academic work · best laid plans · faculty · free time · midcareer · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

Well. It’s official. I’m actually on sabbatical now, my first in seven years, a full year. It is an unbelievable privilege of my tenured position that I am able to apply for these periodical paid (85% salary) leaves, and devote time to my research.

I have been looking forward to this sabbatical ever since I learned I would have to forego my earned half-year sabbatical when I became grad chair in 2014. I knew the reward would be that I could accrue enough credits to qualify for the full year, which I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for, otherwise. I looked forward to it as a distant mirage, where my time was my own, where there wouldn’t be so many emails, so many meetings, so much grading, so much teaching. I was basically picturing my year long sabbatical as a dramatic arm sweep that would throw everything off all my desks onto the floor, another gesture ripping the phone cord out of the wall, then tapping out the Nuclear Option away message on my email.

I had, that is, a fundamentally negative view of my long dreamed of sabbatical: things would disappear, things would stop.

Me, a runner, who resolves to write
I’m really serious about writing. So serious I wrote it on a fun run bib and sealed the deal by running 5km in -14C weather on New Years Day. Surely writing a book (or two) is easier than this?

But a sabbatical is for something, as much as it is about against other things–it is for research, and I had plenty of that backlogged and untended.

I both longed for the chance to hit the reset button on my campus life that the sabbatical represented, at the same time as I dreaded thinking about accomplishing a Year of Distraction and Excuse Free Writing That Would Make Me Seem Productive and Valuable As A Scholar. Yeah, I think with initial caps about the things that scare me.

I’m going to write, this year, about how I am learning to write on sabbatical. I’ll let you know what it’s like, adjusting to not being on campus, finding my rhythm, saying no to things that aren’t research related, dealing with loneliness maybe, preparing for reentry, finding a way to end on a good note. I hope this will help others who might not be sure what the “right” way to do a sabbatical is. So it will be pitched to faculty, sure, but it strikes me this year I have–a year where I have one book contract to fulfill for sure, and god help me, quite probably another one, too–is a lot like where graduate students land after their proposal pass. Sabbatical is a lot like ABD, all huge expectations, no structure, isolation, and a great big fear of not being able to live up to it.

For now I’ll tell you some early highlights, that I am going to take up in posts this year:

  • full blown meltdown on January 1, the day the sabbatical started
  • spending the six months pre-sabbatical clearing the emotional, mental, and practical decks
  • how much it is possible, and not possible, to write in one day
  • you can’t make up for lost time, and trying makes you miserable
  • how to turn a year into a big picture plan
  • how to turn that big picture plan into a series of monthly, weekly, and daily plans
  • all the things I’m saying “no” to–and how easy it’s turning out to be
  • all the naps I’m saying “yes” to–and why that’s a good thing
  • you can’t do this alone: mad props to my squad, and all they do

Me, I got cold feet the very day I handed in all my Fall grades and concluded my on-campus responsibilities until, ulp, January 2019. This sabbatical is already terrifying, and restful, and busy, and laid-back by turns. Let’s see how this turns out!

academic work · adjuncts · change management · emotional labour · theory and praxis · Uncategorized

Making Small New Habits

I love New Year’s resolutions.

I do. I really love them. I love them so much I write about them in fall and winter and spring. Hurrah for semesters and Solstices!

In fact, I think I have come to appreciate New Years–Eve and all–as a moment of self-inventory, though admittedly New Year’s Eve was (and is) a marker in time I like less. As a younger me New Year’s Eve was a kind of letdown for all its rush and waiting. All outfits and lines and are-the-plans-happening-where-is-the-best-place-to-be-ness of it all. And then, poof, anticlimax. Even now as an adult I can count on one hand the “magic” NYEs I have had. My frustration, I think, is common: it is the pressure put on the moment to make it something other than it is. A moment. But I digress…

I am that person who, on New Year’s Eve will ask about resolutions and memories. What was your most memorable meal of the last year? (My go-to interview dinner conversation question, by the way) What are you hoping to do this year? Yup. That’s me: earnest right up to the chime of the clock.

