balance · day in the life · empowerment · feminist communities · summer

The Summer Round-Up: Everything but the kitchen sink

Dear Readers,

It is JUNE! We made it! The snow? Gone. The grading? Done or now in spring-grading mode. The flowers? Out! Conference time? You’re in it! And the possibilities and promises of summer are rolling out before us like a wide open road. 

Here at Hook & Eye we have decided to take some of our own advice. We are taking a summer break from now until late August! We’ll be back as the school year begins again, but for now we have several things for you to read, think about, and, we hope, write to us about when the mood or the inspiration strikes. 

First, a call for guest posts and faster feminist spotlights. Do you have an idea or an issue swirling in your mind that you think is suitable for our blog? We would LOVE to have you write a post for us! We are looking for posts that take up a wide range of issues related to feminism, academia, and work/life balance. Posts tend to be 500 – 750 words, and if you’re not used to writing blog posts I would be happy to work with you to develop your idea and get your post in shape. I’ll be organizing the majority of the guest posts again this year so please send pitches to me at erin dot wunker at gmail dot com. 

We’re also looking to continually diversify our roster of regular writers, so please email me if you have a person you’d like to see write for us, or if there is someone you’d like to see profiled in a faster feminism spotlight. 

To get you inspired for your summer plans whatever they may be many of us regular writers have jotted down our plans for hitting work/life balance … with a major emphasis on living life. Here’s what some of us will be up to in the coming months:

MelissaThis summer is going to be spent settling into my new job, figuring out how to grow the Research Training Centre and my career, and doing things that push my boundaries a bit–speaking about the York strike at Congress, teaching my first course at DHSI, and taking a holiday where I’ll be speaking solely in French. The summer is also going to be spent settling even more firmly into my now well-embedded writing routines and getting much of the dissertation wrapped up and ready to go in anticipation of defending by the end of the year. It is also going to be spent thinking about how best to serve our H&E readership next year–I’ll definitely be continuing the #Altac 101 series, but I also want to think and write more about the gendered aspects of career choices (or lack thereof) for PhDs. I’m looking forward to a break and to seeing you all again, refreshed and ready to go, in September. 
Aimée: I’m looking forward to rounding out my first year as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies—things slow down a lot in the summer, at least until Orientation planning swings into gear in August. I’m saying “no” to most things this summer: I’m not traveling anywhere, I’m not doing any conferences, I’m not undertaking any big home projects (other than weeding). I’m saying “yes” to sitting on the porch and writing and reading (and getting my book finished), “yes” to long walks with the dog, “yes” to more unstructured time with my family, “yes” to mid-day yoga classes and hanging my laundry on the line.
MargritMy year has been packed, so I’m leaving my summer uncluttered to balance things out: there will be some international travel, some more local camping, and maybe an impromptu road trip or two. There will be reading, and there might even be some writing—which I found I cannot live without, not after structuring the last decade of my life around it—but it will be unstructured and aimless. Overall, however, I want a flimsy, balloon-light summer to even the scales. If you’d like to check in, I would love to hear from you, too: find me on Twitter @Dr_Margrit. I wish you have the summer of your dreams (nightmares not included).
Boyda: will be spending her summer soaking up the rays and the often unbearable heat of New York City, feeling generally like a wet sponge. She is aware, however, that this may be the last summer she has in this glorious metropolitan center, so will make the most of it by scoping out outdoor film festivals, fighting for beach space on Coney Island, and keeping a journal of rat spottings. She hopes to visit her people in the Great White North at least once, and she will join that art class she’s been meaning to join for years. In terms of professional goals: she plans to finish drafts of two chapters of her dissertation, and is crossing her fingers about an article that she’s already submitted. She will also be preparing her job market documents and fighting off the inevitable anxiety induced therein. Will miss her online H&E community!
LilyAlthough my admin work does not really slow down in the summer (hello, undergraduate program with its endless needs!) there’s no need for me to pull out my tiny violin at all because I get to represent York at the Institute for World Literature hosted by the University of Lisbon this year. It is going to be unbelievably cool to be sort of a student again. I am buying a new notebook and sharpening my pencils! I’m enrolled in Debjani Ganguly’s seminar on “The Contemporary World Novel: Hauntings and Mediations” and will be part of the affinity group on “Postcolonialism and World Literature.” Umm… so excited.

