good things · mental health

Things that keep me warm

Today is the 15th consecutive day that this city I moved to in order to escape from the frozen tundra has been under an “extreme cold weather alert.” This month has been the coldest on record. Well, the joke may be on me, but at least I’m well equipped by my long residence in the northernmost North-American city with over 1 million inhabitants to deal with cold, and keep myself healthy and sane. So here’s a list of things that I do (or aim to, or think of doing, or flatter myself I’ll be doing when more time will be on hand):

– browse food blogs for cold-weather recipes
yoga (this is the most aspirational part of the list, really)
– use my SAD lamp regularly
– surf style websites and blogs to vicariously enjoy living in cities where street style is actually possible
read or listen to multiple books concurrently, according to mood
– read reviews of CanLit books, or of great books generally, so I can make lists like this one for the future
– watch Downton Abbey
– plan my spring wardrobe
– go for runs every Sunday (and promise myself religiously I will find at least another day in the week for a run)
– make lunch dates with friends
– knit (I’m almost done the sweater I started in September)

Knitting as procrastination

All the while, I also alternate at despairing of and completely ignoring the pile of marking that seems to spawn newly every hour. Whenever that happens, I just go and pick the easiest element on the list and have at it until guilt overcomes me. At that point, I decide to be responsible, and pick another line from the list for variation. I am a master procrastinator.

And you? What are your (extreme) cold-weather recipes for survival? Please share your food-/style-/cartoon-/[insert favourite procrastination method here] blogs or sources, so we can all refresh our bookmarks.

mental health · productivity · reflection · silence · winter · you're awesome

Slowing Down

It’s mid-semester. We’re all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to……:

SLOW DOWN. 
Here’s some Rothko for ya. Click on the image. It’ll help.

I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I’m constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.

The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me–or, worse, annoyed or indifferent–because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I’d suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and “idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts,” according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes–about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I’m partial to “Deep Focus”).

I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don’t always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because “academic” is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.

Related to the power of boredom is the “power of patience” (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should “take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences” of students, learning to guide practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive…), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?

So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I’m preaching right this moment and head to bed.

*For this article, as well as the “slow looking” exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative–and generous–Facebook post!

grad school · learning · mental health · reflection · saving my sanity

Unsustainable Practice

There’s something about the semester system that really gets me. It’s only really four months, I think.

Four months of teaching. Four months of writing, four months of researching. Just four months.
Four months to pound out a chapter, throw myself heart and soul into teaching, send out proposals, revise and submit papers, submit job applications…four months.

Four months is a reasonable time to do all the things, right?

I usually start out in September like this:

And then end-of-December rolls around and I’m all:

*

This past December was particularly bad. In my last week of work before Christmas, I was fighting off an epic cold. Then, two days into a lovely mountain holiday with my family, I was struck with an awful stomach bug. It proceeded to infect my whole family. It was not pretty.

This isn’t to say I didn’t accomplish a lot of things over the Fall semester. In fact, I did. I taught my second-ever class (writing-intensive, forty students), half of it new material. I continued working with the great research project I’ve been privileged to be a part of, helping to develop a visualization tool. I submitted my first-ever job application, and had my first-ever interview. I wrote, revised, and submitted two articles. I applied and was accepted to present a paper at two different conferences. I did some service work. I helped organize a conference, which included vetting proposals and contributing some pieces to a SSHRC connections grant. With a colleague, I was invited to submit a chapter to a forthcoming book. And I continued to write my dissertation.

It’s all exciting stuff.

But I totally wiped myself out.

Fortunately, this winter semester comes with a much-needed break. This January, I have the privilege of a year-long fellowship that relieves me from teaching and research duties, allowing me to focus on finishing up my dissertation. So, last week, with space to do so, I actually took some time to relax. I read some books for pleasure, for the first time in months (turns out I like graphic novels). I watched some TV. I stayed at home for a couple days and napped.

And then I resolved to develop a sustainable habit of work, one not overly-based on the semester system. If I stop thinking in terms of “just four months, then…” I might just be able to develop a sustainable work practice, one not premised on overcommitting.

My resolutions thus far are simple:

1) Say no (more often). Mostly this means saying no to myself. So far I’ve done a good job crossing items off my list that aren’t important. Last week I decided not to apply to a conference that I didn’t need to go to. Two are enough for this summer.

