It’s a new school year and, if you work in a college or university, that means another year of meetings. Woohoo! I’m in a lot of meetings and I think a lot about how to have a better meeting. One of the things that makes some meetings really dispiriting are unwanted interruptions from male, and male-identified, colleagues who stop women from speaking.
But there is surprisingly little help for men who interrupt women. We know what women should do when they get interrupted. But men shouldn’t be left out. There should be a guide for them too.
Never fear! Hook & Eye is here to help! Here’s a friendly letter for your male colleagues and mine:
Dear Male Colleague in a Meeting,
It’s really great to see you here! Collegial process is so important and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to come to this meeting. Having your depth of experience and expertise at this table, or in this room, makes all of our work better. I know you know a LOT. It might sometimes (often?) happen that you have the urge to share your knowledge urgently even though someone else is already talking. Maybe the other person who is already talking is a woman? Especially if the other person is talking is a woman, please, I beg you, pause for a moment and consider withdrawing your desire to interrupt and ask the following questions:
Do you really need to do this? Can this point wait until the speaker has finished talking?
Is this an unwanted interruption? That is, does anyone else want you to interrupt?
You might ask, how can I tell if this is an unwanted interruption?
Good question! I’m so glad you asked.
Consider: will this interruption help the speaker clarify or further her point? will this interruption upset and destabilize the speaker so that she loses her train of thought and has trouble continuing to make her point? would other people at the meeting want me to interrupt?
Not sure? That’s good. I work in the liberal arts where embracing uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of intellectual inquiry.
Here’s a quick and easy way to get some answers: ask someone, preferably a woman. Pass them a note. Whisper in their ear. Send them a text or DM. If you’re really organized, before the meeting, arrange for sign that you can make to a colleague, preferably a woman, who will be in the room and she can tell you if your interruption will be welcome.
Ok, you’ve checked and this interruption really would be welcome. Great! But you still shouldn’t be the person interrupting. You still have to withdraw.
Ask a colleague, definitely preferably a woman, to do it for you. This is a terrific way to triple check that the interruption really is wanted. And to make sure that you’re not another dude preventing a woman from speaking.
I know, all this takes time. The meeting is moving fast and you want to interrupt because this point is urgent. You’ve got to trust me on this. It’s not so urgent that it can’t wait a few moments so that you can be really sure that this is a good move.
Thank you. Welcome back. Let’s have a great year of meetings and let’s try for no more meetings where men interrupt women.
Twenty-two years ago my mom drove me from my summer job at the family business in Ontario to begin my first year of university in North Carolina.
Seventeen years ago I moved from the interior of British Columbia to Quebec to start my Masters at McGill.
Fifteen years ago I moved from Montreal to Calgary to start a PhD.
Ten years ago I moved across the country to start a ten-month contract as Dalhousie.
Nine years ago we began Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe.
Six years ago I started a twelve-month contract at Mount Allison University.
Five years ago I was teaching sessionally and my partner was teaching on contract. We had a five month old infant and no regular child care.
Four years ago I was on an with-month contract at Acadia University.
Three years ago I started a tenure-track position.
So much of my life has been organized around the ebb and flow of an academic timeline. At times this has felt thrilling. At others, it has been oppressive and scary. Often, it has been something in between, and much of that has been tied to the more-or-less precarious state I’ve been living.
As we enter this new school year I find myself reflecting not only on my own trajectory–warts, roses, and all the rest of it–I find myself thinking about the ways in which communities are made and re-made in the spaces around and in academia. Hook & Eye was imagined as one such possible space.
This year, as we revivify the work we do here, and as we look toward a full decade of feminist academic blogging, I find myself grateful for what has come before, and excited for what is to come.
Welcome. Welcome back. Let’s get to work, and let’s balance that work with the rest of our fulsome lives.
When I’m feeling scattered and panicked, like I’m all fizzy brain and frazzle plan, reactive instead of active, there’s a little yoga exercise I do. I’m doing it a lot, because it’s conference season and I spun really fast from my very first Trudeau Foundation Summer Retreat / Institute for Engaged Leadership in rural Québec right back out to Congress in Vancouver. A lot of people I know are in similar situations, bouncing from one thing to the next, high speed, scattering powerpoints and nametags and boarding passes as they go.
This might be you, too. You might like my yoga trick, then.
I call it the re-balance. I roll myself heavily from standing down into a loose forward fold, legs a little wider, knees more than a little bent, back snake-y, arms hung long from unstructured shoulders. I literally hang out. I feel the blood shift through my neck, my face, making my head feel heavier and warmer. I contemplate my toes. My arms get heavy. My thighbones push back deeply into my hip sockets. My outer hips stretch long, an unexpected sensation. The big glute muscles in my butt and the hamstring muscles in the backs of my legs wake up, producing more unexpected sensations. I just haaaaaaaang ooooooouuuuut for a bit, notice the shift in perspective, in my body, and then in my head. Good. We could stop here. Forward folds are yoga’s chill pill. This might be enough. Catch your breath. Take a pause.
But there’s more. With as little movement as I can, I shift my weight forward in my feet, and feel how my body compensates to keep from falling over. One toe or two push a little harder, one little muscle on the side of my shin fired up. When I find this new micro-balance, I shift again, back or to the right or to the left, unsettling and then finding anew my balance. If I’m a bit tippier than usual, I might spider-out my fingertips onto the floor to help me feel where the balance comes from. And more: now I close my eyes, and do it all over again: the balance and the proprioception is different without the visual cues. I’ll shift my upper body. Or straighten my knees maybe, or deepen their bend.
The longer I do this, the more I feel my soul coming back into my body, the more my breathing will slow, my heart rate even out, my panic subside. The more I feel … what? Not so much control, but a sense of purpose or at least agency. Groundedness. I am aware of the little muscles in my feet, the little movements made possible by the little spaces between my vertebra, uncompressed and flipped. By just stopping, and attending to my feelings of overwhelm by addressing them through stillness and and little movements and gentleness and attention, I remember that, actually, I can stop.
I can stop.
