canada · media · righteous feminist anger · skeptical feminist

More Thoughts on Recent Events

I watched the story unfold in real time. I heard of Jian Ghomeshi’s leave of absence on Friday, then Sunday that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi, which was a considerable surprise. Then I read Ghomeshi’s Facebook post. Then Twitter. Then the comments. (Yes, I read the comments. Probably a bad idea). Then the Star Article. And Twitter again. Yesterday and today I’ve been following closely how the mainstream media has been reporting the story.

There is a lot of confusion related to this thing. As Erin said yesterday, we are not privy to the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors. There is little that is definite, much that is said, more that is unsaid. Voices have been heard, helped by high-stakes media management companies or filtered through the writings of independent male journalists. One voice has laid out the terms of the debate, and another has responded.

One thing is clear: We still don’t know the whole story. We have yet to hear the unfiltered voices of those barred from doing so because of lawsuits alleging wrong-doings, or from those too afraid to speak out in public.

Reading comments like this one, I fear that we may never:

I hope for the unfolding of both sides of the story. For voices that refuse to be silenced by fear of reprisal or backlash, or because the public has already told them how they should feel about what happened. For the truth to come out. For the public to make judgements based on determined facts, not because they take one person’s defence at face value or because they really liked ‘Q.’ We know that only 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. That advocates of BDSM have come out questioning Ghomeshi’s claims. And it is important to note that in Canada, you can’t consent to bodily harm. There is clearly more to this than what has currently come to light.

Like Erin, I want to keep the dial tuned to questions of power, issues of misogyny, and rape culture. Let’s continue the conversation.

balance · dissertation · grad school

On Playing the Long Game

I’m at the point in the PhD program that they like to call “the writing phase”: I’ve completed my coursework, met my language requirement, passed my candidacy, and all I have left to do is that one bit of work called “the dissertation”. So . . . lots of days staring into the distance, thinking, drinking coffee, and writing, right? Um, not so much.

Over the last year in particular, I’ve had to juggle dissertation writing with teaching, a research position, publishing, archive trips, and conferencing, amongst a myriad of other demands. But in the process I’ve learned a couple things about finding rhythms, discipline, and carving time from a busy schedule. One thing I’m finding is particularly crucial about writing the dissertation is the importance of consistency, regularity, and routine, or what a good friend of mine likes to call “playing the long game”.

Most English graduate programs are set up in such a way as to push students really hard for short periods of time. In Canada, in my graduate program, PhD and MA students must take three courses each term, with heavy reading loads. Most of these courses require students to write one lengthy term paper (18-25 pages) and give (at least) one oral presentation (8-10 pages of less formal writing). If you’re lucky, you can spread the presentations throughout the term so they don’t overlap (and occasionally, these presentations can roll into the final paper). But the final papers usually all converge within a few weeks of each other. Unless students are extremely well-organized and on top of things, this usually means an intense period of suffering writing at the end of term. The pay-off, of course, is great: at least sixty pages of writing in a month-long period. But the trade-off is that students don’t necessarily learn how to approach the long-game writing that makes up the dissertation.

I’ve been at this for a year and a half now and it’s just now that I’m realizing how committed I’ve been to the “short bursts of energy” model. To give just one example, I wrote my first chapter in four weeks after I returned from a research trip to the UK. It’s not just me, academia in general tends to push people towards models of this kind simply because of its cyclical nature. The two semester: teaching; one semester: research/writing idea is, of course, build into the semester system. But the increasing pressures to undertake more activities throughout the teaching year can sometimes mean that writing takes a back burner until the summer. The results are sometimes a little bit like this: Have a conference abroad next week? Frantically finish the paper on the plane! Article revision deadline? Don’t touch the paper until the week before!

Not all of this is bad, of course. Sometimes pressure has the glorious effect of making efficiency machines out of all of us. But the kind of pressure that makes us efficient with articles and conference papers doesn’t necessarily help for the lengthy work of the dissertation. 

