academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-017-9263-9

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.

 

Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

ideas for change · mental health

Campus suicide: we need to talk

My campus has suffered two suicides this term alone, in the very same student residence. This is a tragedy, twice over, and beyond measure.

I’m working on this post watching over my 38 first year students as they quietly read and edit one another’s research papers. It could have been any one of them.  Indeed this student was a colleague to many of my own. I cannot bear that.

We can none of us bear this. Something has got to change. All of us can do something, and it feels really urgent to me that we start right now.

First this: first year university is incredibly hard. It’s lonely, it can be very isolating, our egos take substantial hits from the massive change in pedagogy and expectation and cohort. Early adulthood is massively challenging as we figure out who we are. New romantic and sexual relationships. Breakups. Difficulties functioning in the much less structured university environment. Imposter syndrome. Regrets. A discovery of our own intellectual limits. There’s nothing easy about any of this, and it is abundantly clear that students aren’t getting what they need as they transition to adulthood, to independence, to university study, to changing ideas of who they are and what they want and what their capacities are. My school is known for the incredibly competitive nature of some of its most famous programs of study, and that only increases the pressure on those lucky enough to get in.

Mental health, mental illness, and suicidality are serious ongoing structural risks to university study. We need something more than ‘campus wellness days’ and a 1-in-5 that only has happy people in the video. We need more than working groups and statements of support. We need concrete counseling supports diffused across campus, and in the residences. We need training for staff in spotting and supporting students in crisis. We need faculty training in how to design curriculum and pedagogy that is less structurally likely to push people over the edge. We need programs that work to ensure that all students are supported toward graduation, rather than celebrating toughness by measuring drop out rates. We need universities that don’t, structurally, haze students with sink-or-swim social, institutional, or academic models.

The brother of the student who committed suicide this week posted a heartfelt plea to Reddit this week, full of despair and sadness and anger. The thread extends for pages, an honest and brutal conversation that we are just not seeing anywhere else on campus. Have I received official notification of this? I have not. I teach first year students in the same program. I found out from reddit. Unacceptable. That’s several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame. The student newspaper has something, which I found after a colleague posted the Reddit thread on Facebook.

Silence is violence.

The Reddit post shows a grieving teenager adrift, but reaching out. We need to reach back. We need to extend our collective arms to support all our students. So many more of them are struggling than we are willing to acknowledge. We need to acknowledge the loss. To work towards mitigating the conditions that led us here. To do better. We can get through this together: suicide is preventable; suicidality is often momentary, but in that moment it can be fatal. Let’s get through those moments, together.

If you are Waterloo and you need help:
https://uwaterloo.ca/health-services/mental-health-services

Kids Help Phone:
https://www.kidshelpphone.ca/Teens/InfoBooth/Emotional-Health/Suicide.aspx?gclid=CNjli6X39tICFca3wAod-0IDiQ

How to support a friend who may be suicidal:
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-helping-someone-who-is-suicidal.htm

enter the confessional · mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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mental health · mindfulness · reading · social media · winter

An internet vacation, and a new approach to being online

I finished the 2016 work year on December 23, and on my way home I deleted the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Feedly, news, and email apps from my phone. I also put the browser icon somewhere really inconvenient and set up a Freedom App block that would last until the night before I returned from work on January 9. I started my holiday vowing to go completely social media and news free. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference to my everyday life, but after weeks of feeling like I was drowning in stories of horrors and problems I couldn’t solve (or even make a dent in), a break sounded good. I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of time with family and friends, so it seemed like a good plan to take one when I knew that I was going to be pulled offline a lot anyway.

It turned out that my internet hiatus made way more of a difference to my life than I thought it would (you’re not surprised). I missed people a ton–Facebook is wonderful for that. And I missed the learning that happens on Twitter, the way it exposes me to ideas and viewpoints and lived experiences I can’t really get anywhere else. I didn’t do the work of sharing resources with PhDs looking to explore non-faculty careers that I usually do on Twitter, and that made me a bit sad. I didn’t read terrible things about Donald Trump, which did not make me sad at all.

My phone became mostly a book ingestion device, and I’d find my thumb flicking to the missing social media icons whenever I got uncomfortable or bored or sad. (It happened way more than I was okay with, and it weirded me out that this had become such a habit without my noticing). Without the internet to distract me, I read A LOT. I also did a shit ton of stuff that I wanted to do with my vacation, and I don’t think that I’d have been able to do all of that with the internet in my life. I was also less anxious, less angry, and less distracted.

