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Mid-week Montreal: self-care on fast trips

Last week, I was in Montréal from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon. I was very kindly invited by the English Studies Department to present my research on Facebook as an auto/biographical technology. There are a lot of reasons to say “yes” to such invitations. The opportunity to share research and receive feedback is chief among them of course, but there are other inducements. My friend Heather was doing the asking–and I hadn’t seen her since she was doing her MA and I was starting my PhD at the U of A. Um, Montréal in October. And never underestimate the lure of two nights in a quiet hotel, with no cooking, no office hours, no family demands, and an away message on my email. A break in the semester.

Of course the main reason to say “no” to an invitation like this is that who can take a break mid-semester? Teaching! Office hours! Meetings! Email! And, ugh, airports. Since I wouldn’t miss any teaching, and the paper was already written and the slides carefully crafted, I pushed these qualms aside. I’m pleased to say the visit went very well, and although I did come back to a LOT of email, I think I’m getting competent at mid-week travel.

Here’s how I manage fast trips during the semester. All this advice applies equally to campus interviews as to invited talks, in my experience.

1. Be realistic when you book the travel part. I was originally planning just an overnight stay, because I didn’t want to get behind at the office, but my husband reminded me I’m usually just a terrible grump, and very stressed and resentful, when I do that. If you go on a trip, just commit to the trip. I wouldn’t have had time to do much more than arrive, sleep, give the talk, and leave. That’s hardly time to see the host department, or notice what city you’re in. A two night stay, which my host originally offered me, was much more humane and reasonable.

2. Be realistic when you book the travel part, part 2. It has taken me many years to know that it is a false economy for me to fiddle the margins by flying very early in the morning, or later in the evening. When I fly in the morning, I’m exhausted from a poor sleep the night before, and have to commute the hour to the airport during rush hour, which then becomes 90 minutes. When I fly at night, I’m already burnt out and sleepy and have no patience left when I arrive home to my family. I have learned the hard way, over and over, that I like to fly mid-day. Maybe I’m technically “wasting” time that way, but exhaustion, insomnia, and bitchiness are just not worth it to me to get there three hours earlier, or leave three hours later. It’s no loss to me to arrive somewhere at 5pm, well-rested and even tempered.

3. Have a packing strategy. I try to balance being careful about weather conditions with knowing what I need to bring with me every time and how it will all fit in my bag. I keep travel toiletries always packed and ready, and I know how to stuff my running gear into my shoes and my shoes into my bag. I know I need warm pyjamas, and I will be unhappy without fuzzy socks, too. I know just how much I can fit in my carry on. It usually only takes me 20 minutes to pack for a few-days trip, which cuts a lot of burdensome nonsense out of the planning. I know which clothes won’t wrinkle and which pair of pants can go with three tops to make three outfits. I have been known to purchase footwear because it will work with both a dress and with pants, so that I can travel with only one pair of shoes. I also have a travel purse that has a laptop sleeve and I keep a folder with all the travel documents in it. Everything is the same every time I travel, so I don’t have to worry about it. This saves a lot of worrying, so I basically don’t have to think about the trip at all until it’s an hour before I have to leave for the airport and I get my bag out of the attic. Erin has some good tips about this.

4. Don’t write on the plane. Look, travelling is awful enough. Do you really want the added stress of not having your talk or your slides prepared? If you are counting on having access to wifi at the airport to finish your talk, and the traffic on the way there means you lose that time, or you open your laptop and realize all the relevant files are on the other computer, at home, inaccessible, or your hotel doesn’t have a printer and you have to find a Staples and a flash drive somehow before you present, well, that makes things was more tense and unpleasant than I like them to be. Look, working while travelling and on trips can often be very pleasant. I often write on the plane–but I’m writing something other than the talk I’m supposed to give. Don’t cut it so close, is all I’m saying. To myself. Because otherwise I’m miserable.

5. Go easy on yourself. Flying in to give a talk somewhere is intense. You are the centre of attention. There is a poster with your face on it. People are arranging meals with you. Grad students may want to meet you. The Q+A at the end of such talks can last 20 minutes or more, and the questions are usually really good. I’m a very sociable person, and I don’t get stage fright or anything like that but I’ll be honest: I find these things emotionally very taxing. Being at my smartest and most pleasant and trying to remember names and wearing tights and a dress for hours in a row is hard. The way I do it is by being easy on myself the morning of the talk, being alone and being quiet and reading and getting ready in a really gradual way, or going for a run first or doing yoga. Reading the newspaper, reading a book, drinking my coffee in my own damn time as I go over my paper one last time, so I can be confident everything will go well. So I’m fresh for the event. And afterward, I give myself a pass for the rest of the day–many campus visitors will tell you they have deep and satisfying naps between their talks and the supper. This is an excellent idea. Last week, in Montréal, I was going to take a long walk but it was pouring rain so I went to the Fine Arts Museum for a few hours, and it was exactly what I needed. I find twentieth century art incredibly soothing and soul-expanding. Then I had a nap and went out to supper with my host. Wonderful.

6. Be open to the experience. At my talk, I met several scholars whose work intersects with my own in ways none of us had imagined. I saw their eyes light up, and mine did too. There was much scribbling of new ideas and contact info, which for me is one of the prime benefits of this kind of trip. Because I was in Montréal, I had a chance to speak almost exclusively in French for several days. That was a nice brain teaser, and lots of fun, and got me thinking of all the different ways English and French are different and a number of other little fizzy little things of ideas that I was at leisure to indulge while eating lunch on my own after a long walk. The fine arts museum was a revelation–there was a special exhibit that completely knocked my socks off and I immediately saw a completely out of the blue connection to some work I’m doing on digital photography … in a set of 1920s oil paintings. I had to sit down and type out some notes on my phone. What I’m saying basically is: a new context produces new connections and new thinking. Be ready for this by leaving your real life at home and focusing on being in the now of the time of the trip. I would have missed out on a lot if I’d spent all the first night feverishly finishing my paper, and the second afternoon locked in my room grading or answering emails.

Travel is a chore and travel is a privilege. Sharing research is terrifying and sharing research is exciting. Meeting new people is scary and meeting new people is enriching. Academic lives of routine are often punctuated by short trips, and me, I’m seizing the opportunity by the horns, in ways that I’m trying to optimize so I can stay happy and productive. If you have any tips for self-care on such trips, I’d love to hear them~

One thought on “Mid-week Montreal: self-care on fast trips

  1. I just went to the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies conference in Calgary. I was panicking last week because the press had just sent back requests for revision with a tight deadline, and I'm in the middle of a teaching term, and I have to give a talk at the end of this month, and I have this big admin job, and I have barely seen my husband in weeks. But I went anyway and I am SO glad I did. This is a professional conference, from which I always emerge with new ideas about how I can do my job better. It is an opportunity to chat with other grad deans from across the country (including Heather Zwicker whom I had not been in the same room with for 20 years!). It was an opportunity to hang out with my Waterloo colleagues in a different setting. It was nice to take a walk in a different city. Not to mention having a hotel room to myself for three nights! Nothing here suffered. And I came home re-invigorated.


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