But it occurs to me that resolutions might be the wrong word. Maybe there’s too much baggage with that word, and as someone who is shifting from a decade working in various degrees of precarity to, well, unprecedented stability, I’m working to shed some emotional baggage. When it comes to putting work and production demands on myself I want to move from this

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to this

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I started thinking about shifting my language after reading one of those ubiquitous late-December articles about developing new habits.  The gist of the argument is this: western psychology has tended to frame life change as something that is best understood through willpower. The idea here is that we make a decision to change some aspect of ourselves and then, through sweat and grit and determination, we do it. There are all sorts of obvious problems with this approach, I realize now (what if, as is often the case, “willpower” isn’t enough or even the right thing, for example). Still, when I was reading this in the trough between holidays it struck a chord for me. Rather than building all life change on the necessity of willpower there is a movement gaining more popular traction that suggests willpower is kind of bullsh*t. Okay, that’s not exactly what the article says, but that’s what I gleaned from it. More effective that willpower is repetition. Building in habits. Doing the small daily work of repeating. And if you don’t do it one day, if you “fail,” then you do it again the next day.

Gosh, I needed to be reminded of this.

Some of the new habits I am aiming to form in this first month of 2018 are these:

I would like to write regularly again. For all sorts of reasons I have fallen off that wagon in the last year, moving again to droughts and downpours of writing that, while effective of anxiety-inducing, have not fed me in the ways I need to be fed. In order to write regularly (which for me means 100-300 words in a session, and one session a day is plenty unless there is an impending deadline) I need to build in a regular time to do that writing. So, I’ll be getting out of bed a little earlier this month. I’m looking forward to it.

I would like to continue reading for pleasure. After my PhD and in many cycles following that I found I couldn’t read for pleasure. For whatever reason what usually was my escape, my habit that nourished me had gone. My voracious desire to read is back. To facilitate this I have shifted my reading habits the same way I have had to shift my writing habits post-bébé: I carry a book with me most all the time, and reading one or two pages (or sentences) at a swoop is enough. Is worth it.

And finally, I would like to only work on academic writing and research that nourishes me and which I really care about. I say hah to the adage that all academic work is a labour of love. It isn’t, especially if you’re a graduate student or a precarious worker or a post doc. Then it is usually a mix of love and (in my limited personal experience) a huge amount of what-will-this-do-for-my-prospects???!!!???*&!

To that I say no more, or at least, I will work towards “no more.” And if I weren’t already convinced that writing (/doing/working on/researching) something that you care about might actually make more than you feel good  (aka “staying in your lane” as I read in a recent profile of the brilliant Vivek Shraya), well, seeing this tweet from poet and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt certainly brought it home for me

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Here is to new habits that nurture networks of care in this complicated, compromising, and often alienating and restrictive space that is academia. One of the books I am reading right now is Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. In the introduction Haraway writes,

We — all of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy–with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killings of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of our learning to live and die well with each other in the thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle the troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Here’s to rebuilding quiet places in our days with and alongside and against. Here’s to onward and inward. Here is to January. Here is to what is and to what is next.



academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?

Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?


academic work · emotional labour · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Attend meetings or perish….

The advice one gets about pursuing an academic career is to do as little service as one can manage. As a young scholar, I am advised by colleagues, friends, and mentors time and again that research is everything, and that while teaching counts too, service work means little in one’s tenure file, so I should do the bare minimum and get on with things. With the ethos of “publish or perish” in mind, the scholar’s lament seems to be that time that could be spent conducting research is wasted—wasted—in meetings that go nowhere, and achieve nothing.

The advice I receive about service is also informed by the knowledge that seeming burden of service work most often falls to women. A recent study about emotional labour in academia documents how women drastically outperform men in terms of service work and that this results in a lack of promotion of women that is, because of service women publish less and therefore are less likely to rise through the ranks. And the study was posted and reposted in my social media feeds, with male and female colleagues alike describing strategies to get out of service work, and how to advise their students not to get bogged down. They meant well. They mean well.

