I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. I teach new media theory and practice, and the history and theory of media. My current research project is Deciphering Digital Life Writing, on online auto/biographical practice.
Usually, when we say we do ‘yoga,’ we mean asana, the physical limb of the larger practice, the yoga of happy baby and triangle and, if you’re feeling ambitious, bird of paradise. Less known is that the goal of this physical practice is to prepare the body for the rigors of meditation–asana, that is, is essentially the warmup routine for the main event, which is sitting down.
Yoga students often reverse this thinking, focusing more on the physical practice as an end in itself. Sometimes, we don’t really get to the sitting part at all, except in brief centring exercises, or the more passive release of savasana.
Academic life, by contrast, seems often to be nothing but sitting. But we’ve done no prep work for it. We probably should.
Many are the days that I am startled out of a slumped reverie by my Fitbit’s inactivity alarm. I often ignore this bip-bip, for hours: it’s the life of the mind, dammit, and cannot be counted by footfalls! When I eventually have to drag myself out of my chair, I usually experience some unpleasant sort of bodily creaking and discomfort. Sometimes an uncomfortable pressure on my bladder. Or I’m dizzy, or I discover one of my feet has fallen asleep. A headache makes itself known. I reflexively arch my back and lift my arms in a stretch. Every time I get up, I realize how borked up I am: is it even possible to produce good work in this state? And then I sit back down, feeling guilty for the interruption.
You probably have similar habits, where your day is organized to get through the things that keep you out of your chair as fast as you can. Just as an example, the goal for me, working at home this morning, was to roll out of bed, get a cup of tea and breakfast, quickly tidy my morning mess and get into my chair as fast as possible, with the goal of remaining there all day.
But what if academic sitting is like meditation sitting: what if we thought of it as a kind of physical as well as mental trial, one that needed us to prepare in a more thoroughgoing way?
Quick question: what parts of you are uncomfortable right now? Neck at a funny angle? Weird deep sorta-cramp in one thigh? Ankle tucked under you funny? Contact lenses feeling a bit dried out and strainy? All of these little distortions and discomforts pile up, I think. They pick at the edges of our focus, our energy, our health. But I’ll bet you have no intention of getting up, taking a little walk around, doing some stretches: frivolous, inefficient, distracting. We let ourselves be reduced to brains on sticks, which seems efficient, but is a lie.
Feminist theory and feminist praxis have long interrogated the distinction of the life of the mind from the more material mundanities of embodied life. Standpoint epistemology or feminist materialism or intersectional theory remind us that ideas are attached to viewpoints that are constructed by our embodiments and our relations. But what if in a more immediate sense, the life of the mind–all that sitting!–is un-divorce-able from our embodied selves. Maybe it’s a new kind of feminist praxis not just to write about the materialities of ideas, to insist on textually embodying ourselves in our work, but also to allow ourselves the space to experience the life of the mind and its work itself as embodied. What if we allowed ourselves to get ready to sit–what if we considered the morning walk to the coffee shop, trudging through the slush and half-blinded by the diffuse daylight bouncing off all the snow, our rapid breathing, as an essential part of the work the life of the mind? We would start to insist on windows, maybe, or interrupt our own 3 hour seminars to get students to look out those windows at the farthest point they can see, while twinkling their fingers. We would stand up when we became aware–because we allow ourselves this awareness, as a gift rather than as a distraction–that our brains were fogging up and our ankles were getting crunchy, even if we just had 50 more words to write. Maybe.
This morning, I couldn’t seem to make myself sit. So I did a little yoga (and yeah, I mean asana)–sun breaths, forward folds, twisting sun breaths, a couple of balances to stretch out my quads, rolled my shoulders and my hips, standing pigeon. And I felt so strong! And so awake! Literally five minutes of gentle movements, standing on one small patch of carpet, in jeans and socks and a hoodie. I felt … alive. This post popped into my head. I looked out the window, felt my irises radiate in and out, took a breath. And started writing. I feel good.
Treat your bodies with care, friends. Sitting is hard. Embodiment and situatedness and affect aren’t just theories; feel it in your body, and take care. You deserve it.
It is common in the new year, of course, to take stock of what we have accumulated or built up or held onto in the year just past, peering into the drawers and crevices of our lives to examine what lurks there–this regret, that past-due jar of Oktoberfest mustard crusted shut, oh look an overdue library book–as we embark on our annual crafting of resolutions, deciding what we want to carry into the future with us.
