Inertia vs. Freedom in Faculty Life

Surviving a clash between the most powerful force in the universe and the most perilous perk in academe

Shaun Wong / Creative Commons

August 17, 2015

It happens like clockwork each semester. Two weeks after a course begins, I brace myself for a wave of student complaints about the daily workload of questions, reading quizzes, and recurring tasks. I never cave to their demands, for I know just as surely that the flood of protests will begin to wither and, by the fourth week of the term, will have disappeared entirely.

The unrelenting work remains, so what’s changed? Nothing. Once people develop a habit they accept it as part of a regular routine. Not only do students stop griping, they appreciate the rhythmic structure that the continuing assignments afford.

What I’ve just described is the simple phenomenon of inertia. Inertia is what carried the New Horizons space probe three billion miles to Pluto. It’s also how mission scientists knew exactly where Pluto would be when the probe was launched a decade ago. I suspect Isaac Newton was describing human nature as well as physics when he observed that a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion remains in motion. But even though Newton’s "first law" is basic, it’s not intuitively obvious. When we notice inertia it’s typically because we are fighting rather than following it. We know inertia is a powerful force, but that knowledge alone is not enough to overcome it — or benefit from it.

It took me half a century to appreciate that simple truth. Appropriately enough, it dawned during a morning run. Yes, we understand that many things that are good for us can be as enjoyable as they are productive — think: academic research and writing as well as regular exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep. But the sad truth is that none of those things are as much fun, at least at first, as doing something (anything!) else. After years of riding my bike to work each day, I cannot imagine doing it any other way. The problem is developing productive habits in the first place.

Clearly there’s a fine line between being in a groove (good) or stuck in a rut (bad). Inertia can be friend or foe. In the realm of human affairs as in the physical world, inertia is a powerful tool you need to harness rather than struggle against. Should be simple, right? Start doing positive things and stop the negative things. What more is there to say?

Alas, inertia becomes complicated when you consider the unusual, dualistic role it plays for faculty. Relative to workers outside academe, faculty members generally have tremendous freedom. For the most part we decide what our workdays entail: how much time to spend, and in whatever ways, preparing for and teaching classes or designing and grading assignments. In addition, we determine the scholarly projects we undertake. Sure, we answer to supervisors in the form of chairs and deans, but, with rare exceptions, we chart our own course from graduate student to senior faculty.

The same control applies to the flip side of our workload, where we serve as "boss" of students whose work we supervise in courses, labs, or studios. We select assignments and set the pace. Even faculty at the bottom of a pecking order govern the labors, at least theoretically, of many other people.

That twofold freedom is mainly a blessing but occasionally a curse, especially when work is not going so well for us and those in our charge. At such times I find dozens of unproductive things I’d rather be doing. Managers always seek to increase employee productivity, but it’s different when, as an academic, you are not self-employed but nevertheless manage yourself.

What follows are some things I’ve learned to do in my continuing struggle with the conflict between inertia and freedom in faculty life, as that irresistible force meets an occasionally immovable object:

  • Make it a routine. You need not be a psychologist to see that people are creatures of habit, but a survey of psychological literature confirms that it’s as hard to break a habit as it is to start one. We talk a good game about change even as we resist it with all our might. How can we shift from inactivity to activity and replace wasteful habits with productive ones? How do you and your students find sufficient motivation to overcome the dreaded IDD (intention deficit disorder)? How do we get Newton’s first law on our side? The trick is to be mindful of inertia instead of struggling against it.
  • Nothing motivates like a deadline. Whether self-imposed or externally applied, deadlines are effective bosses. They get things done. Presenting at conferences forces us to make progress.
  • But be realistic. Sensible deadlines also help us deal with stacks of exams or papers to grade. Too much ambition can be counterproductive. Recognize that most tasks take longer than expected.
  • Break big tasks into manageable chunks: Give students work in clear, discrete parts — with firm deadlines. Instead of assigning one big term paper, require students to submit it in pieces, at regular intervals — first an outline, then the abstract, followed by an annotated bibliography, and so on. The same strategy helps tame Sisyphean writing projects of your own. Smaller tasks provide tangible outcomes, break up long unproductive stretches, and are easier to get moving.
  • Set short-term rather than long-term deadlines. Focus on the here and now. For faculty who teach and conduct research, the unavoidable, near-daily deadlines of teaching can be all-consuming. It’s all too easy to keep pushing back your long-term research deadlines. So instead of aiming to finish a manuscript in six months, pick a section you can write this week.
  • Embrace guilty pleasures. Your vices won’t disappear if you ignore them, but you can control them — rather than letting them control you — if you face them squarely. Check social-media accounts or email before you begin working, but only allot yourself a limited (and reasonable) time frame to do so.
  • Prioritize. It’s OK to reward yourself now and then, but avoid time wasters. Ask yourself: How should I (or my students) spend the next hour/day/week? What tasks are most important?
  • Find and emulate role models. Instructors and students alike benefit from working in groups and associating with their most industrious peers. Productive methods and attitudes are contagious.
  • Don’t beat yourself up for missing a day. It’s hard to maintain routines while traveling to conferences or vacations. It’s OK to adjust schedules once in a while. (Just don’t make it a habit.)
  • Don’t be afraid to change your routine. Even the most successful habits can become monotonous. There’s nothing so bracing as switching an everyday routine every so often. (Try brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand.) A study abroad, sabbatical, or yes, even class outdoors can do wonders to change one’s perspective. Let inertia pull you in new directions.
  • Make plans and lists. It feels productive to cross items off lists, even if they are trivial tasks.
  • Make work fun and relevant. We can’t always choose our tasks. That’s why it’s important, for those times when we have the freedom to choose, to select assignments we’re apt to enjoy and thus more likely to complete in a timely fashion. In the classroom, allow students to pick writing topics or other assignments on their own or from a list of choices. The same applies to your own scholarship — if you’re not excited about a topic, choose another or find an appealing new spin. Work doesn’t have to be something we do for others; it can be something fulfilling we do for ourselves. Ask yourself: Why did I pick this field or topic or committee? Can I rekindle that flame?
  • Avoid the "sophomore slump." When adopting an exercise program we are initially challenged and enthusiastic about the new plan. The same can be said for new research projects or class assignments at the start of a semester. No matter how much you enjoy a novel task, a time comes when the initial appeal wears off. Persist. Turn a dreaded hassle into an expected, even anticipated part of your routine.
  • Take time to adjust to a new routine. Summer for academics is like a pitch in a rec-league softball game. At first you’re in the batter’s box watching a cushy meatball slowly drift toward the plate, and all you can think is "Ha! I’m knocking this over the fence!" A moment later you swing and miss. "How did that get past me?" But in fact, summer is not a momentary event, even if in retrospect it feels that way, and that makes the pain of the whiff sting more: All that time and so little to show for it. You stroll back to the dugout, head down, determined not to strike out the next time.

Remember freedom’s double-edged sword as summer ends and the academic year starts. Both periods loom as paradises of boundless horizons and endless time to complete tasks. But just as no project is endless, none exists without a beginning. Overcoming inertia to start a task is the best step toward finishing it.

Alexander J. Werth is a professor and chair of the biology department at Hampden-Sydney College.