Rebecca Pope-Ruark is an associate professor of English at Elon University and the author of the new book Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service and Teaching and our guest in a Top Hat webinar that covers how Agile methodology and Scrum works for managing teacher workload.

In this interview, Pope-Ruark discusses her book and how she used software project management principles in order to achieve better balance in her academic life.

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Why did you decide to write this book?

Originally I was using Agile and Scrum in my professional writing and rhetoric courses to teach students a better way to collaborate on group projects. My husband is a software developer and introduced me to the process. I found it gave students a real structure and level of accountability that I hadn’t been able to provide them in the past when they were working on group projects. I started with just a few strategies–the Scrum board and the daily Scrum accountability meeting– and eventually ramped up to long, significant client projects using almost the entire framework.

While I was doing this, I just started my own backlog and Scrum board one day. I didn’t feel like I was making progress on my writing and wanted to see everything I wanted to write in one place. Scrum gave me a new perspective on articulating my priorities and making regular measured progress on my own work. I started sharing this with other faculty, running workshops, and the book really evolved from there.

Scrum is a lightweight project management framework that helps you figure out what to do when but not how to do it. So it can really be adapted to most projects that take longer than a few days. I use it to manage research, I teach it in my classes, I’m starting to use it with my undergraduate advisees, and I can see the potential for Agile strategies to change the way we approach committee work in higher education.

I wrote the book to share these strategies and this vision for supporting faculty vitality and productivity with an eye toward personal and professional career development, values, and priorities.

Was it immediately obvious to you when you first learned about agile methodology that you’d be able to apply it to your own work and life, or was it a longer process?

I don’t think I immediately realized it the first time I taught Scrum, but it came pretty quickly after I saw the impact it had on students and their abilities to work well together. Most of my own research is not collaborative, and Scrum was created for collaborative, cross-functional teams. But I found the Scrum board and backlog to be immediately useful.

As I discuss in the book, a backlog is basically a list of projects you are doing or considering, listed in priority order. Each project can then be broken down into chunks of work, and those chunks can be broken down again into actionable tasks that can be completed in one sitting.

Then you visualize those chunks and tasks using sticky notes and a wall or white board that is divided into three columns – backlog (or to-do), work progress, and done. It seems too simple, but it really works.

By visualizing the work, you can see it and think about it, so that when you do have time to work on a task, you are ready to go. And moving sticky notes into the done column can provide an interesting, and welcome, psychological boost. From there, I started adapting the strategies to all my work, and the book is a result of that exploration and iteration (and, yes, I used Scrum sprints to complete the book and revisions!).

How has your personal workload improved as a result of using the Scrum method?

I admit to falling of the Scrum wagon, especially during semester crunch times; I teach at an undergraduate-focused institution, and students come first. But during lighter times in the semester, and definitely during semester and summer break, practicing Scrum helps me to track my priorities and progress and stay accountable to the commitments I’ve made to myself.

Before Scrum, I had a perfectionist complex about my writing, never thinking I’d done enough research or written well enough to get my point across. Scrum helps me overcome that and be a more productive writer. I am able to use found time more wisely and concentrate on tasks that will help me reach my goals more directly because I have mapped them out but can adjust as I learn more about a situation or argument I want to make.

With respect to the classroom, in my upper-level project-based courses, Scrum actually makes teaching easier. The students basically run themselves; I step in for just-in-time teaching, team support, and a little push every now and then. Even in first and second-year courses, students can learn pieces of Scrum strategies, like the Scrum board, to help build their collaboration skills.

Service is the area where I would love to see Scrum implemented, but that requires a bigger leap of faith than applying the strategies in research or teaching. It will be interesting to see if readers of the book apply Scrum strategies to their committee work and how that turns out. It might be easier to apply the framework to committees in disciplinary organizations first to see how it works, then attempt to roll out in university committees. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon!

If there was only one tip from your book you could pass on to professors seeking a better way of managing teacher workload, what would it be?

Prioritize and visualize. From a research perspective, it’s easy to make a list of projects you are doing or want to do, but we often tuck that away on a file on our computers or in a crowded notebook and maybe forget about it as we fall back into our routines. Name these projects, prioritize based your most meaningful goals at that time, and visualize them in a backlog and on a Scrum board. Break each project down into smaller chunks and even smaller tasks, and visualize them. Seeing them every day on your board can help you honor the commitments you have made to yourself in your professional activities. This applies to any area of your faculty life – research, teaching, professional development, etc.

You can help your students do this as well; they might not have developed good time or project management skills or know how to articulate priorities. In group projects and student advising, Scrum provides structure and freedom to focus on what’s next and what’s most valuable, a valuable lesson for future professionals and citizens.

Sign up to watch Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s webinar to hear for yourself how she implements the system and what works for academia. Watch the Balancing Academia Webinar On Demand.

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