Me, I’ve literally got some baggage to deal with.
In late November, unexpectedly, I found myself on a late-notice work trip to Montréal, the kind where you spend more time in vomitous, lurching, snarled-traffic taxis that have that cloying and taxi-specific stale-cigarette-and-aggressive-air-freshener-chemical-strawberry smell than you do in flight, the kind where the meeting you attend is complicated and important and brain-bending, the kind where you find yourself dragging your wheelie bag up the slush-and-salt encrusted roadway from the Métro to the Trudeau Foundation offices on Sherbrooke.
And then the wheels fell off. Literally.
Over the course of several blocks, and then across the full breadth of an airport terminal, one of the wheels on my bag just … disintegrated. Layers of rubberized plastic cracking, then catching, then peeling and flapping. I bump-bumped it along behind me, noisily askew and unpredictable, skiddering and halting and sliding and catching.
Same same, bag. Same same.
This 21″ Samsonite soft-sided bag is one of the enduring relationships in my professional life. I bought it in 1999, at Staples in Edmonton, because I needed a real suitcase, that I could bring on an airplane: I was starting to go to conferences. I was making an effort to grow up, and a rollaboard bag is grown up. I considered it an investment piece, because it cost me in the region of $150. “I will use this for a very long time,” I thought, as I shakily handed over the bulk of that month’s discretionary money. And I have.
Luggage means you are going places. This bag and I have gone places. And I find myself asking now: where am I going next?
I got my very first piece of luggage when I was four or five, a Christmas present to my sister and me from our paternal grandparents. Well, it was three pieces of luggage–a ‘carry on’ shoulder bag, small old-style suitcase with a carry handle, and larger suitcase, all tucked inside one another like nesting dolls. Orangey-tan faux leather for me, leisure-suit blue faux leather for my sister. We would be travelling as a family to visit my grandparents for the holiday, so the bags were immediately put to use. I felt so sophisticated. These suitcases travelled everywhere from Florida to summer camp to university with me, from 1977 until about 1997, actually.
In 1997, at the very end of my BA at York, I won a scholarship simply to travel to Europe (yes! isn’t it amazing?) in a classic backpackish style. But I had no backpack. I bought my own luggage for the first time: a black canvas MEC waterproof backpack–the kind where you can zip away the backpack part and hook on a shoulder strap to pretend like it’s a suitcase, but it isn’t. This trip was my first time on an airplane, my first major solo trip. I spent weeks practice-packing and practice carrying to get three weeks of clothes and necessities into this bag in such a way I could carry it around from train to train, hostel to hostel. I used this bag to travel to Edmonton later that summer, on a training trip for the Orlando Project, on which I had been offered a research assistantship to fund my MA at Guelph. My life changed a lot that summer. When I moved to Edmonton the following summer that was the bag that came on the plane, and that brought me home for holidays.
That Samsonite roller bag was the start of a new set of journeys for me, a bag for fast trips, a bag for rolling on smooth concourses rather than heaving into trunks or carrying over cobblestones, a bag that took up very little space and that I could live out of in a small corner in a shared hotel room or next to someone’s couch, a bag I could roll into a job interview and look appropriate. And those were the things I did, two or three times a year, for twenty years. I delighted in the ever-diminishing amortized cost of that bag, held tight to my sense of myself as that scrappy but forward-thinking grad student that was smart enough to buy it.
My life is changing again. That bag fell apart in the heaviest travel year I’ve ever had, at the end of a year in which I have been challenged to become the next version of the person I’m going to be. This past year, everything hit simultaneously: I came out of sabbatical to my first full teaching load in about five years, two new preps. I won a $100K SSHRC grant. I got a positive review on a book manuscript submission (that used to be my dissertation) that needs revision. I won a Trudeau Fellowship. I started a podcast, was nominated for two teaching awards, published my first piece in disability studies (and outed myself as autistic and ADHD in the very first sentence of it). I co-taught a grad course in a new area, went to a conference in a new field, and did a ton of media interviews (and appeared in a movie called Assholes: A Theory). In July, I hit my 15 year anniversary at the University of Waterloo. Fifteen years!
