grad school · mental health · people pleasing · PhD

Fighting Extra-Academic Burnout

Are you experiencing scholar date burnout?

Let me explain. A recent article posted in Inside Higher Ed asks scholars experiencing such burnout symptoms as physical exhaustion, depression and/or anxiety, and cynicism to take themselves on weekly scholar dates. Grad school, particularly the dissertation-writing phase of grad school, can be painfully isolating. Often students take on off-campus jobs or teach at a different school, some prefer the hermitic lifestyle of working at home, others (like me) function as nomads, drifting from library to library for fresh thrills and different local coffee blends. As I blogged about almost a year ago, writing a dissertation is as much a psychological battle as it is an intellectual one, and depression and anxiety are endemic to academic departments: something many of us deal with, but few of us talk about, because to admit mental distress is to admit weakness and inadequacy and inability to cope with the ubiquitous strains of the profession. It’s survival of the fittest, and in this climate, “survival” might mean living out the rest of one’s life as an underpaid and overworked contingent laborer ( I am a jaded sixth year PhD student, hi!).

With the intellectual and social paucity of late stages of the PhD, what Heather VanMouwerik calls “scholar dates” sound like great ideas: these are outings, such as movie nights, park wanders, cultural experiences, and cafe lingers, that feed our intellectual and creative sides. I appreciate that the Scholar Date seems here to meet the Self Date; VanMouwerik instructs us to “Do it alone” rather than feeling distracted with the needs and experiences of other people. The concept of selfdating transforms hanging out alone and feeling sorry for yourself into a deliberate, intentional, and personally rewarding choice. Friends have told me that just giving alone-time this label seems to make a difference.

What makes self dates and scholar dates so useful is that my only obligation is to myself, and this time becomes sacred and restorative. But I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a slippery slope between scholar-dating and succumbing to professional obligations. Lately, I’ve possibly been overcompensating for the aforementioned mental health stuff by overloading my schedule with what might clumsily be categorized as scholar dates (all conducted of my own volition, though not always alone). There is a point at which the scholar date becomes avoidance, and I fear I’m hovering around that threshold.

It’s easy for this to happen, because scholar dates are often justifiably important, and I am lucky enough to live in a city that affords ample opportunity for intellectual engagement through cultural field trips. In the last week alone, for example, I travelled out of the city to sit in on a friend’s lecture on King Lear and the public humanities; I saw Henry IV Part I at BAM after a sick friend offered me a free ticket; and I spent an afternoon at an academic conference unrelated to my dissertation. I did a minor in early modern drama, right? So I should definitely keep up with the Renaissance drama scene in New York (see also: Revelation Readings at Red Bull theatre). I’m trying to develop a DH profile, right? So these sessions on teaching with digital maps are totally necessary to my intellectual development. And then: I care about maintaining a vibrant intellectual community in my department, right? I should definitely attend this talk on racial politics, since I can tell they are worried about getting bodies in seats. I care about the future wellbeing of this country and entire world, right? I should probably attend this Bernie Sanders rally and perhaps sign up to do some phone-banking and flyering and house calls and omg, possibly the whole election that I can’t vote in rests on my shoulders!! Oh, yeah, and I should go for a solo walk to the river because it’s spring and whatnot. And, and….the list goes on.

I know that I may not be able to remain in academia forever, and if I don’t (or even if I do), I don’t want to look back on my time in New York City and remember only the uncomfortable subway encounters and cockroaches creeping out from underneath my fridge. Not only do my extracurricular scholarly activities feed into my constellation of personal and scholarly interests, but they also mitigate anxiety and despair about the future, and help connect me with various local communities. But even these activities can be taken too far and become more about obligations and people-pleasing than self care.

