day in the life · DIY · gradgrind · guest post

Guest Post: Why We Work

How much of graduate students’ time is truly their own? This post confronts this question by focusing on grad students working outside of their department or the university, and thus outside of their departmental funding. The authors of this post, one MA student and one PhD candidate, have each held/continue to hold such positions, and have been actively involved in an ongoing conversation in their department about whether these forms of work are appropriate and/or necessary.
While the piece is presented as a dialogue, both authors wish to emphasize the fact that this post is building upon numerous discussions each of us have had with other graduate students, faculty members, family and friends. This blog is therefore not intended as a definitive account of the matter, but is instead an attempt to highlight and work through some of the issues of importance surrounding this debate, as well as what we see as a broader disconnect between faculty vision and student realities.
K: Graduate student employment has become a point of discussion in our department. To simplify it, some faculty members were surprised at the number of grad students working in other departments and outside the university, and expressed a desire to limit our work hours in various ways. I became concerned about the assumptions that were being made about grad students and our needs, and I wanted to extend this conversation further. The way I understand it is there is this model English grad student, with certain desires and needs and practices, that is being supported through these guidelines. But there are many ways in which this model is outdated or wholly unrealistic.

M: Kaarina, I think you’re absolutely right that what seems to be at stake here is not just existing regulations and whether they are enforced, but a broader conception of who contemporary graduate students in the humanities are, and what they want or need to work successfully.

One of the ways concern about external work has been expressed, for example, is fear about time to degree completion. And it’s not that this isn’t an issue in academics, or that most graduate students aren’t crushinglyaware of the possible consequences of not completing their projects in a ‘timely’ fashion. But why, when there are so many studies out there demonstrating that completion times are rising across the board because of the uncertainties of the academic job market and other aspects of post-degree life, should non-departmental work be singled out as a cause in this way?

And, to get back to that ideal grad student again, this suggestion that extra-departmental work can only slow us down really seems to reduce us all to one type of worker. Many of us, I think, really value our time spent working on stuff that isn’t our own project, and find that getting some distance actually makes our work easier to return to and focus on. And we know this about ourselves, because we’re competent, professional adults who have, by this point, spent a long time in school. This doesn’t mean we’re beyond the need for guidance or support, but it does mean that the idea of being told how we can or should work best is more than a bit troubling.

The department we work in also emphasizes its interdisciplinarity quite a lot. It was definitely stressed to me during recruitment, and it’s all over the department website. Many of the students in my cohort identify their work as interdisciplinary. So I would think that gaining experience in other departments and beyond the university itself, would be considered not just permissible, but…necessary, even? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but my time teaching in Writing Studies, for example, has been incredibly valuable to my project. Not to mention that experience focusing on writing instruction makes me a better teacher within my home department! It sorta feels like everyone wins, here.

There also seems to me to be a broader connection to make here between the need for interdisciplinarity and the need for departments to really come to terms with the fact that the graduate students of today are not the graduate students of yesteryear. We don’t (and can’t!) identify primarily or exclusively as researchers. And from Day 1 in graduate school, many of us have been told that this is healthy, that we can’t get attached to the idea of a tenure-track job in a context where such positions are rapidly disappearing. If the Ideal Grad Student (™), is a trope that needs to be used at all, then, it should at least be updated to account for this context. And our department is making strides in these areas in several respects; we recently hosted a series of events related to alt-ac preparation, for example. But there seems to be a disjunction between the department accepting that a broader conceptualization of professionalization is important and necessary, and the ways in which these attempts to limit graduate students’ abilities to work outside the department necessarily contradict that awareness.

K: And obviously, money is a major factor. Even when funding is good, it’s only so good, and there can be a lot of unspoken discrepancies in funding between different students or different institutions. The rhetoric of adequate funding is totally bewildering–it does not account for the different needs of students who are supporting others, paying off debts, travelling to see loved ones, or simply saving for an unpredictable future.

M: YES! The language of adequacy really tends to treat graduate school as if it exists in this completely contained vacuum. This ignores not only the areas of life that fall outside of research during the course of the degree, but also the fact that we have lives that will go on after that degree is completed, and which cannot simply be put on hold.

