*With many thanks to a certain wonderful person in the admin of my department, who made the booking possible. M M-D, you are awesome!
I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about failing. I probably spend more time worrying about failure than I do dreaming of success. I don’t think this is uncommon among academics.
Lee has been thinking about winning. Me, I’m thinking about failing.
The three kinds of failure that most terrify academics are, I think, these:
Let’s hit ’em in turn, shall we?
Case 1: Failure as not-winning.
We often confuse “failure” with the quality of not-succeeding. We consider ourselves to have failed as academics if we do not win that graduate fellowship, that research grant, that job interview, that award.
This is a mistake. It’s not you–it’s the pool. Or, it’s not you–it’s the department and its needs. Or, it’s not you–it’s the very precise requirements of the funder. Let me be clear: 99% of the time, it’s really, truly, not you.
For me, this is hard-won knowledge, that I have to hard-win over and over again. May I be perfectly frank with you, dear reader? I have tended to always deem myself a failure in these situations because, at base, I am a control freak: I have this cuckoo sense that somehow my own efforts are enough to shift the earth on its axis to secure a desired outcome. It turns out that I do no have such powers. And neither do you. Sanity is restored through the cultivation of a shrugging attitude towards this reality.
Believe me, it’s only four years of near-constant yoga that’s taught me this kind of non-attachment in the face of 15 years of academic failures of this sort. And hoo boy! I’ve had some doozies. Like the job interview where the members of the search committee didn’t talk to me at all during the fancy dinner, after a long day where it had become apparent by 9 in the morning they weren’t going to hire me. Or like my first SSHRC doctoral application that just missed the funding threshold. And! I just lost an election for a departmental committee I really wanted to be on! That had two open spots! WAAAHHHHH!!!!! I suck!
Obviously, even today this kind of “failure” sends me immediately for my Comfort Gin Drink (Bombay-Sapphire-martini-extra-dry-two-olives-straight-up) and a day of maudlin self-pity and self-recrimination. But I try to damp down the failure self-talk as fast as I can.
In any of these kinds of competition, there are always many more qualified candidates than there are prizes and jobs and grants to bestow. I have been on plenty of appointments committees, scholarship adjudication panels, and the like, and I can tell you this much: rare is the application that is considered to be an outright, positive failure. You know, where the committee members enjoy a moment of levity marvelling at the sheer incompetence of it? Howlers do happen, but they are very, very rare. It is more usually the case that committees employ idiosyncratic sieves (and a good deal of arguing) to sift out an application or an applicant of a particular kind of size and density–what that sieve sifts for is largely dependent on qualities internal to the bestowers of the desired thing, and much less so on the intrinsic qualities of the applicant. Once, I won a travel scholarship over one of my good friends, because she proposed to go to Germany and I to France, and the funder had a special keenness for France: my application was no worse than her, nor hers than mine, but the adjudicating committee applied a particular filter that in this case favoured me.
So in these cases, to judge yourself a “failure” for not “winning” is to fruitlessly cause yourself anguish. It still sucks to not win; but not-winning doesn’t make you a loser or a failure, and it won’t help to consider yourself so. Remember: attitude of shrugging, Gallic-style. Possibly while sipping a martini, or meditating.
Next week, we’ll tackle one of two varieties of real failure: the kind where you actually fail to live up to standard where only you are being measured. Ulp.
At the risk of being labelled a cheerleader, I want to talk about the need to be more joyous, more toddler-like, more childish in our academic lives. See, the thing about toddlers is they live in the moment, and they experience everything with a power that later becomes dulled by years of being disciplined into becoming a good subject: a good student, a good family member, a
good contributing member of society, a good citizen, a good employee. So, here’s my pitch to embracing our inner toddlers.
Oh, joy! Reader, how do you allow yourself to en-joy your triumphs? Do you? Because I have a hard time with it. My most recent one was being asked to become a regular blogger here. First, I couldn’t believe it: who, me? Why? Then, when assured there had been no mistake, I wanted to do a mental happy dance in triumph. Yes, that took all of a split second. Because next? Anxiety set in. What would *I* have to add to this blog I had been reading and admiring since its inception? Alongside three exceptionally accomplished academics acting as editrixes, and many more who had guest-blogged? Surely nothing, or nothing significant anyway. And now I’m sitting here wondering about triumphs, their acknowledgement, and their celebration.
