teaching · Uncategorized

An ode to the white board

This is an ode to the white board, the glossy surface sometimes made of glass, sometimes constructed from paint, sometimes a weird plastic thingy that’s oddly pitted. Squawk squeak! goes marker number one, emitting vaguely fruity smells quite vigorously but ink not nearly so much so. Skronk chirp squeak! goes marker number two, less smelly and also less shy about making a mark. I have a small collection of markers I hoard, and sometimes even a rag I bring to class with me to erase the board.

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Only one of these markers works. All of them smell like “headache.”

I’m always running around class, writing on the board. Sometimes the boards run across two sides of the room and I fill them all, jumping over tables (yes) to access them in our too-tight spaces. Or sometimes, they’re layered at the front, where you can fill all the front ones and then shoot them up towards the ceiling, revealing a whole second set of boards! I jot little lightbulb ideas down low on the corner so I will remember them. I write down student brainstorms. I make big headings in all caps across several boards and then spend class getting everyone to work together to fill them in with notes. I put up the class agenda, with checkboxes, and check them off as we complete each item.

It’s a pretty amazing real-time, interactive, multimodal communication system. It doesn’t need log in credentials. It doesn’t need the projector to warm up. It doesn’t time out. It doesn’t need me to dim the lights. It always works, which is an advantage over classroom electronics.

But the whiteboard is a pretty good pedagogical tool, on its own merits. I have some strong opinions on this matter, and it’s going to involve trash talking slide presentations, which I realize are very very common and which I myself sometimes use in very specific and pointed ways so yes #NotAllPowerPoints but anyways.

First, pacing. A student came up to me after one of my undergrad classes last week. She wanted to compliment me on my use of the white board, instead of PowerPoint. That’s the contrast she made. “So refreshing!” she said. “Like it made it easier for me to follow.” Well, yes. It would. The white board is a lot slower than PowerPoint (so I guess the time you save fighting with the projection and podium system, you make up for in having to hand write in real time). That is a feature, not a bug. I know that many of us put hunks of text and notes and definitions on slides to project, because we have so much content, and it saves time to flash it up instead of write it out. But. How can your students write it down? We use PowerPoints, often, because we are trying to speed things up. We move at the speed of light (literally) and not at the speed of comprehension or contemplation. If I have enough time to write it down, my students have enough time to write it down. If that means I have to radically reduce how much content I can “share” in a given class, well, that’s probably for the best, if what I want is for students to understand what we’re doing rather than impress them with how much I know.

So, whiteboards make me teach more slowly. That’s good. I am a FAST FAST RIGHT NOW UGH I’M BORED GO GO GO kind of academic, and that’s not a good teaching stance. Better to slow my roll to the speed of reflection. To take the care to manage my handwriting. Give people a chance to take it in, to write it down. I honestly don’t think people can take in new ideas in novel fields any faster than they can write it by hand. So I don’t want to teach faster than that.

Second, whiteboards are way more dynamic, interactive, and responsive than projection. Yeah. I said what I said: PowerPoints suck the life and interaction out of any room they’re used in, 9 times out of 10. Slides are static: you can’t change them as you present. The content is already fixed. You come to class, you show it. Nothing that happens in the room can alter the lesson because it’s already 30 ordered slides from A to B, and if C and D come up there is no room for them. Oh this is a really interesting discussion we’re having but I’ve got 48 more slides to get through! If you have a habit of putting your slides online before or after class ask yourself: why is anyone coming to class? What are they getting out of sitting in a room watching you talk to and about a screen? What are they doing, other than listening? Sometimes, after class, I take photos of my whiteboards because class took such a turn that I did not expect that we made new knowledge that I didn’t have before and want to document for myself. Often, during class, what gets written on the whiteboards is what students say: Why is Big Data a paradigm shift? I ask them. It’s not in the textbook. They have to come up with the answers. I write them down. We refine them. Something new happened, something that they built, that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t here.

Basically, I want students to have stakes in class. The “lecture” and “content” of class is partly me giving them new information they don’t have other access to, part of it is them thinking through the ideas they’ve read in the book, and part of it is them working together with each other and with me, to decide what’s real and important and interesting and so we make our class notes together, on the whiteboard.