I remember, too, that my big clever fancy brain is just one part of who I am, that this brain is for feelings as much as it is for Big Ideas. That this brain is not just attached to but a fundamental part of my body, that my body has needs, needs for movement, for stillness, for variety, for food, for the sensation of sunshine on my belly and smoothed out beach rocks under my back. That I’m not just eyes for reading, but eyes to look up from where I’m standing, to get a little dizzy at the bigness and the farness of the mountains that surround us here. Ears not just for taking in words but for birdsong, for the multi-dimensionality of space and scale and distance evoked by the tips of very tall trees in the wind, a muffled highway, the dampening effect of leaf litter on footfall, the hither-and-yon rustling of ferns and scrub in the undergrowth right next to me, or fifty feet away.
So much of academic work seems to press against, to dissolve our boundaries, to disrespect them in some fundamental way. Thou shalt have no other god than reading, and that for 12 hours a day. The emails must be answered right now. You are only as good as the next thing on the horizon, the next brass ring. Faster. Better. Don’t show weakness. Academic work is always more more more in ways that leave us less and less and less sure of who we are, what we want, and even what we need.
Take a minute. Come back to yourself. You can do my little exercise in a chair. You can do it without folding over, even. Maybe you can do it in child’s pose, or by spreading your arms far up above you or gently out to the sides, or by rolling your neck every so softly and with care. Maybe you just close your eyes wherever you are and feel your own breath disappearing down into your body and then appearing again on its exit. Maybe you breathe and send a little wyd? do all the distant and tiny bits of your body you’ve been not paying much attention to because so many reason.
Come back to yourself. Feel where the edges of your body mark a boundary of care: this is you, from that roughened callus on your writing finger, to the twinge in your knee from your characteristic sitting posture, to the softness of your heels after your did that peeling foot mask last week, that feels so nice when you shimmy your foot into your sandal with your hands in the morning. All of this is you, and you deserve to take care of you. Once you find your edges, let your own little inner voice squeak its tentative message from your core. Let the little voice be amplifed in the hollows of your quieted bones. Listen.
My voice was saying: stop.
I have been to exactly one panel at Congress: the one I was presenting on. I brought my everything to that, stayed to answer questions, to ask questions, to listen to people’s stories and ideas.
I had a lovely dinner with a friend from grad school who is studying for her PhD now and living her life. I joined up with a girl gang I only ever get to hang out with on Teh Intertubes, and had a gossipy, affirming supper. I walked 7km to get there because my body wanted to. I had a long unplanned wide ranging sit down coffee chat with a colleague from years and years ago. I met a new friend and we learned about each others’ research and celebrated our recent triumphs. By chance I ran across a new friend and Trudeau Scholar on the lawn outside my residence and we sat on the grass and chatted for just a few minutes. I’m having naps to try to work through a violent chest cold I kept telling myself I didn’t have time for.
I have another post about conferences and the politics of going to panels or avoiding them. There’s some structural questions to think about there but right now the most important thing was: stop.
I’m taking the time to write this post. I wanted to share my little yoga exercise with you, if it would feel good in your body. And I wanted to share my own little vulnerability, to overwhelm and status anxiety and FOMO and always-more academic culture, to tell you that my little voice said stop and I listened and it’s been so valuable and I’m getting so much out of the conference because of it, rather than despite it.
I know you would take care with those you love. Yes. Keep doing that. But today, if you can, or if you need to, and if you can make it happen somehow take care. Of you.
Your little voice has something to say, and it’s pretty wise.
I cried in a meeting. I wish I hadn’t. Now I am thinking about about that.
Over the years, I have sometimes had a quiet little cry in my office or in the bathroom or, once when I was a visiting speaker and couldn’t find a bathroom quickly enough, in the back of a building behind a dumpster. I did not feel badly about those occasions. I needed a few moments to have a lot of feelings and those quiet, private moments of crying were the most efficient way for me to center myself again and go back into the room with those feelings nicely channeled towards whatever work I had to do in that room.
But this time was different. It was in a meeting with others. And I regretted it. It was uncomfortable for me and, I’m pretty sure, for the people in the room with me.
Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up)… The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.
Popular discussions (such as this one, but there are lots of others) of gender and crying in the workplace often circle back to Mika Brzezinski who wept when she was fired as co-host of a morning show on MSNBC. She is very clear about regretting having cried and adheres to the classic formula of equating emotional control with power:
When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work … much more control over any situation … and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.
This advice is the exact opposite of what Hook & Eye has advocated in the past. Margaux Feldman’s brilliant 2015 post, “There’s No Crying in Academia,” is a manifesto for making public the labour of feeling in the work that we do:
Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering.
In a follow-up post, Tanis MacDonald writes movingly about working while in grief and the importance of showing our students “that grief forges its own pedagogical model.”
Here’s the thing. I agree with Margaux and Tanis (yes, all the feels and all the feels in a way that embraces how the work of feeling is central to the work of thinking), but I secretly want to agree with Mika. I would much rather not ever, ever cry in a meeting or a similar kind of setting where there are others in the room who are not crying.
It’s not because I believe that I have ceded power or that the people in the room will think less of me. After going over that meeting in my head a few times, I wish I hadn’t cried because crying took so much out of me that I couldn’t get back. There was so much feeling in that moment, and I’m not ashamed of that, but I also wish I could have felt a little less. Feeling so much took me away from me.
I’m reminded of one of my favourite moments (I’ve written about it before in my academic work) in Rei Terada’s Feeling in Theory, where she talks about the zombies in George Romero’s films as being “notably undivided about their desires.” As a “well-known counterillustration,” she offers the case of the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner:
In the film … the explicitly sentimental moment for the replicant played by Sean Young—the one time she cries—is the moment when she discovers that she’s a replicant, whose memories are not her own. We assume she had feelings before, but reserving the sight of her tears for this occasion dramatizes the fact that destroying the illusion of subjectivity does not destroy emotion, that on the contrary, emotion is the sign of the absence of that illusion. (Terada 2001: 157)
“Unlike replicants,” Terada argues, “zombies don’t experience themselves as though they were someone else” (Terada 2001: 157). There is something noble about the zombie’s undivided desires, the clarity of it, that I would like to replicate but I know that I can’t maintain it. I can’t feel without division. The best I can do is to recognize that the expression of intense emotion — let’s call it crying in a meeting for now — is a deeply alienating moment where I am experiencing myself as though I were someone else. It is not fun to feel this way but it is a discomfort that I have to hang on to because I want to be alive to the difficulties and the deeply divided desires at the heart of all the good fights that I want to keep fighting.