Mid-career hit with a mostly-positive thump. People invite me places. They assign my stuff to their grad classes. I find myself mentoring my own junior colleagues. I have a kind of clarity and sense of my own competence, which was unexpected and amazing. I have a travel and research budget that exceeds my capacity to quite comprehend. I am meeting diplomats and prominent academics who are somehow now my peers. Opportunities are multiplying.
But it’s still a thump. It feels kind of like Ms Pac Man, where I’ve munched a power disk, and while that makes it possible for me to rack up all the points and win, everything just got way louder and faster and I’m panicking about grabbing everything I can but still trying to methodically clear the level. It’s frenetic. It’s a mixed blessing. The wheels fell off my bag.
Things are changing.
Here’s where I went last year: Pittsburgh, twice, 4 days each, two different conferences; Vancouver, five days, Congress; Montreal, **three times**, each for two days related to Trudeau Foundation work; Mount Orford, Québec, for five days for Trudeau retreat; Yellowknife, for seven days, for the inaugural Trudeau Foundation Institute for Engaged Leadership.
Tomorrow, I’m flying to Washington for three days for Trudeau planning meeting. Six days after that back to Montréal overnight for an event. Washington again for a week in March, then Moncton for five days in May, Montréal for a week in October. Maybe more planning trips. This is without any conference travel, so who knows?
I bought a new bag for this new life. Even on Boxing Day it set me back more than $300, a 21″ rollaboard Travel Pro Platinum Elite Spinner, recommended for power travellers by Wirecutter. It’s this magical kind of suitcase with ten million weirdly useful pockets, including one for an external battery pack for my poor overworked devices, that somehow compresses time and space to make everything I pack 80% smaller than it seems to be before I put it in. It’s a kind of cranberry colour, sedate but a little distinct. I also: bought a tiny travel size hair straightener, tiny travel versions of my favorite toiletries, and I’ve dedicated a drawer in the guest room to Things That Travel With Me Every Time, like my little bag of first aid things, and extra chargers, and a case for my glasses. I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice, with less fuss. I feel 100% less stressed out about packing for all these trips now. Do I own two hair straighteners now? Yes. But I’m never going to be freaking out the morning of a trip waiting for my giant straightener to cool down before I try to shove it into a bag I wanted to have had ready at the front door 30 minutes earlier. This is who I am now.
I used to travel light, and cheap, and infrequently, and with a bit of panic and fuss at the outset. I’m not that person now. I still travel light, but I insist on the good parking and the good bag, and it makes sense to have doubles of things (and doubles of the things I like to use, the good stuff) because I spend so much time living out of my suitcase. It was hard for me to write out where I’ve gone this year and where I’m going because those paragraphs describe someone who is different from how I see myself, from how I want other to see me. I’m not sure how I feel about this new person yet: I have baggage, if you will, that I’m dragging bumpily behind me, wheels askew, not quite working but tinged with moral rectitude and thrift.
What am I going to wheel with you into 2020? Whatever it is, I hope the baggage rolls smoothly in the direction you set for yourself, whoever you may be or be becoming.
When I’m feeling scattered and panicked, like I’m all fizzy brain and frazzle plan, reactive instead of active, there’s a little yoga exercise I do. I’m doing it a lot, because it’s conference season and I spun really fast from my very first Trudeau Foundation Summer Retreat / Institute for Engaged Leadership in rural Québec right back out to Congress in Vancouver. A lot of people I know are in similar situations, bouncing from one thing to the next, high speed, scattering powerpoints and nametags and boarding passes as they go.
This might be you, too. You might like my yoga trick, then.
I call it the re-balance. I roll myself heavily from standing down into a loose forward fold, legs a little wider, knees more than a little bent, back snake-y, arms hung long from unstructured shoulders. I literally hang out. I feel the blood shift through my neck, my face, making my head feel heavier and warmer. I contemplate my toes. My arms get heavy. My thighbones push back deeply into my hip sockets. My outer hips stretch long, an unexpected sensation. The big glute muscles in my butt and the hamstring muscles in the backs of my legs wake up, producing more unexpected sensations. I just haaaaaaaang ooooooouuuuut for a bit, notice the shift in perspective, in my body, and then in my head. Good. We could stop here. Forward folds are yoga’s chill pill. This might be enough. Catch your breath. Take a pause.