Erin: As I wrote ever so briefly last week one of the things I haven’t felt able to write about this winter is the fact that I was pregnant. Being on the job market and being pregnant? That’s a post I think I’ll be ready to write in the fall… I just had our daughter twelve days ago. In fact, as I type this she’s asleep on me. Hurrah multi-tasking! So this summer while I will be working on a non-fiction handbook about how to be a feminist killjoy (SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS BOOK!) I will also be spending the majority of my time getting to know my girl. My partner and I will take trips to the shore, visiting family and friends, walking the dog, and introducing the babe to East Coast summers. I’ll be thinking about career changes and writing projects and all the rest of it, but not right away. For now it is all about my partner, our new kiddo, the dog, and the salty air of here. 

Hi from me and the newest Hook & Eye kiddo!
Let us know what you’re up to, whether you have an idea for a post, or someone you’d like to see write for us. And please, above all, don’t forget to make time for yourself. September will come soon enough. The work will get done. Make taking care of you and yours part of your daily practice too, will ya? (& tell us about it, because we all need reminders for self care as well as reminders that self-care is part of a feminist praxis and pedagogy).

balance · enter the confessional

Bring your kid to work day, March Break edition

I brought my kid to work today. She’s got an iPad to read pony comics on, my second laptop to watch some Netflix while the iPad is charging, headphones to keep the noise down, some stuffies, some crayons and paper, and a work-appropriate hairdo (“I don’t want to look like a hobo at the office, Mom”). She picked a special outfit, and some accessories to look more professional. She’s happy as a clam.

See?

Snacks plus Netflix = Bender salute

It’s March Break, and normally we would have enrolled her in camps all week, because of course her father and I both work full time and I can’t take vacation time in the middle of term and neither can he. But we didn’t do all camps this year, because she’s burnt out. When the topic of March Break was gleefully announced by her about a month ago, she had visions of lounging in her pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and watching Monster High movies with me and her dad. Reminded about our jobs and her camps, she visibly deflated. Camps are fun, but they’re not relaxing, and she needed to relax, she said. I see her point. Camps mean getting up early, and packing a lunch, and lugging around a day’s worth of supplies, and interacting with grownups and kids you don’t know, and being in structured time all day.

And, frankly, I want to lounge around in my pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and my kid, and reading an entire book from front to back. I’m burnt out, too. I get it.

I admire my daughter’s capacity to sense her own limits. To know when enough has been enough. To recognize that being a full time student is actually a lot of hard work, not least keeping to a strict schedule and letting others be in charge of your time and your activities. I admire her stubbornness and her self-knowledge: she said that coming to the office with me would be better than camp, and she said she would behave and she’s been as good as her word. She knows herself enough to know that just being alone with me and a bunch of toys in a really quiet room is what she needs to recharge, not a room full of kids and loud noises and routines and chaos.

She doing three days of camp this week, and spending two on downtime. That’s our compromise because, really, I can’t teach an 8:30-11:30 graduate class with her in the room, and there are things that I need some peace and space to get done too, considering it’s not a break week for me.

But there’s a lesson here for me, and for all of us, maybe. The eight year olds are stressed and pressured and overworked, which is terrible. It’s awesome, though, that the eight year olds can express that and just say no, to the limits of their agency. It’s worth remembering to listen to ourselves in this way, too.