Almost two years ago here, I wrote about being published and having no idea. A lot of you wrote to me after that post and told me about your stories of this happening to you too.
I don’t know about you, but IT’S HAPPENING TO ME AGAIN. AND AGAIN.
tl;dr –> Giant humble-brag. My essays are getting reprinted in supercool anthologies! And I am so happy and honoured to be in these books alongside my idols! But! Ummm! It’s weird not to know about until a friend happens to see it somewhere and tells me. Ends with serious discussion of Publishing Agreements. Also, why you should probably try to publish in journals owned by a university press.
A couple months ago, a super-smart grad student who is also a friend was working at the library and DM’ed me with a pic she took on her phone of an essay of mine in the newly published Diaspora Studies Reader. As my post from two years ago notes, I knew that one of my essays would be reprinted in this reader and I was excited about it. I knew about it because the editors had contacted me because Wilfrid Laurier UP owned the copyright to that essay (it first came out in this awesome volume) and WLUP wanted more money than Routledge wanted to pay and so the editors wrote to ask me to help with the negotiations. I was really happy to do so. As a scholar and a critic, I am just so happy to be read.
But I didn’t know that this other essay would also be in the Diaspora Studies Reader. And I didn’t know that the essays would be edited down for length. So much so that the grad student who sent me the pic, and who also teaches that very essay in her courses, did not recognize it. She was so surprised to learn that the anthologization of this essay came as a surprise to me. She said, I didn’t know that’s how this worked.
I didn’t either.
And then, a couple days ago, a friend wrote to congratulate me on being included in the new Photography Cultures Reader. I didn’t know about this one either. Even before I searched my inbox for a note from Taylor and Francis (they own Routledge who is, coincidentally, also the publisher of this volume and the Diaspora Studies Reader — not saying that there is a pattern here or anything… ) I knew that there wouldn’t be one.
Here’s the thing. I am thrilled to be in these anthologies. Completely tingly-all-over thrilled to have had my work read by the amazing editors of these anthologies and be chosen for inclusion. These are people whose work shapes the field and, by choosing my essays for their anthologies, they are saying that I have a real part in shaping the field too. And, honestly, there is no way to get over the thrill of seeing one’s name in a Table of Contents that includes the work of people you’ve idolized since grad school. When I was in budding scholar, I would never have dreamed that my writing would be in a volume alongside the work of the people who had so profoundly shaped my thinking.
I have written to some of the editors of the anthologies that I mention in the 2017 post, and these more recent ones. Understandably, they thought the press was handling all the permissions. And, to be fair, the press did handle them.
I looked up my Taylor and Francis agreements. I have a few from over the years and they all say the same thing: I gave T&F the right to republish my articles in any form in any time in the future in any part of the world. Here’s the relevant section from a recent agreement that I signed with T&F last spring:
I don’t know about you, but by the time I get to this stage of publication, I am happy to sign anything. I’ve survived at least one (and sometimes two) rounds of peer review, the soul-searching revisions process, copy editing, finding five keywords which is always way harder than it should be, writing the abstract which is also way harder than it should be, and writing my 100-word bio which is also often weirdly hard to do. So, yep, I’ll sign. What would you do? Has anyone ever gotten to this stage of an academic publication and decided not to sign? If so, I would LOVE to know.
So, every time I published an essay (each one of which, as you know, involves a huge amount of research and sweat and tears and time) in a journal or edited volume owned by T&F, I gave the publisher the right to republish it, in any shape or form, anywhere, anytime. I know this sounds very naive, but I never thought about this when I signed those agreements. It honestly never occurred to me that my work would get anthologized. Or that the publisher would do it, several times now, without sending me a note (I’ve stopped dreaming of a desk copy). How silly of me.
Just out of curiosity, I looked up two other agreements that I’ve signed over the last few years. They are totally different than the T&F one!
The Johns Hopkins UP agreement that I just signed for a piece in Postmodern Culture clearly says that I make the decision to republish: “In any re-publication of the Article that you might authorize you will credit the Journal as the original place of publication.”
My agreement with ESC: English Studies in Canada, also published by Johns Hopkins also puts the permissions for future use in my hands (as long as I acknowledge that the article came out in the journal first): “… the author may use all or part of the article for educational or research purposes, in a work under his/her authorship, or editorship subject only to full acknowledgment of its original publication in ESC.”
I also looked at TOPIA since I am co-editing it. The TOPIA agreement also gives the author the authorization to republish but the journal, published by University of Toronto Press, asks for $75: “The journal retains joint rights for the Author’s republication in any other publication venues. The Author will arrange for reprint payments of $75.00 to be paid to the journal for reprint of an article previously published in TOPIA, and will ensure that the previous publication by TOPIA is properly credited.”
We are more aware than ever before that we need to have a robust conversation about academic publication and the circulation of that work. I suspect that I am like many other academics in that I don’t care that much about the ownership of my writing. I don’t really need to own it. Or I am very happy to exchange ownership for seeing my work circulate. I want my research to be out in the world and am so grateful when I get to share it by being published in a serious journal edited by people I admire and am even more grateful when that essay is given a new life in a smart and beautiful anthology about the field that is also edited by people I admire so much. The question is really about how work circulates rather than ownership. They are not the same thing but often amount to the same thing. And in terms of ownership, that conversation is going to involve not just the author and the publisher, but also the peer reviewers and editors whose often invisible labour makes all of this publishing possible.
So we need to talk a lot more about this. UCLA’s negotiations with Elsevier, which I am following with keen interest as someone who peer reviews her fair share of papers, are just the latest variation of this conversation. My experience with being anthologized is another small piece of this much larger conversation. In the meantime, look at your publishing agreements and maybe, maybe, maybe consider sending that awesome new article of yours to a journal published by a university press.
