disability · enter the confessional · grad school · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: #ADHD in the Academy

Hello, dear readers! Today we have a guest post from Devon Moriarty (Twitter: @devmoriarty), a PhD student in my home department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Devon writes about navigating university pre- and post-ADHD diagnosis. Her candor here is really valuable to me personally, as I was diagnosed myself this summer (ADHD/ASD) and am trying to figure out what it all means. So a great big thanks to Devon for sharing this!

—-

My elementary, middle, and high school years were easy-peasy. Well, grade-wise I breezed through them, but the recurring comments from teachers on my report card concerned my work habits, namely that I consistently distracted others, disrupted class, and could never bring myself to complete, let alone hand-in, homework. University provided a real shock to say the least, and in the fall of 2009, I was barely scraping my way through an undergraduate degree in Psychology. Having been demoted in my program 4 times, I was now only eligible for a 3-year general degree. Sitting in my Child Psychopathology class, determined to get my marks up high enough to re-enter at least a 4-year General degree (I mean, every term was the term that I was going to get my shit together), I learned about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

As I checked off literally e-v-e-r-y symptom listed in the Professor’s PowerPoint it struck me as odd that I fit the diagnostic criteria for a children’s disorder, and also that this was apparently abnormal—I had spent my whole life experiencing these atypical “symptoms” (I find it odd to categorize my normal behaviour as “symptoms,” thus the sarcastic quotation marks). Long story short, over the next year I received the official diagnosis and finally found the right medication to effectively manage the “disability” (cue sarcastic quotation marks again). My marks skyrocketed. I got back in to the 4-Year-General BA, and even squeezed an English minor in there. The English Department at the University of Waterloo clearly took a chance on me when they admitted me to their MA program given my poor grade performance and lack of the “Honours” on my BA – but I think they’re happy with their decision considering I’m now crushing it in their PhD program. Like, I have even won awards and stuff.

But, I should clarify: medication doesn’t erase the symptoms, but it makes it a lot easier to manage everyday tasks. And FYI, deficit is a really bad way to describe what I experience, because in actuality I pay attention to everything. I have over attention. To illustrate how my brain works here’s a little representative anecdote: When driving at night I find it impossible not to pay attention to the bright sequence of headlights coming from the traffic on the other side of the road. My brain just wants to look at every light as it passes by because it thinks it’s more important than looking at the road itself for some odd reason. (Don’t worry, I don’t actually drive at night having learned this about myself).

But imagine having a brain that is unable to ignore irrelevant stimuli when you’re trying to complete more intellectually demanding tasks: reading a book, writing a paper, listening to a lecture, meeting with colleagues: Oh my gosh, the tapping on the keyboard makes a really cool beat! [lights flicker] I wonder if they use eco-bulbs in this classroom? Why am I so uncomfortable? I should cross and uncross my legs repeatedly to address that issue. I’m gonna tap my feet in sync with the keyboard clicks too. Also remember to nod now and then so it looks like you’re comprehending whatever the heck is going on in this class—but don’t look too engaged or else you’ll be called on. Professor is talking about bell hooks, remember that, bell hooks, bell hooks. OOOOOOOOOhhhhhhhhh, Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way! Oh yeah, bell hooks that’s what I was supposed to be thinking about. bell hooks bell hooks bell hooks, what a strange name, two “thing” nouns. Bells and hooks. What about bell hooks? What was I supposed to remember? Annnnnd its gone. God I’m hungry. I’m going to start eating breakfast every day. That’s what my problem is, lack of breakfast. I can’t believe I didn’t do the reading for today’s class, I hate myself for that. If I ate breakfast, I could have read the reading while eating breakfast instead of wasting my morning playing candy crush. I just love that game so much though. *daydreams candy crush patterns for a while*. Why did the person beside me just change their breathing pattern? Can’t they do it in 4/4 time to appease me? I want them to have equal inhales and exhales, and then this whole class would be more bearable and I could pay attention. I HATE HOW UNEVEN THEIR BREATHING IS. I wonder if I have twitter notifications, I’m going to check right now. And facebook too. And e-mail. Because this is the most appropriate time to do it. DEVON, seriously! PAY ATTENTION. Like you’ve missed everything now and can never catch-up. NEVER. But since you can’t ever catch-up, it’s totally okay that you don’t do work today because it wouldn’t even accomplish anything at this point. You’re right! Excellent reasoning, now I can go home and watch Netflix guilt-free, and I’ll try really hard next term! Also, I can still perform well in the other class because it will be no problem to write that 10-page essay that’s due in 2 days tomorrow. But for real, what was I supposed to remember about bell hooks because it’s really bothering me now.