K: For my part, one way I managed my stress this year was by taking on a second job to eliminate financial stress altogether. I don’t have to worry about making ends meet, and that has been a huge relief. Otherwise, my relatively excellent funding would put me below the poverty line.[1]

M + K: To move beyond the level of our department, this seems to be fundamentally an issue of transparency. There is so little transparency around funding, and this manifests in all kinds of ways. In discussions with other students, for instance, we’ve noticed a recurring theme of surprising ignorance (willful or otherwise) among some faculty about how and how much their students are funded. There have also been serious issues of over- and under-payment in our department, and these mistakes are indicators that the administration does not fully understand or care how our finances function. And ultimately, these ambiguities have real, material effects here and beyond. As Zane Schwartz explains, the U of T’s strategic deployment of the language of ‘wage increase’ deliberately relied on a similar lack of transparency, and used it against its students and employees.

Put simply, our struggles over graduate student labour here are necessarily part of the dysfunctional labour scene at most universities. We hope this post can function as an invitation broaden the conversation beyond both our institution and graduate studies itself. There are, for instance, important continuities and contradictions between attitudes toward graduate student labour and approaches to contract adjunct labour.
Kaarina Mikalson is completing her MA, and she is about to defend her thesis on Canadian fiction from the Great Depression. She is the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War, and a research assistant for CWRC.
Megan Farnel is a SSHRC-funded doctoral candidate working in the fields of new media, affect, and materialist studies. She is blogging her dissertation over on HASTAC, and blogging some more over the summer for UAEM Alberta.

[1]According to info from Statistics Canada.
Low income cut-offs before and after tax by community and family size, 2011 constant dollars.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, 27 Jun. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · day in the life · PhD · weekend

I Am Dayanara: Skill Building Through Role-Playing Games

On Sundays at 5:00 pm, I stop being Melissa and I become Dayanara. I’m a regular ol’ alt-academic from freezing Toronto who loves running and reading with a cat in her lap. Dayanara is the eldest daughter of an oasis-tribe chieftain in the deserts of Drujenna, her main job is international diplomacy and avoiding being kidnapped by bandits, and she wields a mean oaken staff. We don’t have much in common but our shared affection for caffeine and nice shoes, and that’s a big part of the reason why I love being her for a few hours every week.

Dayanara runs around with a pretty motley crew. There’s Owen, the burly enforcer with a usefully enhanced tolerance for pain (who is, amusingly, my gentle husband by day); Clodhopper, the inept keeper of the caravan’s inventories with a fondness for silly shoes; Lysander, the explorer and swordsman; Quisentus, his trusty sidekick of many hidden talents; Liesl, the not-terribly-perceptive tracker; and a host of other minor characters who appear and disappear as needed. And, of course, there’s the gamesmaster, who has ultimate say over the shape of our story and how our characters deploy their skills, talents, and possessions within the bounds of the story. At present, Dayanara has just worked with Lysander and the others to defeat a marauding group of banditti and is working, across a difficult language barrier, to communicate to these caravan-bound weirds what exactly she’s doing out in the desert.

When the six of us sit around my dining room table on Sunday night, if an outside observer were to ignore the dice and GURPS books everywhere, the scene might look not unlike any meeting that happens in or out of academia. There’s a lot of talk about what our goals and aims are, and what we can do to best achieve them. There’s a lot of compromise, either mandated by the role of the dice when you don’t have enough points to accomplish what you want to, or required by the gamesmaster, who places limits on what we can or cannot do in order to move the story in the right direction. There’s a “yes and” spirit not unlike in improv, where we all have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing and then try to move things forward by using their actions as a launching pad. And there’s a ton of collaboration, because most of the time all of our characters are doing something together, whether it’s talking, fighting, or strategizing, and we naturally understand that we’re more effective when we work in tandem.

It’s going to seem like I’m going off on a tangent here, but I assure you that I’m not. The American Historical Association and the Scholarly Communications Initiative have both done work in the last few years to identify the essential skills that PhDs should possess in order to succeed careers in and out of academia. The results of AHA focus group studies with with potential employers, university faculty and administration, and PhDs beyond the academy was a list of four key skills:

  • Communication, the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media
  • Collaboration, the ability to work collaboratively toward a common goal, especially with those who hold different opinions or values
  • Quantitative literacy, the ability to understand and engage with information in numeric form
  • Intellectual self-confidence, the ability to quickly master information and form intelligent opinions beyond one’s expertise and to pivot among many tasks