Although I suspect I’m not alone in my reservations, I won’t make any generalizations here. (Ok, I’ll try not to, and if you see me veer that way, you can poke me.) I’m afraid I don’t even acknowledge my triumphs as such, let alone enjoy them, because of so many reasons: 1. the academic time; 2. deferred gratification that becomes averted gratification; 3. superstition or fear of retaliation. Yes, I am an academic ten-year-old. But I’m still working on becoming an academic toddler.
First, when it comes to professional triumphs, the lead time between the work and its validation is so long that it makes any celebration of triumph somewhat awkward and fake. By the time a publisher or an editor responds to my essay submission, I have moved on to work on another five projects. And then, when s/he does respond, it is probably to ask for some form of revision, a response to which entails another period of waiting, too long for any creature to hold her breath. So, at what point exactly in this protracted process am I supposed to rejoice and celebrate? When I first hear of the “revise and resubmit”? When the acceptance arrives in my inbox? When the publication actually happens? When my friends ‘like’ my status update announcing it? Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy with every little one of these acknowledgements. But am I happy enough to do a happy dance? Out in the open? Nope. Nah. No-oh.
Is it the nature of the profession, or is just my irrational fear to not “disturb the universe”? Yes, I do have this fear that too much joy will bring in return an equal measure of unhappiness to restore the equilibrium. (You will tell me, dear Reader, will you not, if you think I should seek professional help?) And what of personal celebrations, you ask? Surely, those do not follow the same protracted process as academia? Well, no, but see professional habits become ingrained. So, yes, I was ecstatic both times I found out I was pregnant, and the hormones were probably a big help. But, you know how it is: wait until the first trimester is over to share the news, because you never know. When the kids were actually born? Again, ecstatic, and again, the hormones were a big help. But right afterwards, also, they’re at their most vulnerable. Then, by their first birthday (one of whose I have yet to reach, soon), I’m just too sleep-deprived to do the happy dance. So I just let them do it for me.
And yet, I’m not a grinch, and I really like being happy, contented, and even ecstatic. I manage the former two most of the time. But I probably like these emotions more as processes than as states and moments one can point to. It’s mostly the pointing out of the exact time as an aid to memorialization that I object to. You know, that “the first time you lifted yourself up on your own, it was 2:43 pm on a rainy September day, and we all cheered for your prowess and precocity” moment that becomes scrapbooked, and retold, and reconsidered, and reinvented with each iteration.
However, I want to get the triumphing right (oh, I’m such a keener). Triumphing and happy-dancing are distinct from merely being positive, which can be so oppressive, while also productive for capitalism, as Barbara Ehrenreich showed in Bright-Sided. And you know what my plan is? Be more childish, and indulge myself in my emotions; take a cue from my kids, in other words, who don’t know anything about the universe, or its potential disturbance, or of academic publishing and its rigours.
Because the other important thing I think we should learn from toddlers? Screaming until our needs are met. Toddlers, with their live-in-the-moment-I’m-hungry-right-now-and-I-will-yell-your-head-off-until-you-feed-me behaviour, are experts at demanding and obtaining their rights. So, why not throw a metaphorical tantrum now and then?
So, remember when I said at the beginning of this post that I did a “mental happy dance”? Next time, I’ll do an actual one that involves my limbs, too. Will you join me, or do you have your happy dance down pat already?
We’ve lost Heather. You haven’t seen her blogging here since last year, when she took up her post as Vice Dean, and worried about how to be in administration and on the Internet at the same time. And it turns out that that is a dance that no one has yet really mapped the steps to, Heather included. I miss her in direct proportion to the pride I feel for her in her new role.
We’re recruiting new bloggers, and the response has been really wonderful, but from the field in view in front of us, Heather noted: “Aimee, you are the old lady blogger now!”