Coming back from my internet hiatus, I’m trying to be more considered about how much I use it, and how I use it. I’ve reactivated an old Buffer account, and I’m spending a bit of time creating a queue of useful tweets so that Twitter is doing my resource sharing without me having to be on it. I’ve set up Freedom so that I have a short window every day to be on Facebook and Instagram. I already did a big RSS feed cull last year, but I’ve done another so that only the things I really want to read show up in my Feedly. And I’ve kept the news widgets deactivated on my phone, because I don’t need a 24/7 view of the terrible things happening in the world, a connectedness that I’m just figuring out keeps me from being active and activist in the ways I want to.

I’ve also created something like Sarah von Bargen’s gallery of goals. It hangs on the wall next to my desk, and reminds me of the things I really want to do with my time. Some are practical but dull (get my driver’s license), some are aspirational (swim three days a week), some are a stretch (finish a full draft of my novel this year). But I’m hoping that by having them there, I’ll be reminded regularly about what I’m giving up when I lose a couple of hours to mindless scrolling or, worse, to the brain fog and paralyzing anger I felt for much of the fall when I was trying to keep myself as informed as possible about what was happening in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out what a useful, considered, and balanced approach to social media and news looks like for me, so if you have any strategies, ideas, or tools that you’ve found helpful, I’d love to hear them.

mental health

Mental Health Wellness Day

It is, apparently, Mental Health Wellness Day at the University of Waterloo. I found that out from a memo from this morning. We’re supposed to be wearing orange but I’m wearing pyjamas because I had an insomnia flareup that kept me awake but exhausted from 2:30-6:30, so I opted to work from home today. For my mental health and wellness.

There is a video, with a kind of folky piano soft singy thing going on, reminding us to remind our students that you are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

Have a look, there’s lots of earnest people holding whiteboards earnestly in some picturesque campus locations:

These all seem like lovely people. But this is not what we need. To be clear, it is fantastic that the stigma around disclosing mental illness is beginning to dissipate, and videos like this work toward that goal. That goal is not enough. All the supportive videos in the world don’t mean too much when there aren’t enough counsellors to see the students who need help. When UW didn’t have an Employee Assistance Program until just this summer, and mental health care expenses are capped at just under $600 per year. (That’s a little less than five sessions with a therapist. Ask me how I know.)

Videos don’t help when they seem to feature a parade of well-looking people performing compassion for a camera. In my work as a faculty member, as a teacher, as a supervisor, as a member of a workplace, I have seen some remarkably caring and empathetic and supportive interactions to support students or staff or faculty with mental illness. I have also seen remarkable gaslighting, dismissal, and resentment.

What do we need?

Make mental illness visible. If “1 in 5” of us suffers from mental illness, how come we never see these people? We people? There are 88 different people in this video: so probably about 17 of those, simply statistically, have a mental health issue now or in the past or in the future? Who? The stigma of disclosure is real and I don’t want to discount it, but as long as it’s “you” who are ill and “we” who accept you, disability remains invisibilized. And the stigma won’t end. I suffer from a mental illness. I take medication daily. I am in therapy. You want a face for high-functioing anxiety, well, here I am.

Stop making things worse. I’m cogitating on a little project in my head. It’s a project that seeks to rethink graduate curriculum, moving away from Giant End of Semester Papers in Every Course toward more frequent and smaller and scaffolded assessments, and more regular feedback. There’s a reason so many students flame out at the end of term: there’s too much to do, too little structure around doing it, too much isolation, and a lot of pressure for major assignments. Just because we’ve always done it that way, we don’t have to keep doing it that way. Can we craft more supportive curricula and teaching structures that won’t present such obvious triggers to the anxious, the depressed, the bipolar, and everyone else?

Train staff who deal with students. I run a big grad program. Take that 1-in-5 stat. Extrapolate to my 120 students and imagine that I’ve arranged more than one medical accommodation over 2+ years. Now ask yourself how much training I received in supporting students in this way? If you guessed “zero zip zilch nada” you would be absolutely correct. I’m winging it. Luckily, I have deep personal expererience with mental illness in myself and many people that I love, but I’m winging it. All these students who need help need it from me first, and I’m trying my damnedest to do right by them, but I’m making it up as I go along. That’s ridiculous.

