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Blog: What Does Productivity Even Mean to an Ancient Historian?

From time to time, T.H.M. Gellar-Goad will be checking in with a member of the discipline to see how they conceptualize or define “productivity” in their own work and in the profession. We’ll ask them the same set of five questions and share their responses, plus perhaps a photo or two from their experiences. These Perspectives on Productivity will present views from a diverse cross-section of our field, people from all sorts of backgrounds, working in all sorts of areas, and at all sorts of stages in their Classics-related journeys. Today we hear from Lindsey Mazurek, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Oregon.

What does “productivity” mean to you as a member of the discipline?

Right now, my focus is on research, writing, and publishing, but productivity can refer to anything that feels like a satisfying accomplishment. I feel productive when my advice helps a student succeed, or when I put together a great lesson that helps students engage with ancient texts and objects in new ways, or when I find a new piece of evidence that really works for my argument in an essay. Thinking about productivity as a positive emotion rather than as a series of hurdles or deadlines to reach has helped me feel less stressed about the more logistical aspects of the job. Plus, I enjoy my work more when I frame it this way.

What method(s) do you find most helpful for your own productivity?

I’ve built a lot of accountability and collaborative work into my professional life. The University of Oregon organizes writing circles for faculty and graduate students. Every Monday from 1-4:00 pm, I meet 10 other faculty and staff members to write. We set achievable writing goals (“write two paragraphs of an article,” “draft an action plan for a revise and resubmit”), write in silence for 2 hours and 45 minutes, and then check in at the end about our progress. This group has also been a fantastic source of mentoring for me as I begin work at a new university. I use a similar method for a second 2 hour weekly writing session via Skype with a colleague back in Pennsylvania, which means that even in my busiest week I have 5 hours devoted to writing on my calendar.  


Members of Lindsey’s writing group, setting goals for their 3-hour writing blocks on Monday afternoons.
Members of Lindsey’s writing group, setting goals for their
3-hour writing blocks on Monday afternoons.

I also make time for planning. At the beginning of the quarter I determine my major goals (“write a book chapter”) and then break them down week-by-week. This helps me be more realistic with my time and set more achievable goals. I check the long-range plan once every week or two to make sure that I’m not forgetting anything or ignoring any of my projects. For short-term goals, every night before I leave my office I look through my calendar for the next day and make a list of appointments and small tasks for teaching, writing, and service, and that helps keep me focused through the day.  I’m a big fan of handwritten lists-apps are less satisfying than checking a box on an actual piece of paper. I also keep a running list of fellowships and deadlines and try to check it monthly to ensure I am not missing opportunities to fund my work.

What would Present Lindsey like to tell Five/Ten/Thirty Years Ago Lindsey about productivity and the profession?

There’s an image of the monk-like individual in the ivory tower, and I wish now that I had realized how ineffective it was for me. I need a social component for my own productivity, which is why I rely so heavily on writing groups. Even just talking about a book chapter I’m writing with a colleague can be so helpful in keeping me on task. I also struggle with attention deficit, and was not diagnosed until right after I completed my dissertation. Knowing this about myself helped me to re-orient the way I worked. Many people prefer to read and write in long chunks, but I need to switch projects frequently and break things down into small tasks. It was surprisingly hard to let go of the monastic model and recognize that I needed to work with my brain if I wanted to be productive, but it has made me so much more effective as a teacher and researcher. I finally figured out a good system that allowed me to write 3 edited book chapters, revise and resubmit an article, and draft 2 monograph chapters in the space of about 1 year while teaching a 3-3 and coordinating a cross-country move.

What is a typical day’s worth of project-work like for you?


Lindsey’s Monday to-do list, written out by hand on an index card. She got everything but the travel booking done that day.
Lindsey’s Monday to-do list, written out by hand on an index card.
She got everything but the travel booking done that day.

Every day is different, but I start each day by checking my to-do list and responding to any important emails or Facebook messages. I usually start off with teaching tasks to get myself back into work mode. I prefer to teach in the mornings, so I’ll spend an hour or so finalizing my lesson plan, teach my class, and then spend the rest of the morning eating lunch, uploading files to Canvas, grading, or finishing off less time-sensitive emails. If I don’t have any meetings or talks in the afternoon, I spend my afternoons on reading and writing. I try to write for at least an hour per day, and ideally two hours. The rest of my time is devoted to reading. I read very slowly and take overly detailed notes that I keep in a cloud-based database, so this part always takes longer than I’d like. I usually wrap up around 5:30 or 6:00 with another round of emails and preparation for the next day. Once I’m home I might grade a little bit or respond to email, but normally I don’t work in the evening.

There’s a lot of pressure to treat academic work like a product, to measure how many outputs we produce each year. But outputs may not reflect effort, quality, or even a person’s actual day-to-day priorities. This focus on bean-counting can lead to massive cultures of overwork and constant guilt. I know I work too much, but I have a hard time letting go of that little voice that says I could always be doing more.

What do you think most academics or institutions get wrong about “productivity”?

I’m in a history department, and one of the things I love about my department is that we recognize and value public-facing scholarship, engagement with the community, and digital scholarship as key components of our work. These types of activities have not always “counted” in the past, but dialogues with the public are really important for bringing new people to Classics and History. With our knowledge and skillset we have a lot to contribute to contemporary discussions, and I’m slowly working towards finding ways to incorporate public components into my research and teaching agendas. Productivity, for me, is not just a series of journal articles or books, though of course that is a key component of my job. It is recognizing all the different ways that I can make a contribution to the world of Classics.

Header Image: "Detail of the Vichten mosaic depicting the mythological and literary theme of the nine Muses, Clio Muse of History, c. 240 [CE]. National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg". A modified image originally taken by Carole Raddato via Flickr under a CC-BY-SA-2.0. 

Lindsey Mazurek's picture

Lindsey Mazurek is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. Her research and teaching focus on material culture and ethnicity in the Roman Mediterranean, and she is writing a book entitled Embodying Isis: Egyptian Religion and the Negotiation of Greekness in the Second Century CE. She also co-directs the Mediterranean Connectivity Initiative, a collaborative digital archaeology and epigraphy project.

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