Well, shit. This old lady blogger just took on an administrative post, too.
July 1st, I became Vice President of our Faculty Association here at UW. How this happened I’m not quite sure. I remember putting my name in to be on the Board, after a friend and colleague whose service to this organization I have greatly admired and appreciated asked me to, but this veep thing snuck up on me.
I mean, I did say last year that I’m in the sweet spot to be cranky, by which I meant, having secured tenure without completely burning out or embittering myself on either academic inquiry or collegial governance, I ought to use my (however limited) powers for good. These are weird times. Exciting and full of possibilities, but also worries and scarcity. It’s hard to know where universities are headed. We have a systemic, continent-wide jobs and employment crisis. We are all being asked to do more with less: more research with less granting agency funding, more teaching with fewer professors, more graduate training with fewer academic jobs, more knowledge mobilization with no less academic publishing, more enrolments with less infrastructure renewal, etc.
But here’s the main challenge I’m feeling: a lot of this work is confidential. Confidentially, Internet, just between us, I’ve never been very good at “confidential.” I’ve always considered “confidential” with its cousins “unsayable,” “private,” and “taboo” and the repercussions of decorous silence and discretion, I feel, have not been particularly empowering to lots of people. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I say. However, I’m now receiving memos headed “confidential” and reports labelled “draft — not for circulation” and I’m bound by those rules. And in some ways I really do understand the value of closed-door work on some issue. On other issues? I think this “discretion” is misplaced and old-fashioned.
In any case, I’m not sure what to say about issues where I know more than I’m supposed to let on. Should I preface all of my writing here by saying, “I have no real knowledge about any of this, from an administrative point of view, which means I’m allowed to write about it”? Because that seems like a good dodge, but also maybe counterproductive, in the long run. I’m pretty sure that this new role is meant to capitalize on my passions, my talents, and my mouthiness, rather than to lock them up in small committee rooms away from the people I care to talk with, but I’m not sure how to manage that. I don’t think the idea now is that I should restrict myself to blog posts about academic haircuts and other such institutionally inconsequential topics.
And perhaps I’ve already said too much.
So where I’m sitting now, I’m feel a little bit pinched between getting what feels like a good deal more institutional agency and the feeling I might be expected to shut up a bit more on the inter tubes, to manifest the discretion and compartmentalization that’s been blasted to bits by services like Twitter, for example.
This is a generational issue. Probably Heather and I are at the vanguard of a generation of academics who are either digital natives or skilled early immigrants to Weblandia, moving up the ladder, where the sorts of cultural change we’re expected to deal with in our undergraduate teaching hasn’t really penetrated.
The mismatch extends beyond administration and into the ranks, of course. Five years from now, how is anyone going to find a tenure referee who is both in the candidate’s field, and completely arm’s length? Aren’t we already beginning to see the kinds of networking and interconnection that social media offer us as normative? Won’t it actually mark you as an outsider if everyone who’s anyone isn’t on your Twitter feed? And there’s the question of knowledge mobilization as well: to what extent should academics be for seeking out opportunities to break their research results out of the academy and into the bigger world, or at least out from behind the Elsevier paywall and into open access repositories. What about when a social media upstart collates retraction data to ferret out and publicize academic chicanery, in full view of the public, but the institution’s processes (often for very good reason) take place over longer duration and behind closed doors?
I like blogging and tweeting and posting photos and asking hard questions and making embarrassing disclosures, all in the name of working continually to improve this great big academy we all love so much (well, sometimes … and in some ways …). Can I still do that? How hard should I push? When should I back off? If I am a change agent, what things am I actually trying to change as I go to more and more meetings where attendees are accompanied by their assistants?
I have no idea. But I’m going to try to work it all out here, in public, with you.