All this is to say, I guess, that I’m overworked and stressed out. And you probably are, too. And if you have kids you’re probably trying to manage their March Break and your work at the same time, and feeling various further kinds of overwhelm and guilt. Tonight, when we all get home from work, it’s going to be straight into pyjamas and straight onto the couch. No chores, no cooking, no piano practice, no racing out to one thing or another. Just a little bit of peace and togetherness. A March Break.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · balance

Do What You Love, Part Deux

Y’all know that I’m totally not into the “do what you love” thing. Not when it means that people, as Erin so eloquently articulated on Monday (and in Rabble!), do what they love at the expense of their present and future wellbeing. At least in part, DWYL is what keeps people trapped in jobs they love in systems that exploit and wear them down. It breaks my heart to see people I love trapped in this cycle, knowing that the solution is either to give up the job that they’re so very very good at, or find a way to fix a system that is very very broken. It’s February, and I have the SADs, and Erin says it better than I ever can, so I’m going leave that all alone and talk about the other kind of “do what you love.” And that’s doing things that you love, hang the academy (and our workaholic culture generally) that says we should only think and work and do.

Screw that, frankly.

Y’know what I’m doing right now? I’m sitting on the couch with my love under an HBC blanket watching Chef. We ate dinner together at the dining room table, no work allowed. I had wine, on a Wednesday. On my way to and from work today (and at lunch for awhile too) I read M.F.K. Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork, book thirteen on the food writing comprehensive list I’ve set for myself this year. I should have done a PhD in food writing, but I’m making up for it now. On Friday night, I had belated bachelorette party that reminded me how much fun it is to just dance. On Sunday, I spent most of the day in the kitchen, alternating between the stove and some articles I was editing. I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato-butter sauce (the best recipe ever, no exaggeration), poached pears with cardamom and orange, a giant pear bundt cake for my co-workers, beluga lentils with garlic and bay, an orange root vegetable soup spiked with vermouth and zata’ar, coffee ice cream, and Food52’s genius oven fries (which really are genius). We’re eating really well this week–pears with greek yogurt and muesli for breakfast, soup with lentils for lunch, and veggie meatball sandwiches with tomato sauce and provolone for dinner–without having to think about it, because I did all that thinking on Sunday. I get up early and start work an hour late so that I can write before I head to the office, but I also spend 20 of those minutes meditating and 10 minutes drinking coffee and hanging out with Moose for his daily “chair time.”

Moose + his people + the living room carpet he thinks we bought just for him = happy cat. 
It’s telling, though, that I still feel the need to write what comes next, to justify doing the things that light me up: I write, every single day. I work hard at the office, and we get a lot done. My side research and publishing projects are all well in hand. I’m presenting at a conference every weekend but one in May. I love that stuff. But it’s important to note that I love it in ways that I didn’t, or couldn’t, when I was labouring under the delusion that to do anything other than meet the demands of the academy was a waste of time. I wanted an #altac job at least in part because I wanted more of this–more of the revelling in a fridge full of things I’d made myself, more of delicious prose about meals eaten sixty years ago, more time with my guys, more control over my life. Almost without realizing, I got it. 
I treasure the people, the very many of my friends, who are so committed to their teaching, to their students, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes–teaching at three schools, going without an office or medical benefits, being on EI over the summer, living apart from their partners–to do what they love. But I also marvel at the power of the academy, the draw of that culture and its privileging of a single kind of love and worth, that makes me feel like the outlier in making the choices I have about work and life. I don’t know where that gets us, but it’s something I think about a lot. 
What about you, dear readers? How do you make room for doing what you love? What choices, easy or hard, have you made to get to keep doing what you love, at work or out? 
balance · clothes · empowerment · saving my sanity

