academic work · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · productivity · protip

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by “linked,” you mean “hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I’m bound.” I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I’m willing to work (if by willing you mean “what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down”), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak’s piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I’m currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let’s say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you’ve mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let’s say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you’ll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I … freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I’m working on–assessing grad admissions files, say–and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I’ll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: “Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it’s been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don’t have three hours because I have to do that grading and I’ll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can’t write now because I’m worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I’M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I’m a terrible person because now it’s been another five minutes and I’m no farther ahead on this and I think I’ll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research …”

It’s exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don’t work, because I’m panicking about work, about how I’ll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn’t get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I’m reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander (“If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I’m going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?”) I remind myself that I’ve scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It’s a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what’s happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I’ll never finish another book ever) is a fool’s game. And if we play it too often, we don’t do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That’s untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I’m worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I’m going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

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?

heavy-handed metaphors · teaching

Public Transit and Teaching

One of the reasons why we decided to move across country was the desire to lead a more pedestrian–literally–life. Edmonton, outside of a few central neighbourhoods, and those on the North-South LRT line, makes its inhabitants completely car-dependent. I’m happy to say that our move has enabled us to escape the car culture and embrace public transit. My commute on most days now features an hour on the train, a bus connection, and some waiting around. That is valuable teaching prep time for me, and I can read, grade, and do lesson prep on the move. This linking between teaching and public transit has also led me to think of the ways in which the two are alike.

Both teaching and public transit make you vulnerable in overlapping ways. They throw you in the midst of a group of people; you become visible and thus open to judgement by a crowd of people. By looking at them, in turn, you can more or less gauge the reaction you make by your presence. Social values and ideologies are rendered legible in these reactions. I am cis-gendered female, so my appearance is fair-game for open scrutiny: people and students alike move their gaze freely and unconcernedly across my body from head to toe, trailing behind easily discerned evaluations like “her footwear doesn’t work with that outfit” or “would it have hurt to put on some mascara?” Yes, I’m sorry to say I hardly ever wear makeup, unlike my more stylish and certainly better groomed friends here at Hook and Eye.

On the flip side, however, both public transit and teaching bring you in the same space with a group of people on the same journey, sharing similar goals. One more literally so than the other. So there is something to counteract the initial vulnerability, and turn it into an empowering common experience: an opportunity to build some sort of a community. On the bus, it’s a community based on physical proximity. In teaching, when it works, that nearness morphs into a common teaching and learning experience, a sort of a polyphony that, ideally, moves from cacophony to harmony.

change management · heavy-handed metaphors · structural solutions · teaching

In with the new: first-year students, where’s your parachute?

Welcome to the new semester, friends! As I’m sitting at my old desk, in my new home, contemplating the oodles of class prep I have to do for my new classes, I cannot help but feel like all this newness is wearing me down. Yes, newness is exciting; yes, it breathes all kinds of beneficial air into one’s life, making one feel refreshed, etc.; yes, I’m lucky this newness was my choice, and doubly-lucky to have found some work in my chosen newness. But all this newness grates on me, because there’s really no old to provide grounding, bearings, or whatever your favourite metaphor for routine might be. All this newness also jolts me quadruply, because there are four of us, and we all used to rely on a dance choreographed by at least of couple of years of fine-tuned repetition. So now, we’re all still up in the air, franticly grasping for outstretched hands to stabilize the quick mid-air rotation, hoping the other’s other hand holds on to the parachute.

But this is not all: the new semester brings along a host of academic newness. As I look into my students’ eyes, most of them first-year, first-semester participants in the post-secondary air ballet, I can already start perceiving more outstretched hands hoping I’m the one with the safe descent connection, that my class will hook them up, and reveal the secret to either safe landings or previously unknown air buoyancy. I tell them I’m new, too, but there’s safety in numbers. Yet the hope does not completely leave them, even though the academic integrity speeches invariably gnaws at it.

So I cannot help wondering what my role is, as an instructor of a compulsory, across-the-board course for first-year-students, and how that role fits with my position as contract academic faculty, and the bigger picture of post-secondary education in this moment. What is the extent of my responsibility to these first-year students–beyond the obvious teaching and learning that needs to happen this term–and how does it square with my role within the institution employing me on a part-time, temporary, contract-bound basis? In other words, how do I make the link to my non-existing parachute, and is part of my responsibility to reveal the cruel reality, that, really, none of us have even seen the parachute in a long time, although stories of it still endure?