Third, my work at the whiteboard models distillation and synthesis for my students. I don’t write everything down. Obviously. What I write down is brief, but important. We can write down ideas that are finished, and we can write down stubs of things and refine them. We can brainstorm lists, then pick and choose what we want to keep and then think about some more. We can literally draw connections between things. We capture the gist, the crux, the kernel: learning to do that is incredibly important, and we’re all practicing together.

So that’s my ode to the whiteboard. It makes class more dynamic. It makes me more realistic about “content” coverage. It demonstrates how to find the main point, how to synthesize, how to write-to-learn.

What do you use your whiteboards for? Or do you have a spirited defense of PowerPoint to share?

advice · new year new plan · teaching · tidying up · Uncategorized

Saying “yes” and sparking joy

I’m kind of a Kondo-ite. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up rivals Pride and Prejudice on my list of sick-in-bed comfort reads. When stressed, I throw things out. It’s never been the wrong thing to do.

It’s my first week back to teaching, after my year-long sabbatical and I’m a little frazzled just from the change in pace, routine, number of people, details to manage, the excitement of a new semester. At night, my daughter and I crawl into bed together with the cat and the dog and fire up an episode of Tidying Up on the Netflix-machine and enjoy the transition from the overwhelm and frazzle of my messy day–oh, wait, I mean someone else’s messy home–to the beatific smiles that arise when you know that when you open that specific kitchen drawer, there’s an open spot to put the can opener back into. Ahhhhhh.

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You can use boxes to store and organize smaller items

It’s easy to focus on the before, on the piles and piles and piles of DVDs, the overflowing laundry baskets, counters encrusted with random bric-a-brac, the entire rumpus room of Christmas decorations in April. It’s easy to goggle at the enormous piles of garbage bags. It’s easy to spin cynical narratives of late capitalist over-accumulation and the soothing of every feeling of discomfort with “retail therapy,” easy to tut-tut at a particularly American drive to always have more, damn the torpedoes, the credit-rating, the square-footage of the dwelling, common sense. It’s easy to think: these people need to learn to say no, to get rid of, to limit, to control. A tightening of purse strings. Self-discipline. No. Consider some of the recent journalism on this. Very judgemental.

But.

The Mersier family (the episode I watched last night) made a special point of noting that Kondo doesn’t judge anyone’s possessions, anyone’s choice about what sparks joy and what doesn’t. And that’s true. Kondo is not so much about getting rid of clutter but of recalibrating your joy sensor. People don’t accumulate 200 pairs of socks because they’re trying to be slobs. They don’t stack every participation medal they’ve earned since 1983 into a shoe box and put it on the dining room table because they want to make sure everyone eats on the couch. People buy stuff, hold onto stuff, produce teetering piles in the corners of their rooms because at some point those objects felt like the solution to some sort of problem: mismatched and not enough socks, a way to show their care for their childrens’ childhoods, a way to keep cherished hobbies close to hand but not in the way. The impulses are always positive, the gratifications perhaps immediate, but the long-term effects unexpectedly, drip by drip, exhausting and overwhelming. People buy, and keep, and store things to create joy.  But they lose the way at some point without realising it and don’t know how to climb over the mountain of discount nutcrackers that are blocking their view of the future.

Kondo helps people find their joy again. It looks like throwing things away, it looks like saying no, forcefully, over and over: no, you don’t need to keep 40 years of baseball cards you collected with your kids who haven’t lived here for 20 years. No you don’t need an insulated coat you bought for Michigan now that you live in California. No you don’t need 80 cotton t-shirts. No your kids shouldn’t have so many possessions that they need secondary storage areas in the common rooms of your home. Violence, self-negation, rejection, deprivation.

But what if Kondo is asking us not to say no, but to say yes?

Why does everyone look more … free at the end of each episode than at the beginning? Their faces softer and more open, their gestures more expansive, their laughs full-throated? They have said yes to joy. They have found what they’re looking for: a ‘path to winning’ for the Mersiers, and the feeling that a downsized apartment has become a home. A path into the future, a wide-open retirement for the couple with enough Christmas decorations to do up all of Macy’s, enough baseball cards to open a store. An end to the petty arguments and helplessness of the couple with two young children and no counter space at all.