So, that’s my normal. [ed note: WAIT. THIS IS NOT HOW OTHER PEOPLE MOVE THROUGH THE WORLD??? I HAVE NEVER SEEN A BETTER REPLICATION OF WHAT HAPPENS TO ME EVERY TIME I SIT DOWN TO WORK]

But anyways, I’m writing this guest blog to give advice about being an academic with ADHD, and I think I got distracted.

So let’s get to the advice part:

1) Capitalize on your ability to work under pressure. Boy do ADHD-ers procrastinate, but it’s absolute euphoria when we leave something until the last possible minute, and then just do it in an impossible amount of time. 20-page paper in 72 hours? No problem! High pressure, high stakes often brings clarity and hyperfocus. The problem is, once you’re ABD and beyond, you’re independent without the pressure and structure that deadlines offer. No one’s going to force you to submit a journal article, source out and apply to additional funding opportunities, draft conference paper proposals, or write a teaching statement. You have to find a way to mimic deadlines with immediate, external consequences if you miss them (It really doesn’t work when you set your own consequences, trust me, I tried. I’m such a pushover.) For example, you might find a person who holds you accountable to deadlines, and is genuinely disappointed when you don’t meet them. I joined an agraphia group that meets bi-weekly to set concrete writing goals and to report on the previous goals we all set (shout out to George, Kyle, Monique & Saeed who shame me when writing goals are unmet).

2) Capitalize on your ability to multi-task. During my MA I had one term where I had 3 graduate courses, a TAship, and was working at a local newspaper for 15 hours/week. Oh yeah, and I have 2 kids. . .3 if you include my husband. But dammmmmmnnnn, I was at the top of my game! Like I said before, ADHD brains like to pay attention to everything—rapidly shifting my attention from scholarship, to work, to teaching, to home life helped me to control where my attention was being drawn. With ADHD it’s really hard to maintain attention on a single, time-consuming task, so I find I work most productively and effectively when managing multiple projects or commitments. With multiple projects you can drop one, pick up the other and don’t have to feel guilty about it because you’re still accomplishing stuff.

3) Don’t overcommit yourself. It can be tempting, since you thrive on being overwhelmed to overcommit and you end up letting people down. Don’t do that. Find the sweet spot. Also it’s fine to not work on weekends. I mean you can work a little bit, but weekends are mostly for play not for work.

4) Find productive ways to procrastinate. I really hate writing literature reviews, so to avoid them I’ll do other productive things so that I don’t feel bad. Recently I made my own website and taught myself CSS in the process—fun, but productive. Attend workshops, join committees, offer to guest lecture, reformat your cv, update your 5-year-plan, find a target journal for your latest project, coordinate your travel plans for your next conference, blog. I don’t have advice to avoid procrastination because you can make it work for you.

5) Pomodoros. I’m not talking about basic tomato sauce here, I’m talking about the Pomodoro technique, a time management method where you complete 25 minutes of timed work followed by a short five-minute break. After four pomodoros, you get a longer, 20 minute break. You can download a Pomodoro app to your phone to help track your poms! (Disclaimer: My five-minute break often turns into a lunch hour because I like to procrastinate, or because I’m frustrated because I accomplished nothing in one pom. Other days I’ve banged out 12 poms.)

6) Don’t forget things
a. Lists. I forget things. All the time. Lists help you to not forget things, but the caveat is that you have to remember that you have a list and where you put the list.
b. Bullet Journals. A list, calendar, and productivity tracker all in one journal (journals are harder to lose than lists), and you feel so productive when you can cross completed items off your list! I don’t have time to do these life savers justice, but I encourage you to visit http://www.bulletjournal.com to get the basics.
c. Write things on your hand. Hands are an appropriate place to write really important reminders because you can’t misplace your hands. Use sharpie fine point markers to avoid it washing off when you wash your hands. I’m being serious.
7) Have others review your work before submitting anywhere – One of my Professors once asked if I skipped editing my work. I didn’t, I’m just really bad at it. In true ADHD fashion, I make countless thoughtless errors in my work, but the real challenge is that I often can’t even detect the errors—I don’t even know why. I can edit other people’s work, but not my own. So have a reliable colleague review your work, and return the favour to them too. Teamwork!