This is an ode to the white board, the glossy surface sometimes made of glass, sometimes constructed from paint, sometimes a weird plastic thingy that’s oddly pitted. Squawk squeak! goes marker number one, emitting vaguely fruity smells quite vigorously but ink not nearly so much so. Skronk chirp squeak! goes marker number two, less smelly and also less shy about making a mark. I have a small collection of markers I hoard, and sometimes even a rag I bring to class with me to erase the board.
I’m always running around class, writing on the board. Sometimes the boards run across two sides of the room and I fill them all, jumping over tables (yes) to access them in our too-tight spaces. Or sometimes, they’re layered at the front, where you can fill all the front ones and then shoot them up towards the ceiling, revealing a whole second set of boards! I jot little lightbulb ideas down low on the corner so I will remember them. I write down student brainstorms. I make big headings in all caps across several boards and then spend class getting everyone to work together to fill them in with notes. I put up the class agenda, with checkboxes, and check them off as we complete each item.
It’s a pretty amazing real-time, interactive, multimodal communication system. It doesn’t need log in credentials. It doesn’t need the projector to warm up. It doesn’t time out. It doesn’t need me to dim the lights. It always works, which is an advantage over classroom electronics.
But the whiteboard is a pretty good pedagogical tool, on its own merits. I have some strong opinions on this matter, and it’s going to involve trash talking slide presentations, which I realize are very very common and which I myself sometimes use in very specific and pointed ways so yes #NotAllPowerPoints but anyways.
First, pacing. A student came up to me after one of my undergrad classes last week. She wanted to compliment me on my use of the white board, instead of PowerPoint. That’s the contrast she made. “So refreshing!” she said. “Like it made it easier for me to follow.” Well, yes. It would. The white board is a lot slower than PowerPoint (so I guess the time you save fighting with the projection and podium system, you make up for in having to hand write in real time). That is a feature, not a bug. I know that many of us put hunks of text and notes and definitions on slides to project, because we have so much content, and it saves time to flash it up instead of write it out. But. How can your students write it down? We use PowerPoints, often, because we are trying to speed things up. We move at the speed of light (literally) and not at the speed of comprehension or contemplation. If I have enough time to write it down, my students have enough time to write it down. If that means I have to radically reduce how much content I can “share” in a given class, well, that’s probably for the best, if what I want is for students to understand what we’re doing rather than impress them with how much I know.
So, whiteboards make me teach more slowly. That’s good. I am a FAST FAST RIGHT NOW UGH I’M BORED GO GO GO kind of academic, and that’s not a good teaching stance. Better to slow my roll to the speed of reflection. To take the care to manage my handwriting. Give people a chance to take it in, to write it down. I honestly don’t think people can take in new ideas in novel fields any faster than they can write it by hand. So I don’t want to teach faster than that.
Second, whiteboards are way more dynamic, interactive, and responsive than projection. Yeah. I said what I said: PowerPoints suck the life and interaction out of any room they’re used in, 9 times out of 10. Slides are static: you can’t change them as you present. The content is already fixed. You come to class, you show it. Nothing that happens in the room can alter the lesson because it’s already 30 ordered slides from A to B, and if C and D come up there is no room for them. Oh this is a really interesting discussion we’re having but I’ve got 48 more slides to get through! If you have a habit of putting your slides online before or after class ask yourself: why is anyone coming to class? What are they getting out of sitting in a room watching you talk to and about a screen? What are they doing, other than listening? Sometimes, after class, I take photos of my whiteboards because class took such a turn that I did not expect that we made new knowledge that I didn’t have before and want to document for myself. Often, during class, what gets written on the whiteboards is what students say: Why is Big Data a paradigm shift? I ask them. It’s not in the textbook. They have to come up with the answers. I write them down. We refine them. Something new happened, something that they built, that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t here.
Basically, I want students to have stakes in class. The “lecture” and “content” of class is partly me giving them new information they don’t have other access to, part of it is them thinking through the ideas they’ve read in the book, and part of it is them working together with each other and with me, to decide what’s real and important and interesting and so we make our class notes together, on the whiteboard.
Third, my work at the whiteboard models distillation and synthesis for my students. I don’t write everything down. Obviously. What I write down is brief, but important. We can write down ideas that are finished, and we can write down stubs of things and refine them. We can brainstorm lists, then pick and choose what we want to keep and then think about some more. We can literally draw connections between things. We capture the gist, the crux, the kernel: learning to do that is incredibly important, and we’re all practicing together.
So that’s my ode to the whiteboard. It makes class more dynamic. It makes me more realistic about “content” coverage. It demonstrates how to find the main point, how to synthesize, how to write-to-learn.
What do you use your whiteboards for? Or do you have a spirited defense of PowerPoint to share?
I’m kind of a Kondo-ite. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up rivals Pride and Prejudice on my list of sick-in-bed comfort reads. When stressed, I throw things out. It’s never been the wrong thing to do.
It’s my first week back to teaching, after my year-long sabbatical and I’m a little frazzled just from the change in pace, routine, number of people, details to manage, the excitement of a new semester. At night, my daughter and I crawl into bed together with the cat and the dog and fire up an episode of Tidying Up on the Netflix-machine and enjoy the transition from the overwhelm and frazzle of my messy day–oh, wait, I mean someone else’s messy home–to the beatific smiles that arise when you know that when you open that specific kitchen drawer, there’s an open spot to put the can opener back into. Ahhhhhh.
It’s easy to focus on the before, on the piles and piles and piles of DVDs, the overflowing laundry baskets, counters encrusted with random bric-a-brac, the entire rumpus room of Christmas decorations in April. It’s easy to goggle at the enormous piles of garbage bags. It’s easy to spin cynical narratives of late capitalist over-accumulation and the soothing of every feeling of discomfort with “retail therapy,” easy to tut-tut at a particularly American drive to always have more, damn the torpedoes, the credit-rating, the square-footage of the dwelling, common sense. It’s easy to think: these people need to learn to say no, to get rid of, to limit, to control. A tightening of purse strings. Self-discipline. No. Consider some of the recent journalism on this. Very judgemental.