Kondo begins her magic by saying yes to the home. She sits on the floor. She closes her eyes and becomes still. She smiles a little, touches her fingertips to the floor and traces a little arc from her knees around to her hips. It is awkward and time-consuming and non-narrative … and unexpectedly moving. At least one woman cries on witnessing it. Others become awkwardly still, humbled, as if by someone praying. They bow their heads, they smile nervously. Kondo says yes to the home. Yes to the idea that home is a space of care, that we respect ourselves and our families and our great privilege by attending to this space.

I’m going somewhere with this.

I want to ask you: what are you saying yes to in your home, or, in your work? I’ve written a few times in the past year about my own sometimes frenzied sometimes deliberate sometimes emotional sometimes planned “tidying up” of my working spaces. I am hundreds and hundreds of pounds lighter in the most material of ways. I am lighter in other ways too: getting rid of something between 50 and 100 books gave me the freedom to read many more things, greet new ideas, cherish older ones, release my guilt and obligation. I’m not going to read Sadie Plant again, I never liked that book in the first place, I can let that book go. I can read something else.

But I have said yes in other acts of “tidying up” as well. More is not always better. A little bravery and thoughtfulness might find joy in less. What looks like no can be a yes.

You can tidy up your habits, ideas of what work is, what you “should” be or do, what is essential and what is not. This tidying up, too, is magic.

When I started teaching, I had textbooks and a coursepacks and exams and oral presentations and a research paper. I wrote lectures. I had quizzes. For every course. I had accumulated all these teaching strategies from various places and figured I had to use all of them all the time. It was, if you will, cluttered and ill thought out. I did all those things to assuage my anxiety about my own competence. I did them to fit in with what I thought my colleagues were doing. I did it because I thought it was what students expected. It didn’t bring me joy. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to keep adding things. Do you see where this is going? When I tidied up my pedagogy and assessments, I got rid of a lot: don’t need an exam in a writing course; don’t need a research paper in a methods course; don’t need oral presentations from students in … most courses, don’t need readings for every single class. No to the piles and to the more and to the eveyrthing, yes to leaner, cleaner, focused work. One of my colleagues expressed great shock that I did away with the 10 page research paper in second year course on literary critical methods. But research what? Scansion? Methods are about applying techniques, about learning specialized language, about recognizing instances of a given thing–there are way better ways than ten-sources-at-least-one-academic-monograph-and-two-peer-reviewed-articles-and-not-more-than-one-internet-site research papers in MLA format following the hourglass structure. That’s just clutter. It does not spark joy. It weighs me down.

My dear colleague Frankie and I are teaching a project based graduate course together, one that blends her expertise in social movements, pedagogies of care, racial justice, and critical theory with mine in social and digital media, in design, in communities of online practice, in virality, in platform. We said no to trying to master one another’s fields; we said yes to learning from each other in class and modelling humility and curiosity in that way. We said no to all assigned reading, no to course packs, no to bookstore orders, no to PDFs on the course website, no to performing our own competence by generating overwhelming reference lists. We said yes to really committing to the project-based pedagogy, and so we said yes to supporting students’ research efforts more generously as they build their own reading lists. Students are anxious about what we’re asking them to do for group projects: but we have said yes to devoting the bulk of instructional and contact time to helping them work through it, as their main focus. I expect a lot of emails: I said no to assigned readings so I can say yes to that extra meeting, yes to reviewing that draft, yes to let’s have a look at that reference list. Just writing this out right now sparks joy.

I have said no to on-campus time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Friday mornings. Saying “no” to campus on those days is actually saying yes to: rebuilding my spoon stock by being quiet, wearing clothes that don’t chafe, taking yoga breaks, watching the birds out my window as I think and write and process. It is saying yes to a Thursday run during daylight hours instead of with a head lamp after supper. Yes to devoting my energy to the big tasks that need me to really manage my attention for a few hours, uninterrupted. Yes to putting some food into the slow cooker at lunchtime and having a hot meal, relaxed, with my family. These slow quiet focused gentle reflective days spark joy in me, make my work joyful. Yes.