Train staff who deal with staff. It’s amazing to me how many people will wear an orange shirt for mental health awareness day, and then stigmatize or isolate colleagues who secure workplace accommodations. Maybe that person who “gets to” start work at 10 am every day has a sleep disorder and can only cobble together five hours of total sleep in the twelve hours between 8pm and 8am. Maybe the person who has a private and unshared office needs a safe place to recover from panic attacks. Maybe that person who holds meetings with another staff member always present has a trauma they’re dealing with. You don’t know the why of it. And you have no right to know. If you want to support the mental health of your colleagues be gracious enough to assume that if something looks “special” it’s because they need it.

Refine “accommodation”; make university more accessible to all. Students who suffer depressive episodes and fail their courses can petition to have the grades removed. Students with anxiety can write exams in private rooms. But how do you accommodate mental health issues beyond coursework? How do you create an accommodation plan for a student writing a dissertation? Usually, the answer is “give more time” but that is expensive to the student and doesn’t solve the main problem. A graduate student suffering acute mental illness can go “inactive” in my program — but they give up all their funding for the duration, and may be kicked out of university housing. So of course they don’t do this. We need short term disability insurance for graduate students. We need ways to support undergraduate students who have to do reduced course loads but lose privileges as a result. Accommodations are not always as simple as “longer exam time” or “peer note taker.” Some of these fixes are expensive, and structural.

Less spin class, more sadness. I had to dig around to find the website for this. You can order a t-shirt! You can attend a spin class in the student centre for mental health! Um, you know who’s not going to do any of this? People suffering actively from mental illness. God, it all seems so chirpy. There is a post-secret wall, which is good: post a thought anonymously that you’d like others to know. You know what else would be great? Tables with members of support groups. A quiet room for people to come sit in and be sad, and accepted. On the spot academic advising. Puppies. Some programming that would serve those 1s-in-5s (us 1s-in-5s), make us feel that space has been made for us, to feel how we feel, to support and offer help right now. I mean, the Wellness Day website has a bunch of links for gear and spin class, and only two links to services for students. Oh wait, that’s just one link, repeated in two adjacent bullet points. Look, I want to know why there’s literally 12 different links I can click to register for a spin class, but exactly zero links I can click to register for a counselling session. Ask yourself about priorities, people.

That’s what I can think of right now as my own contribution to mental health and wellness day. Ideas, stories, comments, hacks, and accommodation plans welcome!

balance · gradschool · mental health · PhD · reflection

Repost: The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing for Hook & Eye for well over two and a half years now, having joined the team in January of 2014. Sometimes I go back through my old posts and, shockingly enough, find inspiration from them. I say to myself: you’re pretty wise, past me! Tonight, after having enjoyed a semi-proper weekend doing weekend things (the extravagance!), including taking a long hike in the woods up the Hudson river with my partner, and now sitting at home facing a large stack of neglected papers and experiencing the dawning realization that a job app is due tomorrow…pulling out an old rant about the cult of perpetual productivity seems apropos.

Taken today, Oct. 23 2016, from the George Washington Bridge connecting NYC and NJ.

(originally posted March 11, 2014:)

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive. Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for its own sake? How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

 Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marveled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

——
I guess I still don’t have answers to these questions, but think them important to raise. Readers, do you find yourselves struggling to enjoy allotted time off? Do you have advisors who indeed encourage and enable this kind of thinking? Please, share your stories. 

grad school · mental health · people pleasing · PhD

Fighting Extra-Academic Burnout

Are you experiencing scholar date burnout?

Let me explain. A recent article posted in Inside Higher Ed asks scholars experiencing such burnout symptoms as physical exhaustion, depression and/or anxiety, and cynicism to take themselves on weekly scholar dates. Grad school, particularly the dissertation-writing phase of grad school, can be painfully isolating. Often students take on off-campus jobs or teach at a different school, some prefer the hermitic lifestyle of working at home, others (like me) function as nomads, drifting from library to library for fresh thrills and different local coffee blends. As I blogged about almost a year ago, writing a dissertation is as much a psychological battle as it is an intellectual one, and depression and anxiety are endemic to academic departments: something many of us deal with, but few of us talk about, because to admit mental distress is to admit weakness and inadequacy and inability to cope with the ubiquitous strains of the profession. It’s survival of the fittest, and in this climate, “survival” might mean living out the rest of one’s life as an underpaid and overworked contingent laborer ( I am a jaded sixth year PhD student, hi!).