I could go on, but I need to do some RA work (by which I mean check all social media streams for notifications immediately).

enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

man-person-woman-face

I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

enter the confessional · mental health

I get by with a little help from my friends … and structural privilege

So here is a thing that happened: last Wednesday at lunchtime, about 16 hours after I put up my post about academic overwhelm, anxiety, and insomnia, my chair emailed me to offer a department-funded grader for 50 hours.

I’m going to wait while you process that for a moment.

How do you feel about it? Tenured prof teaching two classes gets 50 hours of grader help. Prominent blogger complains to the internet, gets rescued by soft money. Struggling and ill professor gets needed accommodation, informally. People behaved like humans to help another human. All of these humans are very privileged. People have way more urgent problems than this prof.

Me? I have many feelings. I feel tremendous relief. I feel tremendous guilt. I have something that feels a bit like shame swirling around. I am embarrassed. I feel grateful.

Those 50 hours are going to cover most of the rest of the grading for my first year class, with 40 students handing in 1 page assignments for the next three weeks with five-day turnarounds, and then handing in 5-7 page papers after that, and then an exam. It’s going to free up about 6-8 hours per week for the rest of the term, hours that I desperately need to do admin work, the grading for my other course, and my prep. I feel I can breathe again, like the level of busyness this 50 hours buys me will be keep me on the intense side of the line, but not on the impossible end of the spectrum where it was before. I have stopped panicking. I only worked for 2 hours instead of 10 this weekend. I needed this.

And yet.

Many colleagues teach more courses and more students than me, labour under the same or worse health constraints as I face, have less security, don’t have offices with chairs to push together for a nap, can’t commute on foot to get some needed fresh air. It was intimated to me that the help is justified under the cover of my (actually pretty damn heavy) administrative role. I am the exception. But there’s nothing really special about me, no way I deserve any more than any one else. In many ways I feel I deserve it less.

Here is another thing that happened: when this incredible gift was offered to me, I almost turned it down, because I didn’t want to be a bother. Also, weirdly, I wanted somehow, deep inside, to tough it out and be a hero, even though the point of my post was to deflate precisely that kind of thinking, that hazing model of academic excellence and bravura. But there it was, in my own head. And then: once I accepted, I felt so much better able to cope with what was left on my plate that I doubted whether I was actually unwell enough to deserve the help in the first place.

I’m narrating all this for you because it is evidence of the structural problems of the academy and my own deeply fucked-up reactions to a needed offer of help. I could show you my FitBit sleep logs and you would see how little rest I have been getting. I’ve been subtweeting my own anxiety for months, under panic of light jokes, like this little one from early in the term:

That tweet? It’s top of mind because yesterday all of a sudden it was all over my mentions again: my tweet was embedded on the main page of Twitter in one of its ‘Moments’ feature. Heading? “Ha Ha Ha” with a gif of a kitten falling asleep standing up and falling over. It was a collection of ha-ha-funny tweets all containing the word ‘micro sleep.’ But it’s not funny. I did fall asleep sitting up grading. I did have a semi-lucid dream. Ha ha ha. Now I’ve got 270 likes and a bunch of retweets labelled ‘teacher problems, lol.’ These should not be teacher problems.

I’m not asking for you to absolve me, dear colleagues. I just need you to know (since so many of you were so kindly solicitous of my situation) that things are considerably better now. And I wish such happy outcomes were equally available to all of us academic workers. And that even though I seem to be pretty open about how awful I felt and how poorly I was doing, I still don’t want to accept help and don’t feel like I deserve it. I went back to class today considerably springier in my step, staring down a full but not overwhelming work week, with a smile and plan. That felt good. But it feels terrible to know that others don’t feel near so well.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

enter the confessional

Not waving but drowning

Okay here’s the thing. Everything is awful and I’m not okay. Have you missed me these past weeks? I haven’t posted because I just couldn’t get my act together. I didn’t even tell all my other lovelies that I needed a break. (I’m so sorry …) I just disappeared.