Let’s not forget that as women, we face pressure to say yes to everything–to live full, rich, balanced, lives, to spring out of bed and go to sunrise yoga classes before heading to campus, to stay connected with our friends and communities while keeping on top of our research, remaining available to students, and grading dozens of final papers. Yeah. That’s not happening. Let’s let slumptimes be slumptimes, and learn when to say no to even those activities that might help expand our intellectual development in new ways. Let’s learn how to view “no” as not only a perfectly acceptable but also commendable choice. The bernout is real.

community · guest post · kinaesthetic thinking · language · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: On Academia, Yoga, and the Practice of Beginning Again

“If you fall out, you are human. If you fall out and get back in, you are a yogi.”
It’s 10am. The studio is unusually hot today—high humidity, the windows are already streaming. The noise of the world outside seems distant in the faux tropics of the heated room. I have a full day of revisions ahead of me, but as I unfurl my mat, all I need to be is Kate, radically myself in this moment, a moving, breathing participant in the now. I usually practice yoga in the evenings, when I feel more awake and more myself, but lately I have been caught up in a continual whirlwind of revisions—for articles and for my dissertation—that has thrown me out of whack mentally and has sent my anxiety levels soaring. So, I decide to switch it up a bit and see what happens when I make the conscious decision to begin my day with centering and presence.
Yoga—while certainly not a cure-all remedy, has some concrete applications beyond the mat. It is first and foremost a practice, one that teaches you presence, as well as the honour and dignity of beginning again. If you have ever practiced yoga, you know all too well the lingering frustration when on Tuesday you were able to fully kick back into standing bow, but today you can’t even find your balance in tree. But you try, and try again, stretching your muscles and fascia to their present ability, making room for the new, flushing out the old. In experimenting with the now of your body, yoga offers you a chance to laugh at yourself, to enjoy the foibles of the human body as it moves, sometimes clumsily, sometimes gracefully. In this way, it is a nice counterbalance to the “perfect mind” syndrome that plagues academia. When you play with balance and respect your body’s capabilities in the moment, falling out and beginning again restores dignity and lightness to the body and mind, and encourages you to be empathetic with yourself in the process.
As academics, and, more generally, as people in the saturated milieu in which we live, yoga is an available antidote to the constant demands for active production and perfection. While dropping the day’s worries and focusing on the breath seems like a luxury, for me, it has become a basic human need. With so much pressure to “get things right” in my professional life, yoga has taught me invaluable lessons of balance and process. It is a space and time where you can fall out and get back in—under the intensity of heat, the sweat and breath of neighbouring bodies, the closeness of the experience can be overwhelming. There is also something intensely human to be felt, however, in the pure pleasure of movement and breath.
Yoga is consciousness in motion. It is about synching the flows of the body with the natural rhythms of the breath, the life force, prana. As a doctorate student who studies the projective poetics of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and the Black Mountain crowd, this aspect of uniting the breath and body in movement is especially poignant. The projective poetic mode advocates for the immediate connection between lines of verse and the breath and movement of the body through space.
According to Olson, proprioception, “sensibility within the organism / by movement of its own tissues,” extends beyond aesthetics to become a poethic, a practice of living and creating rooted in the immediacy of the body in motion. “Proprioception” comes from the Latin proprius meaning “one’s own,” or what is proper to the self; in this way, it identifies a radically personal and subjective means of relating to the world through the body. At its core, it is about bodily awareness: of being aware of the parts of the moving body as they are extended in space, in relation with other objects in this spatial field. It is a term that certainly applies to yoga, but also to academia.
The act of publishing and sharing ideas, of receiving critique and revising accordingly, are all practices of awareness—not of the body, per se, but of ideas, which are always extensions of the body and markers of its growth. When we send out ideas for review, we are experimenting with our ideas in space—identifying their extensions and limitations, but most importantly, realizing their capacity for growth and change. This both humbles and opens the self as much as falling out of Eagle pose and getting right back in, with a new awareness of where you are at in the present.
Yoga is about experimentation. There are many parallels to draw between repeating asanas, experimenting with movement not for the pursuit of perfection but for progress, and academic revision, the reorienting and shifting of ideas to adapt to newly discovered contexts and ideas. I think we sometimes forget that academia, like yoga, is a practice. When we revise our ideas, when we consider other viewpoints and angles and incorporate them in our own work, we are being present and mindful. We are also confirming the humanity of the work, the organic community of people coming together in pursuit of knowledge not as dogma but as practice.
Because what is academia, the pursuit of knowledge, if not the art of beginning again?
So, as I roll out my mat in this balmy room, I don’t know what the next hour and a half holds for me and my practice. I also don’t know what the result of my hundred visions and revisions beyond the mat will amount to. All I know is that I can be present and patient with what emerges; if I lose grasp of my breath, I can get it back again.

