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

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

collaboration · free time · grad school · phdchat · self care

Structure for Structureless Schedules

As many of you know, grad school can be frustratingly amorphous. Contra most of my cobloggers, it seems, my schedule isn’t jam-packed, and I have few daily structural commitments–though many responsibilities, some of them paralyzingly huge. While some people thrive without a pre-ordained schedule, I’m someone who needs it: I dwell more comfortably within the parameters of appointments, responsibilities, deadlines, and course slots. So as we enter into a new year and a new term, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve developed for a) carving out my own structure; b) allowing myself some flexibility and compassion within this structure; and c) caring for myself as a human being who requires community and a life outside academia.

1. Maintaining a dissertation completion schedule: years ago, my supervisor made me create a schedule for writing my entire dissertation. From its home in GoogleDocs, that document has been repeatedly revised and updated, but since the diss is the most gargantuan yet nebulous component of the entire graduate experience, it’s nice to have a skeleton framework for the whole–and a reminder that it someday will end. 

2. Keeping a daily research journal: “Daily” is a bit of an exaggeration, let’s be honest, but when I do keep up with sketching out my accomplishments, however big or small, at the end of each day, it makes me feel like I’m moving forward. I prefer a physical journal, because it allows flexibility for doodling, noting down useful references, or writing out a research phrase that I want to keep at the forefront of my mind as I work. Or, er, screaming silently at myself. 

You could also choose to keep a running list of accomplishments and breaks throughout the day, as featured in this inspiring IG by @empathywarrior:

3. Keeping an agenda: Again, I like keeping a physical one, because I enjoy any chance not to look at a screen, but here I write down appointments, deadlines, and sketch out broad weekly goals. Week-at-a-glance type stuff.  

4. Creating an online boot camp:  Over the summer, I coordinated a collaborative online “Dissertation Boot Camp,” based on the Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp my colleague Christy Pottroff blogged about here. We opted for a shared Google Doc, and the idea was to set macro-goals for the summer and the week and micro-goals for the day, posting and celebrating our accomplishments as we went along. The instructions recommended maintaining constant communication, and acting as cheerleaders for one another, developing healthy online accountability. While I found the exercise valuable overall, I’d have to say that it perhaps worked better as a Spring Break rather than an Entire Summer thing: out of nine of us, by end of August only….a few were still actively posting, and the document also became very long and unwieldy, extending to over 50 pages, making it difficult for us to keep up with one another’s progress. But I’m sure improvements in format/medium could be made, and I would certainly try this again.  

5. Creating an online hangout camp: Branching off of Boot Camp, fellow H&E-er Jana and I now use Wikispaces to keep an online goal-setter, where we update each other on a weekly or biweekly basis on intentions and progress. We have a longstanding rapport, so we can be perfectly comfortable with each other; generally, we tend to mix personal and professional, blabbing about our personal lives and venting about other challenges we’re facing even as we’re trying to crank out that chapter draft. 

Other possibilities for this point include: forming small Twitter groups who check in with each other spontaneously to see who is around and up for working for short sprints, Pomodoro-style (I was part of one such group for awhile, I think we sort of dissolved…); creating a secret or invite-only group Facebook page for people who want to track each other’s progress (ditto the last parentheses…). 

5. Finally, I highly recommend the good ol’ fashioned personal diary. Not as explicitly about goal-setting, I guess, but one of my major problems is distraction: I’m reading a book on Peter of Cornwall, but thinking about a particularly upsetting episode of Transparent, or a disagreement I had earlier with my friend. My diary helps me compartmentalize (much as I enjoy the intermixing of work/life stuff, as above), and to channel some of my daily interpersonal drama into a safe, private, nonjudgmental space. Occasionally work stuff creeps into my journal, of course, such as goals or reflections, but its primary purpose is the nonacademic, the things I can’t voice in my many other outlets of professional expression. Additionally, I think keeping a diary has helped me become a more fluid, expressive writer.

As you can tell, I’m a little goal-obsessed oriented. If I go through periods when I’m not listing, that probably corresponds with reduced mental health: I’m feeling unmoored and directionless, perhaps having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

And how about you, dear readers? Any further tips you have for setting and maintaining goals?

Aaaand now I can go record in my research journal that I finished drafting up some thoughts and ideas for my next Hook & Eye post, five days early!

