advice · disability · enter the confessional · teaching · Uncategorized

Work hack: adrenaline management

I prep almost all of my classes in the 90 minutes before they take place. I usually teach two classes per day, two days per week, so my two teaching days are actually prep-two-classes-teach-two-classes-do-office-hours days. It’s pretty intense. Ok, it’s really intense. I sleep really well after those days. I do my runs really fast and hard on those days. I talk a lot at supper on those days.

So much of our academic work is that goddamn cliched iceberg: you can only see the 10% that sticks up above the waterline, while the looming and awesome bulk, the main structure holding everything together, sinks deep down under the water and away from the light. I’m starting a series of posts where I am going to describe my 90%, and I invite you to pitch us some guest post work hacks of your own.

I had this idea for a long time that being a good and organized professor would be to map out a syllabus three months in advance, and then in the three months before term I should create detailed lesson plans and formal lectures and slide shows and extravagant LMS pages and the whole shebang could be in a three-hole punch splendor-binder of preparedness before day 1.

I have learned I’m never going to be that person.

First, after my first year on the tenure track, I have NEVER prepared a “lecture” per se. It takes me hooooouuuuuuuurrrrrrs and it’s boring to do and I hate it. Second, I have noticed that if I try to schedule a semester worth of lesson planning into sensible one hour blocks of effort over long period of time before the semester in question I simply procrastinate and then hate myself, which is not a good use of my time. After all that procrastinating and self-hating I was always doing it all at the last minute anyway and hating myself for that too.

After some years of this, and from sheer exhaustion, I gave up trying to do it “right.” I decided to try to manage my own inclinations into a functional work plan, one with less “procrastinating” and less “should” and less “hating myself” and more kind of finding my own talent and supporting it.

I now sometimes create ornate slideshows of images with headers and the headers are tied to topics that I will jot a 3 bullet set of notes for myself to speak from. You know how long it takes me to make a 30 slide presentation on internet history? 30 minutes. I am a MONSTER at Google image search and if Keynote were a symphony I would be first violin. Most days, though, usually I walk into class with one sheet of typed notes, with an agenda/outline for class at the top, and the briefest of notes to lead me through it. And I will have prepared that in the period just before class. I schedule this purposefully now. My teaching days are teaching-and-prep days and I schedule the time that I need to get the prep done before I teach and I’ve accepted that that’s how I do things. I have been teaching long enough that I’m pretty confident in setting aside the right amount of time. I know myself well enough to know that I’m more likely to hate myself for procrastinating if I try to start too soon than I am to succumb to panic because I’m not prepared enough.

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Good enough. Let’s go to class.

Caveat: I need a good syllabus for this, the kind I make in a one-day blast, where I have to pick out every single reading and set all the deadlines and lay out the entire schedule in excruciating detail. Normally before the semester starts, then, I have read all the materials I have assigned, at least once, even if I don’t have great (i.e., any) notes, so I’m not learning new content every day. As long as the frame of the semester–schedule, topics, reading, assignments, due dates–is laid out clearly in advance, I just need a short window of time before class to get my class plan ready.

So much of many of our troubles in this job come from not being taught the processes for producing the end products, and then, after that, from not knowing that there are many different ways to get to that end product and that some ways will work better for different scholars, depending on their natures, inclinations, life circumstances, and more. Me, I have an incredibly difficult time getting motivated to do things that I’m not 100% interested in doing right now–like many people with ADHD, rewards and consequences and importance I understand on a cognitive level but they just don’t make me stop procrastinating; I need interest, novelty, challenge, or urgency. I used to think I was lazy and irresponsible; I’m actually usually mostly just nearly dying of boredom. Prepping an 80 minute class in the 60 minutes directly before that class takes place is interesing, and urgent, and kind of a challenge. Highly motivating. Not boring.