My Uniform

My wardrobe has shifted significantly over the last few years to align with changes in my work and personal life. 
The birth of my daughter, reduced flexibility in the time I spend at home and at work, increasing time in the classroom, and of course the never-ending to-do lists of conferencing, dissertation-writing, and researching–all these increasing responsibilities have meant I have much less time and flexibility in my mornings, less energy to spend purchasing new clothes, and more in need of flexible and streamlined routines. 
With less time to make decisions about what items to pair, and even less to purchase new wardrobe items, I’ve found myself wearing tried and true combinations of clothing, my own set way of dressing that is a safe go-to every day. Instead of gravitating towards new, unfamiliar or untested items, I found myself wearing and purchasing the same-old, same-old: my uniform.
By necessity, I’ve drastically simplified what I wear. 
By chance, I’ve found that I love it.
There’s something remarkably freeing about wearing and purchasing the same type of clothing. Instead of the time-suck of trial-and-error combinations, there’s the ease of the comfortable and familiar. Rather than money wasted on items bought and never worn, there are multiple similar items that I know I’ll love.
In teaching months, I often wear a black dress or black skirt, usually paired with a beige or black cardigan or blue collared shirt, with black tights (usually fleece-lined for our cold Edmonton winters) and cognac-brown or black boots. Sometimes I swap out the basic black dress for black and white stripes, or dark blue, or the skirt for black pants. A long gold necklace is my main accessory. If it’s warmer, I’ll exchange the boots for beige flats; if it’s colder, I’ll wear fur-lined sorels and a scarf. It’s the most comfortable, neutral, and flattering outfit I’ve personally come up with, and it works in a variety of situations. In the classroom, I look like an instructor. At a conference, I’m a presenter or attendee. At the coffee shop, I look like I’m a person who drinks coffee.
With wearing what I know has worked, I’ve also found I project more authority. Perhaps it’s the confidence of simply knowing that I’m wearing something that works well; perhaps it’s the fact that the items I dress in tend to be neutral basics, which evoke simple sophistication.
Primarily, though, duplicating my favourite closet staples and wearing a uniform has meant eliminating stress and anxiety. With less time spent on getting ready in the morning, I find I have more time and mind space to focus on other, more important things: my work; my family.
Have you streamlined any elements of your daily routines? In what ways has it made your life more simple and easy to manage?
balance · new year new plan

Pace Yourself

Welcome back to the new term! Were *your* holidays refreshing? Did you manage to take time to yourself without guilt-tripping yourself every two seconds? Or did you spend the break fretting about not working, and missing out on responding to that CFP or procrastinating from writing your Major-Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless paper? No matter where you fit on the spectrum, we all know the promise of freshness in the New Year/New Term combo does not  materialize in our bodies, and that we inherit the fatigue of both the Fall term and the holidays (family! travelling! all the food!). My take? Better be realistic about it, and stop pretending mountains will be moved by sheer willpower and perilously low energy levels (it’s cold. it’s dark a lot of the time. it’s January, *then* February before any colour comes back into the world).

Grey January skies over Lake Ontario

So, what is there to do? I’m not one for sports metaphors in general, but it looks like the running one is a refrain here at H&E, so I’ll just re-iterate it. We’re in it for the long haul, so we might as well pace ourselves. The Winter term has only just started, so I know it feels like if you don’t write that proposal, you’ll be written out of that Conference, which is so germane to your larger research project that missing it will cause an irreparable gap in your CV, and potential questions from your doctoral committee, hiring committee, peers, etc. But really? Chill! Unless you’re on the organizing committee, nobody will question your absence, especially these days. Why not take that time that you’d frantically put to inking yet another argument to letting your brain do some unguided rambling? Take the resources you’d put into going to that conference (money, time, physical effort, missed sleep) into translating your brain’s free ramblings into writing. No, I mean it literally: how long would the travel take you? Translate that into writing time over multiple days. Actually sleep the sleep you’d otherwise miss by going to the airport at ungodly hours because you can only afford the 7 am flight. Take it easier on yourself, the environment, and the academic ecosystem.