Boyda wrote a great post last week about the slow scholarship movement, and what it means to “let our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.” And we’ve written a lot here in the past about the need to approach writing in a sustainable fashion. What I’m trying to suggest in this post is that in order to do the kind of work required for the dissertation, a fundamental shift is needed: we have to approach our projects with consistency and regularity over a long period of time. It’s not just enough to pound out a chapter in a month. It’s necessary to give our work enough time to percolate, to breathe. We need to write, and then return to our writings, and let our research speak for itself. Part of this involves what Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: looking again at what we’ve written, and seeing things with new eyes, arriving at it from “a new critical direction”. Rather than giving the dissertation periodic bursts of energy, we have to approach it with consistency and regularity, we have to return to it frequently, and let it speak to us.

 What I’m trying to commit to over the course of this semester is simple: one unit of dissertation-related writing, minimum, every day (35 to 45 minutes). I’m hoping this minimum requirement will be surpassed, of course, and there are days that I will certainly devote much more time to my writing. But by committing myself to this minimum, daily writing, I hope I can let my project speak for itself. 

academic work · advice · grad school · PhD

On Finding a PhD Supervisor

I picked my PhD supervisor when I was eight weeks pregnant, so ill and nauseated that I had to schedule all my meetings in the late afternoon (the time my so-called “morning sickness” had abated just enough that I could make it out of the house without guaranteeing that I’d vomit in public). I was sick, I was exhausted from the anti-nausea pills, I was completing coursework, and at the same time trying to figure out the next step in my PhD program.

You might think this was a bad place to be in terms of choosing a supervisor, but for me, the very reverse was the case. Being ill and inflexible had the glorious effect of making me focus only on the most important things while settling on a supervisor. Was s/he a good match for what would be my complicated schedule, particularly as I prepared for my candidacy? Would I be supported as I moved through the program, juggling my various professional and personal responsibilities? Did the way we both work match up?

Much of the literature on finding a PhD supervisor centres on other questions: questions of research interest and subject areas, and expertise in your field of choice. The advice often references those “star” researchers with international reputations who are constantly publishing and have an excellent reputation in their field. While these types of supervisors can indeed be excellent advisors, professors with strong research profiles do not by default make good advisors. In fact, the most important criteria for choosing your supervisor should not be the “star” criteria, but instead should focus on issues of compatibility. With that in mind, here are some tips for choosing a supervisor in your graduate degree:

1) Ensure your supervisor is interested in / has a strong investment in your work. Having a supervisor in your field is certainly a good idea, but sometimes you may find that for whatever reason–the interdisciplinarity of your work, your preferences in terms of work, their inflexible schedule, etc.–you need to choose someone slightly outside of your field. This can work swimmingly. Choose someone directly in your field to be your second or third reader on your committee, and your external examiner. Simply be sure that your supervisor thinks the work you are doing is valuable, insightful, and important, and can comment on it in critical and creative ways.

2) Know your work pattern, and try to match it with your supervisor’s. I knew that I wanted a relatively hands-on supervisor who would read and comment on my draft work, could meet regularly, and would allow me to talk through some of my ideas while they were in process. One of my good friends, in contrast, wanted a hands-off supervisor who would allow her to submit completed chapters only, with little contact (pressure! she said) in between. These are two extremes, but they illustrate my point: figure out how you work, what you’d like or need in terms of a supervisor, and choose one who will complement and enhance your own work patterns. This can make a huge difference in terms of how you progress through the program.

3) Do your homework. Set up a meeting to talk to your potential supervisor about how they work, your own project, and if they would be interested in pursuing a supervisorial relationship. Did the meeting go well? Great! Do more follow-up. Ask around. Talk to other students that professor has had: Will s/he read and comment on your work in a reasonably, timely fashion? Does the student feel energized/encouraged by working with him/her? Does the supervisor have a good record of showing students through to completion? Of students who have found good jobs (in or outside academia, whatever your preference might be)? Take the time to ask former students and current ones about their supervisorial relationships, and then take more time to think about it. No need to rush the process, just do it thoroughly.

