Skip to main content

Nibbled to death by ducks, Episode one

If often say that my work life is like being nibbled to death by ducks (which I think comes from the title of a mystery novel). That is, I have lots of little things that build up to make my work life, well, deadly. I had originally thought that I’d write one essay on the subject. But, well, there are a lot of ducks. So, I’m going to write a series of occasional essays instead. This essay is the first.

It’s Thursday morning. On my way in, I stopped in to visit the basement dwellers in the Forum for a few minutes. Now I’m in my office. The only thing I have scheduled this morning is a department meeting at 11:00 (followed by an errand at 11:30, an SEPC meeting at noon, a visitor at 1:00, a student at 1:30, a class from 2:00 to 4:00, tea at 4:00, a talk at 4:15, and dinner with the speaker after that). Officially, this is supposed to be research time. Unofficially, this is time for me to catch up on things, to respond to email messages, and to get ready for the rest of the day. I had planned to (a) finalize our visitor’s schedule, (b) get ready for the two meetings, and (c) work on my classes for tomorrow.

Here’s the approximate sequence of how the first part of my morning went.

Respond to question from alum about the CS reunion. Respond to request from Dean to meet about a topic, which includes calling his assistant and sending a followup email. (Worry a bit about the topic of the meeting.) Note that Leo Beranek has died [1]. Fill out stupid survey about a product repair. Read and reflect upon a letter from an off-campus-study program. Forward that message to our OCS office. Forward that message to the CS faculty. Start drafting a preliminary response (Here are my initial thoughts. It’s almost fall break, so we’ll be discussing it later. I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.) Chat with colleague who has stopped by my office to talk about a project for next semester. Compose a message to students who should be involved in that project. (Okay, time for a paragraph break.)

Start to get back to my OCS response. Realize, as I look for it, that I neglected to send a message I wrote yesterday. Send that message. Respond to a request regarding the daily essays. Do a quick Web search to learn more about the requested topic. Finish the OCS response. Send that. Send a note about violation of shared governance. Send a note asking about followup meetings for a search. Respond to question from student about lunch with visitor. Respond to response about followup meeting. Realize that I need to do followup on the student lunch (reminding students who signed up that they should attend; encouraging another student to attend). Start to follow up on encouraging student to attend. Decide to look for other resource for that student. Discover that a video the College has released for that resource is not appropriately captioned [2]. Attempt to compose polite email to indicate that we have both a legal and a moral responsibility to caption our videos. Start to return to composing message to student. Get email question about a new FERPA form that the College released and that I discovered. Respond to question. (Yeah, it’s probably time for another paragraph break.)

Back to composing message to student. See another colleague walk by who should meet with visitor today. Catch colleague and ask about possible times. Back to composing message to student. Stupidly decide that today is an excellent day to write about for the nibbled to death essay. Start trying to log everything I’m doing. Receive complicated email about a student. Ask myself whether the student is an advisee. Nope. Still, I have responsibilities as department chair. Start composing reply about student and the broader issues in the case. Get urgent question about today’s visitor. Respond to that question. Back to composing reply. Finish composing reply. (Consider trying to identify student’s advisor [3]. Decide it’s not worth my time.) Send reply. Get text from a student worried about a class. Tell the student to talk to the professor in that class. Receive followup question on new FERPA form, asking for a link to the form. Dig up URLs. Send reply. Forward earlier campus-wide message about FERPA. (And another paragraph Who cares about internal coherence?)

Try to remember where I was. That’s right, I was writing to a student about things they might consider. Dig up a bit more information and finish that letter. Write letter to other lunch students. Mail crashes. Restart mail. Confirm that email seems to have gone out. Try to determine if I’ve finished all the unplanned work. Read mail from HR. Read mail from Michelle. Throw away lots of non-spam email. Read daily announcements from high school. Amused by initial line [4]. See response on violation of shared governance. Send depressed followup [5]. Continue scanning through and deleting email messages. Here’s a great one, from Campus Safety Webcasts: Managing the Vaping Trend [6]. Yay! I made it through all of the unexpected stuff. Now back to the stuff I expected to do in the office this morning.

Are you exhausted yet? I think I am. I know that I’ve used a lot of brain power. Can you guess how much time I’ve spent? [7] But there’s still important work to do. Can I finish the two or three things I planned to do before my 11:00 a.m. meeting? Definitely not all three. Maybe the first two. We’ll see.

First, I work on the schedule. Remember who wants to see the visitor when. Figure out room numbers. Look up addresses. Distribute. Realize I screwed up on parts. Revise. Distribute again.

Okay, can I get ready for my meeting? Wait! I have two quick email messages to send, one having to do with the afternoon class and one having to do with the student meeting at 1:30. Done.

Now I can get ready for my meeting. Do I have the primary photocopies I need? Yes. It’s time to write some additional notes. Amazingly, I get something together before the meeting, and even print copies for everyone. However, as soon as the meeting starts, I realize that I’ve left out some important parts. Oh well; they were intended as notes and weren’t expected to be complete.

What else? The meeting at 11:00 ran long. That meant I was late picking up lunch for the visitor lunch, and even later meeting with my SEPC. The rest of the day went more-or-less as scheduled. I think we finished dinner at 8:00 or so. I chatted with my wife and a son. Then I worked on a problem for a student in my online class. Some more family stuff, finish this essay, and it’s time for bed.

Oh, yeah, at some point during the day I got another letter about the shared governance issue and sent out at least one followup. I also sent a few folks notes about the visitor for my afternoon class, and probably even answered a few messages along the way.

What’s the moral of all of this? I’m not sure. My days are long. I’m too willing to let myself get interrupted by email messages. But, in the end, I think it’s that there are lots and lots of small things that make up my day, and there are enough of those small things that they interfere with my ability to do my bigger tasks. None of the small things are particularly annoying [8]. Some are even important. Some are even pleasant (e.g., I like making suggestions to students). But, in the end, there are enough that I fell nibbled to death by ducks.

You know what? I never found time to work on tomorrow’s classes.

[1] Of BBN. And no, that’s not Buckingham, Brown, and Nichols.

[2] I now know that captioning is in the works.

[3] I prefer advisor to adviser, in spite of what the College style guide says. And since half the College ignores the College style guide (including those responsible for the style guide), I don’t feel so bad about making that choice.

[4] Please be aware of any suspicious emails. If you were not expecting an email from someone and it contains a link he/she is telling you to go to, you may first want to email that person back to ensure you were received the email intentionally. Ignoring the you were received, I find this funny because I got a phishing message yesterday that seemed to be from the middle-school principal and that Proofpoint failed to identify as a phishing message. Maybe people should learn how to digitally sign their messages, and we wouldn’t have this problem.

[5] Approximately: I’m concerned that we are seeing a decrease in shared governance not so much because administrators are actively trying to exclude faculty, but because they don’t even think to consult faculty.

[6] Given that Grinnell now has a vape (?) place down town next to Pag’s, I wonder whether this should be a concern for us.

[7] Two hours, plus or minus.

[8] Well, I find the failure of shared governance incredibly annoying, but that’s a separate matter.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-13.