It turns out that what I’ve been doing all these years is self-medicating my ADHD by producing an urgent situation that releases adrenaline into my system and allows me to focus intently. I get in the flow, and I really enjoy prepping my classes this way, and it all feels very fresh and fun when I walk into class with a brand new lesson plan still hot from the printer and I get to surf my way across the ideas and energy of the room and see if it’s all going to come together or not. I find the whole process very energizing, exciting, and rewarding. Mostly, it comes together and my students describe my classes as really active and engaged and fun. Me, I have a great time, too. It works for all of us because I’m playing to my own strengths instead of fighting them to do it “the right way” that’s never going to work for me.

I won a teaching award this year.

The flip side of this, of course, is having to learn that my way is not the only way. When I discovered this prep and teaching strategy I told all the teachers I knew, and urged them to try it. “It’s amazing!” I told them, “Everyone should do this! It’s so fun and efficient and functional!” Friends and colleagues demurred. I just could not understand these people, my friends!, who went to class with prepared lectures and handouts and worksheets, and novels with sticky notes in them, materials they laboured over in the summer or on their non-teaching days. It took me a long time to learn to really hear it when they would tell me that speaking in front of people was scary and they liked to be prepared in order to feel less anxious, or that they were more comfortable with a more encyclopedic command of the material in the case of any eventuality, or that they really liked the process of taking a few months in advance of a course to settle and refine their ideas. When I started, I thought my way was the Wrong Way and worked hard to be the Right Way; when I finally figured out that my own way was the Right Way, I wanted everyone else to do it that way too. Finally, I’m coming to a more mature understanding that maybe there are a lot of different right ways to prep for class, run that class, make a syllabus. If you feel good and competent, and your students feel adequately supported, and it’s not harming your health or burdening the support staff, then that’s the right way, too.

I’m still learning new tricks, going to workshops, reading about new kinds of class activities online in the blogs and the literature, talking to my colleagues. I’m refining My Way, trying to make space for other people to have Their Way, and learning from it all.

I would love to learn from you, too: do you have a class prep hack that really works for you? Pitch a post, or leave a comment, or suggest another iceberg-bottom-bit you’d like to see explored further.

 

#alt-ac · parenting

Dispatches from Maternity Leave: It Should Be Easier, But Not for Me

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I made this ear from scratch!

It is 2:20 am, and I’m sitting writing this (on my phone, one-handed) in my favourite armchair with a babe at my breast. We’ve been doing this thing together— being a mother, being a babe out in the world—for a month now, and we’ve gotten good at it. We eat and sleep and play. We go to our doctor’s appointments and the movies and protests. We cuddle and walk and sing.

I love it.

But the conditions under which I’m able to love it are a function of privileges that aren’t extended to everyone, equally. And that sits wrong with me.

I’m on a paid, year-long maternity leave. My employer tops up my salary to nearly its full value for most of my leave. If I wanted to, I could extend this paid leave to a year and a half. This would not be the case if I was working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing, or was underemployed, or was a graduate student whose funding was considered educational support by the government thus disqualifying me from receiving EI.

My partner is also a full-time caregiver to our newborn, and will be for the baby’s whole first year. The 2:1 ratio of parents to newborns is one that makes these early days of parenting positively enjoyable, not just endurable. We’re all sleeping enough (not a lot, but enough), and we both have time to do non-parenting things that are important to us, like art and writing.

We can do this—have two parents home full-time for a year—because we don’t have a mortgage or rent since we inherited our home from my partner’s mother, and so can afford to be a single-income family. We are keenly aware that this kind of inherited wealth tends to pass down amongst white, highly educated people, thus consolidating wealth in the hands of an already privileged few. It sucks, and yet I’m so grateful to benefit from it.

I don’t have to worry about my job going away, or even substantially changing, while I’m on leave. My job (or a substantially similar one) is guaranteed to be there for me when I come back from leave, and I crafted a plan for the year with my team that will see things stay steady state while I’m gone. Basically, I got to hit pause on my career, and I’ll get to pick up—and go back to charging ahead on new projects—right where I left off next August. I’m also still teaching my usual career development classes while I’m on leave, which is a nice way to stay connected to work while I’m off.