Startup Stock Photos

But the trouble with this advice is that service work (not all of it surely, but much of it) needs doing. It is the housework, the reproductive labour, of the university and it is not going to go away because we don’t do it. The problem then, isn’t that women are doing too much service work and therefore don’t have the chance to publish enough, rather it is that some of the most important labour that we do—the work of keeping our departments going–is undervalued. And in its devaluation, it has fallen to women and people of colour, in many of the ways that reproductive labour often does. We need to find ways to distribute this labour without offloading it, downloading it, and disproportionately centering around those already precarious within our institutions.

Service work is critical to the ongoing capacity of universities. And we need to recognize that service is important to some of the most important things that our departments and faculties do—creating spaces for the free exchange of ideas by planning speakers’ series and symposia, building (and challenging) the canons of our disciplines through syllabus committees, representing and standing up for our colleagues as Chairs and Deans, finding ways to expand and diversify through hiring and admissions committees, and so on.

Viewing service work as intrinsically valuable is integral to enable us to continue our work in the university and to move it forward. If you’re in a position to do so, recognize it in colleagues’ tenure and promotion files, on your own CV, and your admissions and hiring committees. Service is critical part of scholarship.

CattapanAlana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a recent visiting researcher at the Brocher Foundation. A longtime feminist researcher and activist, she studies the governance of reproductive health, interest group engagement in public policy making, and biotechnologies, focusing on the Canadian case.


academic work · after the LTA · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference

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A funny thing happened this weekend when I stopped by my office to drop off some books and art. As I got out of the car my partner reminded me to have some identification as well as my keys in case I had to call security to let me in. In the past several years we’ve both had trouble getting in on weekends because, I think, of how part-time and contract faculty cards are programmed. As I walked up to the security doors on Saturday they clicked open before I could even pull my card form my pocket. They didn’t quite swing open, roll out a red carpet, and hand me champagne as I passed through them, but the difference was palpable: I have a tenure-track job now. I am legible to the institution.

It is a very strange feeling indeed to return to an institution as a tenure-track faculty. Much of my public-facing work in the last decade has been about precarity, and now I am no longer precarious. My feelings are complicated: I don’t feel guilty about landing a job, not really, but I do feel acutely aware of how very hard the hustle has been. I know I deserve my position, and I am also acutely aware of how many others—my loved ones, my colleagues, my peers—deserve the stability and legibility I’ve been granted.

When I received the call that I got the job several months ago, I burst into tears. I cried (a lot). Then I took a three-hour nap. I slept in a way I hadn’t in who-knows-how-long. My body relaxed in ways I still don’t have the words for. And yet, I’m also more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which stability is such a privilege. The more I calm, the more I focus, the more time and space I have for carefully plotting out my five- and ten-year research plans, the more I am also aware of how completely precarity is woven into so very much of one’s life.

And so, as I head into a new school year, I’ll be here writing and thinking about the shifting experience of working and teaching within the institution, rather than on its periphery. I’ll be working to structure my time here with the aim and intent of making and holding space for myself and others who are and have been so marked by our precarious times. And, I’ll be doing my very best to strike a balance between having a critical attention and a joyful heart. For, a feminist killjoy’s work is never done.

academic work · contract work · disability · equity · job market

Guest post – Have they thought about what they’re asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let’s consider the labour. I’m not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.

Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.