On the flip side, I am saying yes to being on campus for 9.5 hours on Monday, with 4.5 of those actually in classroom teaching. I am on campus for 8 hours on Wednesdays, with grad meetings, and 2 hours of office hours, and 1.5 hours of teaching. I am saying yes, Mondays and Wednesdays, to being open and available and dressed professionally and with a packed lunch and collegiality. And I can find joy in this, too, because I do love teaching, spontaneous hallway chats, chance encounters, solving people’s problems, making handouts with jokes in them, and seeing students laugh. Yes to that shift in energy in a classroom when everyone suddenly gets it. Yes to the student who comes to my office to tell me something that is scaring them. Yes to that poster announcing that talk that I never would have thought I wanted to hear but becomes weirdly salient. Yes to enjoying my collection of 90s inspired mock turtlenecks and roomy pants that taper at the ankle, to patent lace-ups. Yes to the walk to and from campus through the park, feeling the wind, crunching the snow.

We all seek joy. We wish to be at peace, in comfort, in control, easeful. Our whole economic system is predicated on making us feel insufficient, not enough, and to find abundance by the accumulation of things. The academy, too, is based on muchness: higher grades, more reading, more publications, longer CVs, bigger grants, more more more. But it’s a trap. Like the contributors on Tidying Up, we have been trying to fulfil our very real needs for emotional and intellectual and practical safety, comfort, and joy by overstuffing our closets and our calendars, enacting positivity by saying yes to more sweaters, more assignments, more emails, more committees in ways that are counterproductive to these needs. Full of shame and fear, tired beyond belief, immured by all our own things and obligations and habits, we feel pushed to say no and it’s hard, like we’re being punished or like we are failing.

But maybe it’s not about the garbage bags, not about the awful spectacle of how you let it get to this point. Maybe it’s about the way you can exhale more deeply, about the room freed up in your head when everywhere you set your eyes does not reproach you with some obligation unmet for some problem not yet solved. Maybe it really is about the joy, about the yes, not the no.

What can you say yes to, this semester, by tidying up–saying yes, even though it looks like a no–some small part of your habits and work? Could you, maybe, find a little space for a tiny act of joy?

disability · enter the confessional · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Blank space: post-sabbatical re-entry

My sabbatical ended on December 31–the university officially opened today, January 2, so here I am, being, what? Not-on-sabbatical? That’s pretty much what I’m getting done today: being not-on-sabbatical.

Transitions are not my strong suit, and major life changes are always very emotionally gruelling for me. It was hard for me to go on sabbatical, and now it’s hard for me to end. Before sabbatical, I did a lot of clearing the decks in the months leading up to January, and it did me a world of good to take stock of my office, my books, my career, all the stuff that accumulates, unnoticed, and crufts up one’s soul. And I have done similar before coming back, taking time over the last two months to really think about who I want to be as a teacher, researcher, and colleague upon my return. There may have been free writing and visualization exercises. I know that in the past year I have really gained a lot of confidence as a researcher and writer: freed from both excuses and obligations (and with a coach and, crucially, medication treatment for my ADHD) I discovered with joy that I love my research, that I am a good writer, that others also find value in what I can do with ideas. I haven’t felt that kind of joy and freedom and alive-ness about research since, probably, grad school. I know I want to hold onto that. I’m not just a pretty-good-teacher, service workhorse, and verbally dextrous smartass who wrote an inventive dissertation but probably peaked at the moment of hiring. I’m a very good teacher, actually, and a verbally dextrous smartass who has lots of writing emerging and published. I was maybe a service martyr, and I should not be.

I set some boundaries around my teaching, related to asking for course assignments and schedules that reflect that I have historically taught 30%-100% more students each term than some of my colleagues nominally on the same “teaching load” as me, while also supervising more PhD students than average. So maybe teaching won’t be a black hole of grading and resentment this time around.

I’m coming back with zero administrative assignments. Surely, I’ll be asked to serve on some committees, but I’m now a lot more mindful of what saying yes means (tl;dr: it means saying no to something else). I’m going to do my share, and do it well, and that’s enough.

