for it and your library will certainly benefit from you taking the time to think deeply.

[1] Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write 17 (2017).

[2] Id. at 18.

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