4) Try to find an advocate. The very best supervisors are those who are not only committed to your work and project but who also will have your back as you navigate the complicated and onerous bureaucracy of the university. I’ve been lucky to have a supervisor who has at least on two occasion written letters or attended meetings in order to represent my interests. You might not think this is important, but when you run up against what can be a dehumanizing and rigid system, you will be inestimably grateful that your supervisor can help you pierce through it.

advice · collaboration · grad school · making friends

On Starting Grad School

A few months after I was admitted into the MA program at my current university, I drove three hours north to visit the campus. I remember walking into the graduate student lounge in my soon-to-be department in a semi-state of awe. I didn’t notice the dreadful couches or the filthy dishes in the sink; I barely perceived the stacks of paper and books on the table. Instead, I gazed at the group of students clustered in the middle around a wooden table. Soon, I’d be one of them, I recall thinking. What are they like? What area are they studying? Had they been much better prepared than I was (or felt)?

My feeling of uncertainty didn’t change much after I actually began my studies. The first few weeks and months of graduate school are chock full of it, particularly for newbie MAs. I recall with vivid clarity the panic that set in after I’d received all my syllabi, bought my stacks of books, and wrote the dates of my first presentations in my agenda. Would I really be able to do this?, I wondered, frequently and often. How would I make it through?

It’s been several years since I was a newbie MA, but every year in September I’m reminded again of what it feels like when I introduce myself to the new Graduate Students in my department. With them in mind (and putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not to go to grad school in the first place!), I’d like to offer a bit of advice on how to approach the first few months as a new graduate student:

1. Know that You’re Not the Only One. Everyone feels a bit like an imposter starting graduate school, and uncertainty and self-doubt is common. It’s there even if you think that everyone else seems confident and on top of things! The fact is that the learning curve of grad school is a steep one, and every student coming from an undergraduate degree has to climb it, not just you.

2. Be Generous with your Friendship. Know that some of the people you meet for the first time at various orientation events might come across unfavourably on first impression, but are actually great, brilliant, kind people. It’s well-worth the effort to go to all the orientation and social mixer events and meet everyone you can. You’ll probably interact with people who will become great friends and collaborators for months or even years to come.

3. Participate in New Student Mentorship Program. My department offers “grad buddies” to new incoming students who can answer all sorts of questions about the university, department, and even the city. But even if you don’t have a program like this one, you can ask to be put in touch with students further along in the program, or you can simply introduce yourself. These seasoned veterans can direct you around the campus, show you the library, and give you advice about how to manage your crushing reading schedule. They’re invaluable resources and can be great friends and mentors, too.

4. Read Blogs like Hook and Eye! Blogs like this one can be invaluable resources. Melissa has written about things she wished she’d known when she started her PhD, and Boyda has discussed productivity in the PhD and practicing self-care. Aimée has blogged about how to write great conference proposals, and I’ve talked about starting writing groups, and what it’s like to teach for the first time. Over the next few months, we’ll be tackling how to choose an advisor, issues related to graduate-student labour, self-care, and other questions of concern to both the newbie and seasoned graduate student.

balance · best laid plans · silly

How to Avoid Post-Semester Illness (in 82 easy steps)