I find myself experiencing serious overwhelm. I am hurting. It’s not clear to me how I’m going to get through this semester. I just want to be real about it for a moment. Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I push two chairs together in my office, crawl under my coat and fall deeply asleep for 40 minutes. When my iPhone alarm goes off, I’m staggeringly disoriented. Sometimes, I cry.

I pushed back a grading thing by a week, which moved another deadline by a week, for my first years. Still, I’ve graded, for them, 40 short papers, and 120 online quizzes, and answered at least 40 intro emails, and met with a dozen of them in office hours. My fourth years have also produced 35 short papers that have been graded, and they’ve been coming to meet me about their projects, and it’s a new course so I’m hauling ass to get everything prepped. My first year class turned into a new prep too, because my Dropbox got hacked and all my teaching materials disappeared (please don’t give me advice on how to fix this: trust me when I say I’ve tried everything).

A couple of days ago, I told my daughter to stop jumping up and down on the squeaky part of the floor because “I don’t like that noise, and you must stop.” Her response? “Mom, there’s a LOT of things you don’t like.” It’s true. I’m very short tempered and impatient, lately.

The first week back at school I had a dissertation defence. I’ve got through one advisee chapter since then, and half of another, and I have two more on my desk that need my attention. Three students are waiting on me for stuff. I’ve organized two more defences since then, and two others took place this week.

Yesterday, I snapped at my husband in the car, for singing a funny song to make our kid laugh. “It’s too loud and I need you to stop that right now!” I barked at him. Poor man. He’s been making suppers and being quiet, and taking on extra chores. But I’m snappish and mean.

I’ve led four three-hour grad committee meetings, four Fridays in a row. We’ve also had team meetings, and a department meeting. And we’re doing a program review and there’s lots I’m in charge of. And my annual performance review files I had to pull together and narrate. And the kind of crisis that pops up unexpectedly but with great force in a big grad program, sometimes, that takes 10 hours and 30 emails to fix. Also we’re doing an internal recruitment thing that means I’m having a lot of meetings with candidates and assessing a lot of files on my own instead of passing them to the committee. I’m asking for money, I’m planning an event, I’m dealing with people upset about decisions.

From January 30 to February 18, I worked every single day. And every night I slept in two short naps, usually between 11 and 3, and then from 5:30-6:30. I spent the intervening hours with a racing heart and racing mind, miserable. Some mornings, I isolated myself from my family, because I could not bring myself to be nice to them. Everything is too loud and too bright and too itchy, and if you drop a pencil too close to me, I will scream and my heart rate will shoot up to 140.

January 31, I co-planned a rally attended by more than 600 people. I did press, I did promotions. I cooked a meal for a local refugee family on the same day, in a fit of terrible scheduling. It was my birthday, and I had to be dragged out. I cried a little before we went to the restaurant. I missed, somehow, an email from my kid’s school about an important meeting, so I missed the meeting, too.

I wrote a 6000 word research talk, and made a 72 slide Keynote deck to go with it. I spent a (truly lovely, inspiring, and amazing) day at McMaster to present it and meet people. The woman who introduced me made a big deal out of how important Hook and Eye was to her.  It was so touching! When I got back home, every email I’d missed reminded me how that time was not really mine to use for research.

I have two boxes of Cliff bars and a dozen meal replacement shakes in my office. I don’t take lunches. I shovel food in my face dashing between my office and the department photocopier. I guzzle a latte between my office and my fourth year class. I guzzle a Diet Coke between my office and my first year class.

I have to convert the Works Cited for an accepted chapter into MLA 8. I hid from the editor so successfully because I couldn’t find time to do it that she actually phoned my chair. This is my life now.

I’m not well. One day, I had to cancel some meetings because every time I stood up, I got dizzy. My insomnia is literally impairing my ability to think: I tried to drive somewhere a couple of days ago, and when I got in the car I couldn’t visualize the whole route, I just knew which direction to start in. I figured I’d recognize it as I went. I did. That was scary. I had to meet a student today, and I went to school in oversized track pants and my pyjama shirt. I have not had a shower today. I feel like if I have to gussy myself up for one more thing I am going to have a complete meltdown.

I haven’t been to yoga for months, except to teach.

