Like many people, I begin spring cleaning in January because looking at an organized closet or tidy pantry makes me feel refreshed and accomplished. Similarly, the start of a new semester is an ideal time for you to declutter your physical and digital spaces. You may not be able to reduce your class size or course load, but you can manage your physical and digital work space. As happiness guru Gretchen Rubin points out, outer order can bring inner calm (2019). Here are a few recommendations for decluttering your workspace and online course.
Examine your workspace
Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber in The Slow Professor write that faculty are in a state of “time poverty” (2016, p. 7). Faced with the stress of having too much to do, faculty are impoverished as they rush to design assignments to outwit ChatGPT, an AI chatbot that can write essays, or figure out how to get students to come to virtual office hours. Decluttering your workspace can be used as a technique to reduce stress and manage your time better. Time management experts and seasoned online instructors encourage faculty to be pro-active in managing their workload and workspace (Kondo 2015; Rubin 2009; Shi, Bonk & Magjunka 2006).
First, take a critical look at your workspace. Like the crowded shelves in your pantry, your office could benefit from some decluttering. Lifestyle expert Marie Kondo advocates for decluttering because it helps you put your home in order, and when you put your home in order, you put your affairs in order, too. She writes, “As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need to do in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do” (Kondo, 2015, p. 4). While Kondo’s approach to getting rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy may seem a bit dramatic, a little decluttering can help you stay organized and focused as teacher.
Taking a cue from Kondo, create an uncluttered space and add a few items such as a favorite mug or framed photo that “sparks joy” (Kondo, 2015, p. 39). I encourage you to spend 15 minutes on this Kondo-inspired decluttering exercise. First, take a picture of your current workspace. Second, clean and organize your workspace. Get rid of any items that you don’t use or don’t spark joy. Next, take a photo of your organized and decluttered workspace. Text both photos to a colleague and brag about your decluttering skills.
Declutter your online course
Now that your office space is organized, let’s move on to your online course. Most learning management systems have a nifty feature that allows faculty to copy or import a course from a previous term. While importing a course is a handy time-saving feature, you might be copying activities, files, or tools that no longer serve you or your students. If you feel brave, start with a blank course and only upload files or import activities that you need. If this idea is too overwhelming or labor intensive, that’s okay. Go ahead and import a previous version of the course and then set aside an hour or two to declutter it. Decluttering takes time, but it can have several benefits. For example, Rubin (2015) wrote, “I’d dreaded doing the clutter clearing because it seemed like such an enormous job… but every time I looked around and saw the extra space and order, I registered a little jolt of energy” (p. 33). For Rubin (2015), the simple act of decluttering gave her a substantial boost in energy and “the stack of papers slowly yellowing” on the edge of her desk was gone (p. 35). Take a close look at each module in your online course, looking for the equivalent of yellowing papers: stale activities, files, outdated links, videos, or broken external learning tools.
Look back at activities, including discussions and written assignments in your course. Was there a discussion that went over like a lead balloon? Perhaps this discussion could be deleted or revised. Are there assignments that could be combined or deleted? Maybe the third draft of the second research paper wasn’t needed.
Next, look at your files such as Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and scanned PDFs. Remember, some students get overwhelmed if you have too many examples. Perhaps you don’t need seven examples of exemplary group projects. Ask yourself, are there files that you could remove? Are there documents or presentations that could be shortened? Do you have an ancient PDF of an article you scanned years ago? This PDF may not be compatible with screen readers or other assistive technologies. Check with your institution’s library and try to find a digital copy. If you do find a digital copy, ditch the outdated PDF file and replace it with a link the article.
Now, check links to websites and online videos. Websites frequently change, and online videos, especially YouTube videos, occasionally disappear. Next, click on any external learning tools that work in conjunction with your institution’s learning management and provide additional functionality, such as plagiarism detection, web conferencing, accessibility, streaming video solutions, and more. Institutions often update or decommission external learning tools before the start of a new semester. For example, at my institution, we decided to end our contract with a web conferencing provider and move to a similar, but more cost-effective, web conferencing solution. As a result, faculty who imported a fall 2022 course into a spring 2023 course may have a few broken links. Take a few minutes and check links to the external learning tools you often use. If you have doubts about whether or not an external learning tool has been removed, contact your institution’s center for teaching and learning or the department responsible for academic technology and LMS administration.
In conclusion, decluttering can be a small way to start your semester with a smile and spark of joy. If you need some accountability, text a colleague. Challenge each other to spend at least an hour decluttering a course or work space. Text each other when you complete this task. If you feel bold, share your experience about it at a department meeting or post about it on social media.
Lisa McNeal teaches interdisciplinary classes and serves as the director of eLearning at the College of Coastal Georgia. When she is not decluttering her courses or condo, she’s hanging out with Gigi and Peanut, two cats who spark much joy.
Berg, M. & Seeber, B. K. (2017). The slow professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Kondo, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Rubin, G. (2015). Better than before: Mastering the habits of our everyday lives. New York: Crown Publishers.
Rubin, G. (2019). Outer order, inner calm: Declutter and organize to make more room for happiness. New York: Harmony Books.
Shi, M., Bonk, C. J. & Magjunka, R. (2006). Time management strategies for online teaching. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning. http://itdl.org/Journal/Feb_06/article01.htm