1. Before your semester starts, get lots of rest.
2. Spend a relaxing Christmas break away from drama of any kind.
3. Attend a maximum of one Christmas/pre-semester Party.
4. Gear up for beginning of semester by taking a day or two to wrap up any unfinished business from last semester before the semester begins.
5. Take time to plan out your semester.
6. Divide your time into segments.
7. Under no circumstances should you undertake work outside of the hours of 8-5, Monday to Friday.
8. Allot no more than 10% of your time to administrative duties.
9. Allot no more than 10% of your time to answering emails.
10. Allot no more than 15% of your time to teaching prep.
11. Allot no more than 5% of your time to grading.
12. Allot no more than 2% of your time to office hours.
13. Allot no more than 5% of your time to attending workshops.
14. Allot no more than 5% of your time to attending conferences.
15. Allot no more than 5% of your time to exploring new digital tools.
16. Allot no more than 5% of your time to reading in your field(s) to keep up with current research.
17. Allot no more than 2% of your time to other research projects after current project concludes.
18. Allot no more than 5% of your time to writing blog posts.
19. Allot no more than 5% of your time to networking with other academics.
20. Allot no more than 5% of your time to applying for awards, fellowships, and grants.
21. Allot no more than 5% of your time to maintaining personal or professional websites.
22. Allot no more than 10% of your time to committee meetings.
23. Allot no more than 10% of your time to applying for jobs.
24. Allot no more than 5% of your time to preparing your cv.
25. Allot no more than 5% of your time to preparing a shadow cv.
26. Allot no more than 5% of your time gaining work experience for a possible career in alt-ac.
27. Allot no more than 5% of your time to mentoring.
28. Allot no more than 5% of your time to writing letters of recommendation.
29. Allot no more than 5% of your time to advising.
30. Allot no more than 5% of your time to additional, unforseen duties.
31. Allot no more than 2% of your time to planning research trips.
32.  Leave 30% of your time to primary research.
33. Leave 40% of your time to manuscript/dissertation writing.
34. Avoid unnecessary and time consuming academic service.
35. Do not plan a symposium.*
36. Do not plan a conference.*
37. Do not plan a roundtable.*
38. Do not plan a colloquium.*
39. Do not plan a public lecture.*
40. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.
41. Run at least 3 times a week.
42. Attend regular yoga classes.
43. Swim.
44. Cycle.
45. Eat food rich in Vitamin C (or supplement).
46. Eat food rich in Vitamin D (or supplement).
47. Eat food rich in Vitamin A (or supplement).
48. Eat food rich in Vitamin E (or supplement).
49. Eat food rich in B16 (or supplement).
50. Eat food rich in B12 (or supplement).
51. Eat food rich in B (or supplement).
52. Eat food rich in protein (or supplement).
53. Eat food rich in calcium (or supplement).
54. Eat food rich in potassium (or supplement).
55. Avoid caffeine.
56. Avoid alcohol. 
57. For richness, enjoyment, and balance in life, participate in religious organization.
58. For richness, enjoyment, and balance in life, participate in community-based organization.
59. For richness, enjoyment and balance in life, participate in political organizations.
60. Volunteer for community-based organization.
61. Volunteer for religious-based organization.
62. Volunteer for political organizations.
63. Maintain friendships.
64. Maintain professional relationships.
65. Spend time with parents.
66. Spend time with extended family.
67. Spend time with partner.
68. Spend time with children.
69. Spend ample time on vacation.
70. Stay away from ill friends.
71. Stay away from ill students.
72. Stay away from ill colleagues.
73. Stay away from ill parents.
74. Stay away from ill extended family.
75. Stay away from ill partner.
76. If possible, do not allow your toddler to go to daycare (they are petrie dishes for illness of all kinds).
77. Seclude toddler from all other ill children.
78. Seclude toddler from all ill adults.
79. DO NOT allow ill toddler to hold your hands.
80. DO NOT allow ill toddler to place dirty hands on your person.
81. DO NOT allow ill toddler to cough in your mouth.

*do, however, ensure you attend these important events.

classrooms · experiential education · grading · reflection · teaching

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I’ve still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I’ve been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I’ve been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I’m not a first-time instructor anymore, I’ve been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I’m pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I’m going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don’t think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I’m really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn’t expect. In the future, I hope I’ll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence “Question and Answer” prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean’s really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C’s/low B’s into the A-range, and it’s great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I’m not terribly pleased with–hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won’t make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter’s/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn’t prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn’t get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I’m pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I’m going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I’m concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you’ve found work well? What have you learned as you’ve become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you’d learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

classrooms · equity · ideas for change · job market · learning · PhD · risky writing

Conquering Fear, Risking Failure

I’m writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.

In the last few months, as I’ve sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I’ve come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one’s work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she’d written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.

While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.

Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I’m often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.

But I’ve been inspired by these writer-activists I’m studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.

Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn’t go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.

But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.

I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I’m not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.

academic work · advice · balance · collaboration · community · day in the life · grad school · making friends · writing

Write! In Community!

If you asked me while I was in the first year of my PhD how I would manage the long, unstructured hours of post-course-work dissertation writing, I might have stared at you blankly and stammered out something about supervisory meetings, conference proposals, creating self-imposed deadlines blah blah blah.

Really I would have had no clue. In fact, it took me about three months of post-candidacy-defense panicking to figure out exactly how to write the dissertation (well, how to start writing the dissertation, anyway!). And though my supervisory meetings have been absolutely essential in helping me move along through the program, and conference proposals have helped me clarify and restate my ideas in clear and simple prose, I can honestly say the best thing for my productivity, bar none, has been my writing group. Strike that: my two writing groups.