2) Prioritize. This is related to number one. My main and primary work priority right now is my dissertation. In the last week, I re-conceptualized how my chapters were working and decided to add a new one before my existing two chapters. My current focus is on researching and writing this chapter, and it’s the top of my list. I’m determined not to let anything displace it.

3) Go for Walks. This is one of the main ways that I think and work through problems. And it’s also a great de-stressor. Edmonton in January usually prevents long walks (without frostbite, anyway), but right now we’re having an usually warm spell. I’m determined to take advantage of it to walk and think.

Do you find that the semester-system tends to encourage overcommitment? How have you managed to develop sustainable habits over longer periods of time?

*art credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

balance · mental health

Staying Afloat: In Praise of Micro-Breaks

The relative quiet on Hook and Eye is a good measure for where we are in the term, no? Drowning in marking? Lecture prep never-ending? Class discussion reminds you of Sisyphus? Hey, we’re all in the same boat more or less, I assume. This week was not especially kind to me–but what week 10 in the term can ever be? First, my cat was sick over the weekend. I don’t mean to make comparisons, but, at least, when the kids are sick, they can tell you what hurts. Cats just go and hide, and stop eating, and you know something’s awry. Plus, when I was going to get him, trying to coax him out, and tempt him with what I know to be irresistible cuisine to him, he would just give me these wide-pupiled stares that just made me more desperate. I almost took him to the vet emergency on Sunday night, but settled instead to giving him water with a syringe to make sure he didn’t dehydrate. Then, during the night, he came in my bed, and I knew he was doing better. And that was before the week even started.

However, as crises are wont to do, this one, after passing, served as a good reminder that work is just work, even in huge quantities, and dwelling on that quantity, and its propensity to generate yet more work rather than to diminish, does nothing but increase anxiety, and take away any possibility to relax, and enjoy at least some breathing space. A turning point in my perspective, that one.

It was the switch that turned my fatigued brain around. Yes, it’s a lot of work (between the marking, and the marking, and did I already mention the marking?), but whining about it will make it neither more pleasant, nor more likely to dissipate spontaneously. Instead, I can take better care of said overworked brain by consciously directing my attention elsewhere. I take micro-breaks in-between grading one paper and the next, and procrastinate consciously, creatively, and, most importantly, guiltlessly. For example, I engage in:

– Day-dreaming: Instead of going reflexively to Twitter, email, etc., in-between one paper to be graded and another, I can lift my eyes up from the computer (I grade electronically), and think about all the wonderful things that will await me when I am more time-rich (in 4 weeks, but who’s counting?). Books, Gilmore Girls streaming on Netflix, 3 remaining episodes of Outlander.

– Planning for next term: I’ll be honest with you: I don’t hate grading (ssshhh, don’t tell anyone!). I enjoy engaging with students’ ideas, and I love the spark they give to my own creative process. One word, turn of phrase, or idea can sometimes provide that click that my own ideas need to settle into place.

– Thinking about what activities will fill my weekend. I never–well, almost never–work on the weekend, what with two kids needing and vocally demanding entertainment, and I find this habit to provide the best balance to keeping my brain afloat. What’s going on in the city that is cheap and kid-friendly? What restaurant or cuisine will we try? What’s the weather going to be like?

I know, I know: any of these activities can lead into longer breaks, and procrastination can flourish. So what? What is the worst thing that will happen if you take a break (or a nap, I won’t tell anyone!), even a longer one. It means your brain needs it. It means you might just be healthier in the longer term. It might mean you will be able to do more, and more efficiently, when you come back. So, go on, take that (micro-)break!

bad academics · mental health

From lapsed, to failed, to recovering academic

Every single Thursday since this semester has started, I have felt like the next day was a Saturday. The joke is on me, and doubly so, because I teach not one, but two three-hour classes on Friday, so my brain’s skipping over the Friday probably amounts to denial. This Friday, today, my brain completely acknowledged in a melancholy way, because I was actually supposed to be at the fantastic Discourse and Dynamics conference that Hook and Eye‘s Erin Wunker has co-organized. Not being there compounds my feeling as a complete academic failure. Ironically, not being there is also key to my recovery, academic and otherwise.

