advice · change management · community · equity · ideas for change · saving my sanity

Woman, interrupted: a guide for men

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It’s a new school year and, if you work in a college or university, that means another year of meetings. Woohoo! I’m in a lot of meetings and I think a lot about how to have a better meeting. One of the things that makes some meetings really dispiriting are unwanted interruptions from male, and male-identified, colleagues who stop women from speaking.

We already know that men often interrupt women in a meeting. It is a “universal phenomenon.” And we have a lot of good thoughts and suggestions for what women should do when men interrupt them. It’s got a hashtag, #manterruption, and there’s even an app to track it. The current global interruption rate is 1.4 times a minute.

But there is surprisingly little help for men who interrupt women. We know what women should do when they get interrupted. But men shouldn’t be left out. There should be a guide for them too.

Never fear! Hook & Eye is here to help! Here’s a friendly letter for your male colleagues and mine:

Dear Male Colleague in a Meeting,

It’s really great to see you here! Collegial process is so important and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to come to this meeting. Having your depth of experience and expertise at this table, or in this room, makes all of our work better. I know you know a LOT. It might sometimes (often?) happen that you have the urge to share your knowledge urgently even though someone else is already talking. Maybe the other person who is already talking is a woman? Especially if the other person is talking is a woman, please, I beg you, pause for a moment and consider withdrawing your desire to interrupt and ask the following questions:

  1. Do you really need to do this? Can this point wait until the speaker has finished talking?
  2. Is this an unwanted interruption? That is, does anyone else want you to interrupt?

You might ask, how can I tell if this is an unwanted interruption?

Good question! I’m so glad you asked.

Consider: will this interruption help the speaker clarify or further her point? will this interruption upset and destabilize the speaker so that she loses her train of thought and has trouble continuing to make her point? would other people at the meeting want me to interrupt?

Not sure? That’s good. I work in the liberal arts where embracing uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of intellectual inquiry.

Here’s a quick and easy way to get some answers: ask someone, preferably a woman. Pass them a note. Whisper in their ear. Send them a text or DM. If you’re really organized, before the meeting, arrange for sign that you can make to a colleague, preferably a woman, who will be in the room and she can tell you if your interruption will be welcome.

Ok, you’ve checked and this interruption really would be welcome. Great! But you still shouldn’t be the person interrupting. You still have to withdraw.

Ask a colleague, definitely preferably a woman, to do it for you. This is a terrific way to triple check that the interruption really is wanted. And to make sure that you’re not another dude preventing a woman from speaking.

I know, all this takes time. The meeting is moving fast and you want to interrupt because this point is urgent. You’ve got to trust me on this. It’s not so urgent that it can’t wait a few moments so that you can be really sure that this is a good move.

Thank you. Welcome back. Let’s have a great year of meetings and let’s try for no more meetings where men interrupt women.

community · dissertation · grad school · PhD · saving my sanity · writing

When you just don’t want to write

It’s mid-March. The days are longer, warmed by sun, but frost lingers in the morning, and piles of snow creep into the shadows, refusing to melt. The semester is furiously racing to its end, our energy reserves are depleting, and while we can see the close of the term, we’re all wondering if we’re going to end before it does.

I’ve been working on a substantially revising a long section of my dissertation, but on some days my brain is foggy, or I feel a lack of confidence, afraid I don’t know what I’m doing. As the term winds to a close and writing deadlines approach, I’ve found a few tried and true methods for getting the work of writing done, even if it feels near impossible.

1. The Pomodoro Method: We’ve talked about this a lot on Hook and Eye before, but the Pomodoro technique really does help to give focus to a writing task. If I’m stuck in the endless chasm of research and can’t seem to get my way out of it, I turn off the internet, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then dedicate my full attention to the task of writing. It’s really helpful when I’m not feeling motivated because 25 minutes is such a manageable length of time: anyone can do it. After the timer rings, if I’m really vigilant, I’ll only take a 5 minute break, which I also use the timer to structure. After four cycles, I give myself a 15 minute break.