The Mersier family (the episode I watched last night) made a special point of noting that Kondo doesn’t judge anyone’s possessions, anyone’s choice about what sparks joy and what doesn’t. And that’s true. Kondo is not so much about getting rid of clutter but of recalibrating your joy sensor. People don’t accumulate 200 pairs of socks because they’re trying to be slobs. They don’t stack every participation medal they’ve earned since 1983 into a shoe box and put it on the dining room table because they want to make sure everyone eats on the couch. People buy stuff, hold onto stuff, produce teetering piles in the corners of their rooms because at some point those objects felt like the solution to some sort of problem: mismatched and not enough socks, a way to show their care for their childrens’ childhoods, a way to keep cherished hobbies close to hand but not in the way. The impulses are always positive, the gratifications perhaps immediate, but the long-term effects unexpectedly, drip by drip, exhausting and overwhelming. People buy, and keep, and store things to create joy. But they lose the way at some point without realising it and don’t know how to climb over the mountain of discount nutcrackers that are blocking their view of the future.
Kondo helps people find their joy again. It looks like throwing things away, it looks like saying no, forcefully, over and over: no, you don’t need to keep 40 years of baseball cards you collected with your kids who haven’t lived here for 20 years. No you don’t need an insulated coat you bought for Michigan now that you live in California. No you don’t need 80 cotton t-shirts. No your kids shouldn’t have so many possessions that they need secondary storage areas in the common rooms of your home. Violence, self-negation, rejection, deprivation.
But what if Kondo is asking us not to say no, but to say yes?
Why does everyone look more … free at the end of each episode than at the beginning? Their faces softer and more open, their gestures more expansive, their laughs full-throated? They have said yes to joy. They have found what they’re looking for: a ‘path to winning’ for the Mersiers, and the feeling that a downsized apartment has become a home. A path into the future, a wide-open retirement for the couple with enough Christmas decorations to do up all of Macy’s, enough baseball cards to open a store. An end to the petty arguments and helplessness of the couple with two young children and no counter space at all.
Kondo begins her magic by saying yes to the home. She sits on the floor. She closes her eyes and becomes still. She smiles a little, touches her fingertips to the floor and traces a little arc from her knees around to her hips. It is awkward and time-consuming and non-narrative … and unexpectedly moving. At least one woman cries on witnessing it. Others become awkwardly still, humbled, as if by someone praying. They bow their heads, they smile nervously. Kondo says yes to the home. Yes to the idea that home is a space of care, that we respect ourselves and our families and our great privilege by attending to this space.
I’m going somewhere with this.
I want to ask you: what are you saying yes to in your home, or, in your work? I’ve written a few times in the past year about my own sometimes frenzied sometimes deliberate sometimes emotional sometimes planned “tidying up” of my working spaces. I am hundreds and hundreds of pounds lighter in the most material of ways. I am lighter in other ways too: getting rid of something between 50 and 100 books gave me the freedom to read many more things, greet new ideas, cherish older ones, release my guilt and obligation. I’m not going to read Sadie Plant again, I never liked that book in the first place, I can let that book go. I can read something else.
But I have said yes in other acts of “tidying up” as well. More is not always better. A little bravery and thoughtfulness might find joy in less. What looks like no can be a yes.
You can tidy up your habits, ideas of what work is, what you “should” be or do, what is essential and what is not. This tidying up, too, is magic.
When I started teaching, I had textbooks and a coursepacks and exams and oral presentations and a research paper. I wrote lectures. I had quizzes. For every course. I had accumulated all these teaching strategies from various places and figured I had to use all of them all the time. It was, if you will, cluttered and ill thought out. I did all those things to assuage my anxiety about my own competence. I did them to fit in with what I thought my colleagues were doing. I did it because I thought it was what students expected. It didn’t bring me joy. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to keep adding things. Do you see where this is going? When I tidied up my pedagogy and assessments, I got rid of a lot: don’t need an exam in a writing course; don’t need a research paper in a methods course; don’t need oral presentations from students in … most courses, don’t need readings for every single class. No to the piles and to the more and to the eveyrthing, yes to leaner, cleaner, focused work. One of my colleagues expressed great shock that I did away with the 10 page research paper in second year course on literary critical methods. But research what? Scansion? Methods are about applying techniques, about learning specialized language, about recognizing instances of a given thing–there are way better ways than ten-sources-at-least-one-academic-monograph-and-two-peer-reviewed-articles-and-not-more-than-one-internet-site research papers in MLA format following the hourglass structure. That’s just clutter. It does not spark joy. It weighs me down.
My dear colleague Frankie and I are teaching a project based graduate course together, one that blends her expertise in social movements, pedagogies of care, racial justice, and critical theory with mine in social and digital media, in design, in communities of online practice, in virality, in platform. We said no to trying to master one another’s fields; we said yes to learning from each other in class and modelling humility and curiosity in that way. We said no to all assigned reading, no to course packs, no to bookstore orders, no to PDFs on the course website, no to performing our own competence by generating overwhelming reference lists. We said yes to really committing to the project-based pedagogy, and so we said yes to supporting students’ research efforts more generously as they build their own reading lists. Students are anxious about what we’re asking them to do for group projects: but we have said yes to devoting the bulk of instructional and contact time to helping them work through it, as their main focus. I expect a lot of emails: I said no to assigned readings so I can say yes to that extra meeting, yes to reviewing that draft, yes to let’s have a look at that reference list. Just writing this out right now sparks joy.
I have said no to on-campus time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Friday mornings. Saying “no” to campus on those days is actually saying yes to: rebuilding my spoon stock by being quiet, wearing clothes that don’t chafe, taking yoga breaks, watching the birds out my window as I think and write and process. It is saying yes to a Thursday run during daylight hours instead of with a head lamp after supper. Yes to devoting my energy to the big tasks that need me to really manage my attention for a few hours, uninterrupted. Yes to putting some food into the slow cooker at lunchtime and having a hot meal, relaxed, with my family. These slow quiet focused gentle reflective days spark joy in me, make my work joyful. Yes.