I was able to properly prepare and train the person who is covering my job. Because I work at a highly family friendly organization (it helps that we only do paediatric medicine!), I was comfortable telling my team that I was pregnant the day I found out. (They found out about five minutes after my partner did.) I was confident that I wouldn’t experience pregnancy-related discrimination, or that I’d be penalized if I had to take medical leave if I miscarried. That means I had a full eight months (you’re generally already two weeks pregnant by the time you find out, and I went on leave two weeks before my due date) to train my replacement. This lets me not worry about work while I’m on leave, and know that I’m coming back to order rather than chaos.

Many women aren’t comfortable sharing their pregnancies at work until late in the game because they fear or know they’ll face discrimination, which means they may shoulder the additional burden of scrambling to find and train their replacement in a short time frame while dealing with a discriminatory workplace.

And just because I didn’t face overt pregnancy discrimination doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience other kinds of pregnancy-related impacts on my job and career momentum even before I went on leave, some of which were my doing and some of which weren’t. I’ll have lots more to say about that.

Many women head into motherhood without these conditions in place, and their job is far harder because of it. So my ability to enjoy my mat leave, even those chaotic, sleepless early weeks, is in large part due to privileges and circumstances that don’t exist for people in less stable employment and financial situations than my partner and I are in. And that’s not cool with me.

I’m not confident that there’s any traction to be had on the issues of fair pay, better parental leave, and stronger employee protection practices at the provincial level, even once the crisis that is Bill 5/Bill 31 gets resolved one way or the other.

But my partner and I are both working at the municipal and federal level—through advocacy, and volunteering, and donations—to try to level the playing field for all new parents. Because I can imagine what having a newborn with no income, or a highly limited one, or one dependent on going back to work after three weeks, is like. I can imagine what it’s like to be doing this on my own for eight or twelve or eighteen hours a day. I can imagine what it’s like to be worried about not getting tenure, or not having a job to go back to, or having a job that’s a hollow shell of what I’d built it into to go back to, while on leave.

None of that is good for parents, or for children. My experience should be the rule, not the exception. Maternity leave should be easier: just not for me.

Uncategorized

Composting

image via Getty

I’m teaching a new class this semester. It’s called The Personal Essay, and it is new to the department, the students, and me. It is a cross-listed creative writing and English course, and so I find myself in the delightful and slightly intimidating position of developing new in-class exercises, assignments, and ways of thinking about reading and writing.

As with most of my teaching, writing, and research prep, when I am at a loss for where to begin—too many ideas, too few, too amorphous—I turn to texts that have been recommended to me at some point. There are many! Last week, as I thought about how to get sixty-five students excited as well as informed about essay writing I picked up Writing Down The Bonesby Natalie Goldberg. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a pretty popular writing book. My copy is the thirtieth anniversary edition, if that give you any sense of its staying power. There are some things in the language of the text that show their age, but on the whole I find it a direct, clear, and surprisingly effective book of suggestions for getting yourself writing.

The section I brought to class last week is called “Composting.” In it Goldberg states,

It takes a while for our experiences to sift through out consciousness.

This is one of those observations that feels so obvious and yet also profound. From neuroscience to psychoanalysis to theory to practice there are myriad explanations of how humans take timeto process experiences fully.

Time. Huh.

This time business can be infuriating if you are impatient and if, like me, you are a human living in the twenty-first century when the speed and circulation of information, not to mention the ingestion and metabolism of information, is faster than ever before. I mean, this is not news, but still…

So composting: Natalie Goldberg uses it as a metaphor to remind writers that we need time and the distance it gives to distill our experiences. She puts it this way (note the evocative use of ‘garbage heap’ – I kind of love it, because here the garbage heap of the self is cast as a fertile bricolage of sense and experience):

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

 The solid ground of black soil. I love that. And I love that in preparing to teach a new class about writing the self I am starting to find ways to think through what it means to write publicly while feminist. It will take time. It has taken time. It will take more time.