I did not teach in the Winter term of 2014, and having an alt-academic position meant that I felt only partly like an academic: a lapsed one. My alt-ac position allowed me to do important work, and contribute my teaching experience to improving academic processes such as course evaluations. Similarly, my knowledge of students and their needs informed many other aspects of the job I was involved in. What’s more, I was still going to conferences, and presenting my original research. So, I was not completely off the wagon. Lapsed, but still hanging on, although I could definitely feel the train picking up speed, while my own clinging strength kept diminishing in inverse proportion.

Then this term came, and back-to-teaching meant, I thought, back to the academy. Teaching and conferencing, although not much time for writing in-between the five courses: still academic, no? I even bought my plane ticket to Moncton to ensure I’d be there to take part in this amazing event. As the term picked up speed, and I was buried deeper and deeper under piles of marking, I also postponed booking a room in or around tiny Sackville. With every passing day, the need to secure lodgings was increasing in direct proportion with my anxiety over how I would get my Friday courses covered, when I would get all the marking done, and how many supplementary hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed on the altar of course prep. And I hadn’t even begun to factor in writing the paper.

However, if this decision puts the cherry on top of the failed academic cake, it also signals, I flatter myself, professional maturity. This is the point at which recovery begins. I could have, of course, deluded myself by thinking that “I’ll do just this one more thing,” or some such, but we all know that’s both untrue and unhealthy. I have reached a point in my professional career when I know how I work, and what allows me to perform best. You know what’s vital in that equation that belies the facile identification of work and self? Sleep. Time to think freely. Taking walks. Taking naps. Looking inside myself, rather than outside for resources. More generally, taking a break, or–gasp–maybe even a holiday.

How about you, dear reader? What’s your midterm recovery technique? General impostor syndrome aside, did you take any decisions that made you feel less like an academic, and more like an interloper?

advice · best laid plans · mental health

The Good Enough Professor

Today’s post is the first in a series of posts we’ll have from our new semi-regular blogger Lily Cho. Welcome, Lily!
_____________________________________

Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interviewwith Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me.

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough.

The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin’s incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true.

So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me.

But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.

First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties.

So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 

We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy.

How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor?

Lily Cho
York University
grad school · mental health · new year new plan · productivity · spirit animal

New Leaf September

I’m not one for giving advice, not really–not when it comes to time management, at least. My cobloggers have already offered some excellent pointers regarding how to whip ourselves into shape for the new school year. How to manage life as a flexible academic, how to squeeze in daily writing time, how to adjust to a new program as a newbie graduate student, figuring out our responsibility to new students as contract professors, and, most recently, training ourselves to pay attention and structure our own time in the absence of externally enforced structure.

But I repeat. I am not one for giving advice–at least not in bullet points, at least not at this stage in my career. I work very hard, to be sure, but I do it in very nonconventional, nonstructured ways. I have always been an avid daydreamer with an overly active imagination (oh hey, I’m writing a dissertation on dream visions! Work and life FTW). Sometimes my head rests so far in the midst of the clouds that, for example, the other day I got on the wrong train, then got off on the wrong stop of the wrong train, and then found myself wandering through some random midtown street, so enthralled in the music I was listening to that I actually had to remind myself to keep my eyes open. (I. Know.)  I sometimes forget to eat, I often wake up at 9 or 10 am, I often stay up working until 2 or 3, I have a very bad habit of hanging out in the Dark Playground.

(“The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.”)

Perhaps we all feel this way, all us bloggers, and I always admire our collective ability to admit we’ve failed, we continue to fail, we will inevitably fail more in the future. But readers, please–be gracious to yourselves. Accept that the goals we set are often unreasonable, worsened by a metrics-based system of output that demands that we make the maximum use of our time and work. So I think the best advice I can give, from my very humble and relatively privileged position as a funded graduate student with very few daily administrative or professional duties, is to be fair to yourself, and fair to your own natural rhythms when sussing out a work regime. Are you a night owl, like me? Respect that about yourself–don’t be night-shamed by those eager beaver morning risers! If you have the luxury of not having to be somewhere at 9 am every day, or not having to drop your kid off at daycare, embrace your night-owl-ness, while being sure to allot yourself a few hours each day for self-care and/or mental rest, be it alone or with a few close supportive friends. I cherish those quiet hours after midnight. While I’m at it, I just want to call upon an essay by Anne Fadiman for a moment:

Something amazing happens when the rest of the world is sleeping. I am glued to my chair. I forget that I ever wanted to do anything but write. The crowded city, the crowded apartment, and the crowded calendar suddenly seem spacious. Three or four hours pass in a moment; I have no idea what time it is, because I never check the clock. If I chose to listen, I could hear the swish of taxis bound for downtown bars or the soft saxophone rifts that drift from a neighbor’s window, but nothing gets through. I am suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, and the very lack of sensation is delicious. (“Night Owl,” The Norton Reader 67)

[^Ok, this doesn’t always happen to me, but sometimes. It’s a beautiful thing.]

