A few weeks ago, I was reading Rachel Toor’s article on habits of highly effective writers. I ran across this quote, an idea I’ve certainly seen before, but which struck me differently this time: “Perhaps it’s confidence, perhaps it’s Quixote-like delusion, but to be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. If you second-guess at every step, you’ll soon be going backward. A writer I know likes to say that over the years he has ‘trained’ his family not to expect him to show up for certain things, because they know his work comes first. You have to be willing to risk seeming narcissistic and arrogant, even if you don’t like to think of yourself that way. The work takes priority. And they might hate themselves a little if they slack off. Along with the necessary arrogance and narcissism, a dollop of self-hatred goes a long way toward getting stuff done. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.”
This led me to think about making time for teaching. I wonder if we would ever (or could ever) think about teaching in the same way. Now, some would say that we already do, that teaching dominates their lives in a way they find unhealthy. Their challenge is to balance the demands of teaching with the rest of their lives. But, note, even in the way that thought is voiced, teaching is not the priority; instead, it is something else in their lives, whatever it is that people want to balance teaching with.
When we talk about writing in the way Toor is, we say that it is such a priority that we will offend those in other areas of our life in order to make room for it. We will train our families and anyone else in our life to see that writing is the priority, nothing else. When we talk about teaching, we talk about it as the inevitable in life, and we then try to carve out time for what our real priorities are around that. Teaching is, in some sense, what we are trying to avoid in order to have time to do the other things in life we really want to do.
I used to talk like this when I was first hired. I often complained that I didn’t have enough time to write or read for pleasure or watch movies because teaching (really grading and preparing to teach, of course) took up much more of my time than I wanted. I was constantly unhappy because my real priorities were pushed to the side because of teaching. When I came back to where I currently teach, I decided to try to switch those and make my focus the classroom.
While I certainly don’t watch as many movies as I once did or read as much for pleasure, I am much more content now. First, my teaching improved dramatically once it became the focus, as would be expected. But, most interestingly, my writing production also improved dramatically. Once I stopped complaining about not having time to write, I simply started using the time I did have (early mornings, usually) to do the writing I wanted to do. Because I am prepared for class and have finished the grading I need to get done, I have more time for that writing. Focusing on teaching made me a better (and more productive) writer.
I wonder, though, if it would be arrogant and narcissistic to train our families not to expect us to show up for certain things because we need that time to prepare for a class, read a scholarly article (or three), or simply to think about teaching, as we do with writing. Or perhaps we already do this. Anyone who teaches well knows that doing so requires us to say no to certain things and pulls us away from events (and people) we would otherwise like to make time for.
But the difference is in our rhetoric. We talk about teaching as if it is whatever interferes with our real lives, not as if teaching is our real life. If we view teaching as an integral part of that real life, we can change our attitudes toward how we spend our time. That might actually give us more time to do those other things we want to do.