But here I am, ready to sift.

 

 

disability · travel · Uncategorized

You Gotta Name It to Claim It

Basically, I need to travel like a toddler. I need to travel like a toddler because I have ADHD and am autistic and am easily overwhelmed by sound, temperature shifts, crowds, lack of control over my immediate context, and tight spaces. For me, travelling like a toddler means dressing in fluffy comfortable layers, having blankets, having snacks, along a schedule organized around my normal bedtimes. It means having an eye mask, and ear plugs, and my sweatshirt version of a heavy blanket (a Lululemon Scuba 2 hoodie that fits snug and thick, which covers for my hands and a hood that zips up high and tight like a deep-dive wetsuit of sensory dampening). It means making allowances for jet lag and major time shifts, for needs of hunger and sleep and quiet. It sometimes means seat upgrades, or paying for seat selection and boarding priority. It sometimes means an extra night in a hotel to manage all of it.

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Me on the floor at a gate in Denver: alarm just went off, so getting up for another flight.

Maybe you need to travel like a toddler too, but you can’t. Or you’re not supposed to.

My limit case was flying to Hawaii in August (more on that in another post). Hawaii is 7500km away from where I live. You can fly there in a day, sure, but add in customs and ground transportation and layovers and it’s, like, a WHOLE DAY. My flight there was: wake up at 2:30am, in taxi at 3am, drop bag and go through security and US customs at 4am, 2 hour flight at 6am, 3 hour layover in the crackly-noised sparkle-walled deep-freeze that is Chicago O’Hare, 9 hour flight to Honololu, land at 2pm (which is 8pm in my head), meet a whole bunch of people, settle in to residence, go for supper, and try to stay awake until 9 or 10 (so 3am or 4am) in my head.

 

I was terrified to do this. Terrified enough that I talked to my doctor about it, and he just kind of said, it is what it is, do whatever you can to make yourself more comfortable. So I went full toddler. I slept in the taxi; I slept at gates, on the floor. I retreated into a cocoon of me. I did what I had to get through it without a meltdown or a panic attack or wrecking my chances of acclimating to the time change once I arrived. Still, it was really really gruelling. That was Tuesday. Wednesday morning, we started work at 9 am, and did a full day. And then Thursday. And then Friday. Oof.

Academic and other work travel is full of indignities and compromises usually related to cost and time. Usually, the worker is the one absorbing the cost and giving up the time and the employer or other funder reaps the savings. My brother in law, for example, flies from Toronto to North Carolina for meetings fairly regularly. His company puts him on a 6 am flight, and then he works all day in the US, and then they fly him home in the evening. They count that as a day of work, very efficient, but of course, he is losing a night of sleep (getting up a 2:30 to be on that 6am flight), working exhausted, and then driving home in the dark to get back home at bedtime. And he’s in at the office the next morning. The company saves on a hotel and can claim to make it a shorter, easier trip for my BIL, but of course, the money is saved at the cost of his sleep, his downtime, his family. You know what I’m talking about: you have surely done this too, to save money at the cost of your own health needs.

Me, I just can’t do it. My body can’t do it, and my brain just fritzes right out. And because I have the diagnoses I now have, I can push back on the requirements of “cheapest possible flight” and “least number of overnight stays”–because those savings are debiting an account in my body that’s always on the verge of overdrawn. And I have the paperwork that says so.

In my head, I’m a sophisticated cosmopolitan. I wear work clothes to travel, to save packing space. I only have my rollaway bag, because checked bags are for losers. I wear makeup and do my hair, to make travel glamourous again. I fly in early in the day to maximize my productivity. I like thinking of myself this way, controlled, productive, fashionable, lightweight. But I can’t actually be that way, really. And why should I? Whose needs does that serve? What a con! Air travel is legitimately awful and getting worse: overcrowded, no food, no storage, incredibly tightly crammed, ridiculous security theatre requirements that rob dignity and steal time. Why should I put on makeup for that and hop off the plane ready to attend a meeting? I’ve been through hell and need a nap, and a shower, and a good cry, usually. It’s all a scam, this idea that somehow we can create these economies of time and cost and comfort and nothing is lost: it’s just that the costs have been transferred onto the individuals who are made to feel like they should be able to hack it. That they should smile while doing it, feel good about how much they can cram in, in what terrible circumstances, how cute and carefree they can look while doing so.