I’ve been making plans and making lists. My daughter and I walked to campus yesterday bearing indoor shoes and snacks and textbooks and essential oil room spray (“Awake”–lots of mint). I took the time to make lists of what needs doing before classes start on Monday. I cleared the desk, and she made plans to make me new art for the corkboards to replaces some of the … 8 year old drawings fading in the sun.

I came in this morning imagining myself misting the air in invigorating mint, sitting down, setting the timer, and banging out syllabuses and permission forms and emails, and ticking the items off my carefully planned lists. But I’m not.

I’ve spent the morning haunted by all the ghosts in this room, dust-covered noise-maker I got from a Sandy Stone performance in 2001. A photo from a family celebration in 2004. Sarcastic postcards I pinned to my board  at least ten years ago. Books that have faded in the sun against the sharp lines of the books filed next to them. Piles of printouts of research for articles I’ve already published. Assigned readings for grad courses I hardly remember teaching. Coffee cups I feel emotionally exhausted just looking at.

It’s hard to make a fresh start in a room you’ve occupied for almost 15 years. My sabbatical was all about personal and professional renewal, about healing and moving forward, about new beginnings, about letting go of what’s not working.

But when I sat down this morning, it felt like nothing had changed. My soul got re-crufted. And so I have been throwing even more things out, putting more books on the giveaway shelf, dusting, spraying room spray like holy water, exorcising all the stuckness and ruts and bad feelings and self-hatred and exhaustion.

I tend to characterize myself as one who hates change. I guess that’s how I wound up with one postcard slightly askew for more than 10 years on the same spot on my corkboard, having left a slightly askew sun-fade behind. And yes, transitions are hard and I hate them. Still, I find myself thinking that there are more changes coming, that for all the changes I’ve made all year, I’m not done yet.

I’m not done yet. I don’t know where this is going, this post or my return to work or my identity as a professor, or why I suddenly need to buy mock turtlenecks and paper-bag waist pants. I am not yet fully become the person that sabbatical allowed me to discover.

I guess that’s what I do now, back at work, back to teaching, back among my colleagues.

Maybe this afternoon, I’ll get that syllabus draft fully fleshed out. Or maybe I’ll sit here and have a good cry. Or maybe I’ll buy new pens. It turns out, returning to campus after a year’s sabbatical is not really coming back. Maybe it’s coming forward, not quite sure where I’m going to land.

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“I’ve got a blank space, baaaaaaby”
Uncategorized

Workshops: A Necessary Togetherness

I am in the midst of one of the most amazing intellectual experiences of my life. It has got me thinking about the isolated and competitive, scarcity-based, defensive kinds of work we normally do as scholars and how, actually, we don’t have to work that way. That we could, instead, be generous, and generative, and collaborative, and that working this way produces more and better scholarship, of course, but also builds and tends interpersonal and research networks that can make this work a joy rather than a terror.

The catch is that it’s kind of expensive. And that it runs counter to  how we imagine that excellence is produced.

What I want to tell you about is a workshop I attended this summer, in the context of a special issue of the journal Biography, dedicated to the concept of “biographic mediation” developed by Ebony Coletu.

I am going to break to post into two parts. Today’s post will be about the magic of bringing people together in real time and real geography, and feeding and watering them, and putting them to work on a shared goal. About how this magic is expensive and undervalued and available in diminishing quantities but is worth fighting for. Next week, I’ll write about what it means to be a generous reader, a “believing reader” in my friend Frankie Condon’s phrase, and how such generous readings can produce much better scholarship than we can create in the standard peer review setup.

Today, then, let’s consider the materialities of workshopping for a moment. This really matters, much more than we (or our funders) tend to give us credit for.

  • The sponsoring journal paid for everyone’s travel, lodging, and food. (I have to mention, this was travel, lodging, and food in Hawaii, where the journal is based.)
  • Again: they paid for everything.
  • Lunches and breakfasts were catered with local Hawaiian food, and the cultural and geographic context of place were foregrounded and shared. Place and culture were made meaningful (perhaps more so because we were there during the Hurricane Lane crisis and were surrounded by sandbags and advised to stockpile food and water.) Dinners were undertaken as a group; everyone’s dietary needs were supported.
  • The schedule was produced with ample (catered) breaks factored in, and each of us had a packet of information about special features of the campus and neighbourhood.
  • Local hosts were incredibly generous and kind: picking us up from the airport, driving us to hotels and events, taking notes so the group could just talk, doing everything they could to make us feel safe and comfortable during the hurricane emergency. Craig Howes, one of the journal’s editors, knows that I run–he took me out on daily 5am runs around the campus and neighbourhood, a fount of local knowledge (“I used to see Haruki Murakami running along this road”), and, during the major rain storm, to his secret five-storey parking garage run route (not as weird as you think!).