A faculty member recently came to my office to berate me for asking him to spend ten minutes writing a reference letter: did I not know how busy he was? and what an outrageous claim on his time this was? I had a vision of screams and fire and violence. I saw myself grow to the size of the entire building, rampaging. I pressed my nails into my palms and stayed quiet.

I don’t need anyone to help me — that is, this post is not itself a cry for help. It’s reading week now, and I’m going to try very hard to catch my breath. I’ve taken some walks. I’ve played piano. I’ve baked with my kid, and cuddled my spouse. I’m letting myself sleep. I do myself the kindness of reaching out to the people who love me, who are loving me, and it helps. I’m writing this post.

What I’m intending with this post is to just flag that …. what? That I have all kinds of good advice and good habits and boundaries and all the rest of it but sometimes there’s just actually too much work to do. That this can imperil your health and your happiness. That sometimes, mid-semester, all you can do is cling on by your fingernails, cut corners where you can, and wait for it to end. The problem right now is that there is just too much work to be done, and it’s important sometimes just to recognize that. To recognize as well that my body is giving me strong signals that this is not sustainable: the dizziness, and the insomnia, will soon enough knock me flat on my ass, and force me to take a sick day. My body sends important signals, and I should listen.

If this is you, too, please know: I feel you. I’m sorry this is happening. Do not grin and bear it — you might have to bear it, but there’s no need to be cheerful about it. If you want to unburden yourself in the comments, please do. I do not want to normalize or heroize this kind of labour. I want to call it what it is–terribly and unhealthy, and harmful in many ways–and work towards making the kind of university where it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does.

advice · enter the confessional · supervision · writing

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they’re going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing

The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have–you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from “meh, I’ve got LOADS of time” to “BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE.” I call this line, “The Terror Curve.”

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we’ve discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they’re read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to “write something” and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn’t a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like “finish within four years.”

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn’t know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent — the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it’s not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn’t is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not scary and I’m not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror

Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don’t read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn’t write the essays. I didn’t write them because I’m an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn’t hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn’t hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn’t get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it’s easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don’t want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don’t get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh — about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn’t have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it’s only three weeks away …

best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It’s not getting my bum in the seat that’s the problem, it’s not finding the time. It’s not that I’m not writing, even. I’ve done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There’s probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I’m stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I’m trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I’m not sure what professors do in this situation.

I’ve spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they’re overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames …. but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I’m married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. “Look,” he said, “If your student came to you with this ‘draft’, what would you tell them?” And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it’s not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I’m always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it’s going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here’s a first step to take. I mean, I can’t really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It’s not good that I’m finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I’m really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · day in the life · enter the confessional · risky writing

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I’ve been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye‘s history. As I wrote in that post,

And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love.

Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I’ll never be an academic. No, I’ll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:

  • Submitted a grant application I’ve spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I’m finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I’m reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn’t it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job–my life–gets a whole other kind of label and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we’re altac–separate, and to some, lesser. I’ve quite happily adopted this label myself–I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs–when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I’d love if we could just call them–and tenured ones–jobs, full stop.
I have a job.
I am an academic.

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn’t know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there’s nothing #alt about it.

balance · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · food · time crunch

Sunday Suppers

My relationship to food is a long and deep one. I come from a family that prizes Sunday dinners, at home or at my grandmother’s house, where the twenty-or-so of us would gather at least once a month for birthdays and holidays or just because. We’re a family that spends meals talking about other meals, that shares intel on really good cheeses like state secrets. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family nearly every night. My Valentine’s Day was spent cooking for those people, who all piled into our dining room for dinner despite how unromantic or uncool it might be to spend the day of love with your parents. It was awesome. (If you’re interested, we ate Martha’s mac and cheese, which was SO GOOD, plus a green salad with fennel and lemon, and a beet salad with citrus, pickled onion, olives, and pistachios. Mom brought brownies baked in a heart-shaped pan, Dad brought wine, and Colleen brought the secret cheese.)