2. Take Real Breaks: Boyda talked a couple weeks ago about slowing down and unplugging, and I highly recommend it. Even if you can only take a 3-5 minute break, don’t spend it surfing the internet, or checking your phone, or staring at some kind of a screen. If you can, stand up, move around, stretch, or just close your computer and stare out a window or into space. It’s enormously beneficial to do something different so the break feels like a real break and not just the same old.

3. Get Moving: If you have a bit more time, go for a walk with a friend. Get outside for the fresh air and vitamin D, or just go get coffee. Even if you don’t drink coffee, just go for the walk. If you can’t spare the time, spend five minutes doing jumping jacks or running in place, or have a personal dance party. If you only have a few seconds, my three-year-old would probably recommend the Crazy Shake.

4. Make Lists: At the beginning of each day, make yourself a to-do list of what you need to accomplish, and decide what to prioritize for that day. On Mondays, it can be really beneficial to write down your goals for the week, and then break it down into daily chunks. It can also be useful to work back from any impending deadlines in order to help structure your time on a month-or-semester-long basis. Sometimes these goals aren’t met in the way we think we will meet them, but having them in the first place means they can be revisited or that we can make new priorities when the unexpected occurs.

5. Meet up with Friends: One of the most important things for me personally is having people around me to keep me accountable to my writing goals. Whether I meet up with them in person, like for my weekly writing club where we do community pomodoros (if you’re at the U of A, join us!), or to an online googledocs spreadsheet to write out my weekly and daily goals, when someone else knows what I commit to, it becomes much easier to do it. The extra accountability means I’m far more likely to get stuff done. Also, it’s harder to putz around on the internet when someone is hovering over your shoulder.

6. Just do it: Even if your brain doesn’t want to cooperate, just force yourself to focus. Turn off the internet, gather every spec of willpower, and focus on the writing task at hand. Sometimes just writing the first couple of words on the blank page can be the key to gaining momentum.

guest post · saving my sanity

Guest Post: The Limit of the Limits

After having just had to cancel out on one more responsibility in a long list of things not accomplished this week, I am stuck contemplating limitations. This has been a frequent theme in the last couple of months for me. A serious-not-too-serious freak (and likely somewhat comical) workplace accident at the end of November left me with a concussion (let’s just say I’ve unfriended high heels and walls). And so began my conversation with limitations. As colleagues covered my exams and pardoned my absences from meetings and told me to ‘take it easy,’ I stewed in countless decisions each day regarding what I could and couldn’t do, or more exactly, what I should and shouldn’t do. Having to decide upon one’s capabilities and limitations is exhausting and frequently guilt-inducing, particularly when the boundary between well and unwell, able and unable can be so fluid and fickle.

I’ve had an especially hard time figuring out that what one can do isn’t necessarily the same as what one should do, so I’ve had numerous set-backs along the way, which brings me to this week and my renewed interest in limitations and why they’re so tricky to figure out. What is the deciding factor between cancelling a class, a meeting, etcetera and not doing so? What is the pivot point between pushing through and surrendering?

A bit of background: I grew up as a figure skater; I am still a figure skater, although one whose skills are in sharp decline. In so many ways, it can be a silly sport, a shallow sport where beauty and sparkling sequins matter, an elitist sport where snobbery can run rampant. But despite all this, figure skating has, more often than not, provided me with my life’s lessons, even my philosophies of life. It is a sport where one’s balance is always precarious; lean too far one way or another, you lose an edge or find a toe pick. It is also a sport where you fling yourself into the air, rotate however many times, and have to trust that you can control each fine movement of your body well enough so that you land upright, balanced on an eighth of an inch blade.

And although clichéd to say, it is perhaps the sport of falling down and getting back up again, both literally and metaphorically. If you get through a session without snow on your butt, that likely means you didn’t work hard enough, didn’t take enough risks. If you get through a season without having faced and surmounted harsh criticism, then you’ve been luckier than pretty much everyone.

