advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Clearing the decks


I said I would write about some of the work I did in the six months leading up to my sabbatical in order to prepare to make the most it when the time came. One the main things I did was clear the decks, in a pretty thoroughgoing way. There were many “decks” to clear: my home office, my campus office, my two computers, my cloud storage, my grading and feedback for graduate students, peer review obligations.

I had this worry that January 1 would roll around, and I would helplessly spin around in one or another of my offices, with no surfaces to put things onto, desperately trying to remember where I put a printout. I had visions of endless search-and-preview loops on my MacBook, trying to find a document I knew existed but where I had just digitally stuffed in the wrong place out of expedience. I woke up at night afraid the towering pile of dissertations and INCs would smother me at any moment, anxious also of forms unsigned and letters unsent, chewing my nails about article reviews coming due and me forgetting them, or worse, spending all my time on them.

So I read a lot of dissertations, made plans with students, took scrupulous care to get all of my grading and peer reviews done before the end of fall term.

The more serious problems were in many ways the more straightforward ones of space.

I had too much stuff: too many books, so that new ones had no place. Too many stacks of printouts, and no room in the cabinets, too many references in my Zotero just dumped in, too many folders and subfolders for all my projects across two computers and two cloud storage services. Too many late library books, and fines.

It was probably early October, sitting in my office hours, brain dead from having submitted my SSHRC IG application, that I decided to do something, right now. Sitting at my desk, I looked at the big pile of books stacked like a tower in the corner. I would put them away. But there was no shelf space left.

Something in me snapped. All I could see were the wrong books in the wrong places and the right books hidden and no room to breathe anywhere. Ghosts of the past, past roles and past theories and outmoded scholarship and fields I don’t participate in. I removed somewhere between 8 and 10 linear feet of books, and brought them all to the giveaway cabinet in the common area. This took hours. I sneezed nearly the entire time. Everything was dusty and neglected and crammed in. I made space. I shelved all my new books. It was beautiful.

This started an avalanche of paper. I went through my teaching files: 13 years of lesson plans and overhead transparencies and grading rubrics and printouts and attendance records. Recycled. I went through the 4 linear feet of printouts stacked in piles on my bookshelves: from course packs and grad classes, stuff I copied out of my own books, stuff I didn’t care about, stuff that was outdated and useless. About two linear feet went right in the bin: the other two went to my RA, who put them all in my Zotero database, and filed everything. I went through research notes from projects long completed, marked up drafts, correspondence, notes-to-self. Recycled. Grad chair documentation of an informational and non-confidential nature: recycled. I freed up over a hundred file folders this way. Then I recycled the file folders to the giveaway cabinet.

I have been a professor for 13 years. In the beginning, it was important to accumulate lesson plans and course evaluations and desk copies of textbooks and my new scholarly library. I have been in the same office for 13 years. I didn’t notice when not-enough-stuff became enough-stuff and certainly not when enough-stuff because way-too-much-stuff. I’m going to have to remember to do the work at regular intervals. It’s remarkably invigorating.

There was, suddenly, room to breathe. I had removed literally hundreds of pounds of paper from the office, linear foot upon linear foot of stuff I don’t need, desk drawer after cabinet of stuff squirrelled away and completely forgotten. Oh yeah: I cleaned out all my desk drawers, too. Goodbye powdery packets of tea dated 2008, au revoir mystery bag of … aspirin? ibuprofen?, so long 20 stick pens that don’t work, one weirdly rock solid Clif bar.

I found my awfully late library books. I paid my fines.

I did the same work at home: box after box of books–textbook samples, books I bought in grad school, old notebooks full of old notes about things I’m not ever going to need to think about again. Goodbye to all that.

It felt good. It felt like taking off all these chains attaching me to the past, to projects never-completed, or well completed, to paths I really am never going to pursue, to things that have outlived their usefulness, to clutter and distraction. I made space for new printouts and new books and new ideas. It felt fantastic. It took, literally, weeks.

And then the digital decluttering: my MacBook Pro was sending out cries for help in the form of crashes and meltdowns. Since 2004, with every new computer I got (five?) I used Migration Assistant to copy the old hard drive over to the new one. The result was a crufted up machine with three versions of MS Word, incompatible suites of Adobe software, and backups of an iPod I haven’t had since 2010. My 500GB only had 30GB of space left. At the Apple store we rebuilt the machine from scratch, and I completely reviewed all my documents and folders. I deleted A LOT. My 500GB hard drive now has a little more than **300GB** of storage free. And it doesn’t crash anymore. Like in my physical offices, I made space and set things up to foreground the work I want to do now, making everything easy to find and easy to call to hand. This took over a week.