On the flip side, I am saying yes to being on campus for 9.5 hours on Monday, with 4.5 of those actually in classroom teaching. I am on campus for 8 hours on Wednesdays, with grad meetings, and 2 hours of office hours, and 1.5 hours of teaching. I am saying yes, Mondays and Wednesdays, to being open and available and dressed professionally and with a packed lunch and collegiality. And I can find joy in this, too, because I do love teaching, spontaneous hallway chats, chance encounters, solving people’s problems, making handouts with jokes in them, and seeing students laugh. Yes to that shift in energy in a classroom when everyone suddenly gets it. Yes to the student who comes to my office to tell me something that is scaring them. Yes to that poster announcing that talk that I never would have thought I wanted to hear but becomes weirdly salient. Yes to enjoying my collection of 90s inspired mock turtlenecks and roomy pants that taper at the ankle, to patent lace-ups. Yes to the walk to and from campus through the park, feeling the wind, crunching the snow.
We all seek joy. We wish to be at peace, in comfort, in control, easeful. Our whole economic system is predicated on making us feel insufficient, not enough, and to find abundance by the accumulation of things. The academy, too, is based on muchness: higher grades, more reading, more publications, longer CVs, bigger grants, more more more. But it’s a trap. Like the contributors on Tidying Up, we have been trying to fulfil our very real needs for emotional and intellectual and practical safety, comfort, and joy by overstuffing our closets and our calendars, enacting positivity by saying yes to more sweaters, more assignments, more emails, more committees in ways that are counterproductive to these needs. Full of shame and fear, tired beyond belief, immured by all our own things and obligations and habits, we feel pushed to say no and it’s hard, like we’re being punished or like we are failing.
But maybe it’s not about the garbage bags, not about the awful spectacle of how you let it get to this point. Maybe it’s about the way you can exhale more deeply, about the room freed up in your head when everywhere you set your eyes does not reproach you with some obligation unmet for some problem not yet solved. Maybe it really is about the joy, about the yes, not the no.
What can you say yes to, this semester, by tidying up–saying yes, even though it looks like a no–some small part of your habits and work? Could you, maybe, find a little space for a tiny act of joy?
My sabbatical ended on December 31–the university officially opened today, January 2, so here I am, being, what? Not-on-sabbatical? That’s pretty much what I’m getting done today: being not-on-sabbatical.
Transitions are not my strong suit, and major life changes are always very emotionally gruelling for me. It was hard for me to go on sabbatical, and now it’s hard for me to end. Before sabbatical, I did a lot of clearing the decks in the months leading up to January, and it did me a world of good to take stock of my office, my books, my career, all the stuff that accumulates, unnoticed, and crufts up one’s soul. And I have done similar before coming back, taking time over the last two months to really think about who I want to be as a teacher, researcher, and colleague upon my return. There may have been free writing and visualization exercises. I know that in the past year I have really gained a lot of confidence as a researcher and writer: freed from both excuses and obligations (and with a coach and, crucially, medication treatment for my ADHD) I discovered with joy that I love my research, that I am a good writer, that others also find value in what I can do with ideas. I haven’t felt that kind of joy and freedom and alive-ness about research since, probably, grad school. I know I want to hold onto that. I’m not just a pretty-good-teacher, service workhorse, and verbally dextrous smartass who wrote an inventive dissertation but probably peaked at the moment of hiring. I’m a very good teacher, actually, and a verbally dextrous smartass who has lots of writing emerging and published. I was maybe a service martyr, and I should not be.
I set some boundaries around my teaching, related to asking for course assignments and schedules that reflect that I have historically taught 30%-100% more students each term than some of my colleagues nominally on the same “teaching load” as me, while also supervising more PhD students than average. So maybe teaching won’t be a black hole of grading and resentment this time around.
I’m coming back with zero administrative assignments. Surely, I’ll be asked to serve on some committees, but I’m now a lot more mindful of what saying yes means (tl;dr: it means saying no to something else). I’m going to do my share, and do it well, and that’s enough.
I’ve been making plans and making lists. My daughter and I walked to campus yesterday bearing indoor shoes and snacks and textbooks and essential oil room spray (“Awake”–lots of mint). I took the time to make lists of what needs doing before classes start on Monday. I cleared the desk, and she made plans to make me new art for the corkboards to replaces some of the … 8 year old drawings fading in the sun.
I came in this morning imagining myself misting the air in invigorating mint, sitting down, setting the timer, and banging out syllabuses and permission forms and emails, and ticking the items off my carefully planned lists. But I’m not.
I’ve spent the morning haunted by all the ghosts in this room, dust-covered noise-maker I got from a Sandy Stone performance in 2001. A photo from a family celebration in 2004. Sarcastic postcards I pinned to my board at least ten years ago. Books that have faded in the sun against the sharp lines of the books filed next to them. Piles of printouts of research for articles I’ve already published. Assigned readings for grad courses I hardly remember teaching. Coffee cups I feel emotionally exhausted just looking at.
It’s hard to make a fresh start in a room you’ve occupied for almost 15 years. My sabbatical was all about personal and professional renewal, about healing and moving forward, about new beginnings, about letting go of what’s not working.
But when I sat down this morning, it felt like nothing had changed. My soul got re-crufted. And so I have been throwing even more things out, putting more books on the giveaway shelf, dusting, spraying room spray like holy water, exorcising all the stuckness and ruts and bad feelings and self-hatred and exhaustion.
I tend to characterize myself as one who hates change. I guess that’s how I wound up with one postcard slightly askew for more than 10 years on the same spot on my corkboard, having left a slightly askew sun-fade behind. And yes, transitions are hard and I hate them. Still, I find myself thinking that there are more changes coming, that for all the changes I’ve made all year, I’m not done yet.
I’m not done yet. I don’t know where this is going, this post or my return to work or my identity as a professor, or why I suddenly need to buy mock turtlenecks and paper-bag waist pants. I am not yet fully become the person that sabbatical allowed me to discover.
I guess that’s what I do now, back at work, back to teaching, back among my colleagues.