From the time I was in high school, I was often the one responsible for getting dinner started, and I’ve fed myself–and often other people, roommates and friends and sisters and spouses–almost every night for more than a decade. I’ve kept a food blog, off and on, since 2006. I own somewhere north of a hundred cookbooks, many of which are dog eared and food splattered, plus boxes of cards that record recipes collected from my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my own mom, and the internet. I have a knife callus at the base of my right index finger, and mandoline scars marring the fingerprints on three others. I’m an extremely good cook, mostly because I love to eat good food and I had to learn a long time ago–especially during the dire grad school years, when money was not a thing that we had–to make it for myself. I also really love cooking, the act of turning raw ingredients into something much more than the sum of their parts, of adding a bit of this, and a little more of that, until whatever I’m making tastes exactly like itself. Tastes good. As Tamar Adler would put it, I like exerting my will over a little slice of the chaotic world through cooking.

Cooking is also–and it seems like a cliché to say it, these days–one of my primary forms of emotional labour, of care not only for myself but for the people I feed. And my love of cooking gets in my way when it comes to gender equity at home.

My partner is good at many things, but meal planning and walking into a kitchen and turning what’s in the fridge into a meal is not one of them. He’s a good cook, but because he’s had rather less practice than I have, his repertoire is much more limited, and his ease in the kitchen is less. It seems to me a natural consequence of living in households where women are (expected to be) the primary preparers of food, and because I like doing the thing that keeps us fed, I leave less room than I should to step in and take over. The tension between wanting to cook–to feed us both well–and wanting to create equitable divisions of labour in our family has long nagged at me, especially since cooking is one of the major tasks that make up the second shift, that after-work work that women do rather more of than men. My desire to find different ways of approaching food-labour also has to do with the fact that as much as I love to cook, I hate making weeknight dinners. After all those years starting dinner as the first one home, and because I don’t want to become the human fridge inventory and Magic 8-ball that answers the question of what’s for dinner, the last thing I want to do after walking in the door from work is pull out my knives and light the burners. Too, I work full time, finish my PhD part-time, freelance sometimes, and try do things like sleep and have fun with friends and move my body and watch the new X-Files and have a life that is full but not “busy.”

There is not time to make dinner every night and do all those things.

It’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seemingly found a solution that works for us that does not involve eating avocado toast for dinner every night or resorting to (and resenting) takeout, one that lets me indulge my love of making food, create room for my partner in the kitchen, transfer some of the food-labour to him, and get rid of weeknight dinner making. I call it Sunday suppers, and it is, in essence, a sort of leisurely batch cooking that makes me feel both relaxed and proficient, which is exactly how I want to feel before starting a new week. At some point on Sunday, I put a few things on the stove or in the oven or the slow cooker that will do their thing for awhile, with only a gentle nudge and prod from me as I do other things–read, write, watch Firefly for the thousandth time while I put away my laundry. I pull out my stacks of quart and half-quart takeout containers from the restaurant supply store, a roll of painter’s tape, and a Sharpie. I spend some time turning those simmering, bubbling pots into things that can be at the centre of a meal; this week’s pots of beans and cans of tomatoes became pasta e fagioli, channa masala, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter. There are usually a few pans of roasted vegetables in there, which most often become breakfast with a fried egg on top, or dinner piled onto toast and snowed under with Parmesan cheese, or blended into soup. Sometimes there’s quiche, or a sort of chili-pilaf cross, or Ethiopian lentil stew and greens, or falafel. Later, everything get packed and labelled and stowed in the fridge and freezer. On weeknights, my partner gets to be on assembling and pasta-boiling and salad-making duty, or we do it together because we like being in the kitchen together.

Everyone gets fed. I don’t feel resentful. We eat together, and well. It works, and we both get what we fundamentally want, which is full bellies and time to do the things we love and a marriage that keeps working to break down old barriers and ways of being that don’t work for us anymore.

Now to figure out a better system for the laundry…

enter the confessional · grad school · grading · teaching

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They’re really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It’s dark, they’re tired, I get it. It’s easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn’t really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it’s dark, I’m tired, I’ve been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process–how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill’s book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

“Grading done, lesson not done–crowd source!”

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I’m trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There’s clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there’s something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that’s based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It’s possible that I could have lectured for three hours–I did know the material, even if I hadn’t pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It’s a lot easier to say; “Ugh, my students didn’t do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!” But it’s a lot more productive to say: “You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It’s a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?”

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn’t do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we’re all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we’re not ready to do it alone.

academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?