Slow down! Graduate student developers at play

A hand is holding a mug that says "stop me before I volunteer again." There's a woman's face on the mug. The design has 1950s styling.

“Do more and do it faster with less.” Speaking to readers who work in graduate student professional development, I notice this script a lot in the educational development world. Even if we don’t literally hear the words, “do more and do it faster with less,” developers experience it as work creep, urgency, and under-resourcing. We are often the one person performing our role in a small-ish office. We learn to do multiple jobs and serve multiple functions, such as coordinating, planning, scheduling, facilitating, hosting, supervising, purchasing, hospitality, communications, assessment, problem-solving, and light housekeeping. Our project management occurs around events measured in the time-units of weeks and months: what needs doing when? And we work with time thinking backwards: “If the graduate student orientation is In August, in July we need to do printing, in June we need to send hold-the-date communications, and in May we need to….” 

There is an additional kind of work that graduate student developers do that is hard to measure and account for: affective labor. We hold space for graduate students’ emotional and embodied experiences. We witness accomplishments and disappointments, belonging and moral injury, courage and fears, momentous transitions and frustratingly stuck moments. Through graduate students’ stories, we see concentric and overlapping systems that empower or confine people. It takes time, skills, and energy to be physically and emotionally grounded for this kind of work. For more about the invisible emotional work that educational developers do, check out Lee Skallerup Bessette’s book, Affective Labor and Alt-Ac Careers (2022), Mays Imad’s article in Inside Higher Ed, Pedagogy of Healing: Bearing Witness to Trauma and Healing (2021) as well as her article in To Improve the Academy Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development (2021), and the book by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide for to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (2009).

Graduate student developers regularly perform pure magic with professional development programming for graduate students: pedagogy workshops, learning communities, feedback on teaching philosophy statements, classroom observations. At the same time, we make invisible what a project really costs in terms of specialized time, skills, and energy. 

A yellow yard sign that says, "slow down, kids and pets at play." There is an  emoji of a person running and a dog on the sign. It's in the grass with a sidewalk next to it

I am really skilled at making meaningful moments and professional party planning in graduate student development work. I know how projects like ours work. I know how to do the tasks. I know how to translate a project concept into an experience for graduate students. However, I struggle to value my expertise in terms of its true costs to my time and energy. I make really poor estimates of my time availability when a new project is presented to me. I am also terrible at estimating how long each component task will take. I often don’t account for the rest needed to adequately support highly emotional work. I see the job in isolation, without the context of all the other jobs I also do. I also see the job as a whole entity, making it hard for me to see the project as component specialized roles and tasks that can be delegated. 

I act as if efficiency and productivity are necessary for my very existence. In addition, I act as if resources are scarce. [I know they actually are, just stick with me.] I act as if I’m the only person who can do the project. I act as if projects are one mistake away from falling apart or being cut. I know this is codependent behavior with toxic belief systems in rugged independence, people pleasing, and perfectionism. I know that framework was laid in childhood and my graduate school experiences honed those codependent behaviors.

I was a microbial ecology student in graduate school. I learned to have multiple science experiments and preparations going on simultaneously. I would set up a DNA extraction before going to teach for an hour. While a PCR was running, I’d set up another experiment, eat lunch, and wash lab dishes. While the gel ran, I’d make PowerPoint slides for the next day’s class. It’s difficult to accurately estimate the time or energy cost of a task when I’m running three or four tasks at the same time. It’s also difficult to engage in creative, brainstorming work when all of my higher-level energy is going to maintain the lists. In learning to do academic research multitasking really well, I also learned how to be mindless and make invisible the true time and energy of any particular task or project. I notice a similar drive toward efficiency and productivity with household tasks, like when I make sure laundry is running while I do other domestic tasks AND try to do deep thinking about a research project.

I don’t think anyone enforced this behavior intentionally or maliciously. It’s an uncritically accepted part of the USian productivity culture. Subconsciously or not, we all contribute to perpetuating these systems. However, I was honing my own engagement in broad and shallow superficial memory. I was running off adrenaline and RAM and hardly ever “filing away” my experiences onto my mental hard drive. Memories didn’t have attached metadata about context, emotions, sensations, interpretations, or purpose. A string of laboratory notebook entries. Concentrations of enzymes in a buffer. Pictures of DNA gels with black backgrounds and white bands. Efficiency and productivity. Do more and do it faster with less. “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” (Daft Punk, 2001). Hold those multiple things in my head. Get the timing to line up. Juggle multiple balls in the air, keep the plates spinning, AND land eight runways of planes as an air traffic controller at the Chicago O’Hare Airport.  

I invite educational developers to engage in a thought experiment with me about project leadership and project management in graduate student professional development. With projects I run repeatedly, I am creating project expertise budgets with a few principles in mind.

  • Help and resources are communicated and planned up front. 
  • Specialized labor is grouped together so there’s more transparency about the team of professionals, students, and interns to include.
  • Specialized tasks are delegated to people who can do it better and who are better connected.
  • There’s less task-switching and labor is more intentional and focused.
  • There is a plan for creative, big idea, visionary thinking that’s included in the project budget.

If I imagine myself as a general contractor, how does my thinking about and behavior around my time and expertise shift? What if I act as if I am contracted to run this project, each task is specialized labor, and I can hire the specialized help I need at my disposal? 

  • What is the true cost of this project in time, energy (including rest and rejuvenation), expertise, financial expenditures? 
  • What specialist labor would I need to bring in? In my kinds of projects in graduate student development, these specialists would include:
    • Communications
    • Hosting – room reservations, hospitality, registration
    • On-site hosts to presenters 
    • Program assessment
    • Participant experience – decor, swag, meaningful moments
  • What functions would people doing specialized work perform and what tasks would they accomplish? 
  • How is their specialist labor better than mine? 
  • If someone did this for me in my office, how much time and money would it take?
  • How is this project an opportunity for more people to develop skills, leadership, and fulfillment?
A white/grey-striped cat is on a blue ottoman with a grey cat below them on the carpet. They are looking at each other
Gratuitous cat photo of Lennie and Marvin playing

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