Writing — and frankly not writing — occupies an incredible amount of my mental and emotional energy. I seem to find time to do almost everything else but write. Direct the Canadian Studies Programme? Check. Teach? Check. Co-host a conference in the first month of term? Check. Supervise honours and graduate students? Check. Walk the dogs? Cook? Go to yoga? Check, check, check. Write a long-form project? Writing regularly? *crickets*
For those of you who have been reading here for awhile it will come as no surprise that I fret about my writing practice. I have written about it — or the lack of it — in terms of DIY Academia, in terms of collaboration and community, and I have written a lot about my anxieties around writing a book. Indeed, writing practice takes up a great deal of mental space here at Hook & Eye. In addition to my fretting, some of Aimée’s posts have addressed strategy (the 30-minute miracle) and reality (how writing can be unnervingly selfish).
It was beginning to seem as though it didn’t matter how much I worried about writing, I simply could not find the time to develop a sustainable practice. Now, this doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Not at all. This year alone I have written and presented six conference papers and I have written a few things for publication that are under review or in various stages of the broken system that is scholarly publishing. But my writing practice? Well, it looked something like this. Happily, something has changed.
This August I had the distinct privilege to attend the Banff Research in Culture Retreat. In addition to going to seminars, hearing public talks, and meeting amazing people, there was a great deal of time to simply work. We were assigned studios that we could access at any time of the day or night, and there were few expectations on us save for the expectation that we would be spending our time in meaningful ways. One does not waste an opportunity like this, right? In addition to attending the seminars, I was there for two reasons: to work with my collaborator on a writing project, and to write a book proposal of my own. Frankly, I assumed I would get the collaborative project finished (peer pressure!) and work on the solo project on my own time when I returned home. But that isn’t quite how things worked out. Between the complete break from my own life, the stimulating discussions, and the space to take work seriously I managed to leave that time completing both projects and then some. It was exhilarating! I did All of The Things! … and then it was time to go home…
How do you keep up a sustainable writing practice when you return from mountain paradise — replete with your collaborator, a wonderful built-in community, and a buffet where the grapefruit is already peeled — to the many quotidian things that steal time from your already busy day? I was worried. But, I’ve managed to keep up writing on a five-day-a-week basis since I have been home and back to Real Life. Here’s how:
1) Gain momentum: I left the retreat with real, tangible writing momentum. Projects had been completed. That felt amazing … and it made me want more.
2) Make a plan, and make that plan public: I know myself. My best-laid writing plans get thrown down over the puddle so that all the other things that need doing can walk over them and keep their feet dry. I needed help, I needed someone or something to keep me honest. So I asked my collaborator, who is also a trusted friend and colleague for help, and together we came up with a plan. We both have long-term projects that are easily put aside. The deal is this: we write one page of our own projects Monday-Friday. On Saturday we ship the writing off to the other person. See? Proof. I did it! We check in on each other, encourage one another to make the time to write, and we remind each other that it is both important and valuable to take our own work seriously enough to make time for it.
3) Check in: Whether you’re able to find a friend or form a group, if you’re aiming to develop a sustainable writing practice make sure you establish contingency plans. What happens if you miss a day (and you will)? What happens when you need to do more research, or you’re in the editing phase? Things will come up. Knowing how you’re going to deal with blips in the routine means you aren’t as prone to getting derailed and disheartened.
4) Do it: The most sustainable practice I have in my life thus far is my yoga practice. There was a time where the idea of getting out of bed at 5:30am was not only inconceivable to me, it was laughable. Now I do it five days a week because it keeps me level-headed. Sure, it takes sacrifice and dedication from me, and from my partner who has shifted his schedule to match mine a bit more. And it is not always fun. Some mornings I can hardly face the idea of dragging myself out of bed to get to the studio, but when I do it usually feels fantastic. Even when practice is horrible, there is the fact that I’ve done it. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (the main teacher of the style of yoga I practice) was often quoted saying, “Do your practice, all is coming.” Writing, I am finally learning, is like that too.
Hello Readers! My name is Margrit Talpalaru. I am a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, and an early-career researcher on my own time. I am delighted and honoured to join the regular cast of H&E writers.
Have you read the advice? The one for the start-of-year mixers, the meets-and-greets, the orientation events for undergraduates and graduate students? The one for faculty events, and conferences? You know, the advice that encourages everyone to seek out the least important person in the room to talk to?