In surveys conducted with the employers of people with PhDs, the SCI aimed to identify what skills and experience PhDs were missing when they made the transition into a non-academic workplace. The overlaps with the AHA findings were significant:

But perhaps even more interesting were the skills that PhDs believed they gained in grad school, and the places where there was a serious mismatch between the training needed, and the skills acquired:

Doing a PhD, it seems, isn’t very good at teaching us how to collaborate–although it does seem to do a better job than PhDs think it does, based on the fact that only 54% of employers believed that their PhD-holding employees needed collaboration training, while 91% of PhD graduates believed they were lacking it. But do you know what is good at teaching collaboration and interpersonal skills? You guessed it–role-playing games.

This is not to say that RPGs could or should become part of the PhD curriculum anytime soon, but just as there can be value in creating a shadow resume of work that doesn’t make it onto the C.V. but help develop employment experiences and skills, there can be value in creating a section of the shadow resume devoted to extracurricular activities that likewise help to develop those skills. I’ve been in my altac job for long enough that I’ve got other collaborative experiences that I can point to in an interview, and plenty of practice in working collaboratively under my belt. But back when I was fresh from the PhD, and looking for a job without a whole lot of experience? Being Dayanara, and being able to point (if only to myself) to my ability to collaborate with others to get things done, would have gone a long way toward making me feel like I had the skills I needed to succeed in a non-professorial job. And, as a nice bonus, the work I do wrangling faculty and getting multi-partnered initiatives off the ground makes me better at RPGing. I don’t have any plans to stop turning into Dayanara when the clock strikes five, and it’s nice to know that she and I are good for each other.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · back soon · banting · day in the life

Another One Bites the Dust, or, an End of Term #Altac Update

I’ve got 5.5 working days left in 2014–less, if today is a snow day like it might be. It’s hard to believe that another term is over, that I’ve been working full-time in FGS for nearly a year and a half now. It’s very hard to believe how agonized I was about leaving academia, to remember the long, awful time (years, really) of not knowing what I would do with my life post-PhD. It seems silly now, all that agonizing, but it really wasn’t. It was a symptom of not knowing who and where would value my graduate training, of not knowing that there were workplaces that could be as, or more, fulfilling than an academic department. I’m learning about more and more places and people that do value what PhDs bring to the workplace every day. And I’m as convinced as ever that leaving academia was exactly the right decision for me, and could be for so many others. I’ve spoken to quite a few readers over the last couple of months–thank you, you lovely people–who have expressed their appreciation for being able to see what an #altac job, and an #altac life, looks like from the other side, from the inside. I wish I’d had more access to that kind of information and perspective myself, and I thought it might be time for an update. How’s this #altac thing going, a year and a half later? What’s it like?

It is, in short, pretty great.

Yesterday was a excellent example of my new normal, and pretty representative of why I love it. I woke up, as I do, at 5:15 and worked on my dissertation for a couple of hours. The lack of pressure–not feeling like my entire future rests on this one document–means that I enjoy my writing time most days, and I definitely look forward to it when I wake up in the morning. (Say what? This was definitely not the case when I was writing full time). Yes, writing can still be excruciating, but I know what a bad writing day feels like (oh, do I) and it’s been a long time since I’ve had one as bad as those I had before I took my #altac job. I relish writing as time for creativity and independent work, in contrast to the more collaborative and administrative work I do when I get to the office. And just needing the dissertation to be defendable, not appealing to some mysterious hiring committee, means that I’m taking risks with my writing that feel very right but that I never would have taken had I been taking this dissertation to market. Instead, I’m hoping to publish it as a work of popular literary history, which means that more than three people might actually read it. Huzzah!

After writing comes getting dressed in real clothes, which I still like doing (it helps that I’m a total pencil skirt fetishist and love an excuse to buy beautiful ones and wear them every day), and then about 45 minutes in transit, which I used to read Nigel Slater’s delightful The Kitchen Diaries and make grand baking plans for the weekend. The idea of spending at least an hour and a half every day commuting was probably the most worrisome thing to me when I got offered my job, but it’s turned out to be no big deal–I go north when most commuters are going south, so the train is usually quiet, and I mostly just read and relax. At the office, I spent most of my day reviewing the final draft applications submitted by our eight Trudeau Foundation Scholarship nominees and compiling their final packages, which is very fulfilling work. I’ve been coaching and supporting these students since May, and they are, without exception, brilliant, kind, committed, and interesting people who are doing important research, research which I’ve taught them to write and talk about in ways that are compelling and direct. Working with them is definitely the best part of my job. Of course, I also spent a good part of my day answering email, and then polishing up a PowerPoint presentation about the research being done by our top doctoral students for our annual Scholars’ Reception. At lunch, I curled up with a book at the campus bookstore, which is actually a very cozy place to hang out. I love how much time I have to read now, and how I don’t feel guilty about reading things that aren’t dissertation-related.