Try ditching one of the major academic events that you engage in per year, and do the accounting on it, bank those resources, and use them elsewhere. Then do the tally. [I know economic metaphors are not much better than sports ones, but that’s all I got just now, when the lesson plan for the class that starts in two hours, for the course I’d never taught before, beckons. See how I’m pacing myself here?] If there’s one thing I wish we could do more is turn inwardly, and actually understand what it is we want to do. As researchers, we spend so much time trying to make sure we’re abreast of what everyone else in the field is saying. As teachers, not only do we have to prepare the material, we also expend an immeasurable amount of emotional labour ensuring our classes are open and our students feel welcome and engaged in the process.

So, at this begging of term, instead of resolving to work more, be more productive, write more, do more grading, please ask yourself “What’s the healthiest way to accomplish what *I* really want?”

balance · role models

Down time

Here’s what I did over the break:

  • nothing.
It was the best Christmas ever, frankly. Just me and my husband and my daughter, literally competing to see who could stay in pajamas the longest. No travel. No parties. No plans. Once, I took my daughter skating. Once, we made brunch for my sister and her family, and walked the dog together. For two weeks. Munchkin was out of school for two full weeks, and the University of Waterloo shuts down–lights off, heat off, buildings locked–for a little over a week, and then we booked vacation time around that. No work email. No writing catchup. No winter course prep. N – o – t – h – i – n – g.
One day, I had to go out to teach a yoga class, and I did my hair and stuff. Husband said, “Oh, um, are you wearing more makeup than usual? Is that, err, blush or something?” and after we had a look in the mirror it turned out that he’d got used to my face with NO makeup on it. N – o – t – h – i – n – g.
Monday morning, I opened my office door and it was like I’d never been there. The sun looked beautiful through the window. My pile of books looked appealing. I was ready.
There was time to make supper, to eat when we were hungry and not in the 20 minutes between rushing here and rushing there. There was time to go for runs–three a week! We read books and snuggled. My face unclenched. I napped nearly every day. I let myself laugh and cry and be tired and be silly and stay up late and talk on the phone and read books and watch TV and just let my own body and soul’s needs dictate what came next.
I’m ready to be back at work now. I felt satisfied the minute I sat down at my desk again, as though pulling up my chair to the table at a nice restaurant, anticipating what would be laid before me, ready to tuck in.
It’s a great feeling. We should all have this.
And I feel like it needs saying as well that I did not arrive to work on Monday to 400 emails and missed deadlines and hair-on-fire accumulated crises. I just didn’t. I had set a vacation message on my grad email, I had got all my grading done beforehand. If I had been hauling ass all through the break, I wouldn’t, really, have been any further ahead on anything urgent, and I would have been significantly behind on sense of peace and rest and connection with my family.
The world doesn’t end when I take a break, and in some pretty important ways, it renews itself. 

I’m tempted to write the legitimate disclaimer here that of course it is truly a privilege to have access to paid vacation and steady employment and at one job so we’re not juggling everything all the time. And that’s true. But the amount of sleeping we all did over the break–the eight year old included!–and the total resistance to formal plans we all had seems to indicate something necessary and primal. Down time. Rest, I think, is a privilege in the way that indoor plumbing is a privilege: not everyone has it but everyone absolutely should, and it’s a goal we should work for, collectively. What I can do with my privilege right now is to make sure my piles of shit don’t roll downhill: I won’t email my coordinator at night or on the weekends or over the break. I won’t give grad students last minute deadlines. I will give my colleagues plenty of notice on things we need to work on together. I will model moderation in my work.
balance · teaching · time crunch

How much is too much, and for whom?

My first year students are pretty happy. Well, as happy as they can be, having to hand in their final papers today, and having to prepare for a final exam on new media studies next Friday. They’re not panicking, at least, because they’ve been working steadily through the various stages of the essay for four weeks already–they had full drafts finished a week ago, and they’ve been editing and finalizing since. And I know they’re better prepared for the exam than they think they might be–we’ve had five substantial online quizzes across the full breadth of term, and in class I’ve had them write up their feedback on their own learning for most units, that I’ve collated and taken up in class. There’s someone from this class at my office hours every time I hold them. There was a six person lineup in the hall when I got there on Monday. I read everyone’s drafts.