If you are a faculty member, and particularly if you apply for grants, you will know that it’s nearly impossible to even justify attending a regular conference. It is well nigh impossible to imagine putting in a grant request to fly 8-10 people to a campus, pay all their expenses, and do group editing. I mean, we have Skype, and Google docs, and, hell, even email and track changes, right?

Right?

No. There is something magical and intense about being together, in a room, for three days. There is something about looking people in the eye as 15 of us work on the same problem at the same time, everyone scribbling. You can see some people nodding, others frowning, others pull out their phones to look something up. People finish each others sentences, cross-talk, laugh, roll their eyes, look delighted. It is an intensely embodied process, communication across textual, gestural, oral, and digital channels simultaneously, in ways that no other technology than In Person Meeting can really handle. It was an incredibly rich communication environment, multi-channel. I cannot believe how much we got done, how far everyone’s ideas developed.

All of this felt incredibly, well, human to me, attending to the whole person, intellectual, corporeal, social, emotional, in ways I have given up expecting to be recognized at work. I could have cried from simple gratitude at the attention and thoughtfullness with which we were fed and housed and just generally cared for during our time together.

When we come together, we make human connections. In the evenings, little groups gathered over wine or tequila or tea, and talked about TV shows, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and, inevitably, our scholarship. By the end of it there was a lot of hugging: I met some absolutely incredible people I am honoured to now call colleagues and friends. Not unrelated to this, I have never ingested so many new ideas in three days in my life. Never felt so supported and cared for in an academic setting.

We like to think we can cheat time and expense. We like to think an email can take the place of a meeting, or a webinar can take the place of a conference. A lot of our digital tools are a lot better, though, at pushing reams and streams of information into our heads. They’re really no good for collaboration, in a lot of ways. We like to think we can devote ourselves fully to a conference call even as we try to tidy the kitchen. We like to think we’re going to find a five hour block of time to read all those papers and send careful feedback, without taking anything else off the schedule. But multitasking is bullshit: getting together in one place to do a shared task is often the most efficient and best way to get that task done. Yes, we have to not do all the other things, but we already do way too many things, and the more we do at once, the worse we do it. Workshops resist speed-up. There are structural reasons we multitask and cut corners the way we do, and this is often framed as an advantage–but it isn’t. Doing one thing, making the time, saying no to other things, is really valuable. It is, also, a privilege most of us can’t access, to everyone’s detriment, I think.

Our institutions and our funders, of course, would like us to not leave campus for five days, would like to not pay for us to go to conferences when we can read journals instead, not go to workshops when we could Google docs instead, not have catered meals for the day long meetings, not pay for overnight stays. Of course. But it’s penny-wise and pound foolish, if I can judge from what this workshop got done for me and everyone else.

It is not enough to put on the SSHRC application that you need conference funding to go to a conference. You have to say what is of value at that conference that you can’t get with just publishing and reading. And now of course no one can be funded to attend a conference without presenting at that conference, which has led inevitably to incredibly bloated conference programs where everything is so frantic no one learns anything–and where, often, all the coffee breaks are cancelled to make room for more sessions so more academics can justify the cost to come together and rush past each other in massive hotel hallways always trying to do three things at once.

So here’s to getting together, in small groups, in nice settings. Here’s to the mix of structured and unstructured time, to formal and informal interactions, to attending to and appreciating the specificity of the place you are and the people you are with. Here’s to making time, and making space, to produce and nurture a collective that is greater than the simple sum of its far-flung parts.

And a parting idea–the journal Biography gets the money together to do this every year, from its JSTOR revenues. It is a very high quality journal and draws a lot of page views and citations. One of the editors, in fact, tells me that their most popular and most cited issues are these self-same (two time award winning) annual special issues that come out of this intense and expensive workshop process. It’s something to think about.