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

-from Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
free time · peer review · perpetual crush · you're awesome

A Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere

Dearest, loveliest, most gorgeous,
Are you surprised that I am beginning with terms of endearment even though we hardly know each other? But you and I know that you really are gorgeous. Oh yes, you. Don’t blush. This is not the time for bashfulness. It is true that I hardly know you. Indeed, chances are, if I walked past you in the street, I would not even know to say hi. But you should know that I am tipping my hat to you, even if I don’t really know you. Indeed, the crazy thing about our relationship is that it is almost completely dependent upon not really knowing you. Our relationship is at its best when I admire you from something of a distance – or at least from arm’s length. Anyways, enough was enough and it is high time I tell you how I feel.
             I need you. Sorry to sound a bit clingy. But I really need you. I’m not even sure that ours is one of those healthy co-dependent relationships. Where would I be without you? Where would any of us (the tenured prof whose book is out with a university press, the precariat worker whose article is now happily out with that sweet little journal you never say on to, the graduate student with that first pub under her belt, the mid-career academic whose grant just bought her a little space and time to get that project together, the mildly totally desperate academic journal editor who is trying to usher through that one last piece so that the next issue can come out) be without you?
             Did you come back from the winter break to an inbox full of “gentle reminders” for things that you had promised in a haze of exhaustion and a rush of nobility? Did you scramble to get all those grant apps assessed, those articles reviewed, that book manuscript evaluated? All while teaching your courses, writing reference letters, maybe pulling together a job app, or (in a slightly different version of peer review) reading lots of job apps files and so on, and so on, and so on. You did it, didn’t you? I know, you were pretty late with some of those. I know you felt bad. But the point is, you got that report in. You totally came through.
              I know, sometimes it hurts.
               Like when your words are referred to as fecal matter and perhaps taken out of context.
               Or when you are depicted as a vicious sharp-toothed sea monster.
               I get it. Our relationship would be nowhere without your brutal and unflinching honesty. Indeed, along with that arm’s length business, this brutal honesty is foundational to our relationship.
               And I know, sometimes you just don’t feel seen, as though you are totally being taken for granted.
              Like, when no one, not even the editor (you’ve given up expecting anything from the actual author because you realize, having been there, that it does feel a bit weird to acknowledge “the anonymous reviewers whose comments were so helpful yaddy, yaddy, ya”) who asked you for this thing in the first place, remembers to thank you.
             Or when you write a ten-page, single-spaced review of a manuscript with detailed notes for revision, and then you see the thing come out in print and the author seems to have ignored everything you said.
              Or when you told the editors that the ms was truly awful and should not be published only to see it out, with nary a comma moved, months later.
              At times like these, you wonder why you bother with this relationship. It’s not for the money (hullo, unpaid and invisible labour? Sign you up!). You wonder if it makes you happy. You wonder why you can’t say no more. You wonder why the relationship feels so one-sided. You put out all this brilliance, and, at best, you get a pre-scripted thank you spit out from some OJS robot. You wonder how it is possible to feel so under-appreciated and so unloved. It’s not like anyone asks you how many pages of peer review reports you wrote this year as part of how they assess your “performance.” Certainly, your dean doesn’t pat you on the back and say, Those peer reviews you did were really great! Good job!
              So maybe you wonder if you should say yes the next time. You wonder if they could at least treat you to a milk shake for once.
              And then you remember that arm’s length thing. I couldn’t hug you even if I wanted to.
               And okay, I know that we are not “exclusive.” Yes, I admit, there are a lot of you in my life. And, even weirder, sometimes I am you. (Woah, mind twister!) You know that this relationship wouldn’t work at all if you were the only one. Think of the pressure!
              And you remember that other people have sometimes done this for you. Or they might. You never know. And mostly, you remember that the profession would be nowhere, really and truly nowhere, without you.
               If you walked out on me tomorrow, the world as I know it would pretty much collapse. I’m not exaggerating. There would be no publications, no grants, no academic books.
               But there’s more. I want you to know that I think about you all the time. Sorry if that sounds a bit stalkerish. Don’t worry. Remember that part about not knowing you if I passed you on the street? But I do think about you. I think about how great you are. I think about how you always come through even though you must brace yourself for potential ingratitude and disregard every time. Not to mention the nagging (hello, “gentle reminders”).  I think about how you are the one who says yes after that poor, desperate journal editor (sometimes me) has been fully rejected by a string of others. You can’t imagine how grateful I am when you say yes. When you say yes, I do a little happy dance. I know you can’t see it. But it’s pretty cute. Trust me.
              So, dear anonymous peer reviewer, I just wanted you to know that I would bring you flowers and buy you chocolates if I could.
               You are marvelous. You step up. You come through. You shine quietly, brilliantly, in that space of anonymity that is the condition of our relationship. Some people might think that I should simply be writing a letter of gratitude. A love letter can be a bit weird given the nature of our relationship (yes, yes, arm’s length!). But I’m not just thankful and grateful. I am, but there’s more.
               I sit at my desk and look around and I see you everywhere – in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there. You make all that happen.
               You make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.
               You rock.
Love,
Lily
academic work · accomodation · commute · family · free time · inconvenience · kid stuff · open letter · parenting

