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I am Katherine Firth and This is How I Work

Today I am interviewing Katherine Firth for the “How I Work” series. Catherine is Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College, where she manages the Residential College’s tutorial and visiting scholar’s programs. She is an award-winning educator at the University of Melbourne where her teaching focuses on research and communication skills. She is passionate about helping students and researchers transition into the highest levels of achievement through one-to-one and group teaching, and online engagement. She has a wider interest in university policy and governance. Her research focuses on the relationship between poetry and music; on 20th-century poetries; and, increasingly, on student learning and attainment.

Current Job: Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College, the University of Melbourne
Current Location: Melbourne, Australia
Current mobile device: iPhone 5
Current computer: an iMac and a Mac Air

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am an academic administrator, a head of department in a residential college in Australia. I am expected to be research active, but am not set research output targets by my institution. Previously my research focused on twentieth-century poetry, and the relationship between poetry and music. I am currently shifting my research focus to be on higher education. I teach, administer, and research.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I couldn’t live without email and digital calendars, all synched to multiple devices. I love email filters, so that emails pre-sort themselves into various inboxes/folders, so that I can compartmentalise my work. I also love that phones can be on silent, so I don’t even hear if you ring or text. I’ll check it regularly, but when it suits me and isn’t interrupting.
I am just getting into using Google Sheets to collaboratively gather and organise information: recently negotiating support for 260 subjects across 70 tutors and 300 students was done via a Google Sheet. I was surprised and impressed by how responsible and helpful everyone was, and on what an impact it made on my workflow. Last semester I got about a hundred emails on a typical day; this semester I got about 40.
I’m starting to use Calendly to organise my meetings—rather than emailing back and forth with students and staff, people are able to easily book in at a time that suits them, and it synchs to my calendar. Students have said it’s much more convenient for them, and I appreciate halving the number of emails about meetings. (Like so many of my tools, I first read about it on academic Twitter).
However, when I actually sit down with a student or go to a meeting, I take notes in one of my Moleskine (or Fabio Ricci) notebooks. This enables me to keep my notes confidential, and not to lose my notes in the welter of urgent things on my computer.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I work mostly at the office. I have a beautiful high ceilinged office with diamond-paned windows looking out across our grass quad. I have three comfortable chairs around a large coffee table for meetings with students and other staff. I am lucky to have wonderful art hung on my walls, I am currently looking at a Gloria Petyarre, a well known Indigenous artist, one of her Utopia Bush Medicine series. I work at a standing desk, which has made a huge difference to my back and my health. I blogged about this in The Place where we Work.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
TIME BOX! (And turn off all the noisy flashy notifications). These two go together.
Time boxing is just breaking down your day into smaller sections. My favourite time boxing technique is the Pomodoro. You set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work and then again for a 5 minute break, repeated for up to 2 hours. I find 25 minutes is enough time for me to read an article, or to write 400 words. Sometimes all I have time for is one ‘pomodoro’ (25 minute working sprint), but that means I can get something done, and keep the momentum going. It also stops me from working for hours, not stopping for a drink or food, and then crashing, which can happen if I hit ‘flow’ without something to jolt me back into my body from time to time.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
In my head. It drives me crazy, but I haven’t yet found anything else that works.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I love my e-reader, but only for fiction that I read for fun. I still buy paper books for anything I need to focus on, anything I might want to annotate, lend to someone else, consult, or read again in 20 years time.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
Other people say that I’m really good at reading the hidden codes in things—calls for grants, academic job applications, course guides, rubrics. I can work out what they are really asking, and translate it for colleagues and students.

What do you listen to when you work?
Terrible bubble gum pop—I need something bright, cheerful, with a beat slightly faster than my heartbeat. I want to dance while I work. Also, as a musicologist, I too often analyse classical or complex music to be able to have it on in the background.

What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading up about nostalgia for something I’m trying to write about the internet as a nostalgia machine. I set aside my research leave (10 days a year) for research. I also take the odd 30 minutes when I need to sit down, and drink tea and read an article that someone has shared.
I keep a stack of books on my work coffee table too, and from time to time I read another few pages of Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, or take something like Stephen King’s On Writing to accompany me on my lunch break. Reading is a thing I do to ground myself, to re-centre myself, so I always try to find time for it. I also treat myself by buying new books, so Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy, and Borges Labyrinths have just landed at the top of my reading pile.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I’m super-introverted, but very outgoing. At work, my door is always open, and I often see 10 students individually in a day—either dropping in or by appointment. I work in a residential community (though I don’t actually live on site), so I often go to social events and dinners as part of my work too.
This means that I often need to use my off time to hide out at home and replenish my wells of emotional energy. I read trashy novels, drink wine with my partner, and hang out on Twitter. If I have energy, I cook and garden.

What’s your sleep routine like?
I love to sleep, and my ideal life would include 9-10 hours of sleep every day, between midnight and 10am. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. I also suffer from what I thought was a peculiar kind of insomnia, but later discovered was just a pre-Industrial sleep pattern, where I often wake up for 3 hours in the middle of the night. I meditate, get up and read, hang out on Twitter, think, and plan in that time. It’s usually a sign that I’m stressed, so I also try to fix whatever is wrong with my life to get back into good sleep habits!

What’s your work routine like?
A lot of my work is scheduled on evenings and weekends, so I try not to be in too early in the morning. I think best from 5pm-10pm, so I try to find quiet time after many other staff have gone home to plan, write and get things done. During the day, I try to be available for meetings, for students to drop in, to pop in to my colleagues’ offices etc. I am a fan of ‘corridor meetings’, where you quickly get things sorted by bumping into people in the corridor or while propped up against their door frame. However, I probably spend at least two full days a week dealing with email. Even if I’m working late, I try to have a late night supper with my partner. He also works lots of evenings and weekends, so sitting down together is the signal to us both to stop working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I think the best advice wasn’t verbal, it was modelled for me by a series of strong women who found ways to negotiate being successful and happy. I saw that for them it was a negotiation (none of them pretended to have it all), but that it was okay to make an effort to be both. I’m trying too!

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