In the afternoon, I got to hear the Provost say lovely things about those same top graduate students (things I wrote for her, which is pretty fun), hang out with many of the students I helped win major scholarships this year and last, and spend time outside of the office with my co-workers, all of whom I like rather a lot. At the end of the night, a very senior administrator smuggled me a giant piece of blue cheese from the cheese tray to take home. When I got home, a home that was sparkly clean because I can now afford some help around the house (as Aimee says, we have more money than time) and full of fresh produce (CSA delivery FTW!), I made dinner while my partner finished his last assignment of the term (like me, he works full time and studies part time). After dinner, I continued re-reading Sandra Djwa’s biography of P.K. Page–I’m on a big Canadian literary biography kick, which is really driving my writing at the moment–with my cat in my lap, and got so cozy that I fell asleep on the sofa. I didn’t think about my day job once.

It was a great day, and I have lots of days like it in my #altac life. Of course, not every day, or even every month, are like this. The fall rush is a real challenge, especially this year when I was developing a dozen Banting postdoc applications and forty Vanier and Trudeau applications simultaneously, while also executing the launch of our Graduate Professional Skills program and coordinating all of our normal scholarship competitions. There were some 18 hours days and many weekends spent working. Sometimes, when 7:30 am rolls around, I do really wish that I could sit and keep writing just a few hours longer. I’ve figure out how to make time for writing despite the fact that I come home from work mentally wiped out, and don’t get home until nearly 7, but I haven’t quite figured out where exercise fits into this schedule.

But now that I’m doing most things at work for the second time, my anxiety level is so much lower, as is my understanding of where and how to prioritize. I’ve found ways to stay engaged with my same academic community, just in a different capacity–I’m still doing the MLA, Congress, and DHSI this year, but I’m now speaking about graduate professional development and careers instead of poetry, and I’m teaching, instead of training, at DHSI. Even better, work pays for me to do some of this. I’ve got a bunch of exciting research projects and conferences in the pipeline, and opportunities for more come my way as part of my day job. I get paid well, I have great benefits, and I live exactly where I want to. I am convinced that no tenure-track job would give me all of this, and when a position in my field, in my current department, came up earlier this term, I didn’t feel even an ounce of envy. It also makes me really happy to talk to others, who I hear from more and more often, who have taken #altac or #postac jobs and are totally contented with their decision. Many of them, including me, have written transition stories for From PhD to Life, which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t already. Where are All the PhDs? is another great resource.

So, that’s me, reporting from the #altac. Another term bites the dust, and I’m off for three weeks to do all the holiday things and hang out with Erin in Vancouver at the MLA. Wishing you all a restorative winter break and the happiest of new years. See you in 2015!

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · day in the life · translation · writing

Seeing the Links: Transferring Skills between Work and Research

I do a lot of different things at work, mostly because despite all of the moaning about the explosion of administrators, there really aren’t enough people in our office to go around. It’s also a little because I’m not your average Research Officer. Many of you have probably worked with someone in my role at your university, especially if you’re a faculty member putting in a grant application. The other Research Officers at my university focus mostly on that–helping faculty prepare grant applications and then administering the grants post-award. Because I work with graduate students and not faculty (and there are far more students than there are faculty), I end up being a bit of a jill of all trades. I manage our graduate scholarship competitions, oversee research requiring ethics approval or an intellectual property agreement, coordinate our graduate professional skills program, run research-based competitions (like the Three Minute Thesis), and develop applications for grants and fellowships like the Banting postdoc. My job is often a bit harrying, but it’s endlessly interesting, and it’s always rewarding to feel like I’m useful and valued.