With the intellectual and social paucity of late stages of the PhD, what Heather VanMouwerik calls “scholar dates” sound like great ideas: these are outings, such as movie nights, park wanders, cultural experiences, and cafe lingers, that feed our intellectual and creative sides. I appreciate that the Scholar Date seems here to meet the Self Date; VanMouwerik instructs us to “Do it alone” rather than feeling distracted with the needs and experiences of other people. The concept of selfdating transforms hanging out alone and feeling sorry for yourself into a deliberate, intentional, and personally rewarding choice. Friends have told me that just giving alone-time this label seems to make a difference.

What makes self dates and scholar dates so useful is that my only obligation is to myself, and this time becomes sacred and restorative. But I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a slippery slope between scholar-dating and succumbing to professional obligations. Lately, I’ve possibly been overcompensating for the aforementioned mental health stuff by overloading my schedule with what might clumsily be categorized as scholar dates (all conducted of my own volition, though not always alone). There is a point at which the scholar date becomes avoidance, and I fear I’m hovering around that threshold.

It’s easy for this to happen, because scholar dates are often justifiably important, and I am lucky enough to live in a city that affords ample opportunity for intellectual engagement through cultural field trips. In the last week alone, for example, I travelled out of the city to sit in on a friend’s lecture on King Lear and the public humanities; I saw Henry IV Part I at BAM after a sick friend offered me a free ticket; and I spent an afternoon at an academic conference unrelated to my dissertation. I did a minor in early modern drama, right? So I should definitely keep up with the Renaissance drama scene in New York (see also: Revelation Readings at Red Bull theatre). I’m trying to develop a DH profile, right? So these sessions on teaching with digital maps are totally necessary to my intellectual development. And then: I care about maintaining a vibrant intellectual community in my department, right? I should definitely attend this talk on racial politics, since I can tell they are worried about getting bodies in seats. I care about the future wellbeing of this country and entire world, right? I should probably attend this Bernie Sanders rally and perhaps sign up to do some phone-banking and flyering and house calls and omg, possibly the whole election that I can’t vote in rests on my shoulders!! Oh, yeah, and I should go for a solo walk to the river because it’s spring and whatnot. And, and….the list goes on.

I know that I may not be able to remain in academia forever, and if I don’t (or even if I do), I don’t want to look back on my time in New York City and remember only the uncomfortable subway encounters and cockroaches creeping out from underneath my fridge. Not only do my extracurricular scholarly activities feed into my constellation of personal and scholarly interests, but they also mitigate anxiety and despair about the future, and help connect me with various local communities. But even these activities can be taken too far and become more about obligations and people-pleasing than self care.

Let’s not forget that as women, we face pressure to say yes to everything–to live full, rich, balanced, lives, to spring out of bed and go to sunrise yoga classes before heading to campus, to stay connected with our friends and communities while keeping on top of our research, remaining available to students, and grading dozens of final papers. Yeah. That’s not happening. Let’s let slumptimes be slumptimes, and learn when to say no to even those activities that might help expand our intellectual development in new ways. Let’s learn how to view “no” as not only a perfectly acceptable but also commendable choice. The bernout is real.

feminist communities · grad school · making friends · mental health · solidarity

Healthy Friendships Within Academia

Departing from the Women, Academia, Sport theme for a minute – I am so not the person to write about such things, though the posts have been excellent! 

Have you noticed? There’ve been a string of articles recently about the value of female friendships, and how they supply alternatives and perhaps stronger bonds than marriages and romantic partnerships (or how they themselves can offer to straight women a different form of romanticism). There was this one in NYMag about a stormy “friendship affair” between two women; this one about love that sits outside of friendliness and sex and “both inside and outside of ‘family'”; and most recently, this one in the NYT about what friendships offer women outside of love (written by the author who writes about single women dominating the political landscape in America). Maybe this is following on the wake of Elena Ferrante frenzy (there is now a TV series in the works!), or maybe it just reflects a general across-the-board questioning, broadening, and even dismantling of traditional marital structures.

Personally, I have always been deeply reliant on friendships, perhaps because I do not have an especially large or close family. Maybe I expect my friendships to supply the permanency associated with family, and so find myself struggling–like, a lot–when friendships fade, when people move away, when I realize it’s been a minute since I’ve had a quality conversation with someone.