Currently, I’m returning to the classroom after an 8-month break (thanks, SSHRC!), so am trying to reinstall structure and focus into my previously seamless schedule.  At the risk of sounding contradictory, but responding to Erin’s call for focusing techniques from yesterday, I do have a few personal strategies and goals that I’ve set for myself this month, and maybe my experience will give you some good ideas as well. Maybe not. Either way, I’m using this blog as a means of keeping myself accountable to my goals during this self-proclaimed, momentous “New Leaf September.”

1. I’ve temporarily deactivated my Facebook account.
It was hard, guys. I think I’ve deactivated it once in the 8 years since I’ve joined, and that lasted about, maybe, a day. I’m slightly addicted to social interaction and the digital community that Facebook establishes just has not been helping with that lately. Now, instead of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and wondering why this or that person hasn’t liked my latest photo or responded to my fb chat, blah blah blah, stupid social media anxiety, I’m relying on Twitter to supply me with news and ideas and an electronic friend circle, and I’m trying to redirect my mental energy into other, more creative things. I even finished a book today! I’m on Day 2. We’ll see how this goes (it’s possible that by the time you’re reading this, I’ve reactivated; don’t judge.).

2. I’m slotting my various responsibilities into various spaces around the city. 
Teaching stuff? Either campus or my office at home. Dissertation stuff? Coffee shops or libraries. I have been fortunate enough to become a member of the Wertheim Study program at NYPL, which means I have access to a scholars-only room with designated shelf space and other important-looking studious scholars who make me feel like I need to be important-looking and studious too. When I’m there, I have to be working on my dissertation: I’m not allowed to grade or respond to student emails or text my friends (*cough*). Trying to maintain designated spaces for different tasks will help me feel like I’m off-duty when I head home every day.

3. I keep a daily research journal where I sketch out my accomplishments and note what needs to be done next. Not only does this help me celebrate what I’ve done, but it helps me pick back up again whenever I sit down to my dissertation, minimizing the paralysis that sometimes occurs when transitioning between very different tasks. I keep this journal specific and realistic and allow myself to freak out in it a little bit too, screaming silently when things go wrong or when I haven’t met my goals. Freak out in your research journals, people.

While I know I’ll fail as I turn over a new leaf this year, I want to be gracious to my own strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow myself micro-celebrations when things go right. I guess that’s what this entire blog is about, in a way. I’m barreling into this new year after a summer that, well, wasn’t the best from a feminist perspective, feeling strong and energized, ready to “put words out into the world that do something,” as Erin so eloquently reminded us to do last week. 

In a sense, I want to barrel into the new academic year like this amazing dog named Walter who dashes into the Ionian sea with a camera strapped to his back.

Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to share that video.

community · grad school · mental health · reform · research · solitude · travel

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she’d been told during her PhD–a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa’s advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I’ve been traveling for over four weeks now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think–about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other’s shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don’t think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being–I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I’ve been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I’ve been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven’t been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I’ve fallen behind on email, I haven’t been teaching or grading, I’ve had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I’ve spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I’ve enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here–a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven’t accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I’ve encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren’t an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again–something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I’d like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I’ve been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I’m over here–sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess–but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I’m in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn’t let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I’ve already built up. Here’s hopin,’ anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I’d recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.

grad school · guilt · mental health · PhD · productivity

The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a brief 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 it’s 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 
Photographed by me

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 marvelled 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.

bad academics · balance · being undone · day in the life · free time · mental health · productivity

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can’t get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow …]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I’m running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn’t even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I’m a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I’m asking myself:

  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I’m listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?

There’s a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it’s difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you’re trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it’s enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here’s to the blank spaces and what they do for us.