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Why did the campus chicken cross the road? To make it to the morning session on time.
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.

 

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!

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.

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?

being undone · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

A la recherche de temps perdu

I have been considering the phrase “making up for lost time.” I have been considering the nature of academic temporality, generally, and it strikes me we are often expressing overwhelm about the present, regret about the past, and a kind of desperate and yet hopeful anxiety about the future. We will somehow have time to write later because we are drowning in busyness right now and that later is going to allow us to make up for lost time.

Lost. time.

Lost academic time can take many forms: How am I supposed to read all these candidate files before Monday? How did I manage to only grade 6 papers today when I literally did nothing else? How is it 2pm and I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning? And then there is the temps perdu of research, where our sense of loss and bewilderment, often, runs pretty deep. The tenured and tenure-tack run a small version of this lost-time-loop every summer, where the endless acres of 16 weeks of research time is supposed to produce 2 full articles and a grant proposal and a tan and Fall syllabi and a sense of well-being, and somehow at the end of it, I’m at the photocopier on labour day, wan and regretful, with only 1/3 to 1/2 as much done as I wanted. Dissertation can be pretty awful for temps perdu syndrome: all we do through coursework and exams is complain about how much time we are spending on other people’s stuff and how all we want to do is finally work on our project and when we somehow don’t it starts a shame spiral that only seems solvable by self-loathing and secret binge-writing.

Gillian Anderson in "The X-Files - The Movie."
“But Mulder, time doesn’t just disappear. I’m a scientist, and I am going to write a peer reviewed paper about that during my sabbatical.”

I have, myself, a deep sense of lost time. Time that, like many, I imagine I can “make up for” on a sabbatical. Sabbatical time is magical! I will do all the things I have so far failed to do! I will catch up! And, more insidiously, I tell myself, during that time, I will live up to my promise, make up for lost time, lost ambition, lost to everyone’s glowing expectations of what I could do with my life, prove that I am not here by accident. One by one I will silence my regrets over missed opportunities and missed deadlines by doing all the work that over the years I feel bad about not getting done.

This is a good way to be miserable, and to burn out. We can’t turn back time. Hermione can’t do it in a sustainable way. It’s not clear that even Cher could do it, Bob Mackie dress or not.

All we have is right now. Right now does not care if you wish you had published a book five years ago: you can’t work 12 hours a day to make up for that regret. Worse, even trying to do so will ensure that you get nothing done in the right now, because you burn out. Regrets about the past, and the self-loathing that often accompanies these regrets, are heavy to carry and useless in the battle of today. Trying to “make up” for lost time just loses more time, and is exhausting. Maybe shame is not really a good productivity tool.

It can be really hard to let go of the past, even if thinking about it brings us nothing but negative feelings. Somehow, holding out some dim hope that once we get time to just work hard enough and long enough we can patch over all those holes in our CV, and in that way put all our regretful anxiety to rest seems easier than just … letting go. We’d almost rather keep hating ourselves right now because we imagine a future in which this self-loathing has fuelled some kind of productive burst that will get 10 years of work done in 1.

But time doesn’t work like that.

Better, maybe, to take some time to let go of the past, and just try to work right now. Work right now as if it brought us some sense of pride and accomplishment, not as if it were a desperate attempt to make up for an earlier failure. What would it feel like to sit down to an article, a syllabus, a dissertation, without the expectation of accomplishing all the ‘missed’ work at the same time?

That’s hard to do. (Ask me how I know.)

I’m trying each day when I sit down to work on this book project that I’ve been working on for [inaudible temporal mumbles] to just work on what’s in front of me, not get caught up in some internal narrative telling me it should have been finished years ago, trying to stop telling myself that if I don’t make up for that lost time by working ten times as hard right now it’ll be worth nothing. Every day I try anew. It’s sort of working, but it’s a practice I have to mindfully engage.

Here’s what I tell myself and here’s what I wish for you to tell yourselves. You are enough just as you are. Do the work in front of you just for what it is: a research problem, a new direction, a literature review. It’s not a referendum on your worth as a human, and it’s not some magical clock that’s already run out.