I genuinely enjoy almost all of the parts of my job (some of them in smaller doses than others, like wrangling schedules to get a dozen faculty members in a room to adjudicate scholarships), and I’m good at all of them. But I’ve discovered over the last year that I especially love, and am especially good at, developing fellowship and grant applications. What “development” means changes depending on the application, but it can mean anything from copyediting to substantive editing to writing whole sections of the application (like all of the institutional documents for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship). Because I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of scholarship and grant applications (I have to review every SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR application that comes through our university, and that’s quite a lot of them with 6, 000 graduate students), I’ve become–almost by osmosis–really good at knowing what a winning application looks like. I’ve become even more fluent in the genre of grant writing than I was as a grad student. I’ve also become good at helping people get past their own lack of fluency in the genre of grant writing, and their inability to translate what they’re doing in their research into words on a page. I love that part of it, because it means that I get to work closely with brilliant people who just need a little help to figure out how to write about their research and its importance in ways that are clear and compelling to other people. And I love it because it means I get to write, and feel confident while I’m doing it. I know what I’m doing, I’m good at it, and I get heaps o’ praise for doing it well.

It’s quite the sea change from my life as an academic writer.

I’ve been writing essays and articles for going on twenty years now. It seems like writing about my own research should feel effortless by this point, given how much practice I’ve had doing it and how well I know the subjects about which I write. Instead, it’s sometimes the complete opposite. Writing about my own research can feel like pulling teeth, while writing about other people’s research just feels fun. It’s much more difficult to get into the flow state while I’m doing writing for myself, and it’s even rarer that I get praised for what I’ve written. Or rather, I should say, it was. I don’t have a lot of time for writing these days, other than snatched moments at 5:30 am, but it tends to go well when I do. It wasn’t until recently that this mental disconnect, between my work writing and my research writing, and the changes that my work writing were inspiring in my research writing, became obvious to me.

It’s clear to me that I’m good at the writing I do at work because of my long experience with academic writing. We don’t talk about it as much as we could, but graduate students are becoming ever more aware of the ways that the skills they develop during their degrees can be transferred into future jobs, in whatever field, just the way mine have done. But why shouldn’t it, and couldn’t it, work the other way around? Despite the fact that my job is, from the perspective of many, a distraction from the academic work that I should be doing, it has worked that way. The non-academic, high-volume, to-deadline, highly communicative writing I do every day at work takes skill, and that skill is transferring into my academic writing. I write faster. I write more clearly. I don’t agonize over word placement and the perfect turn of phrase, because I’ve gotten out of the habit in a work environment where I just don’t have time to. And I’m sure that the confidence in my writing ability I’ve developed at work, bolstered by the positive feedback I get from those I write to and for, has done wonders for my confidence as an academic writer.

The idea of the shadow C.V., of taking on outside work before or during the PhD to gain some breadth of work experience in anticipation of looking for non-academic employment, has been around for awhile. But the major criticism of doing this other work is that it takes students away from their degrees, forces them to do multiple things instead of the one thing that they should be doing. It also insinuates, as does most rhetoric about hobbies and non-academic work in academe, that doing anything other than pure academic work will make you a bad academic. I don’t disagree that time is certainly an issue there, as it is for me in trying to finish a dissertation with a full time job. But just as I’m increasingly wary about the artificial divide between academic, alt-ac and post-ac jobs (isn’t a job just a job?), I’m also increasingly wary about the idea of non-academic work only being useful in non-academic contexts, and I’m calling foul on the idea of non-academic work making people lesser scholars. Just as the skills and expertise I developed in grad school got me my job and made me good at it, the skills and expertise I’m developing as a Research Officer are making me better at my research. Which is as it should be, no? So can we stop disparaging academics who have interests or do work outside of academe, stop denigrating non-academic work as a distraction from (or to the detriment of) “pure” academic work? Skills are skills, inside or outside of the academy, and honing them one place only sharpens them for use in the other. I’m only surprised that it took me so long to figure out that the river runs both ways.
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?

bad academics · balance · being undone · day in the life · free time · mental health · productivity

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can’t get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow …]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I’m running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn’t even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I’m a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I’m asking myself:

  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I’m listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?