Given these lessons in the fine art of falling, when all of my fellow grad students were having their egos and hearts prodded and sliced by any little bit of critical feedback, I was already mostly immune to such wounds. When nerves abounded as we were prepping for conference presentations, dissertation defences, and eventually job talks, I felt little effect. I always figured that if I could skate a program, fall down more than I stood up, while everyone watched . . . . all while wearing spandex, I could take pretty much anything.

However, what I’ve recently realized is that taking my life’s lessons from my experience in sport has one huge fallibility. In figure skating, as I imagine in most high-performance athletic endeavours, we don’t comprehend limitations. We persevere. We work through the pain. Stress fracture in your foot? Tape it up and get on with it. That toughness is vaunted and validated.

In academia, toughness isn’t just valued; it’s most often a necessity. We’re in a situation where we are subject to constant evaluation, by our students, by our peers, by our supervisors and administrators. And the stakes are so much higher in the work world than they are in an arena. Our livelihoods depend keenly on our ability to endure, to push through to the end of a dissertation, to push towards employment, to, in general, propel ourselves towards our goals. For those increasingly few who find themselves with tenure track appointments, the responsibility and weight of that achievement brings even more so a desire to surpass limitations. Why should I assume the right to give myself a break when there are so many who do not have that right, so many who would love to have the opportunity that I do and who could do my job as well as, if not better than I do?

And that brings me back to the conundrum of knowing one’s limitations. What does one do when to set limits is to be limited in one’s possibilities, but to not set limits is to be unhealthy, whether or not one is dealing with injuries and/or illnesses? If one does not try to surpass perceived limitations, then how does one know what’s possible? Aren’t we as academics programmed to go beyond the possible? It is so difficult to recognize the tipping point between having done enough and having done too much. It is likewise so difficult to assert the agency to tame one’s over-ambitious self-delusions. Where do we draw our lines? And more importantly, how do we draw our lines given all the reasons not to or at least not to want to? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I know is that one of these days, I’d really like to stop catching my toe picks.

Veronica Austen
St. Jerome’s University
balance · clothes · empowerment · saving my sanity

My Uniform

My wardrobe has shifted significantly over the last few years to align with changes in my work and personal life. 
The birth of my daughter, reduced flexibility in the time I spend at home and at work, increasing time in the classroom, and of course the never-ending to-do lists of conferencing, dissertation-writing, and researching–all these increasing responsibilities have meant I have much less time and flexibility in my mornings, less energy to spend purchasing new clothes, and more in need of flexible and streamlined routines. 
With less time to make decisions about what items to pair, and even less to purchase new wardrobe items, I’ve found myself wearing tried and true combinations of clothing, my own set way of dressing that is a safe go-to every day. Instead of gravitating towards new, unfamiliar or untested items, I found myself wearing and purchasing the same-old, same-old: my uniform.
By necessity, I’ve drastically simplified what I wear. 
By chance, I’ve found that I love it.
There’s something remarkably freeing about wearing and purchasing the same type of clothing. Instead of the time-suck of trial-and-error combinations, there’s the ease of the comfortable and familiar. Rather than money wasted on items bought and never worn, there are multiple similar items that I know I’ll love.
In teaching months, I often wear a black dress or black skirt, usually paired with a beige or black cardigan or blue collared shirt, with black tights (usually fleece-lined for our cold Edmonton winters) and cognac-brown or black boots. Sometimes I swap out the basic black dress for black and white stripes, or dark blue, or the skirt for black pants. A long gold necklace is my main accessory. If it’s warmer, I’ll exchange the boots for beige flats; if it’s colder, I’ll wear fur-lined sorels and a scarf. It’s the most comfortable, neutral, and flattering outfit I’ve personally come up with, and it works in a variety of situations. In the classroom, I look like an instructor. At a conference, I’m a presenter or attendee. At the coffee shop, I look like I’m a person who drinks coffee.
With wearing what I know has worked, I’ve also found I project more authority. Perhaps it’s the confidence of simply knowing that I’m wearing something that works well; perhaps it’s the fact that the items I dress in tend to be neutral basics, which evoke simple sophistication.
Primarily, though, duplicating my favourite closet staples and wearing a uniform has meant eliminating stress and anxiety. With less time spent on getting ready in the morning, I find I have more time and mind space to focus on other, more important things: my work; my family.
Have you streamlined any elements of your daily routines? In what ways has it made your life more simple and easy to manage?
academic work · best laid plans · empowerment · ideas for change · modest proposal · organization · saving my sanity