Change management is a hot topic in business these days: it’s one of those competencies that emerge every few years, and takes prominence, until its currency becomes completely evacuated through overuse. Like excellence. Like leadership. Change management strikes me as particularly insidious, because it naturalizes the notion that we should no longer even hope or strive for any stable, equitable employment. Ironically, the Deleuze-Guattarian theoretical stance of my dissertation sought to debunk the deeply ingrained myth of stable, ossified subjectivity, and show the reality of a more fluid and flexible way of being-in-the-world. This reality was meant to prevent all kinds of complexes, subjugations, and discriminations, and enable becoming. Just like so many other ideas and practices (Yoga, Mindfulness, etc.), we had a nice time of it, that is, until the grossing potential was revealed to business visionaries.

What do we do, friends, at this beginning of the academic year, to equip first-year students, and maybe even ourselves with some form of parachute? Got any advice?

heavy-handed metaphors · running · saving my sanity · writing

Writing and running

So, I’m prepping this graduate professionalization course you may have heard me talk about on Twitter. As a result I’m reading a looooooooot of books on writing–academic writing, dissertation writing, creative non-fiction writing. Here’s something I’ve noticed:

A lot of disciplined writers are also runners.

Joan Bolker keeps reverting to running metaphors in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. In the Chronicle, writing columnist Rachel Toor refers fairly frequently to her own running habit–she does half-marathons, apparently. (William Zinsser doesn’t run, so far as I can tell, probably because he’s too busy wagging his fingers at people [mostly male people], but that’s neither here nor there.) Anne Lamott doesn’t run, but Bird by Bird reminds Melissa of running.

I’ve got more, that didn’t arrive in time for the photo shoot.

I’ve started to run. The writing books inspired me, actually. And since I’m doing so much writing this summer (reading books on how to be a productive academic can produce productivity this way) I need some outlets for when I unpeel my butt from my deck chair. Obviously, I began my running career by reading about running. It’s striking how similar the writing advice and the running advice is, to wit:

  • Make a schedule and stick to it
  • Be consistent
  • Shorter efforts, more frequently, achieve better results
  • Capacity builds over time; start slow and it will speed up!
  • It’s important to build in time for rest and recovery
  • The hardest part is getting out the door / opening the document
  • “Motivation” is never going to be enough
  • The good feeling you get from dragging your ass/pen through it when you don’t want to today will give you momentum for tomorrow
  • When you hit your stride, there’s nothing better than staying in that flow

Writing and running are mutually reinforcing each other for me right now. When I just want to surf Dog Shaming rather than write, I think to myself, “Well, you dragged your ass out of bed at 6am to run, and that turned out really great, so bring that same commitment to the writing!” And then, at 6am, when I’m all snuggy and listening to my whole household happily snoring, I think, “Dammit, you sat in a chair for two hours trying to create a BOOK out of NOTHING yesterday, so you can probably manage to thump your feet down sequentially on a pretty path and listen to the birds chirp for half an hour and not DIE.” (There’s a lot all-capsy thinking when I’m feeling sorry for myself, as you do when the alarms goes off in the morning.)

The academy is full of funny coincidences. A lot of English professors are in therapy / have weirdo hair. A lot of women in Digital Humanities like to knit. A lot of productive writers are runners. Huh. Something to think about.

appreciation · balance · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff · teaching

What we teach, what they learn, involving child yoginis and the power of example

My daughter’s been taking yoga lessons for two years: picture a sunny room, with hardwood floors, an abundance of bolsters, pillows, blocks, mats, and five- to eight-year-olds, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what it’s like. And what it’s like is mostly shambolic, often adorable, and sometimes noisy, an exercise in crowd control as much as instruction in meditation, self-respect, and rajakapotasana. I observe from the back of the room, reading my paper and drinking my coffee while Amanda does her best to hold everyone’s attention, help them do headstands, leap around like frogs, stop building towers and forts out of props.