If you make mistakes, you are an academic. If you revise and resubmit, you are human.

Kate Siklosi lives in Toronto and is a PhD Candidate in English at York University. Her research interests centre upon the intersections of Canadian and American avant-garde poetry and poetics, post-structuralism, and spatial theory. She is currently co-editor of Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought.
academic reorganization · feminist health · gradgrind · guest post

Women, Academia, Sport: “Pink It and Shrink It,” the Tomboy Running Experience

Until the early 1990s the running industry’s philosophy towards women and running could be summed up by the phrase “pink it and shrink it.” This phrase was used in reference to women’s running shoes implying that they were the shrunken version of men’s and “feminized” by colouring them pink. Thankfully, largely owing to Nike and their recognition that women’s gait and biomechanics differ from that of men, this philosophy has since changed.
I grew up being that girl with untamed hair, ripped jeans, stealing my dad’s hats, and avoiding at nearly any cost the colour pink.  In short, I was a tomboy.  On entering the world of running I was overjoyed to discover that the industry had moved beyond the need to make all women’s running shoes pink.  Nike had set a new and forward thinking trend and not only adjusted the shoes to fit a women’s gait, but also had decided to give women the choice about the colour of their running shoes.
Nearly five years later, with still not-pink running shoes laced, I am heading to run club on Sunday morning much like almost every Sunday for the last five years.  When I first started going to run club I expected to find an all-boys club with only a few women – I was wrong. The room was packed and majority were women. Since moving beyond “pink it and shrink it,” more and more women have taken up running. I’ve really noticed the increase of women participating, as my running clinics are usually all women with one or two men. I usually start my new clinics with the opening remark: “running is more of relationship than a sport, and one that is sixty percent psychological and forty percent physical.” Running is more often a game of convincing yourself that you can do it and then pushing your body to do so. In this way, running is also the most freeing sport relationship. You decide how far, how fast, and how long you go. You set your own goals and if you stick to the training program you can achieve your goal. I wish I could say the same for academia.
Academia is the other major relationship in my life. Unlike running, there is no training program that I can follow to succeed as an academic. While my relationship with running has not always been straightforward due to injury or inclement weather conditions, there is always a sense of security because of the degree of control I have.  My success in academia, however, I only partly control. I can pour over books, jump through all the program hoops, and meet all the deadlines with no guarantee that I will be able to advance to the next phase of my academic career. While both academia and running operate on a schedule, the biggest difference between them is bureaucracy.
Academia has become more about jumping through bureaucratic hoops than actually participating in scholarly exploration. When I started graduate school I was under the impression that part of the reward of succeeding beyond the undergraduate level was the freedom to research and study what interests me, but like my expectations for run club, I was wrong, and this time it wasn’t a pleasant surprise. The higher up the academic ladder you climb the more bureaucratic and unpredictable it becomes. I wish academia were more like running where if you set a goal and stick to a training schedule you have the security of knowing that you could succeed on your own merit rather than your success being determined by the subjective and often conflicting nature of academic bureaucracy.