There’s a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it’s difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you’re trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it’s enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here’s to the blank spaces and what they do for us.

balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

day in the life · kid stuff · modest proposal · parenting · righteous feminist anger

Snow Daze

This morning dawned bright and clear and dangerous: the coldest weather ever recorded in Waterloo. Environment Canada was telling people to stay indoors and leave their taps running. Daycares, all the schools, our dance studio, garbage collection, day programs for seniors, all cancelled. Exposed skin could freeze in 5 minutes. A blizzard or blinding squalls were also predicted.

The university? Remained open.

Now, this is Canada. It gets cold. Dudes, I’m from Kirkland Lake, Ontario–45 minutes away from where that guy filled the Super Soaker with boiling water and sprayed ice crystals. I see your Uggs and raise you my knee-high Sorels and an array of lined deer-stalker hats. However. This was extreme weather, full stop, and certainly extreme for Waterloo. Everything else in town was closed. Many students rely on unreliable public transit, and waiting for buses outside is dangerous today. Hell, parking in our assigned space 1km away from our offices exposes us to dangers in this weather. If you can get your car to start. And navigate the roads. Avoiding those drivers who haven’t cleared their windshields. We should have closed.

The university’s closure policy used to be to follow what the local school boards decided. This was a good policy not least because the school boards get the word out before 7am, while Monday on campus, for example, the university put out its closure decision (“We’re open!”) at 8:52, after we’d had a 6 inch snowfall overnight and all the school buses were canceled. Attendance … was sketchy.

No, the really great thing about tying the university’s closure decision to the school boards was that it made life a whole lot easier for parents. Most of us can’t arrange last minute child care. Some of us couldn’t afford it even if we could. Those of us who are contingent do not feel safe bringing children into the classroom and risking looking “unprofessional.” Those of us with tenure might still not be able to manage our kids and our students simultaneously, depending on age, temperament, and subject matter. Students with children are even less likely to feel able to bring them to class. And I know I’m not bringing my daughter to whatever meetings I still have to go to: she knows too much from dinner chatter and I live in terror of what she might blurt out. Ahem.

The university keeps proclaiming its interest in work/life balance, and in recruiting and retaining female faculty. (The university has a big new daycare! It was closed today, due to extreme weather …) It remains true that in most families, when the kids are suddenly off school, it’s Mom’s problem. At my house it’s my problem if Dad’s got meetings, and it’s Dad’s problem if I’ve got teaching or meetings. It’s very stressful, and today our daughter spent the morning playing the My Little Pony video game on her father’s iPad, in his office. I dropped them off right at the building door, before driving to the closest parking lot I could pay dearly for, and staggering in to my meeting.

I know this is a very specialized problem. I know that many businesses in the so-called “real world” don’t close in bad weather. But taking “sick days” to deal with child care on snow days is not really possible if you’re teaching or taking classes.

All I’m saying is, I guess, that the old system was more humane. It aided work life balance, and was attentive to the needs of women in particular. Sometimes we got a snow day that turned into soft rain and a bad call, maybe once out of every 10 snow days (so every 4 or 5 years). I think that’s a fair price to pay for making the lives of a community of more than 30,000 undergraduate students and 5100 grad students, 1100 (full-time permanent) faculty members and 2200 staff members. The university is the size of a big town, and has a lot of decision-making power, and it seems to keep choosing to grit its teeth in the face of real life, domestic and climatological. The rest of us are grinding them, stressed out and frozen and dragging seven year olds across the frozen steppes with us. Take the lead, UW: be better.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · balance · commute · day in the life · transition

The Non-Academic Day-to-Day Debunked

From what people tell me, life as a tenure-track professor isn’t all that different from life as a PhD student, especially with the increasing expectations that grad students will be presenting at conferences, publishing, and doing service activities. Sure, you teach more. The pressures to publish increase. You add supervision and more service to the mix. But the job is fundamentally still flexible (in terms of focus, hours, and location), self-directed, and performed in the same environment with the same types of people. Transitioning from the day-to-day of a PhD student to the day-to-day of a faculty member sounds pretty easy.

One of the consequences of the way that grad students are indoctrinated into the conventions and customs of academe is that the day-to-day realities of working life outside of the academy seem a bit strange, a bit scary, even a bit unsavory. I know lots of us have had these thoughts: Working in an office from 9-5 sounds like a prison sentence. Non-academic work and co-workers can’t possibly be intellectually stimulating enough. No boss is going to tell me what to do. I’m nearly three month into my new administrative position, the amount of time conventional wisdom suggests it takes to settle into a new job, and I’ve been reflecting on what life is like in the #alt-ac compared to my initial fears and expectations. So, what’s it like, you ask, and what did I think it would be like?