Unexpectedly, I had a lunchtime class at my studio with Amanda the other day, and I knew my daughter would get a kick out of us having the same teacher. She did. But she wanted to know: did Amanda do the noodle test on grownups, too?

For savasana, the ‘corpse pose’ at the end of class, Amanda always wanders softly to each child, doing the ‘noodle test’ to see if they’re relaxed. This involves picking up each limb and giving it a jiggle. The kids get to name which kind of pasta they wish to be. It’s pretty adorable. “No,” I said sadly, “Amanda does not do the noodle test with grownups.”

My girl leapt up, “Mommy, I can do the noodle test for you now, so you can fully relax.” (That’s what she said: fully relax.) I lay myself out straight. My girl waited about thirty seconds, and whispered, “Mom, what kind of pasta do you want to be?”


She ran her fingers from my shoulder down my arm, picked up my arm from the wrist with her two hands, and swung it gently from side to side. She pulled it a little out from my shoulder, and then laid it down very deliberately and slowly, palm side up. “Yesssss,” she said, “a nice, well-cooked fusilli, hmmmmm.” Her voice had dropped a bit: slower and more breather, but deeper too. She moved around the rest of my limbs. “Yessssss, Mom, you are fulllllllly relaxed, niiiiiiiiiiiice wet pasta.”

Two things struck me. First, she was really good at this: it helped me relax. Second, she’s picked all this up from Amanda, sounded exactly like her. My daughter is seven; she is not a certified yoga teacher. But she held the room for me, she used a soft voice and a gentle but firm touch, gave me, FOR GOD’S SAKE, an adjustment.

Somehow, in the midst of the noisy, inattentive chaos of her yoga class, my girl learned something that neither of us realized she knew: how to touch someone gently and with respect, a generosity of spirit, where your arms and legs should be for savasana, what your muscle tone should be like. Amazing that she sounded like she was mimicking Amanda, but in dead earnest: this is how you do it.

Teaching and learning are mysterious. You never know what sinks in, or what is going in one ear and coming out the other. By dint of practice and repetition and example, surprising leaps are made. You just never know, until one day, you see it happen.

balance · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · writing

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the pros and cons of self-reflexivity

Do you know that ’80s hit from The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go? No. Well, indulge me. I swear I have a point, and it’s coming up right after this musical break:

In the chorus, The Clash moan: “If I stay there will be trouble/If I go there will be double.” What can I say, commitment is hard, you guys. However, I’m not here to dispense any relationship advice. Goodness help you if I start doing that! Instead, I want to talk about how hard it is to balance a healthy self-awareness with turning the self-reflexivity button off when it comes to writing.

A while ago, during one of our weekly Shut Up and Write! sessions my friends and I were talking about how important self-reflexivity is when it comes to writing. What do I mean by this awareness? Well, understanding what the writing process entails for one, and knowing what works for you personally. Things like:
– What helps you start writing (raise your hand if you’ve never despaired in front of the blank page or document. What’s that? Crickets? I’m shocked!);
-What keeps you going, especially for larger projects;
– What helps you structure your project or map out components, issues, methods, etc.;
– How do you best keep track of research sources;
– What keeps you sane? Is it binge-writing? Is it a routine? Is it a combination? What’s your balance?
– When do you write best? Morning, mid-afternoon, evening, night?
– What stars have to align for you to get in the zone? (23.2 degrees centigrade, 63.9 % humidity, and the like?)

Ideally, to be a professional writer, whether you’re a student (under-/graduate), an academic, a freelancer, etc., you have to have answers to at least a few of those questions. If you do, you become a more efficient writer, and possibly a saner one. When you know what works for you, and what your ideal process is, you can also be flexible. Sometimes, I have to be at my desk at home. Especially when I start a project, I need the safety of my most familiar surroundings to map out the unknown (I also need a certain proximity to my refrigerator, but we’ll leave those issues out of this, yes?). Other times, when I get stuck, I need to take my writing somewhere else.

