Professor, Interrupted: The Legacy of Constant Disruptions

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By Erin Marie Furtak

One of the low points came last spring. My elementary-age kids had been learning at home for about six weeks, and the end of the school year was in sight. It was a beautiful day, but as an associate dean, I had a Zoom meeting to attend. So I decided to participate in the dean’s advisory meeting from the front porch, where I could keep an eye on my children.

My kids, age 6 and 8, sat in the sunshine as the meeting got underway, happily decorating rocks with tempera paint and glitter. I sat back, thinking, “Yes, yes, I can do this.” We reached the point in the agenda where I was to lead a conversation about academic scheduling — a dynamic and challenging process as we looked ahead to fall 2020. I started talking from my notes, when a rising volume of bickering, punctuated by piercing screams, cut through the air. I looked up and saw a paintbrush fly, then a flash of glitter before the two of them took off down the street.

All of this was captured on video with a live mic. Astonished and horrified, I stammered to my colleagues, “I’m sorry … I have to … my kids. …” I shut my laptop and took off after them — mid-sentence, mid-discussion.

This was of course just one of countless interruptions I’ve experienced in the last eight months as we’ve all settled into what feels like an endless stretch of remote working and learning. As a professor, an administrator, and as a parent, I have been challenged to my absolute core. At the same time, I have been on a journey to locate a sustainable way of working and being during the pandemic — to find a way to make it possible to parent and to remain a scholar and an administrator. In the process, I’ve had to fundamentally rethink how I cope with interruption.

Covid-19 has interrupted our careers — particularly those of women and single parents caring for young children. Labs have closed and fieldwork has been halted. Travel for conferences and other meetings became — and remains — a distant memory.

Those large-scale interruptions will affect our careers for years to come. Moves by colleges and universities to delay tenure clocks have acknowledged the damage that’s been done. At the same time, those of us who are both professors and parents have also faced thousands of tiny little interruptions. Seemingly inconsequential in the moment, those tiny interruptions add up and can interfere in a big way with our writing and research.

Like when I’m finally making progress on the conceptualization of a chapter for my new book, and my daughter needs help getting her laptop camera to work — now, so she can join a live lesson. Or when I’m working on a revision for an article, getting so close to the precise wording I’d like to use for a sentence, and my son “desperately” needs a glass of milk. Or when I’m in a meeting performing a core aspect of my role as associate dean, and I have to stop mid-sentence to chase after my bickering children.

We were fortunate that both my husband and I were working from home. Rather than hire a sitter, to limit our exposure to Covid-19, we took turns with our children as our schedules allowed. But his job had its own rhythm, as did mine — and adding the kids’ daily needs on top created an exhausting, looping cacophony.

In search of a schedule. A fundamental tenet of being a full-time working parent is that we rely on school and child care to allow us to work. I used to painstakingly plan every moment of my work schedule so that I could be fully present with my family when we were together at home. When my kids’ school district declared it was moving to online learning in March, I cried when my dean asked how I was doing. How were we ever going to manage? We were on our own. Those seven- and eight-hour stretches free of interruption became a vestige of another time.

Early on, I was one of those parents who made an overly optimistic, color-coded schedule, put it into a plastic sheet protector, and posted it on our kitchen wall. An eternal optimist and a planner, I believed what my kids’ school district told me: Establish a routine to help the kids feel like they have a structure at home.

It worked for about two days.

As the pandemic set in, and we realized that this moment was going to stretch weeks or months into the indefinite future, the schedule slipped (not only could we not stick to it, but it literally wouldn’t stick to the wall, anymore). One kid had to be online from 9:30 to 9:45 a.m., the other at 10 a.m. Computers needed endless updates, every website for each kid had a different, unique password. I had somehow envisioned the kids would sit at their desks in their rooms, working independently while I carried on with my day. Instead, they were always hanging around my desk, sometimes needing intervention so regularly that I couldn’t get through a single sentence. And many of their lessons — particularly for my kindergartner —needed the full attention of an adult to complete.

I tried to set up times where my kids could connect with family members — to have them read together, play games together — just so I could have some uninterrupted time. I scheduled my meetings around times when they were occupied. Then, during the open slots in my schedule, I had the kids back under my purview, their daily needs disrupting my work more and more.

What I learned from those early weeks was that — if I was going to be successful at my dual jobs of full-time, full-on parent and full-time, full-on professor — I had to rethink what counted as interruptible work.

Some of our work is interruptible. In the beginning of the pandemic, I operated under the assumption that my work meetings could not be interrupted. In reality, many of my colleagues and students were in the same situation I was, and having a kid burst into the Zoom room to ask a question, find a pair of scissors, or print something out only humanizes and normalizes what we are all experiencing.

Other kinds of academic work, I realized, are also interruptible. Responding to email, reviewing and signing paperwork, and grading are important and take time, but also have natural shifts and transitions that allow me to pause to intervene with my kids. I can get the gist of an email if I’m interrupted when reading it or crafting a response. Similarly, I can read and provide feedback on student writing, help my kid, then turn to the next student’s work.

Ultimately, I learned that synchronous work — meetings with students, colleagues, or collaborators (so many meetings!) — could withstand these unexpected interruptions and still be productive. Sure, those interruptions could not happen every two to three minutes. But an occasional disruption did not sacrifice my integrity or the meeting’s. My kids have wandered into view while I’ve been teaching my class online, usually eliciting smiles of understanding among my students.

In those instances, I had to adjust to having my kids in the background rather than thinking about “my” work as something that could only happen when the kids were in a full day of school or child care.

And some of our work is less uninterruptible. Of course, many other types of academic work suffer more when they are repeatedly interrupted. These activities need the time and space to happen free from disruption. Like when I am presenting research for an external audience, or having sensitive or confidential administrative conversations. However, such duties are usually known in advance, and I can let my family know not to bother me until that activity has passed.

More fundamentally, though, I also realized that the “open” and unscheduled blocks of my day — increasingly fleeting, given my advising, service, and administrative roles — were the least interruptible of all. It’s within those open-ended blocks of time, early in the day or sandwiched between meetings, when I finally have a chance to write.

It turned out that what I had to protect was not my formal meeting time with others but those appointments with myself, in order to minimize the mounting effects of many small interruptions on the overall trajectory of my career. Does this mean I’m writing at pre-Covid rates? No. Hell no. But amid the ongoing swirl of the pandemic, I have gotten better at preserving just a little thinking-and-writing time, and finding a way to live with those small interruptions, as I ride out the large-scale ones.

Almost like developing a negative into a photograph, what I had previously designated as my uninterruptible time (meetings) has been reframed as interruptible. And those precious open hours in my calendar have become my protected, uninterrupted time. If I know my kids are going to be occupied, I’m at my computer — writing, digging into the latest article that I’d like to integrate into my book, sketching out ideas for figures and tables.

As the pandemic goes on, and our children continue to be fixtures in our work- and learn-from-home lives, I know I’ll probably have to chase them down the street again in the middle of a meeting. But there’s also a small glimmer of light as my writing carries forward.

 

Erin Marie Furtak is a professor of science education and associate dean of faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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