When January 1 rolled around, I had at least a clear sense of what I was going to do, and, importantly, I had enough mental space, enough shelf space, enough desk space, and enough hard drive space to just get right to it. Everything was radically simplified and pared down. It turned out to be one of the very best things I did to get ready for my sabbatical.

enter the confessional · parenting · work

When should I have a baby?

Melissa’s post (yay! Melissa!) last week made me think about babies and work and, specifically, a very clear moment when I realized that there was no “good time” to have a baby.

First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that any one, or you or me specifically, should have a baby. That is a different, and also very personal question. Maybe the best answer to that so far is in this excellent Dear Sugar column, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which I still re-read every once in a while because I love what she says, and I want to remember that I need to salute the sister life that I did not choose, the one where maybe I didn’t become a mother, and know that this other life is also important and beautiful.



Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!

But, in this life, I get to do work that I love and also have this totally awesome kid who has completely redefined the whole idea of love for me. For me, there is this whole universe of love I didn’t know about and then, poof, there it was in this tidy 6.9 pound package of non-stop sweetness.

I didn’t know that I wanted a baby. I was not one of those people who “just knew.” Even right up until especially at the moment when I was about to give birth, I was really not convinced that this whole having-a-baby thing was such a good idea.

I did know, and I had known for quite a while, that there didn’t ever seem to be a good time to have a baby. This realization hit me on New Year’s Eve some time during the end of grad school. I was  in LA and had just broken up with a boyfriend who lived there, and my beloved friend Emily told me that I could join her in San Francisco where she would be meeting up with her girlfriend. I was sad and lonely and I will never forget the generosity of these two great people letting me crash their romantic getaway so that I would not have to bring in the new year being sad and lonely (which, sadly, I did anyways but I have only myself to blame). Anyways, the three of us were having dinner somewhere cool. It was a place where there were lots of fancy cocktails and no kids. And we somehow got to talking about when, if we wanted to do it, we would have children. This was a purely hypothetical conversation. Emily was in law school. I was finishing my dissertation. We had no intention of actually doing anything about this baby thing any time soon. It was just a conversation about what might be good time for that to happen, if it was ever going to happen.

Emily and I have been friends since high school so I would sometimes have these kinds of “life-plan” conversations with her. The hubris of these conversations are now amusing. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Well, even if I did find someone to have a baby with me, I can’t do it until I finish my diss.

Em: No, that doesn’t make sense.

Me: If I got a postdoc, that would not be a good time. I probably wouldn’t even be in Canada since I want to do my postdoc in the states.

Em: Nope, that would definitely be a bad time.

Me: And if I got a job after the postdoc, that would be the worst time because I’ll have to work my butt off to get tenure.

Em: Nope, I guess you definitely can’t have a baby then.

Me: So, maybe after tenure…

Here, I stop to count how old I would be then. And then I stop and realize that I would be old (sorry, current self, but the person I am now seems totally old to that girl who sat around in that cool restaurant in SF back then). Em, her girlfriend, and I look at each other, blinked, shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, I guess there’s no good time! I remember this didn’t seem all that terrible to me. I just thought that it was a puzzle and I hadn’t figured it out yet. Like, there was some secret code and, once I was in the right place in my life, someone would give it to me and it would all work itself out.

We ordered more drinks.

In my late-twenties and thirties, I had boyfriends, I lost boyfriends, I found new boyfriends. The baby question seemed even more impossible. I mean, it was hard enough to just figure out if these relationships would still be a thing in my life from one month to the next. One of my long-term boyfriends told me that dates with women in their thirties were like “husband interviews.” Since we had made it past those early dates where I (maybe?) played it cool, I gathered that it was desirable to never treat any date like a potential husband interview. So any question about any future beyond what band we should get tickets to see, or what restaurant we should go to, or what cool trip we should take, was off the table. At the time, I didn’t know that I necessarily wanted to be married, or have a baby, so this all seemed fair enough. Or, as Jess Zimmerman put it so beautifully in “Hunger makes me,” it was too hard to even acknowledge that there were things I could want. Now, I see the imbalance of a relationship where one person declares talk of real futures super-uncool and the other then just suppresses any thought of such futures.

All through this time of forestalling futures I didn’t know I could want, I kept seeing news articles about the precipitous drop in fertility that women experience after a certain age. I became really angry about such news items and was secretly convinced that they were part of an anti-feminist conspiracy anxious to get women out of their jobs and back in the home making babies. It seemed to me that it was no accident that there were suddenly so many of these articles everywhere at precisely the same historical moment (in the first world) when more and more women had decided to put off marriage and babies in the interest of being rock stars at their jobs.

But I was secretly also a little anxious. I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had planned badly, like I had somehow failed. And I still really truly wasn’t even sure that I wanted to have a baby.

