Prioritizing beyond deadlines

A friend shared this article about university students struggling to read entire books on Facebook, and while there are many thought provoking things here, one quote in particular struck me:

“I would say that it is simply a case of needing to prioritise,” said Ms Francis, “do you finish a book that you probably won’t write your essay on, or do you complete the seminar work that’s due in for the next day? I know what I’d rather choose.”

Reading that sentence, I had the dual reactions of “of course” and “the fact that that’s the decision is the problem”.

I am not going to pretend that I don’t have days (or at this time of year, weeks) when I’m just working to keep my head above water with deadlines. But I also think that one of the “soft skills” that college should help develop is how to manage your time in a manner that lets you both meet immediate deadlines and allocate needed time regularly to longer-term projects. In any job, you could let every day get filled up with short-term tasks that legitimately do need to get done – meetings, emails, forms and reports, etc. But the big, interesting, meaningful projects only get done if they also get regular attention, because by their nature, they can’t be completed at the deadline, or at least they can’t be completed with any level of quality at the deadline.

This skill of balancing short-term and long-term work reminds me of a conversation I saw somewhere (though I am forgetting where) where a recent college graduate was struggling with their productivity when given larger projects to complete and was wondering how to ask their boss to assign them all their work in broken down tasks with daily deadlines. While I applaud the self-awareness to realize their productivity problem, I wonder if more practice in college at balancing the demands of tomorrow’s exam with the need to keep making progress on the book being discussed in seminar next week would have helped them with their professional productivity now.

And I connect this to a struggle I have in my own teaching. Where is the balance between breaking things down into manageable pieces with checkpoints and regular deadlines versus giving students opportunities to practice setting their own agendas and priorities? Certainly the level of the course comes into play, but even at the upper level, it is hard to stand back and watch a student not doing the work they ought to be doing to stay on track. When that happens, my first reaction is to ask if I should add more to my syllabus – more deadlines, more check-ins, more progress reports, etc. Things to make sure students are keeping pace with their work or let me intervene if they aren’t. But if we all do that, isn’t that just adding to the problem, of more deadlines and less practice with setting ones priorities and managing the consequences if those priorities didn’t get you where you needed to go? Do we stop assigning books because students can’t find the time to read them, or do we keep assigning books because it is important that students think about what choices they could make to create the time to read them?

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