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Keeping Time

 Published on May 3, 2015 /  Written by and /  “Gravitation” by Kris Williams; CC BY NC-ND 2.0 /  0

What do we mean when we use the phrase, “in the real world”? As many of us are in a state of transition between school and work, styles of work, or a balance of both, are we living a less real life if we don’t work for a corporation? Indeed, the different ways humans interface with the world is hybrid. The column below is an inquiry into the meanings of culturally problematic phrases like “the real world,” and “proper use of time,” and the ways these interplay. It will ask questions concerning digital humanities, critical pedagogy, and agency. It is an exploration, a discussion, and a journey. Join us.


If you’ve been reading this column since it was born in January, you know that it has so far been a series asking for a variety of voices to answer the following question: “How does your training (vocational, traditional, etc.) inform the way you spend and/or value your time?” Time, for me, is a complex set of largely socially constructed ideals that we all adhere to — though differently in different cultures. And so I sought out three very different people in three very different walks of life. Here’s number three.

Robin Wharton, editor with Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing, is a lecturer in English at Georgia State University where she works with faculty and graduate students to develop effective digital pedagogy and digital resources such as the Hoccleve Archive, among many other things. Over the course of her life, she has been a ballerina, a lawyer, a fellow, a lecturer, a mother — the list goes on. In the piece below, Robin walks us through bits of her complex life as it relates to the ways in which she thinks about, uses, and values time. In an effort to illustrate all the ways that Robin views time, she has smartly provided us with some visual media which adds depth and emphasizes her points well. For her, time is multi-layered, inconsistent, and significant in several ways. In the piece below, you will see time converge, command, and disrupt as Robin leads us through glimpse of her own experience with values:

As I pondered Valerie’s question, “How does your training (vocational, traditional, etc.) inform the way you spend and/or value your time?,” I realized I have a very complex sense of time, of the ways to count it, value it, spend it, keep it. In fact, a kind of obsession with time is one of the few consistent threads among the various professional identities I have inhabited/continue to inhabit: dancer, lawyer, medievalist, digital humanist, and perhaps most centrally, teacher.

For example, ballet dancers, like lawyers, are meticulous timekeepers. One of the first variations I learned — one of the first variations most young dancers learn — is the “Dance of the Little Swans” or the pas de quatre from Swan Lake. To perform this piece well involves perfect synchronization among the four dancers linked arm and arm, the repetitive and strangely symmetrical choreography, and Tchaikovsky’s score. Later at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, I learned how to keep time like a Balanchine dancer, how to impose five or six count combinations against musical phrases of four or eight, how to speed everything up without blurring it all together, how to match my steps to music (e.g., Stravinsky’s) in which time becomes unstable and idiosyncratic. As a dancer, I learned to be “in the right place at the right time” almost always, because when I wasn’t the result was collision, confusion, disaster.

Being a lawyer involved tracking my days in six-minute intervals with digital timers, each assigned to a particular client and matter. At one point, I had in excess of fifty timers showing on the desktop of my computer. I would click through them (this one off, the next one on, that one off, the next one on) as I iterated through a series of repetitive procedures related to trademark registration and maintenance. At other times, though, I might spend an entire week, or even longer, recording tens of hours on a single timer, billing nearly all my time to a single matter, while I researched and wrote about unresolved legal questions. Each month, I would receive a summary report of the hours I recorded, the percentage of those hours that had actually been billed to the clients, the percentage of my billed hours that had been collected to date, and of course, my current hourly rate (>$200/hour by the time I left the firm after working two years full-time, and one year part-time during my first year of graduate school). Lawyering taught me that time is money but intellectual autonomy is priceless.

Photo by col_adamson on Flickr, licensed CC BY
Photo by col_adamson on Flickr, licensed CC BY

In graduate school, I began to understand how careful we must be of the methods we use to turn time into history. I studied how narratives disrupt, manipulate, and transform chronologies in ways both productive and destructive. My current teaching and scholarship are both focused in part on how time coupled with humanities textual practices can transform commodities into artifacts that reveal or speak of the histories from which they have emerged. I have learned to take the long view and to be suspicious of “one-size-fits-all” temporalities that ignore how time interacts with geography, race, gender, sexuality, and economics (and many, many other factors) to produce the heterogenous complexity of experience we call “the present.”

Given the significance that timing generally has played in my professional and intellectual development, one might think I would be a stickler for timing in my classroom. And I am, in a way, except when I’m not. I stress over and over how important it is for students not only to attend class, but to be on time always if possible. I set due dates for process work and final drafts, and I spend quite a bit of time thinking about how I hope to use the time allotted to each class period. It’s true, my pedagogical emphasis on timing is motivated partially by a desire to cultivate in my students positive, professional habits of mind that will be of use to them as they enter the non-academic workplace. Primarily, however, timing is important in my classes because like a live performance, our time together in class is an ephemeral but carefully orchestrated happening that can only be experienced fully in person, in the moments we have carved out of our busy lives to make space for it. Students’ time is valuable, and I do not like to see it wasted, not by me, not by their other teachers, not by their employers, and not by their peers. Further, I’ve started to realize “choreograph,” which involves the coordination of embodied individuals in time and space, may be a better verb than “design” when applied to what it is I’m doing when I make a syllabus or a plan for class.

Nonetheless, my own experience taking a roundabout way to and through graduate school and into a rewarding full-time-but-not-tenure-line job in the academy has made me sensitive to how even the most carefully planned timeline may need to be adjusted if possible to prevent it from becoming an obstacle to individual success. When they leave my classroom, my students may encounter immovable deadlines after which legal claims are no longer valid, returns are no longer accepted, and submissions are no longer being reviewed. In my classroom, however, while I recognize and respect that external reality, I do not have to recreate it. In teaching, I’ve discovered, sometimes timing isn’t everything.

In Training to Work in the Wet, I admitted that I love asking how people end up in their careers, but after receiving and reviewing Robin’s take on time, I find that I am also asking how people value time within their current careers. The time sets of our life are not structurally separate: our careers can influence how we view time in our personal lives, and in our other careers. Many of us lead multi-faceted lives, teaching, editing, writing, raising children, all while maintaining a social life. How much does the phrase “time is money” apply to people doing all of this at once? Robin addresses some interesting parts of what it means to value what we do, and the time we spend doing it. Imagine if teachers billed for the time they spent designing (or choreographing) their courses, grading, or developing presentations. Imagine if lawyers didn’t bill for time spent researching a case, but rather charged clients based on the “significance” of that research to the lawyer’s particular area of practice.

The more I learn about how others value time and view the world outside the academy, the more my perspective shifts. Having spent the majority of my life in a school environment, I sometimes don’t realize the parallels that exist outside of it. The lives we live in the academy are no less real than lives led outside of it. We all must enter our career-specific discourse communities through training, both formal and social, and yet, rarely attach value to this discourse. In the next installment, I will reflect on my original question, and consider how my own understanding of both the question and the answers has shifted. Until then.


Valerie Robin is a Hybrid Pedagogy featured columnist.

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