Quantifying the (Academic) Self

Punching in, pt. 3

Looking at my calendar alone, it’s hard to get much of a sense of what I do each week. In between blocks of meetings, “office hours”, and scheduled classes, there are oddly placed gaps that are inevitably packed and yet unstructured. Perhaps that’s part of what makes faculty workload a popular target: David Levy’s editorial in the Washington Post, “Do college professors work hard enough?”, has added fuel to the endless debates about faculty workload. It includes accusatory gems like: “Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.” Follow-ups to the editorial even take this a step further, suggesting that academics are inefficient.

Many have joined in the conversation to counter Levy’s arguments, and accounts like Philip Nel’s tracking of an academic week and the many accounts of Day of Digital Humanities offer very different pictures of what a workload in academia looks like. Debates like this are possible in part because time in the classroom might appear to be the only “scheduled” part of the day. As anyone facing spring annual reports, another season on the job market, or another milestone is well aware, quantifying productivity is necessary for accountability. However, that accountability is about more than punching a time clock, and the hours of investment in prepping a new course, advising students, grading and administrative or alt-ac labors might well go unrecognized by those outside evaluations.

But self-quantification doesn’t have to be about outside accountability. Digital tools for replacing the traditional “time clock” with other measures of productivity can be validating on other levels, including confirming your own suspicions about the pressure on your day. (An honest evaluation of the number of hours spent in meetings each week as compared to the service percentage of workload, for instance, might even boost confidence when saying no to that fifth committee assignment.) As Natalie Houston noted, trying time tracking even for a short period can be a way to answer that lingering question: where does your time go?

Time tracking can provide the ultimate quantification of a workload, with all those numbers detailed for evaluation in accord with determined “percentages” of commitment to each type of work—something that can be literally tracked using apps like TimeClock (Android) or TimeMaster (iOS), a tool for keeping track of minutes spent on different projects. Apps like RescueTime, on the other hand, can be all too revealing about how much an addiction to Entanglement or Words with Friends is cutting in to research hours. A tool can also set a daily progress bar: Billie Hara noted the potential of tracking word goals for increasing daily productivity using sites like

There are several cultures of self-quantification outside of academia. The carrying of a pedometer, for instance, tracks the number of steps day after day. Scales that can send your weight wirelessly output the changes over time in graphs. Apps like MyFitnessPal invite the recording of every calorie consumed, its nutritional value, and an accounting of all daily exercise. Body builders and even more casual gym-goers note their ability to increase both the amount of weight and reps. Fitness gadgets like the Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit and Striiv offer continuous monitoring of activity.

These acts of quantification can appear like excessive self study: the documentation of details that are mostly of personal value. And yet, in academia, the same quantitative games are played on the CV, where these numbers come fast and furious. Number of publications per category. Impact factor of journals those publications are in. Number of conference papers presented each year. Data from student evaluations, reduced into tables of average scores, charted across time for changes in teaching quality. Scores on RateMyProfessors. Amount of grant money. Number of advisees. All the output that the current debates over faculty workload can weigh or dismiss–information that an understanding of personal productivity might put in more appropriate context.

Have you tried an app or strategy for quantifying your life to track productivity that’s important to you? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Flickr User Marcin Wichary]

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