Fast forward and I meet this amazing person and he is fabulous in every possible way and now we are parents and it is amazing and fabulous. Still, when I was pregnant, I learned that mine was technically considered a “geriatric pregnancy” and that I was of “advanced maternal age” because I was older than 35. I was directed to genetic counseling that, because I was not prepared for it, left me feeling like big jerk for trying to have a baby as an old lady and thus subjecting my poor unborn child to elevated risks for all kinds of bad things. I’m sure that was not the intention but that was the effect on me and I felt awful about it.

There wasn’t any plan. I did end up getting tenure before I had a baby. I did end up getting a job in the same city where my husband lives. Even though I didn’t get pregnant at the exact moment when I decided I wanted to have a baby, it did happen. And those first years of being in a job and being a mother were bananas and bananas-exhausting. How we laugh now when people who don’t have children tell us that they are “so busy.” Mostly though, nothing bad happened. It was all fine. I couldn’t have known any of that then.

Here’s the thing. I keep referring to a “good time” to have a baby as though such a thing existed. That was and is a fantasy. Not least because you can only plan so much. Becoming a parent taught me humility in nine thousand different ways, but one of them involved learning that parenting is about surrendering a lot agency about timing because your kid will have their own ideas about when it will be a “good time” to do anything — that includes everything from putting on snow pants to when they will emerge into the world.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the somewhat depressing stats on the “motherhood penalty,” or why women who have children generally take more hits in their career trajectory than men. This graph sums up some of the latest research (yep, it deserves a whole special post of its own):


Source [link to pdf]: “Children and Gender Inequality,” Working paper for National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2018

It is now widely recognized that “family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer” and “that men with young children are 35 percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs and 20 percent more likely to earn tenure than women in the same boat.” On top of all that, this penalty can begin even before there is a baby in what Jessica Winegar calls the “miscarriage penalty.”

Or, coming at the question differently, there is Rivka Galchen whose book Little Labors includes a tally of great women writers who have opted out of motherhood including: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, and Simone de Beauvoir.

For these women, there was no good time.

But, to be honest, I don’t think there is a good time for anyone. I know that this can sound like a useless platitude and there are others who offer more concrete advice. It leans towards the idea that the ideal time might be when you are in grad school. I can see that argument but I can say that it would not have worked for me.

It will never be a good time AND, if this is the sister life you choose, it is always the right time. I know that my younger self would find this frustrating. I wish I could tell her, and you, that there is a secret code, a magical time, when it will all be perfect and easy. But she (and you) would see right through me and call me out on that anyways.

Looking back, I will say that I wish I had been able to talk more honestly and more openly about this question — even just with myself.

Whatever happens, whatever you decide or have decided, let’s keep standing tall and saluting these great feminist lives that we are making.

Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!










advice · disability · enter the confessional · productivity · Uncategorized

I did it myyyyyyy waaaaay: and you should, too

I love paper. I love paper journals and notepads, I love printouts, I love paper books. I love pens and highlighters and pencils and erasers and tape-flags and Post-Its. I love sorting my printed-out grading into stacks, into piles. I love cerlox-bound dissertations on my lap, squeaking under my highlighter. I love 12 sheets of scrap paper on my desk as 12 weeks of a semester as I plan out a grad course. I love fanning my research notes across a 7′ by 10′ area rug and crawling among them, attaching paper sticky notes. I love printing out 40 pages chapter drafts and arranging them linearly across all my kitchen counters, then cutting them with scissors, sticking bits together with tape, and rearranging them linearly, over and over. I even do outlines on tiny strips of paper that I cut up and arrange and rearrange and cut and add and throw away and rearrange again.

Please note the paper bits are actually in bulleted and sub-bulleted lists.

I love paper. E-stuff, hilariously and paradoxically, I’m not so keen on. I love social media and happily surf multiple streams and platforms simultaneously, obviously: this is my research area, after all. But. I don’t read journal articles online, don’t grade online, don’t buy e-books, or e-magazines, don’t use a stylus on a tablet. I’m happy to read the whole internet online, and happy to free write and do maybe up to 30% of my editing work online. The whole work online thing gives me the heeby-jeebies and makes me desperately confused.


I often feel like some cranky Luddite, making my students print papers and hand them in. I feel like a monster for compulsively printing hundreds of pages of research articles when I’ve got them all stored as PDFs on my tree-saving screen. I feel dumb and old-fashioned when I ask my coordinator to print out all the bits and pieces of the graduate teaching assignment instead of working virtually on the beautiful spreadsheet she’s made.

Basically, there’s a part of me that knows I get the best results, more happily and easily, when I use my paper methods. And there’s a part of me that thinks I should instead do it completely online and virtually because my way is weird and therefore terrible.

I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine.

I suggest to you, too, that maybe those “one weird trick for productivity” hacks that you use and are secretly ashamed of, might be something YOU should be proud of, too.