While my love letter to running is ongoing, my letter to academia has become a little bitter sweet.  It’s difficult to succeed in a discipline when the goals keep changing; when you’re cheering section and equipment are ill-fitting and change daily from “you can do it!” to “you’re just not good enough”.  I am sad to say I am only partially in control of my academic career.  The other part is controlled by the bureaucrats still making equipment that is a simple reduction and recolouring of the same flaws academia had a hundred years ago.  In short, I love you academia, but you are still in the “pink it and shrink it” phase and make it hard for minds like me to show you what I can do.

 

Liz Tetzlaff is an MA candidate in English at Dalhousie University, and running coach for Running Room, where in addition to coaching, I give outreach talks around the city encouraging others to get involved in the running community.  My research interests mainly focus on poetry of the female Great War poets and their engagement with radical pacifist movement. In addition to running and war poetry, I enjoy playing with puppies, listening to Sarah McLachlan, and watching BBC mini series.

adminstration · advice

#sorrynotsorry: getting it done, unapologetically

Doubly cursed a woman AND a Canadian, I have a tendency to apologize for everything. Someone walks into me while I’m standing still? “Sorry!” (for not having made myself more visible, maybe.) Someone at my doctor’s office has left me in the waiting room for 40 minutes because they actually didn’t check me in? “Sorry to be a bother …” (because when I gave you my card and appointment details I thought you would tell the doctor I was here). Someone hands a paper in late? “Sorry …” (because I have to give a late penalty.)

Once I became grad chair, the opportunities to apologize became more numerous, because not only did I have a lot more opportunity to make mistakes, and I have made plenty, I also had to enforce a lot of rules and make a lot of decisions that invariably made at least some people unhappy.

There are three kinds of apologies I have heard myself and others make, in leadership roles:

  1. Apologizing for mistakes is a leader thing to do: it shows responsibility and humility at once. While it would be better not to make the mistake at all, if you make it once,  just own it: “I’m sorry none of this paperwork made it to your office by the deadline. I didn’t realize how much time it would take me to process them on our end, and that was my error.”
  2. Apologizing for making decisions is a not-leader thing to do. It undermines confidence in your leadership: “I’m sorry that you have to serve on that committee in the spring” makes it sound like not even you think it’s a good idea.
  3. Apologizing for someone else’s behaviour and/or the consequences of that behaviour is even worse, and plays into the mommy or nurturer stereotype many people seem to expect from women. It also makes you look like a pushover. “I’m sorry, but you failed the exam” makes it sound like the failure is your own, for example.

We should all continue to cultivate the practice of Apology Number One: a heartfelt “sorry” and commitment to not make that mistake again is a learning opportunity and a relationship-builder. Or at least a relationship-mender, in cases of serious blunders. The trick here is to make the sorry unequivocal and clear. In my example above, I avoided the “I’m sorry … but … ” formulation that says, basically, “I know I have to say ‘sorry’ but it actually wasn’t my fault.” A more egregious failure of category one apologies comes in the form of “I’m sorry … if …” as in “I’m sorry if some found my language offensive,” because that lays the ultimate responsibility for the people choosing to be offended instead of at your own feet, for saying something insensitive.

Apologies Number Two and Three are deadly, though, and we must stop with that. Luckily, I have some suggestions that keep the empathy and kindness I think we’re all aiming for when we apologize in those ways, without actually apologizing.

Make Decisions Without Expressing Regret!

If you have decided something, say so without regret or equivocation. “I’m sorry, but our meetings must take place on Friday afternoons” sets people up to complain. This is better: “Our meetings have all been scheduled for Friday afternoons this term. We are a big committee, with many obligations, and that time slot is the only one in which all of us are free to attend.” Here, I just took the sorry right out. If you want to empathize, you could add, “I know it’s not your preferred time-slot–it’s not mine, either!”