On Tuesday, for example, I wrote in three different places: I started out at home, where I did one successful pomodoro, then started dilly-dallying and had lunch at 11 am. When the second pomodoro attempt produced nothing but the glazing of my eyes, I packed up and went to the library. I was good for one pomodoro there, but then two people decided to have a conversation (in a quiet room!), and that threw me off completely. I packed up again, and went to a coffee shop, where it turned out that what I needed was not silence, but the white noise of multiple conversations (some more annoying than others, especially when two young nurses talk about how they don’t like addicts and alcoholics) and coffee machines and the like. On the bright side, I got my article written and sent! On the other side (I wouldn’t really call it dark), I am aware of my own privilege: I can move around, have money for coffee shops, have access to a library, etc.

All this is nice and good: it’s awesome to be brimming with self-awareness. However, and it’s a big HOWEVER, self-awareness can and does kill my writing sometimes. Why did I have to move around so much on Tuesday? It’s because I was constantly checking in on myself. The internal editor suddenly turned into Bob Costas, commenting on my progress in a most annoying way. Here I was, writing an innocent sentence, when suddenly, I’d hear–in my head–“And here she goes, ladies and gentlemen, another sentence written, another sentence closer to the bringing this whole thing home. Take a closer look at that turn of phrase: it’s gotta be nearing the Olympic record for pretentiousness and obscurity. If nothing else, this one will certainly bring us into overtime.”

Actually, I don’t watch too much sports (yes, I know, one shocker after another, eh?), but that incessant checking in due to the anxiety of the impending deadline was sabotaging my productivity in a major way. And here is where The Clash come in: too much meta-analysis can paralyze, rather than benefit your writing process. Too many questions–especially while writing–can definitely impede it, bringing with them, even more anxiety, which throws us into a circle so vicious, it can be traumatic to the point of endless repetition. Writing as trauma. I think it’s been said before.

So, where’s the balance? Should I stay or should I go? What do you think?

appreciation · change · heavy-handed metaphors · literature

Things I’ve Learned from P.K. Page

I have just finished reading Sandra Djwa‘s biography of P.K. Page, which bears the title Journey With No Maps. While I am not generally a fan of biography — I mean, how can you convey a life? — I surprised myself by being profoundly moved by this book. Indeed, after I moved past the scholarly appreciation for the meticulous research, and my frustration over the necessarily arm’s-length tone of the biography as a genre, I discovered I was riveted by the life of a woman I had only met on the pages of Canadian Literature anthologies.

Page is a foundational Canadian poet. She was born in England, a child in Alberta and the Maritimes, a young woman during the Second World War, and came of age in Montreal just in time to play a key  role in developing an important literary magazine. She travelled the world. She struggled with depression. She loved, lost, carried on, and wondered. Above all, she was an artist who made her work her friend. It would seem, in short, that she lived a full, rich, and inspired life. At a time of year in which my own anxieties, uncertainties, and frustrations about the future feel very much like unmapped and impossible terrain, I find that I’ve learned a few helpful things from the inimitable P.K. Page. Here’s a selection:

1) Fall in love with your work:

Page began writing poetry as a young woman, and she ultimately published more than two dozen books. When she found that she couldn’t write, she turned to other mediums. She was a prolific and well-respected painter. She studied an immense variety of techniques, from oil painting, to water colour, to etching and working with gold leaf. Djwa’s biography notes that Page had periods of profound loneliness in her life. Yet, if she could, Page would work to immerse herself in her craft as a way of creating a path through the loneliness. Several times she describes her work as a consistent and ever-evolving relationship.

2) Cast your net wide:

Page’s husband Arthur Irwin was a Canadian diplomat, and they lived internationally for many years. While she initially felt lonely and isolated upon moving, Page eventually threw herself into her work and into developing her relationships with her new and old communities. She befriended painters, artists, diplomats, and housewives. She wrote letters. She threw parties. She had a pet monkey. It seems to me that Page had an incredibly diverse and rich network of people across the world.

3) Spirituality comes in many forms, and happiness is work:

While she was not religious, Page developed a life-long spiritual practice. She was introduced to the teachings of Sufism in her mid-life and quickly developed a Sufism study group. She continually refined her affective and emotional sensibilities, and to apply her knowledge to her sense of self, her relationships, and her craft. Here is an excerpt that details her growing consciousness and approach to work (where “work” means the development of your own consciousness)”

                    It’s very difficult to explain. [A fellow learner] gave me a totally new concept of love
                    as is I have never understood the definition before; she made me understand “waiting” —
                    that nothing can happen outside its own time (and I mean understand emotionally — I
                    had understood intellectually before). And she made me understand that one aspect of the  
                    work is being happy — not apparently happy — but happy. That you cannot “work” from
                    unhappiness. (203)

4) Don’t ever say “I’m too old for…”:

Page began painting in mid-life, she constantly learned new forms of poetry, and her studies of Sufism were constant; she worked up until her death in 2010. A dear friend of mine, EB, had the profound experience of helping to pack up Page’s house. When she was in the kitchen she noticed that Page had magnetic poetry on her refrigerator, and there were several poems clinging to the door. Imagine!

