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Notes From a Writer's Desk: Collecting Your Own Mid-Term Feedback

Where did February go? It can sometimes feel like you blinked and March has arrived, bringing with it the allure of spring break and horribly heralding the second half of spring term. Don’t worry! It’s not actually the middle of the term yet, but in my experience the pressures of January and February can quickly snowball, leaving you wondering where all that time went. If you are currently teaching or have ever taught a course at Harvard, you are probably also getting emails from the Bok Center right around now reminding you of the benefits and joys of collecting mid-term feedback in your courses. When teaching, this feedback can allow you to check in on how things are going before the end of the term, giving you a valuable opportunity to course correct. Even if you decide to do nothing with the feedback, the practice of checking in with your students and reflecting on your teaching practices can be a helpful reminder that teaching isn’t just something that happens—it requires decisions, and reflecting on those decisions can make you more aware of what you are actually doing in the classroom. I will confess that I often missed the chance to collect mid-term feedback. In the middle of February, I would think it was much too early to do and by the time I thought of it again, the term would be over. This is why I want to urge you to think about such feedback now—and not just for your teaching, but for your research and writing.  

Just as teaching evaluations can help you to reflect on the choices you make in the classroom, a writing evaluation—conducted by you, for you—can help you to reflect on how you are organizing and spending your time. By taking a moment to pause and reflect now, you can set yourself up for success in the weeks to come, plan ahead for busy periods, and reevaluate what is working well or needs improvement in your writing practice.  

So, what might this mid-term feedback look like? As with student evaluations, I suggest taking a moment to frame some questions for yourself that you can use to guide your research and writing. There are three main areas that I think are worth considering in your questions: time, values or goals, and deadlines.

The first step in this process requires taking stock of where you actually spend your time. Write down what you actually do, hour by hour, for the next week and categorize those tasks. How much time is spent on teaching and how much on research? How much of your research time is spent writing and how much is spent on other aspects of your research? Having a clear breakdown of how you are currently using your time can help you to see what is being prioritized. 

The second step is to think about your values and goals for the term. Are you trying to finish your dissertation? Submit an article or attend a conference? Keep up with research in your lab? Get a stellar teaching evaluation? Maybe you are trying to do several of these things. Write down all of your goals and then rank them in order of priority. This will help you to think about what is actually most important to you within the limited timeframe of the term. 

The third step is to compare your priorities with your current time distribution and decide whether you want to make any changes. This is the step where you should include any realities that haven’t made it into the evaluation so far—things like specific deadlines, department requirements, or your personal life. With your most important goals in mind, start from the end of the term and work backwards outlining what you need to do to reach your goals in the time available. This process of reverse outlining your term can help you to set realistic goals and internal deadlines. When you do this, you should include any personal, family, or vacation time as well, so you have a realistic sense of what you can do within the available time and set your priorities accordingly. If doing taekwondo every week is important for your sense of well-being, that should be included in your timeline. Making time for the things that make you feel good—whether that is exercising, staying connected socially, or continuing a hobby that brings you joy—will help prevent burnout and keep you from setting unrealistic goals. Backwards planning your term is especially helpful if you feel behind on a project or goal. Start with the time available and make your plans from there.  

You can also use this process to evaluate the way you work. Maybe you have successfully blocked out several hours a week to work on an article you are writing—great!—but are you using that time effectively? Returning to your inventory of time, what are you actually doing during those hours and do those activities reflect your values? While it is important to be flexible and adapt to new discoveries or questions that arise in the writing process, it is also important to recognize habits that aren’t serving you. For example, maybe you have three hours to work on your dissertation on Friday mornings, but you always take a break after the first hour that stretches much longer than you want it to, or you start your writing time by reading research articles and run out of time to actually write. Looking at your activities within these time periods can help you to reinforce what is working well for you and to make changes if there are habits that don’t align with your goals.  

The best part about doing this inventory now is that you still have plenty of time! It is only the end of February and with your personal writing evaluation in hand, you can maximize your writing effectiveness for the rest of the term. Over time, if you do these evaluations often, you can gain insight into many of your writing and time management habits that will help you to create and stick to realistic deadlines. 

Example Mid-Term Writing Evaluation 

  1. How much time do I spend each week on writing vs teaching or other commitments? 
  2. What are my top goals for this term? 
  3. Am I spending too much, too little, or just the right amount of time on my own projects? 
  4. Does my use of time reflect my goals and priorities? 
  5. What is effective in my writing/research time? What could be improved? 

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