As I’ve discovered, academia presents particular difficulties to strong friendships.  This cleverly diagrammed listicle by Tim Urban from Wait But Why offers what I think is a stimulating system for thinking through the healthiness quotient of friendships. Consider this graph:

If you’re in the first stages of a PhD program, I would especially urge you to consider this graph, because these are some of the times when you’re likely to achieve the first-tier brother- and- sister-like friendships described in the Urban article, due to what sociologists identify as the ideal environment for making lifelong friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” (generally associated with undergrad degrees, but I’m a late bloomer). At the beginning of a grad program, you’re taking the same classes, writing the same papers, gossiping over which professors are in touch with and available to students, or who gives minimal feedback on papers and holds office hours only by appointment. Together you are excited and proud to be enrolled in the graduate program, and eager to form new friendships that bridge the personal and the professional. Perhaps you hold area reading groups, language groups, writing workshop groups, you organize meals and drink dates together, and schedule regular coffees to talk through that final paper. You’re in the process of exploring yourselves and each other. You share hotel rooms at conferences and sometimes even plan vacations together, and you practice-test each other in the months leading up to oral exams. Together you build a uniquely generative and intimate intellectual community of scholars and buds.

Years later, when you’re still waiting for those letters to appear after your name and some of the prestige of being a budding PhD has worn down, when you’re unsure how you’re going to pay the bills the following year, when you’re competing with colleagues for courses and even jobs and facing the harsh reality that writing a dissertation is perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you’ve ever attempted in your life, things change. The paths of you and your friends are diverging, perhaps in ways you don’t even realize. Sometimes, friendships end for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. Inherent in romantic relationships is an expectation that you provide some kind of explanation when things go awry. Not so with friendships.

So, if you’re an early graduate student, I’m here to offer you a couple tidbits of advice as you form bonds with the grad students around you.

  1. Be cautious when developing close friendships with people who tend toward excessive gossip or cattiness toward other people in the department. If you spend most of your time talking shit about other people, chances are the some day you’ll be talking shit about each other. I mean c’mon, Mean Girls taught us this. 
  2. Don’t feel you need to accept all offers of friendship presented to you. Is there something about this person that attracts you to them as well? Do you find him/her inspiring in some way? Or are you just feeling pressured to enter an academic clique? 
  3. Be intentional about reaching outside your institution and forming connections with other people, either at other institutions (if you are in an area with multiple universities), or outside academia entirely. Join a basketball league! Find an online community with shared interests or a hobby you’d like to develop! Take an art class! One of my favorite circles is the feminist book club I’m a part of which is composed mostly of nonacademics. In addition to ensuring that the sum total of your identity is not tied to academia, and helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance, these connections may open up inspiration and creativity in ways you don’t expect. And, with friends outside your department, the stakes are lower. I can celebrate my friend-outside-Fordham’s Teaching Excellence award with nary a twinge of jealousy–to which, let’s face it, we all fall prey.
  4. Be thankful for the lasting, genuine, tier-one and -two friendships that you have. These are the friendships that contain minimal suspicion and jealousy; regular, reciprocated enthusiasm; excitement and positive vibes. With these friends, you’re on the same team–and that is truly beautiful. Any kind of relationship that relies upon effort and enthusiasm rather than contractual obligation to enhance some aspect of our lives should be celebrated. And in that vein, why not pick up your phone and shoot off an expression of gratitude to someone dear to you right now!
#friendshipgoals
What about you, readers? Have you struggled with friendships within your academic environments, or found them to be generally fruitful and positive? Any advice you’d like to add?

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coping · empowerment · grad school · mental health · PhD · righteous feminist anger · systemic violence

Mental Health and the PhD (Part II)

I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.

But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.

It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.

And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)

A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?

I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.

ideas for change · mental health · research planning

Office Space: The Academic Fantasy Edition

This post is by Lily Cho! 
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Over here at Hook & Eye, we have never shied away from that which may be considered frivolous. We understand that figuring out your hairhas a lot to do with figuring out your life, which has a lot to do with figuring out your job. We have covered the importance of the go-to (as opposed to go-go) boots. We have discussed the politics of eyewear. Most recently, there was Aimée’s completely spot-on piece about the power of the blazer. Following in this august H&E tradition, today I would like to take a moment to think about the kind of space you might fantasize about working in.

Let me begin with a space of fantasy tucked neatly into Terry Eagleton’s recently much circulated piece on the slow death of the university. Somewhere in the midst of his trenchant discussion of philistine university administrators and the rise of the entrepreneurial university, there was this astonishing (to me) revelation:

There had been a time earlier when college tutors might not even have bothered to arrange set tutorial times for their undergraduates. Instead, the undergraduate would simply drop round to their rooms when the spirit moved him for a glass of sherry and a civilized chat about Jane Austen or the function of the pancreas.

