bad academics · best laid plans · having it all · saving my sanity · time crunch

Multitask? Or multipurpose?

I don’t know about you, but I seem to be getting busier every day. The more established I become in my field, my department, my university, and my community, the more my name seems to be top of mind when someone needs a paper reviewed or a chapter written, a committee seat filled, a report written, or a public talk delivered. People ask a lot more of me now than they did, say, when I landed here in Waterloo with a freshly-framed diploma and my excellent collection of ironic t-shirts. And yet, my time available seems to have dwindled significantly in the interim, just like that Astroboy shirt doesn’t quite seem to go over those yoga-powered deltoids and that pregnancy-‘enhanced’ belly roll.

That is, I have way more to do but seem to have less time to do it.

It’s a pickle, it is. Right now, for example, I’m sitting on my couch in my polar fleece pajamas, sipping gin and decompressing after my second public lecture of the week. Next week, I have an article draft due to a peer-reviewed journal, and soon after that, a deadline for my draft of one chapter of a writing handbook revision. I just handed in a SSHRC SRG grant, it seems.

I used to think I could do it all, if only I would be important enough for people to ask me to do it. I said yes to everything, to increase my profile and test my mettle. My mettle, it turns out, is not unlimited. I am, perforce, shifting my work philosophy from an ethic of multitasking to one of multipurposing.

Here’s how it works: Got a contract to revise a writing handbook? Angle to teach a first year course, then assign them the current version of the handbook. BOOM! It’s teaching, and it’s work on the revision, all at once. Scheduled to give two public talks on something about your research and teaching interests in two different towns two nights in a row? Give a thinly reworked version of the same damn talk (apologize profusely to the one graduate student who attends both events). Bonus points if the talk can use as one of its four case studies the survey results that form the backbone of that article that’s due … next week. Bonus bonus points if you’ve organized your grad class to have as its assigned readings material you need to complete this current research. All of this work should be drawing liberally from the literature review from the SSHRC SRG bibliography. Doing university service? Can it be on a web design committee that is great fodder for your digital design seminar?

I am so. frigging. busy. that it is a matter of some urgency, lately, try to wring the maximum amount of product from every research activity I undertake. Perhaps this is a ‘well, duh’ insight for you. Not for me. I used to think (ha!) that every talk, every class, every committee, every article had to be something new. I had this idea that it was somehow cheating to do otherwise, like how students are told not to submit the same paper in two different courses. For me, it’s only ever rarely the ‘same’ paper, but I have really needed to stop creating everything from absolute scratch for every occasion.

So now, I don’t multitask anymore. I multipurpose.

In that vein, if you want to know more about social media and privacy, why don’t you read this newspaper article? The writer wanted to talk to me about my ideas, but I handed him the paper copy of my lecture when it was over and told him to quote as liberally as he liked. No extra work for me, and, bonus! he quoted me exactly, from my own script. (God bless him, he’s made the whole presentation sound coherent, to boot.)

having it all · kid stuff

Guest Post: Academics and Motherhood: Can We Have it All?

My partner and I chose to have a baby during our graduate studies – before I hit the job market and before the start of his medical residency. We wanted to ensure we’d both have time with the baby, despite the missing financial comfort of maternity or paternity leave. Although we are known for our high energy, determination, and multitasking skills, our decision sparked some gossip amongst our peers. I was barely four months pregnant when I overheard the following conversation take place in the staircase that unites the two floors of our department:

I heard Veronique’s pregnant.

Yeah, me too. No surprise there, given she just married that doctor. She won’t need a job now. They can easily live off his salary.

No kidding. I was kind of relieved, you know. Now I won’t be competing against her on the job market.

She told you she wasn’t applying?

No, no. But a baby leads to more babies. Universities won’t hire unless she publishes the next big study on CanLit. And with a baby on the way, that’s unlikely to happen. How many women do you know who have successful careers and families?

Not many. God, I can barely handle my dog.