They’ve be coached and coaxed and assessed and guided the whole term.

It’s almost killed me.

The cap on my course is 40 students. I finally learned all their names by Halloween (I’m really bad with names, I admit). We had a photographer who came to take photos to use in the University’s promotion and we were all so squashed into the classroom that he took everyone’s coats and bags and put them in a different room–he even took the overhead projector away.

The course is running the best it has ever run. After running this four times, I’ve finally got it right, for students: substantial attention to and development of their voice and skills and engagement as writers, and a strong grounding in new media studies content, both historical and theoretical.

What “getting it right” has meant for me is adding a bunch of assessments to support the course’s learning objectives. Getting it right means a ton more grading and feedback for me. And I think I’ve hit peak grading. For two years in a row, they complained that the textbook didn’t matter, and I tried to link the in-class work more heavily toward that material. I made speeches and lit more scented candles. It didn’t work. You know what did work? Adding six new assessments to focus their attention on material only death with in the textbook: five quizzes and a final. Add that to the six writing assignments, and it’s pushed me over the edge.

I’m so proud to say that pedagogically I think this course is rock solid: we use class time really productively, the students are engaged, all the work comes in on time, attendance is high, the writing is visibly improving, the thinking is getting more sophisticated. But I haven’t written a word on my book in months. And I’m behind on my email and admin work, and I’m getting up at 5:30 every day.

The best solution would be to lower the cap on the course–25 would be reasonable. A smaller cap would mean that the professor could still bring her A-game but cut the grading of each of the 12 assignments in the course in half, a substantial savings. But it’s too expensive to do that, maybe. And the course is a draw for majors, so reducing the number of students taking it might be a mistake. Running two smaller sections is even more expensive!

If we take instructor time seriously–the in this case tenured professor is also supposed to be writing a book–we would instead, perhaps, suggest something different. Cut the number of assignments in half, and the same savings in grading could be achieved. In this scenario, the pedagogy is compromised, and the professor may see her teaching scores decline, because of cuts to content.

I’m no noob. I know how to spend a mere 40 minutes prepping for an 80 minute class. And I grade FAST. I think I’ve found all the efficiencies in the process it is possible to find.

My discipline is English. I think it’s always got to be writing intensive, and doing that right is going to involve a lot of writing assignments and a lot of grading. I don’t think that can be skimped on. As I use these last two days before the final papers come in to catch up on the straggler grading I haven’t had time to do, and frantically put together the text of the final exam that I guess I’ll be grading all next weekend, I am just really struck by these structural constraints: the number of students conflicts with the kind of pedagogy which undermines balance in my work life. And how to fix it–FEWER STUDENTS IN EACH SECTION–seems like the one thing we’re not able to do.

Maybe someone will invent an app to solve all these problems. But I don’t think so.

balance · mental health

Staying Afloat: In Praise of Micro-Breaks

The relative quiet on Hook and Eye is a good measure for where we are in the term, no? Drowning in marking? Lecture prep never-ending? Class discussion reminds you of Sisyphus? Hey, we’re all in the same boat more or less, I assume. This week was not especially kind to me–but what week 10 in the term can ever be? First, my cat was sick over the weekend. I don’t mean to make comparisons, but, at least, when the kids are sick, they can tell you what hurts. Cats just go and hide, and stop eating, and you know something’s awry. Plus, when I was going to get him, trying to coax him out, and tempt him with what I know to be irresistible cuisine to him, he would just give me these wide-pupiled stares that just made me more desperate. I almost took him to the vet emergency on Sunday night, but settled instead to giving him water with a syringe to make sure he didn’t dehydrate. Then, during the night, he came in my bed, and I knew he was doing better. And that was before the week even started.

However, as crises are wont to do, this one, after passing, served as a good reminder that work is just work, even in huge quantities, and dwelling on that quantity, and its propensity to generate yet more work rather than to diminish, does nothing but increase anxiety, and take away any possibility to relax, and enjoy at least some breathing space. A turning point in my perspective, that one.