For me, paper is visible in very important ways: scale, scope, the gist. How much progress I’m making, how much I have left. Where the holes are, sometimes literally. Paper is a massive memory aid, an externalization of my working memory, all the more crucial the larger or more complex a task becomes. Colour coded sticky notes and pens and paper clips and highlighting–I scan it from above and easily zoom down to what I need.

For me, electronic text is inscrutable and frustrating, like trying to watch a movie in the front row of the cinema with a pinhole camera: I can’t get any sense of scale or make sense of anything, and I get dizzy, to boot. There’s no way I could follow any kind of narrative and it’s a challenge not to barf. All the blue light, not enough screen, too many tabs and open windows and nothing findable. Stress nap!

I thought requiring my paper memory prosthetics meant I was too dumb to “keep it all in my head.” I thought that getting frustrated and anxious using virtual text meant I had no attention span (well, okay, that’s true). But honestly, who cares? As I build up a body of research and teaching and service, I can see that I actually produce really good stuff. Who cares if I do it weird? Pretty much no one, actually. So why am I (are we?) so hard on myself (ourselves?) for doing it my way?

My former coordinator, watching me use pencils and scrap paper and printouts and rulers and tick boxes and lists and hand-drawn tables to slot 140 grad students into 3 semesters of teaching with no overlaps, howlers, or inequities, laughed at me a little (rightly so, I look like a loon; we laughed together a lot) but she kept all those sheets: they really worked, and it was fast, and it was fair. It all eventually got put into a spreadsheet for tracking purposes, but it was okay that I did it my way.

And it’s okay that you do it your way. This job is supposed to be about results; we are supposed to be free to do the work how and when we want, as long as we produce the required end-products–a syllabus, a lesson plan, a dissertation, a teaching schedule, an academic article. But in truth I think a lot of us secretly or not-so-secretly berate ourselves for doing it wrong. It seems so strange to me but here it is: in a profession where we get almost no training in the methods for actually doing our jobs, when we figure out our own methods, we’re nearly always convinced we’re doing it wrong, and should be ashamed of ourself, or at least very secretive so we don’t get found out.

There’s a vast market in productivity advice (I know, I write a lot of it) and there is much we can learn from different kinds of best practices and different kinds of systems, particularly when we haven’t yet found a system that works for us. We should remember, though, that there are different systems, and it’s okay to prefer one kind of working style over another.

So now you know my one weird trick: Print everything, and spread over all flat surfaces with paper so that I can see everything I’m working on and with at the same time. What’s your one weird trick?

parenting · writing

Bodies and Brains and Babies

So yeah, I’m pregnant. After all the fuss about not being able to be, three years of fuss, my partner and I are having our first kid this summer. I’m firmly in the second trimester, that wonderful time when you look back on the last few months and realize “Oh right! THIS is how I’m supposed to feel, not exhausted and queasy and generally anxious. I’d forgotten.”

You’d think that, feeling good again, I’d be anxious to get back to writing here and elsewhere. Baby brain doesn’t seem to have set in yet, so the words are there in roughly the same quantity and sophistication as usual. I have a list of posts and ideas as long as my arm. I have the time (although less than usual, as a terribly timed basement renovation means commuting to the city from my parents’ house in the suburbs while our place is unlivable).

What I don’t have is the motivation. And it’s not just the motivation to write–it’s the motivation to engage in much of anything academic or intellectual. Instead, I find myself drawn to physical comedy (we’re watching the incredibly silly Baywatch movie as I write this), to cooking, to planning for my vegetable garden and the new basement, to walking, to snuggling the cats, to looking out the window, to examining the outward evidence of my body building a whole new human from scratch with no conscious instruction from me.

I’m into the physical, into sensation, into doing instead of thinking. Which is weird for me.

But I’m relishing being forcefully embodied, as strange as it is. I have a terrible habit, one reinforced by an academic culture that sees bodies as a nuisance or an afterthought, of forgetting that I’m not a mind in a meatsack but a wholly integrated, embodied consciousness. I can’t do that now. There’s nothing about this process over which my conscious mind has control–my body is in the driver’s seat. And I’m letting it be.

I haven’t always been able to. Part of the reason why it took us so long to get to this point was that I was afraid of doing just that. While in theory I wanted to have a child, I was fearful of letting that desire get in the way of my ambition as a professional and a writer, of my intellect. I’m really into my job and my writing, and into being good at (and ambitious about) both.

Through both, I not only get to exercise my skills and feel accomplished; I get to help people who need helping, every day. I get to put policies in place that pay for childcare and airfare for their children when my students and fellows go to conferences. I get to tell the Tri-Agencies that their insistence on postdoc mobility hurts the careers of academic mothers, and watch them make a different decision than they might otherwise have. I get to make sure that my disabled students have all of the equipment and supports they need to do their work and succeed. I get to write about how CanLit in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for the messed up CanLit of today so that knowing its history can help us do better.