Image: unsplash

academic work · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · productivity · protip

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by “linked,” you mean “hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I’m bound.” I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I’m willing to work (if by willing you mean “what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down”), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak’s piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I’m currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let’s say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you’ve mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let’s say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you’ll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I … freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I’m working on–assessing grad admissions files, say–and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I’ll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: “Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it’s been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don’t have three hours because I have to do that grading and I’ll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can’t write now because I’m worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I’M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I’m a terrible person because now it’s been another five minutes and I’m no farther ahead on this and I think I’ll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research …”

It’s exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don’t work, because I’m panicking about work, about how I’ll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn’t get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I’m reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander (“If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I’m going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?”) I remind myself that I’ve scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It’s a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what’s happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I’ll never finish another book ever) is a fool’s game. And if we play it too often, we don’t do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That’s untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I’m worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I’m going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

academic work · commute

Commuting: Some Thoughts

For the first time in my life I have what counts as a long commute to work. It isn’t what many business magazines call “a hellishly long commute,” but it is a big change for me. Two hours of my work day are now spent in my car. Let me start by being very clear: I am excited about my new contract; it feels wonderful to be teaching in my field, and the health benefits don’t hurt, either. In fact, the only hitch I have when people ask me how the new gig is going is the distance.

I don’t mind driving. In fact, I am sort of used to it. I grew up in a rural area and getting to school (or the grocery store, or any friend’s house, or the library, or…) meant driving half an hour or more. But this is a bit different. What I mean is this: I find that I account for the time spent commuting for work differently (does the two hour drive count as my work day? Or is it supplemental to it?) In short, I find I am thinking about why and how people commute in ways I hadn’t had to before.

Here are some of the ways I mean this: I think about money and time. My time in the car costs a lot. There’s the gas, of course, but I think about is the less visible cost. Because our kiddo is still a bit too young for daycare, we have a nanny for the term. Two hours in the car is a quarter of the time we pay for child care each day, so I am paying to go to work again, and I am then spending two hours of that work time in the daily commute. That’s okay, by which I mean I am able to do it for now, but I am acutely aware that in terms of the cost many people are not. I wouldn’t have been, not before this new contract. So there’s that: the cost (emotional, financial) of child care. And there’s also the question of productivity. Is it my protestant work-ethic, drilled into me from an early age? Is it the neoliberal institution of higher ed that gives me the not-so-unconscious imperative that I should be working every waking hour and the short term pleasure when I Get All The Things Done? Or is it simply that walking or biking or taking public transit to work felt like I was doing something for myself (fresh air! reading in public!)? Or maybe, as one friend who has commuted further and longer than I, I simply haven’t got my podcast game sorted. Regardless of the psychology of my desire to make my commute matter! (whatever that means) I found myself thinking about how other people use their commuting time. Funny how that happens, eh? I’ve never given real thought to this until it really began to shape my daily life. Hmm… I sense another blog post coming.

Anyhow, I digress. When I started doing some cursory internet research on commuting two themes emerged: how to decide if your commute is too long, and how to improve your commute. The similarities in these articles are pretty predicable in that they are both predicated on the assumption that one has agency in one’s employment situation and one’s housing situation, for that matter. Some bloggers caution that trading a long commute for a job with more money will often deplete your personal happiness. Others suggest that long commutes chip away at your ability to empathize with others. And articles that are specifically about academics who commute are all-too-familiar in their sensationalism meets stasis. You know the formula (& indeed, you may live this too): two academics land good jobs in different cities/countries/timezones/continents. Articles that I’ve read about this underscore the extreme strain of this kind of distance and commute, but few (okay, none) have suggested any practical or structural changes to make the institution more open to the “two-body problem,” except, maybe, this piece by Tenure, She Wrote. In short, public discourse on how academics and and other white collar workers commute are, well, not-so-subtly focused first on class privilege, and then not-so-subtly on gender. Not much (any) overt discussion of race or sexuality.  Surely when we are thinking through the material and affective conditions of academic work we need to take into account how people get there, what options they have for their commute, and how that commute structures their working and non-working lives.

For now, though, as I think about these things and drive my admittedly beautiful 90km drive, I’m also looking for audiobook, podcast, and music suggestions. Bring ’em on, please. Give me a soundtrack to my thinking.