Sunday, October 12, 2014

Walt Whitman birthplace and trail

Equestrian trail
After three years in the city, I felt it was finally time to experience Long Island - having been assured that Brooklyn and Queens do not count. The proper way to do this would undoubtedly involve a beach house in the summertime, but it's October, and I don't have that many friends who are beach house types.*

Instead I headed out to the center of the island to visit the birthplace of Walt Whitman and a nearby park named in honor of the same. I took the Long Island Railroad to Hicksville and then tried to catch the N79 bus, which dropped off passengers and then disappeared. It appeared I could either pony up for a taxi or wait an hour for the next bus; not filled with confidence in the Nassau Inter County Express (it's NICE!), I chose the taxi.

At the birthplace, I learned that Whitman loved having his photo taken; no doubt he would be all about the selfie today. The museum tour is self-guided, but the house tour is docent-led, which meant that I had a private tour - business was slow. The tour guide was very sweet and knowledgeable, and I had ample opportunity to admire Whitman's father's carpentry.

The Hero of Canton TownFrom there, it was a short walk to the park, which has a trail bearing Whitman's name. While his family moved to Brooklyn when he was relatively young, he spent summers back on Long Island visiting family and definitely walked those woods. I found the park itself to be rather uninteresting - pretty because there were trees and it was a nice sunny day, but not worth writing poetry about. I tried in vain to channel some Whitworthian enthusiasm.

The high point of the trip was Jayne's Hill - and that's not attitude, that's altitude. Long Island tops out at 401 feet above sea, commemorated with the scenic boulder in the lower photo. 

Afterwards, I walked past the birthplace to the mall, which was upscale and boring, but it was also the site of the bus stop. This time, a bus did appear, and my return trip was uneventful.

So that was Long Island.

* I have friends who live at the beach, which is a very different proposition.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time Management III: Research and writing

Disclaimer: This is the part of time management I don’t have down yet. With research and writing, the few externally imposed deadlines are for near-complete projects, such as conference proposals. Unlike grading, which is naturally breaks down into single-assignment bites, research projects must be artificially chunked. The actual doing of the work then reveals flaws in my original estimates and plans.

No doubt it helps to be part of a research juggernaut - to have grad students looking to you for assignments, to have funders with reporting deadlines, to have senior faculty not-so-subtly pressuring you. Those of us at teaching-oriented institutions (or in teaching roles at research-oriented institutions) have nothing but our own willpower to go on, and vey few of us have much of that.

I’ve found that scheduling research and writing the way I do grading is not as successful. I’ve poked around at various kinds of scheduling and productivity software, but none of it seems to be set up in ways that I find helpful. (There are even a surprising number of sticker-chart apps for kids, but they are all premised on earning some sum of points, rather than on due dates. They are also ugly. Where is the Lisa Frank reward app?) I suspect Gantt charts might be ideal, but they don’t integrate with calendar apps well.

At the moment, I am playing with using BusyCal’s To Do list. BusyCal is much like the basic calendar that comes with the Mac OS, except it seems to work better and isn’t quite as ugly. To dos keep my calendar less cluttered than adding them to each day (they appear in a sidebar) while still being visible.

It’s been helpful thus far with tasks easily chunked down into small enough bits, such as “write blog posts.” The challenge of breaking down larger projects is still there: “Write article” is just too much, and I certainly won’t accomplish it in one afternoon. How much progress should I be satisfied with in one session? But breaking some of these projects down into tasks ignores any dependencies, bringing me back to Gantt charting …

I’m working on it. I’ll keep on trying with the to dos for a while, at least, and see if that improves my work flow and rate.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Time management II: Tomato timing

This summer I found myself in the position of having to write nearly 1000 50-word article summaries. It’s a task that sounds interesting enough until you’ve written several dozen of them! (This was for our forthcoming book, which you will surely want to buy for all your friends and family.) The problem is primarily that the task seems endless and it is unvarying. And I was on deadline.

I found the answer in the Pomodoro technique. It’s pretty simple:

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work diligently. When the timer goes off, mark an “x” on a piece of paper and set your timer for a five-minute break. Repeat. When you have four x’s, take a slightly longer break, 20-30 minutes.