The fear that motherhood would prevent me from doing all of those things, even as I very much wanted both, kept me from actively addressing my infertility for longer than I should have. I was so tied to living and working in my brain that it kept me from doing something I really wanted to, but was afraid of. My ambition was familiar and desirable, whereas becoming a parent is a process entirely mysterious and unknowable.

But I’m not afraid now. That’s  lie–I’m terrified about how hard motherhood will be, because I know it will be ever so good but ever so hard. But I’m not afraid of giving things up. I have, and I will again and again, but I’ll get them back, because I want them. I can be a body who builds and feeds babies and a brain who thinks and writes and works, who does the work of making sure that other people who want to do the same can have as much of both as they want and need. I can be a person who models that for my kid.

It seems silly to say it out loud–of course I can do both, with some significant compromises and what I’m sure will be plenty of guilt and conflicted priorities–but it doesn’t feel silly. And it’s not, really, for me or millions of other ambitious women who face motherhood in a world that makes it really hard not to have to choose.



being undone · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

A la recherche de temps perdu

I have been considering the phrase “making up for lost time.” I have been considering the nature of academic temporality, generally, and it strikes me we are often expressing overwhelm about the present, regret about the past, and a kind of desperate and yet hopeful anxiety about the future. We will somehow have time to write later because we are drowning in busyness right now and that later is going to allow us to make up for lost time.

Lost. time.

Lost academic time can take many forms: How am I supposed to read all these candidate files before Monday? How did I manage to only grade 6 papers today when I literally did nothing else? How is it 2pm and I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning? And then there is the temps perdu of research, where our sense of loss and bewilderment, often, runs pretty deep. The tenured and tenure-tack run a small version of this lost-time-loop every summer, where the endless acres of 16 weeks of research time is supposed to produce 2 full articles and a grant proposal and a tan and Fall syllabi and a sense of well-being, and somehow at the end of it, I’m at the photocopier on labour day, wan and regretful, with only 1/3 to 1/2 as much done as I wanted. Dissertation can be pretty awful for temps perdu syndrome: all we do through coursework and exams is complain about how much time we are spending on other people’s stuff and how all we want to do is finally work on our project and when we somehow don’t it starts a shame spiral that only seems solvable by self-loathing and secret binge-writing.

Gillian Anderson in "The X-Files - The Movie."
“But Mulder, time doesn’t just disappear. I’m a scientist, and I am going to write a peer reviewed paper about that during my sabbatical.”

I have, myself, a deep sense of lost time. Time that, like many, I imagine I can “make up for” on a sabbatical. Sabbatical time is magical! I will do all the things I have so far failed to do! I will catch up! And, more insidiously, I tell myself, during that time, I will live up to my promise, make up for lost time, lost ambition, lost to everyone’s glowing expectations of what I could do with my life, prove that I am not here by accident. One by one I will silence my regrets over missed opportunities and missed deadlines by doing all the work that over the years I feel bad about not getting done.

This is a good way to be miserable, and to burn out. We can’t turn back time. Hermione can’t do it in a sustainable way. It’s not clear that even Cher could do it, Bob Mackie dress or not.

All we have is right now. Right now does not care if you wish you had published a book five years ago: you can’t work 12 hours a day to make up for that regret. Worse, even trying to do so will ensure that you get nothing done in the right now, because you burn out. Regrets about the past, and the self-loathing that often accompanies these regrets, are heavy to carry and useless in the battle of today. Trying to “make up” for lost time just loses more time, and is exhausting. Maybe shame is not really a good productivity tool.

It can be really hard to let go of the past, even if thinking about it brings us nothing but negative feelings. Somehow, holding out some dim hope that once we get time to just work hard enough and long enough we can patch over all those holes in our CV, and in that way put all our regretful anxiety to rest seems easier than just … letting go. We’d almost rather keep hating ourselves right now because we imagine a future in which this self-loathing has fuelled some kind of productive burst that will get 10 years of work done in 1.

But time doesn’t work like that.

Better, maybe, to take some time to let go of the past, and just try to work right now. Work right now as if it brought us some sense of pride and accomplishment, not as if it were a desperate attempt to make up for an earlier failure. What would it feel like to sit down to an article, a syllabus, a dissertation, without the expectation of accomplishing all the ‘missed’ work at the same time?

That’s hard to do. (Ask me how I know.)

I’m trying each day when I sit down to work on this book project that I’ve been working on for [inaudible temporal mumbles] to just work on what’s in front of me, not get caught up in some internal narrative telling me it should have been finished years ago, trying to stop telling myself that if I don’t make up for that lost time by working ten times as hard right now it’ll be worth nothing. Every day I try anew. It’s sort of working, but it’s a practice I have to mindfully engage.