Drop in, tune out

Here’s an experiment I’m undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they’re out of town, they can call. At the same time, I’m also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I’m overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.

Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.

My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what’s happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.

So far, I’m calling the experiment a success. I’m getting less email now, AND, I’m solving more problems for students, more quickly. I’m trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I’m also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I’m not really getting that much better at it.

In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they’re part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there’s nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I’m helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone’s expectations in check.

I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I’ll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they’re even having fun together out in the hallways. It’s convivial.

And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.

A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: “Send me an email to remind me!” I’d say. But then, honestly, I’d let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.

For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don’t do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it’s an experiment.

In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I’ve finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first  meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.

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

best laid plans · saving my sanity · teaching

Writing Lectures Efficiently (Or, how I learned not to drown in prep)

Here’s a little story about my first semester as a sessional employee. The year was 2008. I had just finished my PhD and landed three courses. One was a year-long theory course, one was a year-long poetry course. These were both at my alma mater. I also managed to get one course at a university down the road. I was feeling nervous and excited, maybe even a little smug. Then two weeks before classes the chair at the new-to-me university called to offer me a fourth course. I was in a quandary: should I take the course for the money and the precedence list experience ? Or should I stick with what I had? I called my mentor. “Take it,” she advised. Readers, I did.

Fast-forward to early October. I was living in a basement apartment driving across the city to two universities on a daily basis. I was up with the chickens writing lectures and I was up with the night owls writing lectures. I enjoyed neither. I felt like nothing was getting done. I was mired in not knowing anything, not feeling confident in anything, and certain that at any moment my students or colleagues would discover that I was a fraud. It was around that time that my mentor called to check in. Before she could even ask how I was I burst into tears and revealed that I was sitting under my desk literally hiding from my work. She took me out for a glass of wine and told me to buck up. “I advised you to take four classes on not because it is easy or fun,” she told me. “I advised you to do it so that you would know you can handle it.” (She also reminded me I could have ignored her advice). I bucked up, hurtled through the semester, and did it again the following term. It was exhausting, maddening, and more than a little scary. It was also fun, exhilarating, and emboldening. As it turns out, I could teach four classes, and while it is a wildly heavy and I wouldn’t really wish it on anyone, the thing that saved me (& has continued to save me. I’ve taught about fifty classes since then) was learning how to write lectures in a reasonable amount of time.

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that teaching prep can expand to fill whatever available time you have. Indeed, have been known in years gone by to have spent six hours preparing for a fifty-minute tutorial. Was it the best tutorial in the history of teaching? No. Frankly, if memory serves, it was pretty grim and involved me holding up a copy of Understanding Poetry that my father gave me when I was in high school (thanks, dad!) No part of my formal training as a literary scholar taught me how to write lectures, or to teach for that matter. Consequently, everything I have learned has come the hard way. Good lecture notes and slides (if you use them) last–you can tweak them without having to start from scratch (if you end up teaching the same class again, that is… A rarity as CAFs!)

1) Allot a specific amount of time & stick to it: This is the most important suggestion I have. We all know it is possible to dither and tinker until the day is gone. I set myself a specific amount of time to write my new lecture and that includes doing the reading. If it is a new lecture/text I give myself roughly double the time of the class–2 hours to write the lecture for a 50 minute class. Sometimes I get it done faster, sometimes a bit slower, but having a clear time limit keeps me on track and off Facebook. Consider turning off your wifi.

2) Read actively for the lecture and make bullet-point notes: As I read or re-read the primary material for class I make a list of the central points, key terms, and any associative thoughts I have. I then organize these notes into a really skeletal lecture trajectory.