Forge the part about not scheduling tutorials (as the Undergraduate Program Director for my department, this idea makes my tummy do backflips in the most unpleasant ways). What about the part where he refers to the college tutor’s rooms? As in, an office that has more than one room? (I hear from those of you who have been through the Oxbridge that such rooms really do exist and that they really are full of nobly tattered Persian rugs and silver tea services so I realize that this is a fantasy space that actually exists, but just indulge me as I persist with my incredulity.) Okay, and then there’s the part about the glass of sherry. I tried to imagine a world where I would work in the kind of office where anybody who came to my office, least of all one of my undergraduates, would be offered a glass of sherry.

Even if I was allowed to serve alcohol to my students – and I’m pretty sure I’m not – who would provide the sherry? Would it be in a decanter? Who is going to wash the glasses afterwards? I have trouble picturing any Oxford don trundling down the hall to rinse out the sherry glasses in the bathroom. Maybe you can’t have sherry unless you also have a porter?
These questions remind of another representation of a fantasy academic office space that has stayed with me. Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historygives us the delicious idea of the office not only as a fantasy, but also a secret fantasy:

Julian answered the door… by opening it only a crack and looking through it warily, as if there were something wonderful in his office that needed guarding, something he was careful not everyone should see. (32)

And when we are finally permitted entry, it is abundantly clear that some secrets are worth keeping:

It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside – airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful – Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels – a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae. (33)

Did you read that and call to mind your own office? If it looks like Julian Morrow’s, I’m very pleased for you. Maybe, though, if you are a Canadian academic and you are lucky enough to be in a TT job, your campus office might look something like mine (you can’t see but there is a cactus just outside of the frame so I am not entirely without greenery):


Don’t get me wrong. I like my office. I really do. I have windows! And, depending on the time of day and the light, a great view into random student dorm rooms. It is obviously my own fault that this space is not filled with flowers, porcelain, and the scent of bergamot and camphor.

I’ve been thinking about this partly because I realized that, perhaps like many of you, I think of my campus office as the place where I meet with students and do admin stuff. I might even do some marking here although even that I am more likely to do off-campus. I don’t think of it as the place where I will write (although this blog post is being written in this very office right now!).

When I think of a fantasy writing space (and yes, this is also a space of fantasy for me which tells you that I really am no good on the interior design front), it looks a lot more like… 

all photos from http://cabinporn.com

Of course, in my head, all of these spaces are accompanied by a hunky barista who makes perfect cortados on demand. 

Barista aside, I am struck by how my fantasy of a good place to write is one that is very private, and magically isolated. It seems that I think that I need to be somehow cut off from the world in order to write. More precisely, I don’t see any students or colleagues in this picture. Unlike the office in Eagleton’s piece, or Julian Morrows’ fictional office in Tartt’s novel, these are not spaces where one thinks and works and encounters the occasional student or colleague. I don’t know how my idea of the space of teaching and the space of writing became so bifurcated, but it did. 

Is it that way for you? 

What might it mean for my teaching and my research if I brought those spaces more closely together? I ask this question even though I am nowhere near being able to write an essay in my campus office.

Once upon a time, in a university where I may or may not have worked, there may or may not have been a dean in the general field of the liberal arts and humanities (this is, I suspect, less of an issue for folks who run labs) who thought that faculty members should, like everyone else in the working world, identify the two weeks of the year in which they planned to take their allotted vacation, and then be present in their campus offices, with their office doors open, the rest of the year. It was not an idea that was embraced. And, at the time, I may or may not have thought that this idea showed little sympathy for the way in which most of us conduct our research and writing, but also verged on being anti-intellectual. But I can see the point of trying to make our research more visible not only in terms of its intended outcomes (brilliant publications that are widely cited and transform the field of knowledge, no pressure folks) but also in terms of the work we do to get there.

Of course, it is no accident that the college tutor’s room in Eagleton’s essay is a placeholder for an academic way of life that is increasingly rare in the age of austerity. Even though I am no fan of the university’s turn to corporatization and entrepreneurialism, I also do not want to be nostalgic for a university structure (which allowed for offices with multiple rooms and porters that might magically whisk away the sherry glasses and tea service) that was much, much more exclusive. As Aimée has already written, making the office space a writing space has a lot to with not feeling as though it is just where I hide when I am bouncing from obligation to obligation. Maybe it is about getting a bean bag chair. Maybe it’s time I brought some flowers to the office.
Works Cited
Eagleton, Terry. “The Slow Death of the University.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 April 2015.

Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992