It was mostly serendipitous, and I honestly can’t quite remember how I started with either one. The first had been going for a while before I became a regular member, I started out occasionally and then became a regular, the second I joined on the suggestion of a friend who didn’t even attend herself. Now they have both become essential not only for my productivity, but for my sanity as well. I need these groups not just because of the habit and practice of writing, which becomes mandatory in the presence of the all-mighty timer, but also because this is time to chat, commiserate, ask questions, and, ultimately, build friendships. My writing group buddies are the people who have offered me support, both in terms of the practice of writing and in the practice of care. These are the people who have helped me prioritize my work/life commitments with with offers of babysitting, dinner for my family, drinks out, and sympathetic ears. We offer each other advice from things ranging from conference attire to encouragement for how to slog through a chapter that’s burgeoning out of control. And, of course, we stop talking and write.

Want to start your own writing group? Here’s how we structure a day of writing:

1. At the beginning of each writing session, we usually state what we hope to accomplish in the session. Working on a portion of a chapter? Writing a conference proposal? Revising an article for publication? We say what we’re working on and what, specifically, we’d like to write during the day.

2. Stick to the timer. Each writing session is usually divided up into several chunks of time, which we dedicate to writing. We set the timer for 25-45 minutes, depending on how people are feeling in terms of focus and goals. Then, we stick to it. The rule is no talking while the timer is running, no internet, no interruptions. After the timer has gone, we usually say what we accomplished during the unit, or describe how it went.

3. Take Breaks. Whether it’s to check email, chat about how the writing is going, or complain about how hard writing is (WRITING IS SO HARD), these are imperative to making the day work. I usually take a minimum half hour break for lunch, but 5-10 minute breaks between timer units are important as well. Our brains need breaks to refocus.

Do you have a writing group? What kinds of habits do you practice?


Mental Health and the PhD: Repost

Last week I read this fantastic article about PhD culture and mental health that underscores the fact that the culture of Academia often accepts or even privileges the idea that if you’re not working yourself to the point of illness, you’re not doing your PhD right.

Today I’m resisting that urge to push myself to the point of exhaustion, and instead reposting this article to emphasize my agreement with the sentiments expressed therein.

Let’s not work ourselves to the ground, folks.

Take the time for self-care!

balance · body · busy · grad school · modest proposal · parenting

In Praise of Sleep

It’s Reading Break! Phew….

Somehow I’ve managed to get halfway through my first semester of teaching, and coincidentally, half way through my first stack of papers. I’ve been grading leisurely this past week, with curling in the background (the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships ended a week ago), finally with space, it seems, to breathe.

This past weekend was one of the most relaxing I’ve had in quite some time. With no teaching pressures for the next week, I wasn’t trying to cram every spare moment with reading, writing lectures, or class prep of some sort or another. I took my daughter to an indoor playground, baked muffins, slept in, lazed around my house in my pajamas, and vacuumed my whole house for the first time in (gulp) over six months. It was really nice.

If I haven’t said so before, I’m going to say it now: teaching for the first time is intense and exhausting. Selecting books and writing the syllabus aside, the weekly lecture writing, assignment creation, and grading (my students do weekly reading responses), has made me, well…a bit frazzled. So far, I’ve been managing (with only a week of major slip-ups) to stick to my semester goal to keep my teaching prep to teaching days, write two days a week, and spend daily and weekend time with my family. But it has come at a cost: my sleep.

Sleep has been shown to be essential to all kinds of things: memory, focus, and concentration, safety, immune function, cardiovascular health…I could go on. But one of the things I’ve just started to piece together about myself and sleep is that when I don’t get enough of it, my stress levels go up exponentially. It doesn’t matter if all my work is done or if I’m fully on top of all my responsibilities, if I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m stressed. Period. And stress, apparently, does not do good things to your brain.

You’d think being several years into a PhD program would mean that I would have already figured out this crucial bit of information. But, believe it or not, PhD + Baby ≠ deep and intimate knowledge of the value of sleep. Although I’ve learned to deeply appreciate the moments when I have the “luxury” of sleep, I’ve failed to make it a priority.

This reading week, I’m determined change that, and I’m hoping my resolve will stick around for the semester. 

Do you prioritize sleep? Or is it often the first thing that falls to the wayside when you’re busy?