3) Write up lecture notes: When I started teaching and writing lectures I was so nervous I had to write everything–from “breathe” to “tell joke”–out into a script. Often I didn’t look at the script much, but it was a crutch–there if I need it. I found it really useful to have such detailed scripts to come back to and tinker with the times I am able to teach a course for a second or third time (again, a rarity as a contract worker). I title my lectures and highlight the key terms for the students and for myself.

My lecture-note writing style has evolved over time–I’ve moved to a more spatially organized (for me) means of writing notes. Main points are on the left in all caps, details and explanations are on the right like so:

I translate and narrativize my reading notes into these lecture notes, which means I have actively thought about the text and what I am going to say about the text twice now. In turn, this means I am less nervous and more practices in what I want to say and how I want to say it.

4) Make slides: One of my mentors pointed out that action at the front of the room keeps an audience’s attention. You’ve seen those articles about talking with your hands, right? Same idea. And since I am a bit clumsy my aim is to keep the action at the front of the class course-related and not about me tripping or spilling my coffee (which still happens all the time). For me, slides work well to keep student attention and keep me on track. I only post key terms, images, and quoted passages if we are going to do close-reading. I think of my slides as the third point in triangulated lecturing–the lecture, the primary text(s), the slides. Nothing replicates or repeats itself and there is enough difference in all three components that it keeps me on my toes and the students actively engaged.

Here is an example:

And another:

There’s just enough information there to get the students thinking. This also allows me to go off-script and unpack the function of the images in relation to the lecture and our discussion. 

When I am finished I print my notes, save the notes and slides in several places because yes, I have had a computer crash and have lost years of teaching notes because I am a lazy saver (weep!).

This is not a fool-proof plan, and it wont work for everyone. However, I have found that a combination of time limit + having an action plan = less time agonizing over what to say and how to say it.

What about y’all? How do you go about writing lectures in a timely fashion?

best laid plans · saving my sanity · slow academy

Late summer round-up

Dear Readers,

We can hardly believe it is mid-August! We will be back to our regular posting schedule right after Labour Day, but for now here is a round-up of what we have been doing and thinking about this summer.

Yours,

We here at Hook & Eye
__________________________________________________________________________

Boyda: My goals for the summer have been finding peace and focus in the midst of displacement and solo travel; while one would assume that seven weeks spent in Europe this past semester would have acclimatized me to research travel, in fact I’m feeling more anxious than ever now that it is about to happen again: I’ve  spent two more weeks in England and a week or so in Iceland for various conferences and research. Upon returning I plan to spend the following month in air-conditioned libraries and rooftop bars and yoga studios, though one glorious week in August will be spent in a South Carolinian seaside house celebrating the wedding of dear friends. My material goals are to revise my first chapter, finish a draft of my second chapter (based on feedback I receive from my Iceland conference) by the end of the summer.
While part of me would love to just stay put for a while, catch up on deadlines already missed, and enjoy all the marvelous summery things New York has to offer, I know I’m fortunate to have so many exciting travel locales on the horizon. Trying to stay positive, to feel thankful, to accept my life as it is now without worrying overmuch about the future. A significant wrench has been thrown into my normal work regime here in New York (the Rose Main Reading Room at NYPL will be closed for 6 months due to safety inspections), so I’ve already been feeling displaced; perhaps geographic displacement over the next few weeks will actually boost my productivity rather than decrease it. Wishing all of you and my fellow bloggers productive worktimes and carefree funtimes; until the Fall!
Jana:  My summer has had very little material requirements, and many immaterial ones. I’m not moving, I’ve finished the whirlwind of research- and conference-related travel, and I’m spending the rest of my summer puzzling through some of the problems created when I wrote the first couple chapters of my dissertation. So I’m revising one chapter of my dissertation for publication, at the same time working to give a stronger theoretical background to my introduction, and I’m writing a new article on the idea of the club newsletter as a network. Part of this involves what Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: looking again at what I’ve written, and seeing things with new eyes, approaching it from “a new critical direction”. But I’m also trying to establish new habits: like Erin, I’m working to develop a regular routine for thinking, reading, researching, and writing, one that facilitates this re-vision. And, of course, I’ve been enjoying the beautiful summer weather, walking and biking in my tree-canopied neighbourhood, playing baseball with my friends, and lounging around the yard with my partner and daughter!
Margrit: Remember the good ol’ times of grad school when summer meant slowing down and finally having unstructured time for writing? Nor do I actually. Definitely not as a reality, but as a pipe dream every academic invokes, but none admits to materializing by the end of summer. My summer has been all about materiality, and very little about dreaming. I’m a pragmatist, and I had decided, some time ago that 2013-2014 would be my last year on the academic job market. And that decision ended up breeding others and opening new ground where fertile possibilities started sprouting. So I took the major step of deciding I would no longer relinquish the meager modicum of control we can exert over our lives to the caprice of an austere job market intent on draining me of all self-esteem and balance. In short, my family is moving east across the country, to where we first landed, literally, ten years ago tomorrow. We figured if we made it over the pond once on a wing and a desire–we not being of the praying kind–we might try our luck again. Bit by bit–sometimes infinitesimally so–I’m taking back the power academia so easily seduced out of me with promises of intellectual fulfillment. My foray into alt-ac has reawakened me to my pre-academic-job-market confidence, and this time, I’m not giving it away. Not for love or money.