I’m enjoying my work a lot more, now that I’m not trying to get ten years of work done every day, now that I’ve given myself permission to try to get one day of work done each day. It’s not a punishment, and I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone that trying to write for 12 hours a day is going to prove. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, astonished at how much fun I’m having when I stop regretting the past, and just start living my todays, one at a time.

risky writing · sabbatical · Uncategorized · writing

How much can I write in a day?

There is a big tra-la-la on Twitter currently, about profs working 60 hour weeks and other profs not working 60 hour weeks and people talking about power and performance-of-busyness and overwork and systems and ranks and all of it.

This post is not about that. This post is about how much I can write in one day: for how long, what kind of writing, and how.

I’ve been on sabbatical for just over a month. So, I’m not doing much, work wise, except writing. My email is minimal; I have no department or administrative meetings; I’m not teaching. I am still working with my grad students and their writing, and I did go to a conference for three days.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • How much I can write? Between 300-4000 words per day, depending on what kind of writing I’m doing
  • For how long? Between 4 and 6 thirty-minute poms, which, with breaks, means a workday that begins about 9am and runs to 1 or 2pm. (Total writing time is between 2 and 3 hours; total workday is 4 or 5 hours long)
  • What kind of writing? I have been free-writing (easy and fun); note-taking and bookmarking (easy and boring); birds-eye overview of main ideas and the main point of the chapter (intense and exciting); crafting outlines and trying to carve out a structure (hard and slow)
  • How? I write in 30 minute bursts, according to a task list and schedule my coach and I set up once a week, for the coming week.

I had this idea that being on sabbatical would mean that I would be Working On My Research for 8 hours a day. I know writing is taxing, so I figured I would only do that for three or four hours a day (I didn’t seem to plan any breaks in there), and then after lunch, I would read books and article and take notes or do library searches or some such.

That was way too much. That was just not possible for me.

In the 2-3 hours of total writing time, spread over 4 or 5 hours of the day, over the past three weeks, I have got an incredible amount of work done: I have made huge progress on the book chapter I’m working on, including: finding and bookmarking and taking notes (about 7000 words) on all my primary sources, and the popular sources that engage them; adding 4500 words to the chapter draft; creating a solid and workable outline of the structure and arguments of the chapter from scratch; creating a research task list, organized and referenced, for my RA; creating section outlines and cutting and pasting the whole chapter draft into the correct sections of the new outline; and starting to fill the holes that I now see in the draft.

In three weeks, writing for not more than 3 hours per day, I’ve brought a book chapter from 10% done to about 65% done. I’m on track to finish it by the end of the month, which is to say, I will have written a solid draft of a whole book chapter in about 6 weeks. In a work week that usually has between 12-15 hours of writing in it and not the 40 I thought were going to be necessary.

I keep thinking I must not be working hard enough. That I’m slacking off. But I’ll tell you, first, that what I am doing is exhausting: by the end of my writing time each day, I just climb into bed with the cat and a Magic Bag and pass out hard for 45 minutes. I am spent; I have nothing left in me to write or think anymore by the time my last pom is done. Second, by the time I get up the next morning, I am excited and full of energy, and eager to sit back down and start writing. That has been a revelation. Third, I’m able to take care of myself and that makes a huge difference: I am trying new recipes in my Instant Pot; running five times a week, three of those with a running group; going to bed on time; spending quality time with my husband and daughter; taking the weekends to just … live my life. I am feeling really, really good. It’s nice.

So sabbatical for me looks like 16-20 hours of work during the week, and none during the weekend. I expect that the burst of frenetic thinking and writing and editing that comes from finishing a piece will mean the occasional week where I work more than that, and weeks where I travel for talks or conferences will look a little different, too.

But I wanted you to know: in the ideal circumstance of the sabbatical, where writing is my only job, I still can’t do it for more than 6 poms in a day, and that 6 poms a day is proving to be remarkably productive. I would say it’s okay to have limits, but we actually don’t have a choice about our limits. They are what they are. By respecting what my limits are, I am able, paradoxically, to do much better work than when I push myself harder, and am able to be happy, and balanced, and healthy. We don’t hear a lot of stories about doing less. So I wanted to tell you mine.