This sounds like a lot of breaks, but those 25 minutes are solid work. Even I can go without Facebook for 25 minutes. As a result, I was able to work longer hours than I otherwise would have been able to.

I’ve been able to carry that technique with me into the school year. It doesn’t work for everything - classes and meetings being prime examples. But for grading, checking email, etc., it’s effective at keeping me on-task. I can work at most anything for only 25 minutes.

The x’s also help, not unlike stickers.

There are apps that will auto-time you, but it’s recommended you set the timer by hand each time. I guess it’s a way of taking ownership over what you are doing. I can’t vouch for that, not having used an app for comparison. One slight deviation I do make is that while one is supposed to stop work the moment the timer sounds, I take a few extra seconds to save any electronic work. You can imagine for yourself why that might be a sound idea.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Time management I: Grading

I’m now in my fourth year of teaching … and I’m finally beginning to get a grip on this time management business. This is a fairly typical problem for new professors. Faculty members have plenty of immediate demands on their time (show up for class, respond to this urgent email), and it’s easy for less deadline-driven work such as grading and research to slide - particularly research.

My institution does not have a high research requirement, and I’m still working through the problem of fitting it in. My current technique is to wait until there is a deadline, a strategy we all know to be perilous. I have, however, finally figured out how to keep up with grading, a not insignificant problem for anyone teaching five classes without a TA.

In the end, there are two techniques that have worked for me, although I they many not work for everyone. First, at the beginning of the semester I put each assignment to be graded on my schedule. Each assignment is supposed to be graded within a week of being turned in, but I can’t grade too much on one day, or at all on any day with a heavy teaching load. This kind of planning balances my workload and insures no assignment is forgotten. Second, I have a wall calendar, and every time I finish grading an assignment, I get a sticker on that day.

Yes, I said sticker. As in, the way we motivate pre-schoolers to do their chores and use the potty.

It works for me because it makes me visibly accountable. Realistically, my colleagues aren’t checking up on me, but they could if they wanted to. And while I could draw x’s instead, stickers are more attractive. Right now, I have sparkly stars. It’s much cheaper than rewarding myself with a latte.

In the past, I’ve tried other things with less success. For example, I tried a policy of grading one assignment every day. That didn’t work so well on busy days. I tried a whiteboard with a list of to-be-graded assignments, which was only moderately successful: The list tended to get too long and too discouraging.

Grading, of course, is only one part of my job. Next up: Taming the endless task.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Devil's Den Preserve

Redding Great LedgeYesterday I checked another state off my hiking list, adding Connecticut to the roll.

Devil's Den Preserve was the only hike of any significant length in the state listed in my local hiking guide. While the book didn't suggest that it was do-able via public transit, it is - as long as you don't mind nearly doubling the hike length with road walking.

It's three miles from the Cannondale stop on the Metro-North Danbury line to the entrance of the Nature Conservancy preserve. It's three miles of country roads ("country" meaning mansions on an acre or two each, "road" meaning 25 mph blacktop) with no sidewalks and mostly no shoulders. You would not want to do it at night.

The preserve itself is quite pleasant, with gentle undulations in the scenery that provide variety for the eyes without unduly tiring the legs. Well, that's provided your legs are in okay shape to begin with - mine were much more weary than I was willing to admit from a high intensity interval training class two days previous. The guidebook listed the hike around the preserve as 450 miles of elevation gain over seven miles; the road walk also has some elevation change.

Most of the really interesting stuff is near the entrance: Godfrey Pond, the old sawmill equipment, and Ambler's Gorge and Vista. At the far end of the park are the Great Ledge and the Redding Great Ledge. Of the vistas and ledges, only the Redding Great Ledge (pictured) is worth it; the others don't have any views, at least not while the trees are leafed out.

There is also a logistical challenge to doing this hike via train, as the return trains run every three hours. You're likely to have time to kill, and there isn't much to do in the vicinity: an expensive restaurant and an acupuncturist are right there, and supposedly there is a coffee shop a half-mile away. You might be better off renting a car from the city and driving.

I don't know that I would do this hike again, but it was worth doing once.