being undone · best laid plans · failure

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I’ve slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I’d got done in a month. I feel awful–I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don’t even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don’t seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials–so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there’s a new edition of the textbook. I’m prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who’ve already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband’s job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I’m near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I’m too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You’ve probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I’ve done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It’s all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN’T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what’s not working, and try again. It’s refinements big and little, and constant, that’ll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I’ve fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I’ve missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

balance · best laid plans · failure · grad school · having it all · parenting

Parenting in the PhD

Two weeks ago today, I wrote about setting myself up for what I hoped would be a productive and successful semester. I laid out some key strategies that have worked well for me in the past, and added to those an additional goal that I figured would work well to keep my work/life on track.

Two weeks later, you might guess I’d just be getting into the swing of things, finding my rhythm, hitting my stride.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Instead, I’ve most definitely dropped the ball. Last week, my well-laid plans had a big wrench thrown into them in the form of a poor sweet two-year-old, and a particularly nasty week-long bout of the flu.

Two days with my Writing Group? Try two hours!

Teaching prep only on teaching days? I suppose if we’re not counting the wee hours of the morning…

Family Time? Well, I think I nailed that one, if you can count time cuddling my feverish lethargic little girl and don’t count my partner, who I barely saw as we alternated primary caregiver duties in an attempt to manage our disparate work-related responsibilities.

This week, fortunately, my daughter is back to her normal, bouncy, enthusiastic self, and things have settled down a little bit. I’m still catching up on the work I missed, but I managed to attend a full day of writing group yesterday, and actually spent that time writing. My lecture magically wrote itself today (not true, I wrote it), and I even managed to dash off some emails.

But the harrowing trial of last week, among other things, has me thinking a lot about how very very difficult it is to be a graduate student and a parent.

Sometimes, in an attempt to justify my choice to be a parent, I’ve found myself waxing poetic about how fortunate I’ve been to have had such an easy baby who slept through the night at seven weeks, who learned to sit at six months and didn’t crawl until eleven months, who generally has had a very happy, contented disposition and in many countless ways has made it incredibly easy to become a parent. I’ve mentioned to several people how “lucky” I feel to live in Canada, where, as a SSHRC-award holder, I qualified for and was granted a four-month paid parental leave and a stop in my program to care for my newborn daughter. I feel very grateful for the fact that I never had to worry about paying for the healthcare-related costs of pregnancy and childbirth, for pumping space at my university, and for the provincial grant that made it possible for my partner and I to afford childcare when we were both cash-strapped students.

What I don’t mention are the countless nights with so little sleep that my short-term memory couldn’t properly store and process information (sometimes babies sleep through the night . . . and then they don’t), the hours I wrestled with my (4) breast-pump(s), trying to coax out an extra ounce, the weeks and weeks I’ve spent hunched over a kleenex box and computer in a cloudy haze, dashing out words on the page while attempting to ignore the latest illness my petri-dish-daughter transmitted to me. I usually don’t talk about how I lost my university library privileges while on parental leave, or how many times I’ve had to “remind” the university of my parental leave and stop in my program and what that means (answer: more than 3), or the fact that I really really wish I could have taken more official time off but couldn’t because there was no part-time option. I don’t tend to talk about my difficult pregnancy: how many months I spent nearly completely incapacitated by nausea and vomiting (answer: 4), or the crazy migraines that landed me in the hospital, the weeks and weeks of perinatal appointments to monitor my daughter’s development, umbilical cord, kidneys, heart, amniotic fluid, the induction, childbirth… the countless and uncounted hours I spent in a kind of labour that is unacknowledged by the academy.

My point? Doing a PhD and becoming a parent is HARD. It is incredibly difficult. For some people, it is impossible, and this is not their fault.

Sometimes, I think that out of some obligation to our feminist foremothers we tend to gloss our difficulties, as though in order somehow to acknowledge the gains we’ve achieved, we have to forget where we still need to go.

But I think it’s important to suggest that perhaps a PhD and a baby is darn-difficult if not impossible for some women, and there are structural reasons for this impossibility. Perhaps women can’t have it all, and perhaps instead of trying to justify our choices we should work towards addressing the roots of those systemic inequalities and advocating for the changes we know we need to see.

