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

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!
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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.