Djwa’s biography of this remarkable woman has not alleviated my stress and anxiousness around employment, nor has it provided me a map, but reading about P.K. Page’s life has reminded me that there are no maps. The journey is the thing entire.

best laid plans · health · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff

What’s the best time to have kids?

The topic for this week’s #ECRchat, which stands for early-career researcher chat on Twitter, was “Deciding when to have a family.” As I sit in my office during office hours (on the most recent Wednesday in your past), while my oldest is at home with yet another cold and hacking cough, I cannot help but wonder if there is ever a good time. Apart from the knee-jerk reaction, however, and because I cannot participate in the live-tweet chat due to time-zone conflicts (with my sleep!), I wanted both to think through this question here, and to ask you, lovely Hook & Eye community, to do the same.

To reply to this very thoughtful question with yet another one along the lines of “Is there ever a good time?” seems a cop-out, especially in the case of academics, who like to plan their future, but have little control over it. Even though one can make the case that nobody can actually control their future, this inability pervades the lives of early-career academics more than others’. The better part of PhD students know they commit to their chosen grad school for a good chunk of time, but when the PhD is over, unless one is a superstar with her choice of employment, most PhD graduates have little choice and limited possibilities of decision about their immediate next steps.

So, if one in that situation wants a family, what does one do? I don’t think there can ever be a blanket answer to this question. However, hearing other academics’ experiences might help one take a more appropriate decision. [Maybe I should stop hiding behind the neutral form of the personal pronoun and say “she,” especially since even The Globe and Mail recognized yesterday appropriate childcare to be a major obstacle in women academics’ career path. They say nothing of systemic sexism, of course.] Personally, I took the advice of one of my profs from my MA, a very generous woman in her openness to mentor (female) graduate students (Hi, HL!). She said to the women-only class of graduate students: “If you want to have kids, have them in grad school. Don’t wait to finish, because then something else comes up, and you end up delaying too much.” I’m very grateful for this advice, because it worked for me.

I did have my oldest during graduate school. As it happened, it was the perfect timing for me: five months after my candidacy, which made the pressure of the imminent arrival productive for my dissertation work. Well, that and my wonderful supervisor, who knew exactly how to guide me, what to suggest I do, so I “will be able to come back to something written, and be less daunted” by the amount of time that had elapsed between the last graduate milestone and the end of mat leave.

As it turned out, having a kid in graduate school worked wonders on my time management skills. All of a sudden, the time she was in daycare–which was so hard to find, it nearly caused me a breakdown–became immensely precious. I had to work, research, write. Because when I took her home, it was kid-time. As a rule, I don’t work after I’ve picked up my kids (now I have two, as you might know) from daycare. It’s kiddie time. After the kids go to bed? It’s relationship time. I made the decision of treating my PhD as a 9-5 job when I started it. Is that always possible? NO! But the important thing is to have the rule, and to treat the exceptions as exceptions, without allowing them to become generalized into the new normal.

Time for a privilege disclaimer: I would tell you about my wonderfully supportive (emotionally and financially) partner, but he’s opposed to being talked about online, so I’m not. But I do realize my privilege, and it stays with me (it’s because of his taking care of my sick kid at home today that I can even be at work and write about this stuff). It’s why I’m reluctant to give advice. Babies and kids take an exceptional amount of emotional and financial energy. Much more than a person who’s never been around them can imagine. Much more than I could have imagined. Much more than I still think possible, because parenting relies on amnesia. How else would be reproduce? Multiple times even? Of course there are immense and proportional rewards. There are studies that show parents of one or two kids are happier than childless couples. There are other studies that argue the reverse.