Here’s what I tell myself and here’s what I wish for you to tell yourselves. You are enough just as you are. Do the work in front of you just for what it is: a research problem, a new direction, a literature review. It’s not a referendum on your worth as a human, and it’s not some magical clock that’s already run out.

I’m enjoying my work a lot more, now that I’m not trying to get ten years of work done every day, now that I’ve given myself permission to try to get one day of work done each day. It’s not a punishment, and I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone that trying to write for 12 hours a day is going to prove. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, astonished at how much fun I’m having when I stop regretting the past, and just start living my todays, one at a time.

risky writing · sabbatical · Uncategorized · writing

How much can I write in a day?

There is a big tra-la-la on Twitter currently, about profs working 60 hour weeks and other profs not working 60 hour weeks and people talking about power and performance-of-busyness and overwork and systems and ranks and all of it.

This post is not about that. This post is about how much I can write in one day: for how long, what kind of writing, and how.

I’ve been on sabbatical for just over a month. So, I’m not doing much, work wise, except writing. My email is minimal; I have no department or administrative meetings; I’m not teaching. I am still working with my grad students and their writing, and I did go to a conference for three days.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • How much I can write? Between 300-4000 words per day, depending on what kind of writing I’m doing
  • For how long? Between 4 and 6 thirty-minute poms, which, with breaks, means a workday that begins about 9am and runs to 1 or 2pm. (Total writing time is between 2 and 3 hours; total workday is 4 or 5 hours long)
  • What kind of writing? I have been free-writing (easy and fun); note-taking and bookmarking (easy and boring); birds-eye overview of main ideas and the main point of the chapter (intense and exciting); crafting outlines and trying to carve out a structure (hard and slow)
  • How? I write in 30 minute bursts, according to a task list and schedule my coach and I set up once a week, for the coming week.

I had this idea that being on sabbatical would mean that I would be Working On My Research for 8 hours a day. I know writing is taxing, so I figured I would only do that for three or four hours a day (I didn’t seem to plan any breaks in there), and then after lunch, I would read books and article and take notes or do library searches or some such.

That was way too much. That was just not possible for me.

In the 2-3 hours of total writing time, spread over 4 or 5 hours of the day, over the past three weeks, I have got an incredible amount of work done: I have made huge progress on the book chapter I’m working on, including: finding and bookmarking and taking notes (about 7000 words) on all my primary sources, and the popular sources that engage them; adding 4500 words to the chapter draft; creating a solid and workable outline of the structure and arguments of the chapter from scratch; creating a research task list, organized and referenced, for my RA; creating section outlines and cutting and pasting the whole chapter draft into the correct sections of the new outline; and starting to fill the holes that I now see in the draft.

In three weeks, writing for not more than 3 hours per day, I’ve brought a book chapter from 10% done to about 65% done. I’m on track to finish it by the end of the month, which is to say, I will have written a solid draft of a whole book chapter in about 6 weeks. In a work week that usually has between 12-15 hours of writing in it and not the 40 I thought were going to be necessary.

I keep thinking I must not be working hard enough. That I’m slacking off. But I’ll tell you, first, that what I am doing is exhausting: by the end of my writing time each day, I just climb into bed with the cat and a Magic Bag and pass out hard for 45 minutes. I am spent; I have nothing left in me to write or think anymore by the time my last pom is done. Second, by the time I get up the next morning, I am excited and full of energy, and eager to sit back down and start writing. That has been a revelation. Third, I’m able to take care of myself and that makes a huge difference: I am trying new recipes in my Instant Pot; running five times a week, three of those with a running group; going to bed on time; spending quality time with my husband and daughter; taking the weekends to just … live my life. I am feeling really, really good. It’s nice.

So sabbatical for me looks like 16-20 hours of work during the week, and none during the weekend. I expect that the burst of frenetic thinking and writing and editing that comes from finishing a piece will mean the occasional week where I work more than that, and weeks where I travel for talks or conferences will look a little different, too.

But I wanted you to know: in the ideal circumstance of the sabbatical, where writing is my only job, I still can’t do it for more than 6 poms in a day, and that 6 poms a day is proving to be remarkably productive. I would say it’s okay to have limits, but we actually don’t have a choice about our limits. They are what they are. By respecting what my limits are, I am able, paradoxically, to do much better work than when I push myself harder, and am able to be happy, and balanced, and healthy. We don’t hear a lot of stories about doing less. So I wanted to tell you mine.


advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

All the things I’ve said “no” to

Like many academic women, I’m trying to learn how to say no–I can’t believe how deeply socialized I am to never want to disappoint anyone, how deeply-rooted is my fear of being ‘unlikeable’, how unshakeable my imposter syndrome that any opportunity turned down represents the tide turning toward my inevitable unmasking and the end of everything.