I can’t. And maybe you can’t either. The thing is, only some of us (me) have the paperwork to push back.

As I lean more into what it means to be a disabled academic, I’m thinking of ways that I can use my experiences, and the accommodations I fight for, to extend more kindness and balance and humanity to other academics who are increasingly finding their time, mental health, physical health, and well-being imperilled by the speed-up and belt-tightening of academic work. These conditions are inhumane and disabling to all of us, and my diagnoses has finally given me the clarity of a frame through which to say: I can’t do it this way, and I won’t, and I don’t have to. I hope to be a wedge opening up a bigger crack, to show that many of the conditions under which we all are pushed to work are also fundamentally disabling and inhumane and that we all ought to be able to push back.

So expect more posts from this year about academic-ing while disabled, as I come to terms with what that means for me. I’m still on sabbatical, so I’ll have more to say on that, too. As usual, I’ll have lots to say about grad students, and writing, and academic politics. Of course, if you have any tips on how to make academic travel any less awful, please drop a comment!

administration · balance · feminist communities

Chairing While Feminist

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Image via from ‘The re-appropriation of sensuality’ Emma Haugh in collaboration with Aileen Murphy and Holly O’Brien, Dublin, 2014

Oh, hi! It’s been a while but Hook & Eye is back. We started talking in August about blogging again and there was a brief moment when we flirted with the idea of putting the blog on hiatus for a year. We all seem to be juggling more than ever. This blog is a labour of love and, sometimes, there is only so much love and labour to go around. The idea of a long, long, long pause shimmered.

But then we remembered how much we care about the blog and you who read it and feminism in the academy and we talked ourselves back into this blogging habit. We’ll post a little less than before — once or twice a week. But we are back and here to stay.

One of the big things that changed for me is that I became chair of my department. I’ve been chair for 67 days (but who’s counting). I didn’t go into the gig thinking that I would be a Feminist Chair. I mean, sure, I am a feminist. And, ok, I’ll be dept chair for a while. In fact, I was acting chair a couple years ago for a spell so I had a glimmer of an idea of what would be involved. Still, I didn’t expect that every single day on the job so far would make me realize how much feminism matters to how I can do this job and how I will survive it.

There will be a lot more from me this year about feminism and academic administration. For now, a few things about chairing while feminist that I’ve already noticed.

There will be tears, mostly yours. They will be for reasons that you can’t talk about. These suck. I now get to know things that I can’t un-know.  And I’m not to talk about them because respecting confidentiality and being professional often means not being public when people behave badly.

And there will be tears for things that you can talk about. This week, I lost a colleague. She died. She told me on Friday that she was ill and that I would need to hire someone to cover her courses for a while. She talked about possible candidates so that there would be a smooth transition back into these courses when she returned. On Wednesday morning, when I was covering one of her courses because I had not yet hired anyone, she passed away. I wept. And then I had to attend to the job posting for her courses. That felt like all kinds of wrong even though I know she cared a lot about those courses and would not want her students to miss a single day of class.

Men will question your decisions. I really didn’t think it would be so stark. I don’t even get to make that many decisions (longer post to come on the weird combination of power and powerlessness that is being an academic department chair). But it just kept happening. I would decide something. And then a guy would decide that my decision wasn’t very good and tell me in no uncertain terms. At first, I thought it was just me being sensitive. But it happened so consistently. Always a guy telling me that I was wrong or suggesting that I surely didn’t mean to disagree with him, surely I didn’t mean what I said I meant, or something like that. It was hard not to see a pattern after a very short while.

Kinda a downer, so far, I know. BUT! there are some pretty rocking things about chairing while feminist.