So, I’m just going to throw it out there: what do we need to change in the academy to make things better? When PhD students elect to have children, how can we ensure that they aren’t punished for their decisions?

failure · organization


I’m in a bind right now because of a missed deadline. Not my own. I’m commenting on a paper at a conference next week, but I only got the paper that I am supposed to respond to a couple of days ago, when I had expected it in mid-February. Under different circumstances, I might be able to produce a 10 minute talk with a week’s notice. And, truth be told, under these circumstances I have to, whether I like it or not. But this particular week I also have to teach, return papers, sit on a candidacy exam, finish another presentation for the same conference, prepare a final assignment, go to a doctor’s appointment, pack and get ready to leave and the rest of the usual stuff. 

And did I mention that it’s a long weekend? Before my son was in daycare, a long weekend was just that, a longer than usual break from responding to email, or having to schedule meetings. But now a long weekend means no daycare on Friday or Monday – the two days I had anticipated, and needed, to finish all this work. 

Such is life and I will get the talk finished. In this particular instance, it was difficult to prepare the talk in advance — given that it is supposed to be a response to the other paper. So I doubt that it will be the most thoughtful, well-researched piece of work I have ever produced. But, truth be told, I see little reason in being angry or frustrated given that, at this point, I can’t change the situation. 

This situation is also far from the first missed deadline I’ve encountered in academia. I’m not strict with my students about deadlines: for major assignments I tell them that, within reason, so long as they contact me in advance of the deadline I will consider an extension. And in every class I have ever taught, even with that flexible policy, at least one student has missed a deadline.

The most egregious missed deadlines I’ve encountered have been when editing journals, issues, or books. Chasing down peer reviewers and revisions are the main reasons I can see, why there can be long delays in works seeing the published light of day. The most frustrating situation I found myself in was when I accepted a series of abstracts for a special issue of a journal and then the deadline for the completed paper came and went, with two of the seven contributors submitting nothing. I tried to contact each author repeatedly but never even got the courtesy of a response. 

And I’m far from innocent in all of this. I have missed deadlines because I misjudged how much work I was taking on; because of circumstances beyond my control (such as when I had my work computer stolen); or because I felt that it was worth taking extra time to complete something. 

What have I learned from all these missed deadlines? 

1) Remind students / contributors / colleagues that things are coming due. Repeat.

2) Don’t miss deadlines. It throws everything off and reflects poorly on you. Sometimes it is more important that you show up then that you be the most brilliant belle at the ball. 

3) If you have to miss a deadline, contact the person to whom the work is due and let them know that you are going to be late and give them a realistic alternate deadline. And then don’t beat yourself up about it. Sh** happens. 

On that note, I have a talk I have to go prepare. 

academic work · administration · bad academics · failure · ideas for change

The 11th hour of the 11th hour …

In the humanities, especially, it’s pretty easy to consider the academic life as an essentially solo act, punctuated by meetings we often don’t want to go to, and classes we fuss over as our main chance to interact with human beings. But we’re actually pretty deeply intertwingled with one another, and the fiction we tell ourselves otherwise can generate some pretty rotten effects.

Recently, I did a pretty rotten thing. I was on a committee of three people who’d portioned out a fraction of a load of work to each member, to be collated into the One Thing before the meeting. Well, the meeting was in the afternoon of the day chosen to consider the One Thing, and I did my part in the late morning. This was the 11th hour, if you will. But what I was thinking was: “I’ve still got 90 minutes before the meeting starts, and I’m done!”

Except I had to send my part to someone else to collate before the meeting, and he had asked to have it the day before. So what happened was my 11th hour () became the 11th hour of the 11th hour for the committee member who had to integrate my work into the whole. The third member of our group had got his work done in plenty of time, so at least it was just me who was pushing the edge, but still: while I was happily eating lunch congratulating myself on my timely completion of an onerous task, I had dropped a big last-minute job on someone else, who hadn’t been expecting to use that 90 minutes to add my work into the group project.

By seeing myself as a solo agent, I conveniently forgot that nearly everything I do requires someone else, at some point, to help me out.

Consider these cases.

Have you ever been in the photocopier room on the first day of class? If your department is like any of those I’ve ever been a member of, there will be a steady parade of increasingly frazzled teachers photocopying enough copies of their syllabus to hand out in … 30 minutes, two hours, tonight, 10 minutes. There will be a lineup. Tempers will fray. Paper will jam. People will be running their hands through their hair fairly violently while passive-aggressively harrumphing. But you see, the photocopier is a shared resource and even if my syllabus is technically done “in time” for the first class, it’s hardly fair to expect sole use of the photocopier!