Maybe this afternoon, I’ll get that syllabus draft fully fleshed out. Or maybe I’ll sit here and have a good cry. Or maybe I’ll buy new pens. It turns out, returning to campus after a year’s sabbatical is not really coming back. Maybe it’s coming forward, not quite sure where I’m going to land.
Today’s guest post is Part II of Colleen Derkatch’s sabbatical life lessons. If you missed Part I, catch up here.
No, I’m not talking about how I did on my sabbatical. I’m talking about how I did on my first figure skating test in almost 3 decades, an ice dance that I passed this week with the totally fine grade of “satisfactory.”
Let me rewind. When I went on sabbatical, I made a deal with myself to invest some of my newfound time and emotional energy into making myself feel more human again after a devastating and exhausting few years sprinting along the tenure track. I was determined that my sabbatical year would be different. Well, reader, it was! I had space and time to think new thoughts, to get my body and my mind back into shape, and to reclaim my evenings and weekends. It was glorious.
And now it’s over.
I came back to regular faculty life in September and, as I near the end of my first semester back in the classroom, it’s time to give myself a final grade for my sabbatical and to see how I’ve translated what I learned to my post-sabbatical work. First, the Report Card.
Where I excelled:
I lowered my expectations. Initially, I had unreasonable goals for my sabbatical. I thought I would write a whole book from scratch in the oodles of time freed up by not teaching or doing university service. But some wise senior colleagues advised me to spend the first couple months catching my breath and decompressing, which I dutifully did. I caught a taste of what it was like to not have a headache all the time, to not have chronic acid reflux or insomnia. I felt brand-new.
By fall, however, as my friends and colleagues returned to class, my Type-A personality came screaming back, reminding me that I owed it to everyone—my university, my colleagues, my family, contingent faculty who don’t have the same sabbatical privilege—to crank out research. And so I forgot my plan to become human again and had a too-busy fall. Headaches and everything else came back with a fury. I had to do something different.
I tried a new way of working. After ending up right back where I’d been pre-sabbatical, I took a leap of faith partway through the year and started working with a coach-slash-project-manager. As I outlined in Part 1 of this post, I put myself in her hands and let her restructure my working life from the bottom up. It went against all my instincts. Gone were wide-open calendar days of “research.” Gone were long hours at my desk, reading or writing (or, more often, stressing about not doing either while refreshing Twitter every 5 seconds).
I started working in short, scheduled bursts of 15-20 minutes on highly specific tasks, marking each burst on a calendar on my desk. My coach/project manager and I chatted weekly to set a full schedule for that week so I would know each day what I needed to do and how long to do it. We re-jigged the schedule as necessary and I always knew what was on the immediate and distant horizons. My workdays often totalled no more than an hour or two, and sometimes even less. It felt wrong, like I was cheating, but I eventually trained myself to work that way, slowly upping the time until I hit the sweet spot where I was getting tons of stuff done without feeling like I was really trying. I’ve never been more productive and yet I somehow had more free time, too. Evenings and weekends were mine again.
I made time to live. I prioritized non-work activities, like studying French and taking up figure skating again. I cooked, I read, I worked out. I traveled and I spent lots of time with my kid. I also dove deep into my workplace extended health benefits, loading up on therapy, physio, massage, and osteopathy to undo the knots in my brain and body.
Short of spending the year abroad, I made maximal use of my time “off.” But you can probably see where this is going: I went kind of overboard. If I was Type A about my work life before my sabbatical, I became Type A about my non-work life during it.
Where I “needed improvement”:
I tried to do all the things. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t yet registered how much I had taken on in my sabbatical “life” project. It’s true I was getting a ton of academic work done with little sweat but, between skating and French and the many types of therapy I was doing, I wound up exhausted nonetheless.
My coach says this is normal: stress and anxiety don’t just disappear when you start working in less stress- and anxiety-provoking ways, they just get funneled in different directions. So all the nervous energy about work that once whirled around me like dust around Pig Pen became a cloud of nervous energy about whether I was relaxed enough. Funny how that works. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly what I needed to do, to swing the pendulum way too far in the opposite direction so that, with practice, it would end up somewhere in the middle.
Final grade: A+
Why an A+? Because I got a lot of stuff done. Because I took good care of myself. Because I tried to do all the things. Because academics are just too damn hard on themselves. Because, ultimately, my sabbatical changed my life.
My sabbatical helped me make some significant changes that I’ve been able to translate into my post-sabbatical life, and they appear to be lasting. The idea I had that I need to suffer to produce good academic work was deeply etched into my DNA but I’ve been slowly de-coding it. Breaking my work into manageable bite-sized bits helped me develop a new relationship to my job because it’s much less daunting to tackle a 20-minute bit of highly specific work than a hulking, amorphous task that could take all day or all week. Add up these small bits and the hulking, amorphous tasks almost complete themselves. I’m not the first to try this approach but the hulking, amorphous task of shifting academia’s culture of overwork can only be done bit by bit, and this post is mine.
But what’s the catch?
Maintaining my commitment to keep myself in one piece has not come without costs. I’m not as good a teacher as I was: I do the best I can but I don’t give every last bit of me to teaching, as I once did. I’m not as good a colleague as I was, either: there are too many committees, too many new initiatives, and I can only do so much if I want to do it well and stay in one piece.
I’ve figured out that if I want to give academia the best version of me—the most productive, the most energetic, the most fair, incisive, and useful version of me—it can’t have all of me. The part I keep back for myself is what allows me to do the rest. And so I’m fiercely protective of my time. I’ve reserved two precious, immovable research days a week. The other days are for teaching and service. I book everything into a weekly schedule, with lots of flexibility built in, and I unapologetically stick to that schedule. I don’t work on evenings or weekends, and I generally pass on work-related evening events, too.
Of course, I have all the comfort and security of tenure. But I think much of what I’ve described here can be parlayed for those who are pre-tenure or off the tenure-track. Being mercilessly protective of my time has allowed me to do well the things I need to do, often well ahead of schedule. And because I take concrete blocks of time off, I’m more rested and ready when I’m “on.”