Indeed, having a child in grad school could jeopardize or delay a career. Common concerns revolve around the delay of the doctoral thesis, the disappearance of promising publications, and perhaps even the abandonment of the PhD altogether. In my prenatal naïve haze, however, I never worried about postponing my thesis or dumping my career. Rather, I was predominately concerned with writing as much as humanly possible prior to my daughter’s birth in order to enjoy a bit more flexibility once she arrived.

When our daughter was born a month ago, I began finding pockets of time to get work done; I sent myself email messages with ideas from my iphone as I fed her at night – I transformed my baby buddy pillow into a laptop desk – I read articles aloud to get her to sleep instead of Goodnight Moon. After a month with a newborn (albeit a very calm and content newborn), I feel I can get the thesis written by the end of this year as planned – at least, a full draft – and although I’ve had to readjust my schedule and writing habits, I certainly don’t think I have to give up on my professional goals and writing ambitions.


What I didn’t expect, however, was the obstacle of a baby (and breastfeeding for that matter) when it comes to public academic engagements. I may be writing, but participating in academic discourse beyond the page has become more difficult. I no longer have the luxury of attending every talk hosted by the university (I missed the Markin-Flanagan “passing on the torch” reading for the first time since I moved to Calgary), and I won’t be jumping from reading to reading at Wordfest this year. I’ve had to sacrifice my spontaneous academic interactions, and although none of them are “requirements” for my degree, I do consider them essential to my overall experience. Sure, I can organize childcare when necessary, but this requires pre-planning and money – and even then, sometimes, pre-planning fails.

This month, for instance, I missed my first conference – a conference I was looking forward to for months. I’d registered during my pregnancy and I knew I’d have a one-month-old baby, but the conference was in Edmonton (not too far and where my mother-in-law lives), which seemed manageable at the time (and it should’ve been). Worst-case scenario, I figured I’d only attend my panel and the plenary talk. I wrote a draft of the paper prior to delivery, and my husband organized his schedule to accommodate mine and watch Lalina as I enjoyed the conference. Then he got sick. He was in no state to drive to Edmonton, let alone watch Lalina under a flu medication haze. My mother-in-law had a dance show, my family is in Quebec, and because of her young age, I couldn’t take Lalina to a drop-off day care. Hence I failed to attend the conference and cancelled my presentation.

Never once did I consider taking her to the conference, despite her easy disposition. Not once. It would be unprofessional, no? To show up at my panel with a sleeping baby in a sling? Even if my paper was on balancing motherhood and writing – even though it was a women’s writing conference and should, from an outsider’s perspective, be supportive of my predicament. But no – I didn’t even think to ask or explain what had happened to the organizers. Instead, I said I had a family emergency and missed the conference. Only when I told one of my husband’s colleagues why I hadn’t attended the conference and she asked “why didn’t you just take Lalina with you?” did I find myself wondering why the thought never crossed my mind. My immediate response was, “well, it would be unprofessional.” She said, “I don’t think so. You were stuck, so why not? We have a preceptor who just had a baby and she brings her to class, and once she even breastfed while teaching.” I was filled with envy – this preceptor was comfortable enough with her roles as mother, doctor, and teacher to breastfeed in front of her students. Until that moment, I’d always considered medicine far less accepting of women balancing motherhood and profession – I was wrong.

I still think that showing up at the conference with a newborn would’ve proved unprofessional. After all, it’s not like Lalina was a registered participant and therefore had a right to attend. My problem isn’t with how it may have been misperceived if I’d showed up with her, but rather with my assumption that my profession, in this instant, had to be put on hold because of circumstances that seemed on the surface to be beyond my control (husband’s illness); and yet, there were options that, unfortunately, never even crossed my mind as possibilities. Was this my subconscious telling me that I can’t do it all? Is this post, perhaps, my refusal to admit that academic superwomen are an abominable myth and that women can’t balance career and family? But what about that preceptor breastfeeding and teaching? She’s got it together – isn’t this the type of professional I need to be to raise a daughter who will forge ahead and believe, not in Santa, but in the fact that she can have it all? And I use the word “fact” purposefully because I want her to have it all – and I believe she can have it all. The “all” just needs to be confidently claimed by herself and those around her – starting first and foremost with myself.

Veronique Dorais Ram, PhD Candidate
Department of English, University of Calgary