Belief: There’s no way I can spend two hours a day commuting.
Reality: Yes, commuting kinda’ sucks. I spent twenty very cold minutes in an extraordinarily long line for the bus this afternoon. But most of the time, it’s actually very pleasant. Sometimes I write, or crochet. Mostly I read. The commute is so automatic now that I’m mostly unaware that I’m doing it at all, and I’ve read more books in the last month than I probably did all of last year.

Belief: I like sleeping in and starting my day when I choose.
Reality: Most mornings, I get up a 5:15 and go to the gym before work. I leave the house at precisely the same time every day, and I have no choice about when I start my day–everyone in my office works the same hours. I don’t mind in the least. It’s actually easier for me to get up at 5:15 than it is to get up later, probably because I’m in a lighter part of the sleep cycle.

Belief: I’ve spent five years working from home, mostly alone, and I’m a total introvert. There’s no way I can be productive and sane working in an office full of people every day.
Reality: I love working around people. I love my cat, but spending my days only with him were making me a little crazy. When I need to focus, I put on my headphones and/or shut my office door. I love office gossip, and that when something isn’t going well (or when it is), there’s always someone to vent to or celebrate with. And you can’t beat co-workers who buy pizza for everyone when their back-pay from a contract negotiation comes in.

Belief: I’m too independent and self-directed to report to someone on a regular basis.
Reality: Probably because my job is pseudo-managerial (I’m staff, but my position used to be management level and mostly still resembles a management role), I have oodles of autonomy. But I like reporting to someone. The PhD is a whole lot of delayed gratification and feedback, whereas office life provides tons of both. It also helps that my boss is straightforward, reasonable, and practical, as well as someone I actually like talking to. 

Belief: I treasure my flexible schedule too much to work a 9-5 with only two weeks of vacation a year.
Reality: Yes, I miss weekday lunches with friends and Friday afternoon movies. But it turns out that a flexible schedule and I are a major mismatch. Anxiety about how to structure my time and about the sense that all the time was work time was the bane of my academic life. Now, 4:30 comes and work is over. I work some evenings, but I work on things I want to–these blog posts, my dissertation, on a friend’s book, with my grade 5 student–and they each have their time in my week. I feel no guilt about taking time for myself, my friends, my partner, my family. My brain positively adores the structure. Yes, I’d love to take off for thee weeks this summer, but I’ll get there eventually.

Belief: No one is as smart and interesting as academics, and any non-academic workplace is going to be soul-crushing and mind-numbing. (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but you know people feel like this, at least a little.)
Reality: My co-workers are awesome. Most of them are not academics. We all love to cook and eat, to trade office gossip, to bemoan whatever drama is going on with the students and faculty we work with, and to talk about our pets and families. No, we don’t debate about theory or David Gilmour. But is my working life lacking in intellectual stimulation? Not remotely, especially not the week that I had to read upward of 50 scholarship proposals in science and math. I can pretty convincingly explain massive gravity now, which is not bad for an English major.

Belief: I work in my yoga pants every day. I’d hate having to get dressed for work every morning.
Reality: Putting together a fun outfit + accessories is just that–fun. It’s nice to feel put together every day, instead of like someone who forewent a shower to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and only remembers at dinner time that she forgot to brush her teeth that morning.

Belief: All I do all day is read and write. What if I never get to write in a non-academic job? Or read?
Reality: I got lucky with my job, sure, but I spend most of my days reading, writing, and editing–nomination letters, instruction manuals, briefing notes, government reports, emails (so many emails), student research profiles, workshop descriptions, presentations, and on and on. With my headphones on and my favourite wordprocessor open, I sometimes forget that I’m not at home dissertating–except that my office chair is way better.

If my transition posts have a central theme, it’s this: the contemplation of transition, of not being an academic any longer, can be terrifying, but the reality is not remotely as terrifying, or as different, as our imaginings. Many of us are so conditioned to think of an academic life as the best kind of life that no other seems like it can possibly compare. Imagine my shock when I realized that the structure, the community, the wardrobe of the non-professorial life would, in combination, make me far happier, less anxious, and more productive than I’ve probably been since I started my PhD. Turns out the day-to-day of life in the alt-academy isn’t all that different, and is just different enough, from the academic day-to-day I once aimed for. Colour me suprised–and pleased.

balance · copper-bottomed bitch · day in the life · emotional labour · femimenace · kid stuff

I’m mad as hell, and I don’t want to feel guilty anymore!