Of course, no one is really “unimportant.” Obviously. But the idea is that those with less … power? cultural capital? who are new to the area/program/position? have a hard time breaking into social circles or even conversation at these kinds of events. And it is the duty of the better established to ease the path of social inclusion with chit chat about home towns or yoga or how to get a photocopier password.
I’ll bet that what you’re thinking right now is: but that’s me! I’m always the loner off to the side, wishing I was at home watching Community on Netflix in my pyjamas with my dog and a scotch launching witticisms into the friendly atmosphere of Facebook!
I know that that’s my problem. I go to faculty events, for example, and what I want to do is, first, make a beeline for the bar to muster my courage. (Hey, I’m just being honest. It’s that or the cheese tray and the gin has fewer calories and a better effect on my wit.) Second, I want to find someone I already know just so that I have somewhere to purposefully walk to, and thus can avoid standing alone fruitlessly scanning the room, chin aloft, face anxiously expectant. Shudder. Third, I want to catch up with that someone, because I probably haven’t seen them for awhile. Or if I have seen them recently, they’re probably a close friend, and there’s always something fun to talk about with my close friends. What we’ll probably talk about is how awkward we feel at this social event: we will commiserate about our loner-misfititude or some such. What I am always trying to do is grab a lifeline out of a sea of sharklike social awkwardnesses: standing by myself while drinking, trying to make eye contact with anyone, aiming to insinuate myself into a conversations that’s already going strong between two people who aren’t looking at me. Oh god. The awful. But is it?
I’m going to also bet that, actually, the social disaster of cringing shyness you see in your head was you a couple of years ago, and that you’ve got more power than you think. Not least the power to make that social event a little less awkward for someone newer / younger / more tenuous / completely lost than you are.
It has recently occurred to me that what this looks like to others is that I am ensconced in a group of people with tenure, laughing loudly at in-jokes about department happenings from five years ago, blasting an aura of belonging and exclusion. Or when I’m at DHSI, it looks like all the instructors forming a closed circle, because we stopped accepting new friends around the time the semantic web became Web 2.0. Or when I’m at a national conference, it’s the clique from my graduate program hanging tight. I mean, I feel like Cady Heron, but I look like Regina George. Uh-oh.
It turns out that lots of people are surrounded by many more sharks than I am. And it turns out that sometimes I am the lifeline. I mean, by this point, I actually do know a lot of people most places I go. These things shouldn’t scare me so much: I mean, it’s not 1997–I’ve been doing these things for 15 years, if you want to count from that first faculty / student mixer in my MA year. So even though I still feel just as insecure and adrift in that shark-filled sea as I ever did, I’m forcing myself to leap off the lifeboat of friends and peers, into the ocean of strangers.
Am I getting salt water up my nose? Yes. I say dumb things. I bore some people. I make unsuccessful attempts to introduce two people to one another. I forget names. I repeat stories. Some of my jokes fall flat. But my swimming is also getting stronger: I ask questions to draw people out, I remember what they tell me when we meet again, I offer words of encouragement to those who need them, and I laugh at everyone’s jokes.
I’m not going to lie to you: I still find it a lot easier to talk to people I already know, and that is probably always going to be my inclination whenever I walk into a room full of people standing up and wearing name tags. But with practice, this kinds of mingling gets easier. I’m meeting really nice people, and, bonus, they sometimes look really glad that I’ve come over to talk to them. And that’s pretty much the payoff for me: making someone else’s experience of these kind of events a little more pleasant, a little less scary.
How about you? Do you skip these events? Relish them? Are you the shark or the bait? What are your coping strategies?
Hook and Eye is looking to add to our team of regularly scheduled writers, and you might be just the person for the job!
What it requires: A commitment to write 2-4 blog posts per month in collaboration with us.
Who we’re looking for: We don’t know for certain, but ideally we’d like to have more geographic, age, identity, and disciplinary representation.
What you need to do: Send us an email at editrixes (at) hookandeye (dot) ca letting us know who you are and why you’d like to write with us.
We are looking forward to meeting you!