If you have decided something unpopular, the tendency to apologize to the inevitable complainants will be near overwhelming. I suggest giving structural context but no apologies. Let’s say you have to assign someone to teach at 8:30 in the morning, and they ask to change to 9:00 or 9:30 or 10:00 or anything and you say no. Don’t apologize. Briefly explain why: “The registrar’s office mandates class timeslots. Start times for graduate courses are 8:30am, 11:30am, 2:30pm and 5:30pm. So your class time cannot be shifted for that reason, and even if we arranged such a thing informally, it would conflict with the courses starting at 11:30, thus diminishing student choice, and, potentially, the enrolment in your own course.” It is an advanced manoeuvre to give the right amount of context, but not too much. Overexplaining is simply another version of apologizing and undermining your own authority.

If someone asks you to do something, like an invited talk, or a workshop or some such, and you have the feeling that you are supposed to feel honoured AND that saying no would mean that person has to go back to the drawing board to find someone else, you can still say no without regret. The word you want here is “unfortunately.” The word “unfortunately” is a magical world. It suggests bad luck, without agent or transitivity. “Unfortunately, I will not be able to accept your invitation, owing to constraints on my schedule. Thank you for thinking of me.” Not sorry. You did nothing wrong in turning down discretionary work.

Do Not Apologize for Being the Bearer of Bad News

I deliver a surprising amount of bad news: no, you can’t have that transfer credit; no, I cannot sign that course override; no, you cannot graduate without the language requirement milestone; no, your dissertation is not ready to defend; no, you did not win that scholarship; no, you did not receive admission to the program.

In some these cases, I’m just the decider of something: like transfer credits, or course overrides. These are actually category two situations.

The harder cases are when you have to hold someone to account for their own failings. It is crucial not to apologize here–that can give false hope, or inculcate a sense of grievance that will lead to the filing of a grievance. It is possible to deliver bad news with empathy, but without apology. If someone has failed an exam: don’t apologize. If someone has been caught plagiarizing: don’t apologize. If someone has failed to hold office hours for an entire term and needs to be disciplined: don’t apologize.

Here are the phrases you need: “I understand this is not the news you were hoping for,” “I understand this is unexpected,” “I am sure this is distressing to hear,” “I imagine you must be upset by this news.”

Some more phrases: “If you need some time to think about this, we can meet at another time,” or “Here is a Kleenex,” or “This might be a lot to take in, please feel welcome to ask me questions about what comes next.”

Also important: be quiet and wait for the person to say something. Sometimes an awkward but empathetic silence is better than rushing in with a bunch of words while someone’s head is reeling. The key is to be clear and direct with the bad news and the consequence if there is one, while expressing a sensitivity to the recipient’s likely distress.

In conclusion

We apologize sometimes from empathy, sometimes from insecurity, and sometimes from a squeamishness about our own decisions. Unless you’ve made a mistake, though, there are better ways to express kindness and understanding, more productive ways, than saying “sorry.”

I’ve been really kicking my non-apologies into high gear since I’ve had to make so many decisions and enforce so many rules in my administrative role. But the same rules apply to being asked to serve on committees, or to perform service or volunteer work, or to give a talk or a workshop.

Do you apologize more than you want to? Do you have strategies to help with that? I’d love to hear them.

academic work · feminism · guest post

Guest Post: Bad Faith and Bad Habits

A few years ago I outed myself as a church-goer to some graduate students and colleagues over drinks at our campus pub. My students reacted with a predictable mixture of shock, bewilderment, and thinly-veiled contempt. Confessing to my church habit was like admitting I had an addiction, with a twelve-step program that included weekly church attendance and a cannibalistic ritual of eating a dying man’s flesh and drinking his blood.