So where did my cloud of nervous energy go? Some of it simply dissipated. And the rest, I now funnel not into work but into skating. It is physically and intellectually demanding, requiring full concentration and exacting precision, and it takes up a lot of time, skating 3-4 days a week. But making time for it somehow helps me make time for everything else. And it burns off that nervous energy better than any amount of reading or writing or teaching ever could. Plus, I’m getting seriously strong, which makes it much easier to sit down to work when I need to.
I may have only gotten “satisfactory” on my recent skating test but I’ve learned to be satisfied with that.
Today’s guest post is from Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University. Part I was written while Colleen was on sabbatical. Part II, in which Colleen reflects back on the lessons she learned on sabbatical and how she’s applying them now that she’s back on campus, will be up next week–stay tuned!
Focussing on the pervasive culture of overwork in academia, I described being flattened by exhaustion by the time I got tenure, my body wrecked in all the ways chronic stress can wreck a body. Naturally, my ability to feel guilty and anxious remained undiminished, having been fine-tuned over my years of grad school, adjuncting, and pre-tenure work, so I was not only exhausted but also hardwired to feel guilty and anxious about it. Perfect.
I’m pretty sure my own disposition and work habits contributed to my wrecked post-tenure state but the very structure of academe seems designed to fail those who study, work, and try to live within it. These structural problems are stuff for another post but, if academia almost wrecked me—a person with quite a bit of privilege as a cis het white woman on the tenure-track, working at a relatively humane institution, with generous extended health benefits, and living in a dual-income household—then what does it to do my less privileged colleagues? Universities seem pretty uninterested in finding out.
And I was left to pick up my own pieces.
So I made a promise to myself (and the Internet) about how I would use my sabbatical:
I’ve just passed the halfway point in my yearlong leave so let’s see how I’ve done so far, shall we?
What I looked forward to most about sabbatical was the opportunity just to be curious again. Our day-to-day engagements with scholarship are often instrumental, with little time for deep reflection: many of us have to zoom through course prep and marking (because there’s so much of both) and read the literature in our fields selectively and strategically (because there’s so much of it, and because our jobs valorize writing, not reading). And so, in the spirit of intellectual renewal, I gathered a stack of books I’d been wanting to read and headed to the tropics to spend 2 weeks gloriously alone, reading.
Except I wasn’t alone: for the first time since my comps (in 2004!), I was able to luxuriate in the voices and ideas of others, following wherever they took me without any thought about how I would use them in my own work. Freed of my everyday obligations, there was nothing else I “should” be doing, not even writing, because that wasn’t the purpose of the retreat. As the days went by, I felt myself unfurl and de-clench, little by little—forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders. Lingering in others’ thinking pushed mine in new and exciting ways. And because reading involves input, not output, my retreat fed my tired soul.
By the middle of week 2, however, the anxiety and guilt crept back. As my departure neared, I wondered: Had I been productive enough? Was the trip a good use of time? Did it justify abdicating my Mom duties?
Lesson 1: De-clenching takes time and requires ongoing practice.
Lesson 2: Reading retreats rule.
Overall, I’m happy with my academic progress since the fall: I produced an article from scratch (now accepted and in press), I submitted a grant application (I got it!), and now I’m deep in research for my next book. More importantly, however, I found my curiosity again and have incubated it in the warm pocket of space and time that sabbaticals give. But how will I maintain that precious curiosity when I return to the everyday demands of my job? And what about my progress as a person, putting myself back together? I didn’t realize until this year how intertwined those two things are, that for me to be a functioning academic I need to be a functioning person.
I see now that I got burnt out partly because my identity was so deeply bound up in my work, even though I’d thought I wasn’t one of those academics. But if you spend enough time in grad school, on the job market, and on the tenure track, you really do start to see yourself as measurable only by your productivity. Our academic lives are defined by metrics: teaching evaluation scores, CV lines, impact factors, citations, granting agency scores. I had to learn new ways to measure my life.
Lesson 3: You are not your CV (obvs, yet often hard to remember).
And that’s how I found myself this January, at 41, back in figure skating lessons. And taking French classes. And working with an academic coach. Things finally began to click: the person in me started to wake up.
I took my last skating test in 1990, before I got too cool as a teenager to skate. I always wanted to go back and finish my tests but felt I was too busy as an academic and a parent. What’s more, this may be Canadian sacrilege but I find figure skating aesthetically ridiculous so I was reluctant to admit to myself that nothing beats the way it feels to skate well on the ice. But I promised myself I would spend more time this year doing things that feel good so now I hit the ice every Sunday with a crew of other adult skaters and I practice for my first test in 28 years. I’m no Tessa Virtue but I’m trying to embrace my awkwardness. And I love it.
Lesson 4: Do what feels good, even if it means looking goofy or falling on your ass. Especially if it means that.
The French class, I’m taking because my kid is going to full-French school next year and I should probably be able to understand some of what’s going on, and also because speaking French is just a good life skill to have. Being on the other side of the classroom again is a total trip. I got so sweaty with nerves during my placement interview, conducted in my rusty French, that I thought I would cry. Now I have piles of homework to do and my daughter is thrilled to help me with it. The role reversal is oddly comforting.
Lesson 5: It’s good to sweat it out in the student’s seat.
Finally, I’ve tried more consciously to round out my life, which means cooking more, getting more sleep, taking evenings and weekends off, saying no to social things I don’t want to do, and perhaps most importantly, hiring a coach for my academic work (thanks for the recommendation, Aimée!). My wonderful coach Rebecca works like a project manager, helping me plot my short- and long-term goals into realistic schedules that keep me on-target and unfrazzled. I’ve never felt more calm and focussed in my work and I don’t feel like I’ve been working very hard but my word count tells me otherwise. Now, you might think of the coach as benefitting me academically but, more importantly, I would call this one a win for me as a person: if I can get though my days without crushing guilt and anxiety, the whole-self me wins.
Lesson 6: You don’t have to do it all by yourself all the time.
So that’s where I’m at seven months into my sabbatical. I’ve made progress as both an academic and a person, and I’ll keep at it over the next five months before I dive back into the fire come September. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.