What about filling in those forms that your department might send, about naming which courses you want to teach, and roughly when and where? If I hand that back at the 11th hour, or, as is sometimes the case, beyond it, it probably means that scheduling officer, either a faculty member or staff, is going to have to stay at the office very very late, or work a weekend–because you can be sure I’m not the only one that left it until the very last possible moment. And what if I’ve inadvertently double-booked myself, or too many people have tried to get the same room at the same time? Is the deadline now impossible to make, unless someone exerts a heroic effort on my behalf?

Or those copy-edits I was meant to turn my attention to? Maybe I’ll only be one day late on handing those in, but have I considered that the collection editors have their own deadline with the press that I’ve just made it harder for them to meet without panic or overtime? I know when I was working on the handbook I edit, once it left me it went to an editor, then back to me, then to a copy editor, then back to me, then to a proofreader, then back to me, then into production. It really became clear to me that there were a lot of people each counting on all of the others to get each part done in a timely way, or everyone else would have their own time compressed, then compressing further the time of the next person in the process, and so on.

There’s a lot more of this going on in the academy than we realize.

The grant application has to be signed by your chair, and your dean, and the research office before it gets submitted. The administrative assistant has to check to completeness and the documentation of the yearly expense claims before forwarding them by a university-imposed deadline. A collaborator had booked a specific day our of her week to incorporate her material into your shared bibliography. The committee can’t deliberate until every member has done their prep work.

I am, and you are, probably, a pretty serious procrastinator. I procrastinate on getting my syllabus finalized because I want the class to remain in the ideal state it can only occupy in my mind. I procrastinate on my writing because I find it terrifying. I procrastinate writing letters or peer reviews and answering complicated emails because they are a lot of work. I used to think the only person who was made to suffer under my last-minute regime was me. But that’s not true at all: the admin staff get frazzled, my students are left confused, academic authors are made to wait for decisions on their manuscripts, my colleagues have their time wasted waiting for me.

I used to think, that is, that my not-optimal time management was my own problem, and if I could live with it, then, there’s no problem. That’s just not true. Not true at all.

I’m going to be thinking a lot harder about this problem of the 11th hour of the 11th hour, and change my own practices accordingly. Do you have any strategies? Do you have any more examples of the way the 11th hour problem can create a cascade of stress and panic?

academy · administration · best laid plans · day in the life · failure

Keeping track

How do you keep track of all your obligations?

My fall rhythm is out of whack this year, as I’m not teaching my complement of courses on campus (I have a release from my two classes in order to develop an online version of one of our core courses …). Normally, the times and places that I teach and hold office hours anchor my week and fill my calendar with repeating, regular obligations. “Lather, rinse, grade, repeat,” as it were. Uprooted from that regularity, I find I’m having some trouble remembering everything I have to do, and being in the right place at the right time.

Here’s some of what I’m trying to stay on top of:

  • Executive position on national scholarly organization
  • Executive position on faculty association
  • Subcommittee membership related to same
  • Helping rewrite the university’s copyright documents
  • Chairing a PhD area exam committee (co-create exam, meet with students)
  • Department meetings related to urgent, irregular matters
  • Hiring activities, and visiting speakers
  • Supervising 3 PhD students, 2 MA students, and 1 undergrad, and reading their writing and meeting with them about funding and proposal and dissertation/thesis deadlines
  • Peer review for two publications
  • Meetings with the team helping me produce the online course
  • Blogging at Hook & Eye
  • Applying for conferences and workshops
I keep forgetting things, missing appointments or writing them down for the wrong time or forgetting to follow up on things I’m meant to take a lead on or filling out an email survey or offering feedback on something or answering an urgent question or whatever.
Not teaching, I realize, doesn’t mean I have more free time. I don’t. I do have, though, a lot more unstructured time. My obligations are scatter-shot through the week, every week looking different from every other.
I’m pretty sure if I could figure out a better system, I could stay on top of all of this. None of the work is impossible. But I seem to spend a lot of my time trying to manage my time and figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, and waking up in the middle of the night having forgotten something important, and racing to catch up.
I try really hard to use my iCal, which syncs across all my devices (two computers, a phone, an iPad, the cloud). But I forget to check it. And I am trying to use Things, a great organizer and to-do list for iOS, but again, I often forget to check it. My paper lists are really good, but not if I leave the notebook at school and I have a day at home.
I guess everyone is right: the post-tenure years really are super jam packed with … the drip drip drip of professional obligation. I’ve never ever been trying to do so very many different things where I have so much responsibility, all at the same time. I’m not sure how to do this right. I’m used to big responsibility in a limited number of things that I already know how to do well, and that fit large and regular chunks of time (like teaching, or my research). All the professional work, and all these graduate students, and administration work? This is new. I’d like to be proactive in all my new roles: I have lots of ideas and lots of energy. But I seem to be getting really frazzled just trying to make sure I am in the right placea t the right time, and minimally prepared. I want to do more than that. And I gotta figure it out.
bad academics · failure · mental health