You learn to make decisions and stand by them. You know what? It feels great to make decisions knowing that they are good decisions based on impeccable logic and a commitment to genuine equity and just stand firm. After a while, it won’t be surprising when those decisions are questioned and challenged. After a while, it becomes a lot of fun to see how these decisions totally stand up to all kinds of tests. It’s like a secret super power. You think quietly, bring it on. I am standing firm.

You might cry but you figure out it’s totally ok. I remembered that once, many years ago, in a meeting with a dean about a difficult thing (sorry to be so vague– see above about things that you can’t talk about) the whole idea of crying came up. I admire this dean. At one point, she said, you know, if that thing had happened to me, I would have cried. I’ve come back to that moment. She has probably long forgotten it. But it still means a lot to me to remember that it actually makes sense to have a quiet little cry about some of the craziness.

Other feminists have totally got your back. This is the best. What a gift to work in a historical moment when more feminists than ever are also at work at every level of the academy. Sure, the old boys network is still in place. But there is a whole other community now. It is so powerful. It is impatient with the machinations of old boys. It sees right through that stuff and calls it out. It makes all of our work across the institution better and richer.

To all the feminists who have carved out so many difficult paths for the rest of us to follow, thank you. Know that your labour, and the love that you poured into it, is still a visceral and real gift that feminists thank you for every day. You make chairing while feminist actually awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

adjuncts · contract work · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Feeling Included as Contingent Faculty

At the end of last year my first book was longlisted for a literary prize. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I didn’t care. I know that awards are a little bit arbitrary, but that day I felt as if a space had opened up for me in the world of Canadian literature; I counted and the work I was doing mattered.

I teach at a respected university and I was pleased to see that someone posted a link to the prize announcement on my department’s Facebook page. For a moment, I wondered if someone might send out a congratulatory email on the department listserv. But when no one did, I felt silly for needing for such overt validation at work.

When it comes to work as a contract faculty member, I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve worked as a sessional lecturer for over a decade now and, for the most part, I like my job. I love working with students. And my days are flexible enough that I can make time for a writing career.  Not only that, I’m lucky enough to be regularized, which means I have job security that many sessionals are denied.

Despite all these benefits I continue to feel the absence of something crucial in my life at the university: a sense of belonging. At first, wanting to belong seemed trivial—especially when so many contingent faculty across North America are worried about more basic things like job security or healthcare. But a quick search yields tons of research on the importance of belonging in the workplace. It matters. And in academia it especially matters for contract faculty.

An acquaintance tells me that she gave up on collegial respect years ago. She loves teaching and she finds meaning in her relationships with students—and that’s enough for her. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s enough for me too, but maybe it isn’t. And why should it be? Academia has a reputation for being competitive and exclusionary, but this is especially true for contract faculty— professionals whose work is, by definition, provisional.

I’m not alone in my frustration. I’ve heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances at a variety of institutions. An adjunct who worked long hours to win a big grant, only to have a tenured faculty member announce it at meeting while she was away, never bothering to mention her name or thank her. A sessional who passes the head of his department in the hallway every day, but even after two years has yet to hear a hello. A writer who was deemed unqualified to teach an intro-level literature class but was invited to guest lecture about his work, which was on the course syllabus.

In this way, I get the illusion of value: my accomplishments are as likely to be used for promoting the school’s public image as any tenured faculty member’s; but only one of us gets supported and promoted for the work.

The weight of any single instance of alienation or lack of recognition may vary, but their accumulation is heavy. I’ve spent some time thinking about the question of what my university, my department, my colleagues owe me. And I haven’t come up with a good answer.