I have a problem with saying yes that is partly being socialized female, partly about an ADHD time-tunnel problem where there is only ‘now’ where I can make someone happy and get excited about a new opportunity and a vast amorphous and distant ‘not now’ where somehow the work will happen and I’m not mysteriously triple-booked, and partly about feeling a deep moral imperative to use the incredibly privilege of my tenured professorship to be available to committees and students and collaborations and such. Basically, I am afraid to say no, I feel like an asshole when I say no, and I have terrible foresight into what all my yesses might mean for my actual workflow.

Knowing this, I vowed to make a change on sabbatical. I booked myself a 365-day, all-day meeting and it runs like a ribbon all across my iCal for 2018:

say not
I know there’s a typo. I’m just NOT going to go and change it. No. I’m saying no.

And! I have indeed been saying no. And it was very hard! I was still eating Christmas cookies and day-drinking when I got an email at the very end of December asking me if I would be interested to keynote an undergraduate media conference … in mid-January. I immediately dropped everything and stood in my kitchen, rationalizing a way to say yes, while my partner stood there agog. I was all like, “well, I think I have a paper I could really easily convert into something for this, and it’s on a weekend so that wouldn’t eat into my writing time and it’s close by so …”

No. I said no. It was hard but then? I stopped thinking about it. Poof: literally one less thing to worry about. Because, to be honest, I would have been stressing about slides and making the talk perfect and it would totally have taken away writing time.

Saying no is getting easier. I did not say yes to all the students who asked me for reference letters, just the ones who are working directly with me. I did not say yes to reading all the CVs of our job applicants. I did not say yes to a campus advocacy thing. I did not say yes to participating in another conference. I did not say yes to three separate request for peer review. I said no.

Something amazing happened: I immediately forgot all the things I said no to. I actually had to dig through my email to generate the list above. Let me be clear: I am not wracked with guilt or regret. It’s amazing and freeing! I simply do not even remember what I have said no to. I just moved on. Another thing: no one wrote back to beg me to reconsider. No one. I have not ruined anyone’s life by saying no.

Saying no to all these other things has meant more clearly saying yes to my own sabbatical project: I have made incredible progress this month on a book chapter that was nothing but a good idea and some free writing–it’s grown into a real thing and I have enjoyed focusing exclusively on that this month. It feels really, really good to focus like this, not in a rush and not in a race and not in a panic and not stuffed into the cracks of All The Other Things.

I am still saying yes to things other than my writing: I’m meeting with grad students about their chapters, and I’m participating in defences. I gave a lunch time talk to a women’s group, and am giving that same talk to a staff association lunch. And I am saying yes to some opportunities–that I am choosing, for my own needs–to give talks on my current research in ways that feel like they support what I want to get done this year.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that, ultimately, saying yes to one thing always has costs, because time is not infinitely elastic, nor is attention.  (This is very hard for me to learn.) A yes to something is always, ultimately, a no to something else, and I’m trying to learn to do that accounting every time I’m presented with an opportunity. I said that I wanted to use this sabbatical to really focus on finishing my big projects, and I find that since I’m saying no to things that aren’t that, I actually am making real progress on the thing I am trying to prioritize.

So I have said no, and the results of my negative responses to all these asks has been positive progress on my main goal, and a more positive and less-stressful rhythm to my days. I have said no, and I’m here to tell you: it feels good.

emotional labour · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

What the day looks like

Do you know that academic urban legend? The one about how we all get super sick the minute we hand in our grades / complete the writing project / give the talk? It’s a pretty common belief among academics of particularly the junior ranks that the kinds of Big Push and overwork required to climb some of these work mountains always results in our bodies giving up once the adrenaline wears out. It looks something like this:

(What is she saying? “Graaaades aaaaaaarrrree iiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnn”?)

It seems like sabbatical is like that, too. Guys, I’m tired. Like, adrenal fatigue tired. Nap every day tired. Work flashbacks, minor panic eruptions, and All The Feels about my job that I’ve been suppressing for, I guess, years while I just kept moving. I’ve always said that kind of pace and overload was not sustainable and here I am now, in my pyjamas, living it. I stopped runningrunningrunning to get it all done, and it fell apart.

(Okay, so here’s the crux of this post. My husband just got out of the shower while I was previewing the clip and when he asked me what I was doing, I legit burst into tears, snot running down my face, and squeaking out “academic life is like this and I stopped running and now I’m having all the feels at the same time.”)

Everyone warned me that sabbaticals are for breakdowns. That everyone has big plans about smiling and drinking tea beatifically and Finishing The Book, but a surprising amount of time winds up devoted to Netflix, rich food, crying, and dog walks.