It was the switch that turned my fatigued brain around. Yes, it’s a lot of work (between the marking, and the marking, and did I already mention the marking?), but whining about it will make it neither more pleasant, nor more likely to dissipate spontaneously. Instead, I can take better care of said overworked brain by consciously directing my attention elsewhere. I take micro-breaks in-between grading one paper and the next, and procrastinate consciously, creatively, and, most importantly, guiltlessly. For example, I engage in:

– Day-dreaming: Instead of going reflexively to Twitter, email, etc., in-between one paper to be graded and another, I can lift my eyes up from the computer (I grade electronically), and think about all the wonderful things that will await me when I am more time-rich (in 4 weeks, but who’s counting?). Books, Gilmore Girls streaming on Netflix, 3 remaining episodes of Outlander.

– Planning for next term: I’ll be honest with you: I don’t hate grading (ssshhh, don’t tell anyone!). I enjoy engaging with students’ ideas, and I love the spark they give to my own creative process. One word, turn of phrase, or idea can sometimes provide that click that my own ideas need to settle into place.

– Thinking about what activities will fill my weekend. I never–well, almost never–work on the weekend, what with two kids needing and vocally demanding entertainment, and I find this habit to provide the best balance to keeping my brain afloat. What’s going on in the city that is cheap and kid-friendly? What restaurant or cuisine will we try? What’s the weather going to be like?

I know, I know: any of these activities can lead into longer breaks, and procrastination can flourish. So what? What is the worst thing that will happen if you take a break (or a nap, I won’t tell anyone!), even a longer one. It means your brain needs it. It means you might just be healthier in the longer term. It might mean you will be able to do more, and more efficiently, when you come back. So, go on, take that (micro-)break!

balance · grading · yoga

Holding your sense of humour

I just got my braces all readjusted yesterday. I had been on tray 28 of 32, but everything had to be recalibrated, and after an hour of my orthodontist yanking on my face and doing what felt like hammering, I restarted on my new tray 1 of … 34. That was bad news. And it hurts like hell.

My daughter’s teacher sent home a note indicating that Munchkin is “significantly behind in what concerns the homework assignments.” Oh great. That’s on me, because the homework needs to be explained and supervised and I’m the French speaker at home.

My husband fell down the porch stairs in the rain, while putting up Halloween decorations.

My class got shifted to another room for a special event, and when I put the poster on the door, I listed the wrong room number.

The indignities and injuries are piling up at the same time as the grading and the writing deadlines and SSHRC adjudication season for me. I’m grumpy. But this:

I went to yoga last night, and as we moved into a tricky and extended balance sequence, my teacher instructed us to hold our hands in this tented-fingers position. It was, she told us, so that we could hold our sense of humour, keep it close.
So there we were, on one leg, tipping forward and kicking back and rolling up into some awkward and unstable sort of floating half moon pose, trying to keep this soft tent of fingers together, gently cradling our sense of humour, delicately, in the midst of difficulty and effort and sometimes falling over.
It’s hard to keep your hands like this when you are getting a foot cramp on your standing leg and your thigh is burning and your balance is super off and you’re about to fall over. The tendency is to let the arms flail out for balance, or, conversely, to jam the hands together, in a hard clench. It takes real skill to go through the hard stuff and keep your fingertips softly touching, but if you can do it, your jaw unclenches. You relax a little. You remember to laugh when you fall.
At the point in the term, then end of Week 9 for me, with 40 new papers to grade every week, and a final to plan, and two more online quizzes to create, and managing the graduate program and adjudicating the SSHRC apps, and trying to not get any more notes home from grade three, well, it’s hard to not clench. It’s hard to hold onto my sense of humour, gently.
I’m trying colourful pens, mint tea, shared videos of adorable animals on Facebook, early bedtimes, and some self-compassion.
How are you managing to ‘keep your fingers tented’ at this tricky balance point in the term?
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.