One of my colleagues tried to salvage my reputation as a reasoning post-humanist by informing me and everyone who was listening that my church habit was “more cultural than religious, right?” In other words, the only way to explain the anomaly of a church-going academic in a Humanities department in the twenty-first century was through the safety valve of “culture” –colourful foods and folkways that fulfill the “ethnic heritage” requirement and are somehow okay to want to preserve. The problem is that the ethnic culture I belong to is also and inescapably a religious culture, rooted in the church.
A long time ago, in graduate school, I mentioned my religious/ethnic identity to another student who jokingly responded, “Well, you’re doing a good job of hiding it.” Either I was being accused of hypocrisy, or I didn’t match their stereotype, or I was being complimented for concealing something shameful or at least distasteful. Or maybe it was none of these, but I came away feeling that a significant part of who I am was something to withhold. No one wants to hear about it.
It’s hard to be a professing, feminist Christian in a secular institution whose modern history goes hand in glove with the rise of liberal individualism. It’s hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t suffer from the delusion that I am persecuted because we have a holiday party in our department every December. It doesn’t bother me when colleagues or students openly criticize the church, or the Christian tradition. I do it myself in lectures all the time. My specialization in Victorian literature means I’m constantly teaching texts that were authorized by discourses of Christian imperialism and the civilizing mission and I make sure my students recognize this and have language to critique it. The thought of using the classroom as a place to profess my religious beliefs practically gives me hives. I have never tried to “save” anyone. I have never tried to fool myself that my faith gives me some kind of special glow.
But the main reason I don’t talk about church when I’m at work is because our lives outside of work are irrelevant there. I know this because of feminism. In the same way that the work of social reproduction done by women on the second shift is hidden when we are at our “real jobs,” so too is my secret life as a church-goer. Just as the hours I spend raising my children “don’t count” (and are an impediment to my productivity at work), neither does the work I do for the church. And I’ve done a lot. In the past ten years I have served on numerous church committees, taught faith formation classes to children and adults, been appointed as the church librarian, attended countless evening meetings in other people’s homes, written articles for my local church newsletter and our denomination’s national paper, planned and led worship services, delivered sermons (or whatever you’d call them), organized women’s retreats, cooked meals for congregants who are ill or facing death, and a bunch of other things. I have taken on this unpaid work willingly and even joyfully. I have spent most Sunday mornings in church when I might have been writing articles and book chapters. I have sacrificed work time (evenings and weekends) to Sabbath time.
At work I often feel guilty about my modest research record. At church I feel proud to talk about my teaching and research. Calling myself an academic at church brings me social capital; calling myself a church-goer at work diminishes it. So much of what I do at church (teaching, writing, committee work, organizing, community building) are skills that I transfer from my job, but investing those skills at church isn’t recognized by my job. In fact some of my colleagues would see it as a contemptible waste of time that could be better spent being “productive” at work. So I do a good job of hiding it. If I try to make visible the work I do for the church, I am in danger of being branded a lunatic–of being, quite literally, a bad faithacademic feminist.
 And while my feminist colleagues make visible the kinds of socially reproductive labour we do as women (through blogs like Hook and Eye), there is very little room for talking about—confessing to—the other kinds of work we do when we’re not being productive in the narrow sense of fulfilling tenure and promotion requirements and achieving metrical excellence.
It feels scary to admit this because of the pressure to “love” my work—to sacrifice my leisure time, and often my family’s time—to work time. The Do What You Love mantra has been thoroughly internalized by academics; we have put our faith in our work because we believe in it; we believe it is worth doing even when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize its importance, and even when many of us don’t receive a living wage, job security, or the respect of our employers. Our emotional vocabulary about our work—love, sacrifice, faith, belief—is the same vocabulary we use in church.
But the difference between unpaid academic work and unpaid church work is that while my employer can invite me to leave at any time if I don’t conform at least minimally to the market-driven academy’s ever-increasing demands on my time and my love, (or even if I do), my religious faith and the church that gives it expression and coherence will never ask me to leave. My employer is not interested in me or my family, only in the value it can extract from me. It wants only my excellence. Church is interested in all of me, and will take as much or as little as I give it. It sees even my faults and failings—my bad habits—as something to be loved. At its core, church is a rejection of precarity.
Jan Schroeder goes to church in Ottawa and works at Carleton University.