Take your pick, but think about it hard. Borrow a child (babysit, you’ll score many karma points, and the eternal gratitude of those parents), try to model (not just imagine) your life around a baby/kid for a week. AND for the love of all things baby-related, please stop using the birthing and labour metaphor for dissertation writing.

I would love to hear from both sides of the camp: anxieties, fears, desires, words of wisdom, 20-20 hindsight? Whatever you got:

advice · emotional labour · heavy-handed metaphors

Least important person in the room

Have you read the advice? The one for the start-of-year mixers, the meets-and-greets, the orientation events for undergraduates and graduate students? The one for faculty events, and conferences? You know, the advice that encourages everyone to seek out the least important person in the room to talk to?

Of course, no one is really “unimportant.” Obviously. But the idea is that those with less … power? cultural capital? who are new to the area/program/position? have a hard time breaking into social circles or even conversation at these kinds of events. And it is the duty of the better established to ease the path of social inclusion with chit chat about home towns or yoga or how to get a photocopier password.

I’ll bet that what you’re thinking right now is: but that’s me! I’m always the loner off to the side, wishing I was at home watching Community on Netflix in my pyjamas with my dog and a scotch launching witticisms into  the friendly atmosphere of Facebook!

I know that that’s my problem. I go to faculty events, for example, and what I want to do is, first, make a beeline for the bar to muster my courage. (Hey, I’m just being honest. It’s that or the cheese tray and the gin has fewer calories and a better effect on my wit.) Second, I want to find someone I already know just so that I have somewhere to purposefully walk to, and thus can avoid standing alone fruitlessly scanning the room, chin aloft, face anxiously expectant. Shudder. Third, I want to catch up with that someone, because I probably haven’t seen them for awhile. Or if I have seen them recently, they’re probably a close friend, and there’s always something fun to talk about with my close friends. What we’ll probably talk about is how awkward we feel at this social event: we will commiserate about our loner-misfititude or some such. What I am always trying to do is grab a lifeline out of a sea of sharklike social awkwardnesses: standing by myself while drinking, trying to make eye contact with anyone, aiming to insinuate myself into a conversations that’s already going strong between two people who aren’t looking at me. Oh god. The awful. But is it?

I’m going to also bet that, actually, the social disaster of cringing shyness you see in your head was you a couple of years ago, and that you’ve got more power than you think. Not least the power to make that social event a little less awkward for someone newer / younger / more tenuous / completely lost than you are.

It has recently occurred to me that what this looks like to others is that I am ensconced in a group of people with tenure, laughing loudly at in-jokes about department happenings from five years ago, blasting an aura of belonging and exclusion. Or when I’m at DHSI, it looks like all the instructors forming a closed circle, because we stopped accepting new friends around the time the semantic web became Web 2.0. Or when I’m at a national conference, it’s the clique from my graduate program hanging tight.  I mean, I feel like Cady Heron, but I look like Regina George. Uh-oh.

It turns out that lots of people are surrounded by many more sharks than I am. And it turns out that sometimes I am the lifeline. I mean, by this point, I actually do know a lot of people most places I go. These things shouldn’t scare me so much: I mean, it’s not 1997–I’ve been doing these things for 15 years, if you want to count from that first faculty / student mixer in my MA year. So even though I still feel just as insecure and adrift in that shark-filled sea as I ever did, I’m forcing myself to leap off the lifeboat of friends and peers, into the ocean of strangers.

Am I getting salt water up my nose? Yes. I say dumb things. I bore some people. I make unsuccessful attempts to introduce two people to one another. I forget names. I repeat stories. Some of my jokes fall flat. But my swimming is also getting stronger: I ask questions to draw people out, I remember what they tell me when we meet again, I offer words of encouragement to those who need them, and I laugh at everyone’s jokes.

I’m not going to lie to you: I still find it a lot easier to talk to people I already know, and that is probably always going to be my inclination whenever I walk into a room full of people standing up and wearing name tags. But with practice, this kinds of mingling gets easier. I’m meeting really nice people, and, bonus, they sometimes look really glad that I’ve come over to talk to them. And that’s pretty much the payoff for me: making someone else’s experience of these kind of events a little more pleasant, a little less scary.

How about you? Do you skip these events? Relish them? Are you the shark or the bait? What are your coping strategies?