I tried to account for this. I’ve known this sabbatical was coming, and I knew I’m no different than anyone else. I tried to prepare. I hired an academic coach in March, to help me sort out my workflow and writing habits well before the sabbatical started. I tried to deal with my procrastination and panic problem, systematically and kindly. I took real vacations this summer and at Christmas. I allowed myself some real time to process all my feelings after I completed my term as grad chair. I visualized the sabbatical, and made lists of what an ideal day would look like, and how I would be happy and balanced–and the specific actions I would undertake to accomplish that. I made lists of projects and goals and worked on setting realistic work expectations with my coach. I finished all my outstanding obligations and practiced saying no to new ones. I built exercise AND therapy into my life.

As January 1 rolled around, I had good, reasonable plans, and good, reasonable goals. I had accountability and sociability plans. I was cooking good food and moving my body and hugging my family. I joined a half marathon training group.

I have written 10,000 words on a book chapter, presented at a great conference, given a public talk, and seen one of my students defend. I PB’d a 5km run. I am sleeping well at night, and long enough. I’m nearly caught up on Star Trek Discovery (HOLY SHIT, Y’ALL).

And yet, here I am, tucked in my window perch with a fresh coffee, a clean desk, and a good idea for a blog post, outright sobbing while watching movie clips.

I seem to have some unprocessed … trauma? I don’t want to exaggerate. But I’m coming to terms with what six years without a break has done to me, what it means to just recently being diagnosed autistic and ADHD, what I’ve accomplished or not accomplished in my 13 years as a professor (not nearly what I’d hoped to) and what I want in the next part of my career.

So right now, I’m spending the mornings writing and thinking, and the afternoons napping and taking long walks. Interspersed with random bouts of sobbing, that seem to come from someplace really deep.

In general, and in a substantive way, I’m pretty happy: I’m enjoying my writing, and my naps, and my runs, and cooking and eating with my family. My writing is going well and I’m proud of what I’m doing. And yet there’s no denying All These Feelings I seem to be having. So I’m trying to make space to have them. We’ll see what happens next.


academic work · best laid plans · faculty · free time · midcareer · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

Well. It’s official. I’m actually on sabbatical now, my first in seven years, a full year. It is an unbelievable privilege of my tenured position that I am able to apply for these periodical paid (85% salary) leaves, and devote time to my research.

I have been looking forward to this sabbatical ever since I learned I would have to forego my earned half-year sabbatical when I became grad chair in 2014. I knew the reward would be that I could accrue enough credits to qualify for the full year, which I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for, otherwise. I looked forward to it as a distant mirage, where my time was my own, where there wouldn’t be so many emails, so many meetings, so much grading, so much teaching. I was basically picturing my year long sabbatical as a dramatic arm sweep that would throw everything off all my desks onto the floor, another gesture ripping the phone cord out of the wall, then tapping out the Nuclear Option away message on my email.

I had, that is, a fundamentally negative view of my long dreamed of sabbatical: things would disappear, things would stop.

Me, a runner, who resolves to write
I’m really serious about writing. So serious I wrote it on a fun run bib and sealed the deal by running 5km in -14C weather on New Years Day. Surely writing a book (or two) is easier than this?

But a sabbatical is for something, as much as it is about against other things–it is for research, and I had plenty of that backlogged and untended.

I both longed for the chance to hit the reset button on my campus life that the sabbatical represented, at the same time as I dreaded thinking about accomplishing a Year of Distraction and Excuse Free Writing That Would Make Me Seem Productive and Valuable As A Scholar. Yeah, I think with initial caps about the things that scare me.

I’m going to write, this year, about how I am learning to write on sabbatical. I’ll let you know what it’s like, adjusting to not being on campus, finding my rhythm, saying no to things that aren’t research related, dealing with loneliness maybe, preparing for reentry, finding a way to end on a good note. I hope this will help others who might not be sure what the “right” way to do a sabbatical is. So it will be pitched to faculty, sure, but it strikes me this year I have–a year where I have one book contract to fulfill for sure, and god help me, quite probably another one, too–is a lot like where graduate students land after their proposal pass. Sabbatical is a lot like ABD, all huge expectations, no structure, isolation, and a great big fear of not being able to live up to it.

For now I’ll tell you some early highlights, that I am going to take up in posts this year:

  • full blown meltdown on January 1, the day the sabbatical started
  • spending the six months pre-sabbatical clearing the emotional, mental, and practical decks
  • how much it is possible, and not possible, to write in one day
  • you can’t make up for lost time, and trying makes you miserable
  • how to turn a year into a big picture plan
  • how to turn that big picture plan into a series of monthly, weekly, and daily plans
  • all the things I’m saying “no” to–and how easy it’s turning out to be
  • all the naps I’m saying “yes” to–and why that’s a good thing
  • you can’t do this alone: mad props to my squad, and all they do

Me, I got cold feet the very day I handed in all my Fall grades and concluded my on-campus responsibilities until, ulp, January 2019. This sabbatical is already terrifying, and restful, and busy, and laid-back by turns. Let’s see how this turns out!