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don’t tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They’ve had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I’m teaching, it’s a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that’s mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these “cinq à sept”, because this kind of party runs from five until seven–note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you’re scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I’m here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I’m kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I’m being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn’t want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I’m not there until 6:45, and who’s going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it’s unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I’m sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am–I know you’ve probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It’s just that I don’t want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,
Aimée

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.

faster feminism · free time · popular culture

Popular culture, gender, and enjoyment

Encouraging things are happening in gender-progressive news these days. Germany instituted a third gender option on birth certificates in November: parents can now choose between M, F, and blank. I love the multitude of possibilities opened by “blank,” instead of having a designated new category with a name, or using the already-existing neutral personal pronoun. As a political move, too, I think it has more progressive potential than any declaration. Alongside this move, but on a different level of impact, Swedish cinemas have taken the step of providing viewers with ratings according to the Bechdel Test, in an attempt to stamp out sexism and promote gender equality. The Bechdel Test, if you remember asks two interconnected questions: 1. Are there at least two women talking to one another in this film? 2. Are they talking about something else than a man? If the answers to both those questions are affirmative, then the movie passes the test.

On a similar note, I’ve been thinking about my (scant) leisure time activities, and the way they allow me to enjoy myself. I won’t get all psycho-analytical on you and talk about jouissance or anything like that, but I just want to know and understand better how to make free time pleasurable, in a deliberately useless and guilt-free way. Isn’t that overanalyzing! But really: I’m so good at “making use” of my (again, very limited) free time, that I always end up making it useful for work, instead of making it into a break from work. For goodness’ sake, remember how I was talking about scheduling yoga, so I can stay sane, last week? What does it take to enjoy something for its own sake, for using free time as time away from work, rather than rationalizing it as “time for renewal so I can work better.” Really, that’s what it’s come to?

Here’s the thing, though, which brings me back to the progressive move regarding gender and popular culture in Sweden: there isn’t much in the way of popular culture that is both gender-progressive and to my liking. I’m on a mission to amass items that fulfill both categories, and while the latter is rather subjective, it’s usually contingent on the former: stuff has to not be sexist or, worse, misogynist, for me to like it. It also has to NOT be classist, racist, ableist, sizeist, or ageist. A tall order, I know. Also: it has to be a conclusive waste of time! It has to be something that I will not teach. Or write an article on. Or a conference presentation.

I might have found just the thing*: an Australian mystery series featuring a sexually-liberated (though decidedly hetero, so far) flapper, who emerged from extreme poverty, and became rich, “because too many young men died in the Great War,” which made her father inherit a large fortune and a title. After a few formative years in Britain and Europe, she returns to Australia, and uses her fortune to solve crimes, and support women’s rights all over the place. Phryne Fisher, Kerry Greenwood’s protagonist empowers women to take charge of their lives. The women whom she helps are not victims, so Phryne [pronounced ‘Fry-knee] is not a female version of Prince Charming rescuing damsels in distress Down-Under. Instead, she’s a stylish and fashionable woman determined to share her newfound wealth and improve the world for women. A veritable superhero, with perpetual shiny hair and perfect attire!

I’d say this series fulfills, and even goes beyond the Bechdel Test. Moreover, I refuse to make any academic use of it: I will not teach it, write (any more) on it, or even analyze it too much. I will, however, take any other recommendations you might have of books, movies, TV series, that I can consume and not use. What’s your popular cultural fix these days? The more guilt-free, the better!

*Thanks to Sarah Gilligan (@idleponderings) for leading me to this series!