My contract specifies that I show up to teach three days a week and that I keep a minimum number of office hours. That’s it. It doesn’t mandate—or even suggest—that I attend department meetings or serve on committees or advise students either formally or informally. In fact, because anything that isn’t in a sessional faculty member’s contract is considered unpaid work, we are often discouraged from doing any departmental service at all. This leaves contract faculty with two options. We can invest the time we don’t spend prepping, teaching, and marking in additional department activities with no additional pay. Or we can pursue opportunities for belonging and community outside of the institution. Over the course of my sessional career, I’ve experimented with both approaches, but neither has felt totally satisfying. Do I need invitations to a tenured professor’s holiday party? Not really. But would I like it if there was a culture of warmth and recognition, if we all knew each other’s names and used them? Definitely.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “I know I can also do more to create the community I’m looking for. But I am interested in considering how the institution is set up to create and sustain hierarchies—and how those hierarchies get in the way of genuine collegiality. I often sense a scarcity of resources: not enough courses or merit or grant money to go around. Not enough time to do everything that needs doing. Not enough jobs for each graduating cohort. Class sizes that are temporarily raised and then never readjusted, a cost-saving measure that sends those at the bottom of the hierarchy back on the job market.

Contract —in ways both obvious and subtle—that we are replaceable. In this climate, why would department heads or more permanent faculty bother getting to know new sessional or adjunct hires? If a sessional receives a contract for four or eight months, why bother attending department meetings? And, if you are lucky and those months turn into years, a point comes at which it seems too late to say hello to someone in the copy room when you’ve not said hello for the past three semesters.

A culture of social alienation is endemic to academia and damaging to everyone who works there, regardless of where you fall on the social ladder. It’s easy to point out systemic institutional problems, but it’s harder to figure out how to change them. I don’t have the answers but I have a few questions:

What resources really are scarce in our institutions? And how might we make space for those resources that aren’t limited by actual material constraints—things like warmth, recognition, and personal connection? How does the (over)emphasis on hard work and competition sustain the social hierarchies of academia? And how might we begin to question the notion of academia as a pure meritocracy, where status is always earned or deserved? How does the implicit expendability of contract faculty contribute to a culture of social alienation and dehumanization? What might those in positions of stability and power—tenured and tenure-track faculty, administrators, department heads—do to make those with less stability and less recognition feel like valuable, contributing members of a community?

I’m genuinely interested in the answers to these questions—and the further questions they inspire. I hope  they continue the conversation about belonging, validation, and community within the institution.

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Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her first book How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays was published in 2017. She’s been teaching writing and literature for over a decade.

grad school · risky writing · Uncategorized

Guest Post: On Feeling Unsure

Today’s guest post is from Jessica McDonald, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Thanks for writing, Jessica!


Most of the time, in most contexts, I feel unsure.

I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years — ah, let’s be real: over the course of my entire life. But as I’ve worked my way through the Ph.D., it has become a more prominent, more pressing, and also more interesting pattern to me. Nowadays, I try to chalk it up to a healthy and useful practice of “shakiness” — an attention to nuance over sureness, a belief in shades of grey over the black-or-white.

Feeling unsure delivers some advantages to me. I am frequently greeted with feelings of unsureness when I encounter a text, like a book, or an article shared via Facebook, and those feelings mediate my immediate responses to the text. This is useful: I might more seriously weigh the pros and cons of any given issue, might consider the text’s biases, merits, and gaps. I might not have the, say, surety to know how to respond to a text in the moment. I hesitate. Feeling unsure gives me space and time for reflection.

I have also been lucky to make connections with other people because I am open about being unsure. Long conversations with like-minded, similarly unsure colleagues over the various complicated dimensions of any given event in the news – an event, say, on which others have taken stark and strong stands – can be incredibly meaningful experiences. Unsureness bonds me to others.

And students respond, often times, with a combination of surprise, relief, and healthy relaxation when I model unsureness in the classroom. My unsureness as an instructor means that interactions in the classroom become more honest. A common first-day-of-class icebreaker I facilitate asks students to reveal (after I’ve first revealed myself) something they don’t know but they think they should know, or to admit something they fail at. Teaching a class themed around Literature and Place, I admitted to terrible skills in geography. (Seriously terrible. I still get the arrangement of the Canadian provinces mixed up. It’s that bad.)

