Teaching against time management and for pleasure

Students often think of time management as working more and talk about it in moral tones, which can increase shame when they feel that they are “failing” at time management. It’s worth thinking about how words like “management” frame time as an enemy to be tamed, leisure as a vice, or rest as a reward for hard work or preparation for further hard work rather than a right. “Time management” language fits right into the project of the neoliberal subject that undermines the goals of a liberal education and social solidarity. So, yeah, as you might guess, I hate it, and I try not to use it. For the most part, our productivity hacks ignore the fact that most of us are simply doing too much, and there is an upward limit to how productive we can be. This leads us to fail at “time management,” contributing to shame (and buying more time management products).

Instead of “time management,” I want students to work at the things that are important to them: prioritization. I want them to enjoy their efforts and the fruits of those efforts (a pleasure-driven pedagogy). And I want learning to be hard when necessary (because some work is hard and sometimes you can’t grow unless you are doing a hard thing) but easy and light when possible (because not everything has to require a challenge).

While we can’t remove students’ other responsibilities or even help them prioritize academics, we can teach them how to accomplish their goals in our class with less stress and more enjoyment (which should be the goal of “time management”), and we can structure our courses so that this is more likely.  Here are some ideas:

  • Stress the natural reward of accomplishing goals more efficiently: more time for other priorities. Students who do their work early in the day, for example, don’t have it hanging over their heads the rest of the day, and they can say yes to last-minute invitations to do other fun things. 
  • When assigning a large task, ask students to imagine about how they will feel when it’s done, who will be proud of their accomplishment, and how they will reward themselves. You can even make this part of the pre-assignment work. 
  • Chunk assignments so that students have a clear, manageable goal and deadline. Provide feedback–even if it’s just a check mark and a “good job! Keep it up!” This lowers the stress level and reduces procrastination and cheating.
  • Make the purpose of assignments clear, so students know why they are doing the work they’re doing. This helps motivate them, which makes prioritizing easier. Consider including a “purpose of the assignment” portion on your assignment sheet. 
  • It may sound cheesy, but encourage students to identify what is important and urgent and do this work first. Ask them to bring their to-list to a workshop as a class and identify what is important and urgent on the list. When they can see that some things are neither urgent nor important, they can take those off their to-do lost for a short time or forever.
  • In a crisis semester (which is what we’re still in), streamline your courses, so no work is extraneous. Label enrichment or supplemental materials or activities as such. For example, in one of my courses, I assign one heavy-hitting theoretical article per module, along with one encyclopedia or academic dictionary article about the concept to make it clearer. I require students to read the longer article, but the shorter entry is just for those who need it.
  • Include estimated work time for your assignments. For videos, include the total run time. For readings, estimate the reading time. Doing so will help you see if you are assigning too much or too little, and it will help students plan their own time. This allows them to take responsibility for their time as prioritize as is best for them.
  • Require about the same amount of work each week. Especially for students who have the work in paid employment or who need to pay for childcare, this is important: they need to know how much time to reserve for class each week. One week of 5 hours of work and the next of 20 isn’t fair to them or the people they rely on to support them in their studies.
  • Set consistent deadlines–same day and time of the week. This will help students plan their own schedules. 
  • Make students accountable to each other rather than to you (or just to you). For example, require students to workshop papers, presentations, posters, and other projects–and not just in the drafting stage but in the planning stage too. Use the discussion board as a space where students share their progress on work. This helps create community around a shared task and allows students to encourage each other.
  • Host working Zoom sessions. Schedule them for the same day and time, or announce them the morning of. Tell students it’s just a quiet time to work together–like sharing a table at a coffee shop. Allow 3 minutes for a check-in at the start and 2 at the end. Work with the culture of your classroom, which might mean sharing a joke, a song, a meme, or an appearance from your cat. 
  • Dare students to work 15 more minutes in a day and to rest more than 15 minutes than they planned. Ask them to share their experience of what they accomplished and how they feel.
  • Challenge students to get their work done for your class by 9 am (or 10 am or noon or whatever is reasonable to you). While not all students will be able to achieve this goal, celebrate students who do.
  • Organize students into Forest groups. 
  • Teach students the pomodoro technique. Create a tracking sheet in Google Slide or another shared document so students self-report their progress. 
  • Teach students how to use your LMS’s calendar or to-do list functions. 
  • Regularly ask students what they are enjoying, what they are learning, what they are applying, and what they are planning to use in the future. This helps them see the bigger reasons why they are putting in the work now.
  • Review your course to see where you can accomplish the same goals with less complexity. Can you reduce the number of apps students are using? The number of logins they have to remember? Help keep the focus on course content by decreasing cognitive load.
  • Most importantly: give students time to get their work done. For a fully online class, consider allowing all work to be opened for at least a week; I often open it on a Friday night and leave it through the next two Sundays, which allows two weekends (which students with kids at home may need). Posting assignments or readings at the last minute isn’t cool, and students don’t have the power to challenge you to be more respectful of their time.
Antonio de Pereda’s Allegory of Vanity shows an angel holding a globe. On two nearby tables, we see a clock and an hourglass, skulls, and an extinguished candle, amid other items–all reminders of the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Rather than seeing school as a time to control time, perhaps we could see it as a time to enjoy it?

How do you help students accomplish their goals with less stress about time? Share your ideas, please!

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