I was having a meeting with my daughter’s principal the other day, about a miscommunication / battle of wills I was having with the grade two teacher around her practice of not respecting our limits around homework. (FWIW, we do 20 minutes a day, and as my girl can’t really read and all the homework is in French, it’s essentially my homework.) In the context of ironing this problem out, I mentioned that we only had so much time in the day, and didn’t want to spend any more of it stressed out about mandatory word jumbles and threats of being sent to the principal’s office for non-completion.

Oh, said the principal, I know how busy you are … I see your husband here, so late, picking her up, and my heart just breaks for you.

Did you catch that?


She’s being picked up from the after school program in the gym. At 5:15. And we move heaven and earth to make it possible, and I’ve just had the mommy guilt bomb dropped on me.

I was too shocked to feel bad about myself. And then I went right to blisteringly angry.

You know, I’ve just plunked my rear end into my office chair. It’s 9:30. This morning I have taken two dogs on individual Poop Walks, snuggled / dressed / coiffed my kid, made her lunch and organized her backpack, got myself showered and dressed and packed up, brought my kid (and two dogs) to the bus stop and sent her off, grabbed a latte from Starbucks, and driven to my Far Off parking lot before the Long March in. My husband got up at 5:30 this morning, to prep for a meeting he had off campus at 8:00 am — he’ll have to bus it into campus from there. He fed and dressed our kid before dashing off. He’ll leave a bit early today so that he can walk a dog before picking up our kid from after school care and meeting me at home.

Both adults in my house work full time, demanding jobs. I travel a lot and he has crunch times that are beyond his control but necessitate some weeks of 15 or 20 hours overtime, a couple of times a year. We’ve paid a real estate premium to live much closer to where we work, to cut our commuting time. I ask for my teaching schedule to accommodate my not starting before 9:30, so I can bring our girl to the bus every morning before bussing in myself. You would not believe the number of meetings I’ve been involved in, fighting for faculty rights to express preferences like this, because there’s a movement to make us all normatively available from 8am to 5pm, M-F for teaching at will. My husband starts before me, and takes a shortened lunch so he can pick her up from after school care (after walking 15+ minutes out to our parking lot, then driving 10 minutes) just after 5. He has to juggle meetings and coworkers who tease him about doing so much child care. He’s usually the one who has to pick her up in a crisis, as she only seems to throw up / get diarrhea / hit on the head while I’m teaching, and so the school can only get him. We’re pretty proud of the juggling and the arrangements and making ways to prioritize our girl’s needs.


It’s not good enough, apparently.

To hell with that. Who are all these parents who are at home for their kids to be bussed back at 3:30? Who don’t need morning daycare (we’re so lucky we can work around that) because school only starts at 9:05? That’s great if that’s your lifestyle and your choices, but can this really be so normal as the principal makes it out to be?

My issue was that I don’t want to spend more than 20 minutes a day doing homework with my daughter. I like to take her to the zoo, to rake leaves and jump in them, watch TVO documentaries about animals, paint her toenails ten different colours that she’s chosen individually, snuggle in the big bed while pretending to be baby bunnies, baking muffins, reading books. The issue somehow became how our poor daughter languishes for ages at school because no one can pick her up until “so late” and that’s why her oh-so-necessary homework isn’t getting done.

I thought, from our tremendous financial, real estate, and job-flexibility advantages, we were probably doing pretty well — that it was probably normal for a kid to be gone for about 8 hours in a day. I was shocked to get rhetorically disciplined in this way.

Mommy guilt and mommy shaming are pretty gruelling: emotionally awful, and unfair, and blind to the ways the world actually works.

I’m a pretty good mom, actually, and my husband is an excellent father. Our girl is happy and secure. I’m not going to let anyone make me feel bad about trying to find a way to have a career, and for my husband to have his career, at the same time.

We’ve managed to do it. And if there are those–some of the actually at the school!–who want to make us feel bad about it, well, I’m pretty much done listening.