But while being a deliberately unsure instructor has produced benefits, there are of course risks and challenges. For example, an obstacle to making unsureness an explicit part of my teaching is that, naturally, students sometimes want sureness in an instructor. Learning is hard; sureness can provide helpful stability in the process of negotiating slippery concepts. And when my being unsure is not perceived as intellectually productive, that can shake down into results that are not always positive. For example, student evaluations—troubling and troubled in so many ways, and hotly contested as they are—more often highlight my approachability or my willingness to listen to many viewpoints, rather than my intellectual skills or capabilities in leading students through course content. I don’t doubt that this is, in part, a consequence of my being a woman who dares to be unsure even as an instructor whose theoretical job is to lead classroom learning.

In the face of an unsure person, too, there are those who capitalize on it: let me tell you how things are, since you appear not to know. In the face of an unsure woman, I’ve found, there are one-hundred-and-one Very Sure Men who will swoop in to let her know what’s what.

When I’ve articulated this feeling in academic contexts, I have been met with mixed reviews. Often, I’m advised by well-meaning and wise friends, colleagues, and mentors to simulate an authority I do not care to assume. Particularly for someone like me who is precariously employed and uncertain about where my future employment will come from, the advice is to exude a kind of sureness that I don’t feel comfortable with on the best of days: five-year research plan? no sweat; recite The Narrative of Canadian Literature off-the-cuff? that’s what I’m here for.

I often wonder what this kind of simulated sureness does to the profession: how does it contribute to our health, or the health of our professional relationships? how are students shaped by Very Sure Instructors? in what ways might our published research be failed by the goal of surety?

Talking about how unsure we are can be terrifying for a host of reasons: the atmosphere of competition that academia fosters, which compels us to put our best foot forward at all times; the material effects that publicly embracing unsureness can produce, especially for those seeking employment or financial stability; the ways that articulating unsureness can further marginalize individuals who already experience powerful intersections of oppression and marginalization, such as disabled, queer, trans, and BIPOC scholars.

There are risks, then, to speaking up. But again, let’s be honest: as a cis white woman, I have unearned privilege which means that being unsure, in public and elsewhere, does not greatly endanger my ability to maintain the institutional, structural, and other benefits I reap even in the face of these disclosures. It is not this easy for others. But as a public, official articulation of my hitherto only casually expressed feelings, this post feels liberating to me. Speaking about unsureness can be a relief. A call to others who might feel the same to talk back, collect, change the script.

And how might that script be changed? I’ve been trying to think through how this unsureness, this thing I once perceived as a self-deficit, can productively and meaningfully guide my research and pedagogy. How can I let it inform my interactions with colleagues, mentors, friends? I wonder about how building this feeling into the very systems and structures we occupy might change them.

For me, foregrounding unsureness in the academy could look something like this: relationships with students and colleagues that are anchored in honesty and in open articulations of the limits of our own understandings; built-in time for unsureness to unfold, or for slow and careful consideration to be practiced, in both research and teaching contexts; the ability for unsureness to shape how we practice self-care (how would we feel if we exchanged the pressures of mastery for the possibilities of uncertainty?) and how we negotiate imposter syndrome or other feelings of deficiency that seem so built into the structures of the academy. For me, too, foregrounding unsureness means respecting, trusting, and even prioritizing the knowledge and experiences of others—being accountable to that knowledge and, as an instructor in particular, releasing myself from the banking model of education (critiqued by Paulo Freire) that purports I have knowledge to give and students are there to receive.

Embracing unsureness as a scholar and teacher has helped me envision these possibilities and, in some small ways, put these visions into practice. I offer them as entry points into a conversation I hope to keep having with anyone who is interested. So, I ask: what would an unsure academy look like to you? What would we give up? What would we gain?


McDonald J picJessica McDonald is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She researches Canadian literature, literary cartography, and postcolonial theories and literatures. When not working, she enjoys making lots of lists and writing poems about crop tops and selfies.

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Clearing the decks

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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.

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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):

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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.

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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?