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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Don't Know How They Do It.

  For those of us who spend an enormous amount of time not getting much done, those of you who do are an endless source of fascination.  After a year in academia, I've found myself staring regularly and rudely -- even to the point of further incapacitation -- at the lives of heroically productive law professors: the academics who routinely teach a full course load, graciously handle administrative tasks, perhaps raise a few children, head to the gym each day, all while pumping out cartloads of law review articles, opinions-editorial, books, congressional testimony, &c.

  I want to interview all the Noah Feldmans, Elizabeth Warrens, and Lucian Bebchuks to ask about the minutiae of their weekly schedules.  Perhaps we could launch a C-SPAN show modeled on Brian Lamb's Booknotes to quiz the hugely prolific on their routines and follow them around for a fortnight.  Ideally, we could find answers to the eternal questions, such as: How does the laundry get done?  Who buys the groceries?  If you eat at home, how does the cooking and cleaning not obliterate the evening?  Have you ever watched a single television program in the past decade?

  I've heard tale told of certain tremendously successful professors who set a goal of writing 2000 words a day (and, based on their publication records, appear to reach it).  The idea is mind-boggling to me.  Granted, first-year professors spend more time than most learning how to teach their courses but, when that burden diminishes, the administrative duties increase commensurately.  So I still have a very hard time imagining how to build a schedule that fosters such incredible productivity while tackling the mundane tasks required to keep one's household a going concern.

  So, how do they do it?  Perhaps very junior professors without children are willing to live a squalid lifestyle of pizza & ramen.  Perhaps very senior chairs can afford housekeepers and the retinue to sustain a fully supported lifestyle.  Perhaps colleagues of a certain generation have extraordinarily accommodating spouses.  What can the rest of us do?

Posted by William Birdthistle on May 29, 2007 at 08:14 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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First of all, quantity is not quality.

But I also just finished my first year as a law prof and know exactly what you mean. I'm hanging on to the beliefs that:

(1) Teaching prep was really hard and never will be that hard again

(2) It is taking a long time to ramp up background knowledge of my field that I will draw on later. I can't yet make the sort of remark my more senior colleagues make off the top of their head in conversation like "oh, Professor Smith wrote a good piece on that topic in the late 90s, I think it was in Stanford or maybe Penn, but I don't think she really grappled fully with the normative dimension of the issue." So, as someone above said, reading an article a day isn't a bad suggestion.

(3) This is a marathon not a sprint. The short-term goal is to get tenure and establish myself. I can worry later about becoming *super*-productive or testifying before Congress. For now I'll just shoot for plain old productive.

(4) I should not write long blog comments during core work time. Oops.

Posted by: Another newbie | May 30, 2007 10:56:18 AM

This was an interesting post and I would enjoy hearing more from people who just started teaching and their thoughts on the issue.

Posted by: anonymous | May 30, 2007 12:54:52 AM

I remember reading that Slate diary--it did seem that Posner relied on a network of support--admin staff, wife, clerks, wife...

So, I guess I should get a husband who will do everything for me. Great.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | May 29, 2007 8:28:47 PM

Wow, Posner seems like a very weird person. Maybe part of his secret is that he doesn't invest in human relationships at all.

Posted by: Bart Motes | May 29, 2007 6:07:48 PM

From recent articles on Posner it seems that one way he manages to write so much is by more or less eliminating things like running errands. Apparently his wife does nearly every practical task for him and he's more or less helpless about the daily things of life. So, get a wife who will do everything for you. Also, recycle your writing quite a bit. That seems to help some of the big producers.

Posted by: Matt | May 29, 2007 5:07:21 PM

One approach is to treat succeeding in an academic career as an operations management problem. Even in an academic post, you still have output goals and a set of constraints. Apart from the easy stuff (not using teaching prep to procrastinate on writing, etc.), you pretty much have to start out with semesterly, weekly, and daily agendas; pay attention to what works and what does not; make adjustments; repeat as needed. Big productivity boosters tend to be silly things like coordinating your schedule with your biorhythms (both taking advantage of times when you have an easy time concentrating and figuring out what non-writing tasks (like running errands or hitting the gym) you can complete when you're feeling fried.

Posted by: anon | May 29, 2007 2:41:28 PM

Dan, perhaps you were referring to the New Yorker profile of Posner, titled "The Bench Burner." Unfortunately, the PDFs that used to float around the internet have all disappeared; the only version left online is this one.

Posted by: Adam | May 29, 2007 1:26:34 PM

Dan - are you referring to Posner's diary on Slate? It's here: http://www.slate.com/id/2060621/entry/2060676/

Posted by: Posner Critic | May 29, 2007 1:26:20 PM

William, I've often wondered the same thing, usually on an hourly basis, and am always keen to see how the masters do it. I have a vague recollection that there have been some summaries of a day in the life of folks like Posner--maybe it was on Forbes.com?
In any event, Ian Ayres talked about 1000 words a day at the AALS this past January, and having done so, he inspired a friend of mine without teaching responsibilities to keep up with that this semester. I'm duly impressed. I suspect if one wrote 1000 words a day on one's non-teaching days, one'd still be very productive. My longstanding goal for the next few weeks or any non-teaching day is at least one law review article read a day and at least a couple hours tapping away at the laptop w/o an internet or email distraction. In this vein, my highly productive colleague and friend Jon Klick likes to quote his dissertation advisor: the problem is not too many days with too little written, it is too many days with nothing written. I think there's some deep wisdom to the habituation model there.

Posted by: Dan Markel | May 29, 2007 9:56:37 AM

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