But there’s more. With as little movement as I can, I shift my weight forward in my feet, and feel how my body compensates to keep from falling over. One toe or two push a little harder, one little muscle on the side of my shin fired up. When I find this new micro-balance, I shift again, back or to the right or to the left, unsettling and then finding anew my balance. If I’m a bit tippier than usual, I might spider-out my fingertips onto the floor to help me feel where the balance comes from. And more: now I close my eyes, and do it all over again: the balance and the proprioception is different without the visual cues. I’ll shift my upper body. Or straighten my knees maybe, or deepen their bend.
The longer I do this, the more I feel my soul coming back into my body, the more my breathing will slow, my heart rate even out, my panic subside. The more I feel … what? Not so much control, but a sense of purpose or at least agency. Groundedness. I am aware of the little muscles in my feet, the little movements made possible by the little spaces between my vertebra, uncompressed and flipped. By just stopping, and attending to my feelings of overwhelm by addressing them through stillness and and little movements and gentleness and attention, I remember that, actually, I can stop.
I can stop.
I remember, too, that my big clever fancy brain is just one part of who I am, that this brain is for feelings as much as it is for Big Ideas. That this brain is not just attached to but a fundamental part of my body, that my body has needs, needs for movement, for stillness, for variety, for food, for the sensation of sunshine on my belly and smoothed out beach rocks under my back. That I’m not just eyes for reading, but eyes to look up from where I’m standing, to get a little dizzy at the bigness and the farness of the mountains that surround us here. Ears not just for taking in words but for birdsong, for the multi-dimensionality of space and scale and distance evoked by the tips of very tall trees in the wind, a muffled highway, the dampening effect of leaf litter on footfall, the hither-and-yon rustling of ferns and scrub in the undergrowth right next to me, or fifty feet away.
So much of academic work seems to press against, to dissolve our boundaries, to disrespect them in some fundamental way. Thou shalt have no other god than reading, and that for 12 hours a day. The emails must be answered right now. You are only as good as the next thing on the horizon, the next brass ring. Faster. Better. Don’t show weakness. Academic work is always more more more in ways that leave us less and less and less sure of who we are, what we want, and even what we need.
Take a minute. Come back to yourself. You can do my little exercise in a chair. You can do it without folding over, even. Maybe you can do it in child’s pose, or by spreading your arms far up above you or gently out to the sides, or by rolling your neck every so softly and with care. Maybe you just close your eyes wherever you are and feel your own breath disappearing down into your body and then appearing again on its exit. Maybe you breathe and send a little wyd? do all the distant and tiny bits of your body you’ve been not paying much attention to because so many reason.
Come back to yourself. Feel where the edges of your body mark a boundary of care: this is you, from that roughened callus on your writing finger, to the twinge in your knee from your characteristic sitting posture, to the softness of your heels after your did that peeling foot mask last week, that feels so nice when you shimmy your foot into your sandal with your hands in the morning. All of this is you, and you deserve to take care of you. Once you find your edges, let your own little inner voice squeak its tentative message from your core. Let the little voice be amplifed in the hollows of your quieted bones. Listen.
My voice was saying: stop.
I have been to exactly one panel at Congress: the one I was presenting on. I brought my everything to that, stayed to answer questions, to ask questions, to listen to people’s stories and ideas.
I had a lovely dinner with a friend from grad school who is studying for her PhD now and living her life. I joined up with a girl gang I only ever get to hang out with on Teh Intertubes, and had a gossipy, affirming supper. I walked 7km to get there because my body wanted to. I had a long unplanned wide ranging sit down coffee chat with a colleague from years and years ago. I met a new friend and we learned about each others’ research and celebrated our recent triumphs. By chance I ran across a new friend and Trudeau Scholar on the lawn outside my residence and we sat on the grass and chatted for just a few minutes. I’m having naps to try to work through a violent chest cold I kept telling myself I didn’t have time for.
I have another post about conferences and the politics of going to panels or avoiding them. There’s some structural questions to think about there but right now the most important thing was: stop.
I’m taking the time to write this post. I wanted to share my little yoga exercise with you, if it would feel good in your body. And I wanted to share my own little vulnerability, to overwhelm and status anxiety and FOMO and always-more academic culture, to tell you that my little voice said stop and I listened and it’s been so valuable and I’m getting so much out of the conference because of it, rather than despite it.
I know you would take care with those you love. Yes. Keep doing that. But today, if you can, or if you need to, and if you can make it happen somehow take care. Of you.
Your little voice has something to say, and it’s pretty wise.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 thattoo.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.