Failing, failure, failed: part 1

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about failing. I probably spend more time worrying about failure than I do dreaming of success. I don’t think this is uncommon among academics.

Lee has been thinking about winning. Me, I’m thinking about failing.

The three kinds of failure that most terrify academics are, I think, these:

  • Failure as not-winning
  • Failure to live up to an established standard, and being told so
  • Failing to create something of value from our time and effort

Let’s hit ’em in turn, shall we?

Case 1: Failure as not-winning.

We often confuse “failure” with  the quality of not-succeeding. We consider ourselves to have failed as academics if we do not win that graduate fellowship, that research grant, that job interview, that award.

This is a mistake. It’s not you–it’s the pool. Or, it’s not you–it’s the department and its needs. Or, it’s not you–it’s the very precise requirements of the funder. Let me be clear: 99% of the time, it’s really, truly, not you.

For me, this is hard-won knowledge, that I have to hard-win over and over again. May I be perfectly frank with you, dear reader? I have tended to always deem myself a failure in these situations because, at base, I am a control freak: I have this cuckoo sense that somehow my own efforts are enough to shift the earth on its axis to secure a desired outcome. It turns out that I do no have such powers. And neither do you. Sanity is restored through the cultivation of a shrugging attitude towards this reality.

Believe me, it’s only four years of near-constant yoga that’s taught me this kind of non-attachment in the face of 15 years of academic failures of this sort. And hoo boy! I’ve had some doozies. Like the job interview where the members of the search committee didn’t talk to me at all during the fancy dinner, after a long day where it had become apparent by 9 in the morning they weren’t going to hire me. Or like my first SSHRC doctoral application that just missed the funding threshold. And! I just lost an election for a departmental committee I really wanted to be on! That had two open spots! WAAAHHHHH!!!!! I suck!

Obviously, even today this kind of “failure” sends me immediately for my Comfort Gin Drink (Bombay-Sapphire-martini-extra-dry-two-olives-straight-up) and a day of maudlin self-pity and self-recrimination. But I try to damp down the failure self-talk as fast as I can.

In any of these kinds of competition, there are always many more qualified candidates than there are prizes and jobs and grants to bestow. I have been on plenty of appointments committees, scholarship adjudication panels, and the like, and I can tell you this much: rare is the application that is considered to be an outright, positive failure. You know, where the committee members enjoy a moment of levity marvelling at the sheer incompetence of it? Howlers do happen, but they are very, very rare. It is more usually the case that committees employ idiosyncratic sieves (and a good deal of arguing) to sift out an application or an applicant of a particular kind of size and density–what that sieve sifts for is largely dependent on qualities internal to the bestowers of the desired thing, and much less so on the intrinsic qualities of the applicant. Once, I won a travel scholarship over one of my good friends, because she proposed to go to Germany and I to France, and the funder had a special keenness for France: my application was no worse than her, nor hers than mine, but the adjudicating committee applied a particular filter that in this case favoured me.

So in these cases, to judge yourself a “failure” for not “winning” is to fruitlessly cause yourself anguish. It still sucks to not win; but not-winning doesn’t make you a loser or a failure, and it won’t help to consider yourself so.  Remember: attitude of shrugging, Gallic-style. Possibly while sipping a martini, or meditating.

Next week, we’ll tackle one of two varieties of real failure: the kind where you actually fail to live up to standard where only you are being measured. Ulp.