Erin: Like Margrit, I too spent the first part of my summer moving. My partner and I moved to Halifax. It is a return for both of us, though this time on very different terms. I returned to a city I already love, but this time I won’t be heading into a contract position and getting ready for a full slate of teaching. Instead, I will be rejigging why it is that I do with my time. I have decided to finish a few manuscript projects as I think through what is next, so I will be working to develop a regular writing routine. I have two books that need finishing and two articles to revise and resubmit. I’ll also be working to prepare my essay introducing CWILA’s new Count which will launch in mid-September.  Over the summer, however, my plans are to ride my bike, read, walk Marley the Dog, hang out with my partner and our friends, swim in the ocean, and generally try to get my feet back on solid ground. Oh yeah, and I’ll definitely spent a great week at/recovering from Sappyfest
Melissa: Summer came, but my schedule didn’t change. It still feels weird, but I relish the lack of pressure to write more, research more, do more. That lack has given me the clarity to begin figuring out what I need to say no to, and what I can say yes to. No to tutoring, and to going to DHSI this year. No to renovating our basement, and to taking a vacation that would be fun but exhausting. No to expecting myself to do real writing after a nine-hour work day, and to requests to review. Yes to writing and teaching only about what I care about, which is graduate reform and neglected poets, and to framing writing as self-care. Yes to enjoying our home as it is, and to a long lazy train ride to cities and people I adore. Yes to ice cream for dinner, and to picnic lunches. Yes to spending more time with the people and creatures I love, and to conquering the fear of putting my heart out in the world. And yes to fulfilling my vocation of helping those who academia disenfranchises, which I’m lucky to do at work and on H&E. 

best laid plans · research · research planning · saving my sanity · writing

Your Five Year Research Plan: Guest Post

This is a guest post from frequent Hook and Eye commenter, prolific scholar, and all round awesome person Julie Rak, Professor, Dept. of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. Thanks so much to Julie for sharing her insight with us, and also (urp) for her tremendous patience as I dilly-dallied getting this posted. This post really resonated with me, and while it’s pitched to the professoriate, there’s something useful in thinking through a graduate degree as a five year plan, too.

And so on to Julie …

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As a reader of Hook and Eye, I am interested in how people newer to the profession than I am think about their work lives. A quick scan of the keywords for different Hook and Eye entries recently showed me something interesting in this regard. There are no keywords for “research planning.” There’s a post about “planners” and quite a few about work-life balance (see “best-laid plans” and the popular “saving my sanity”). There’s a few more about conference papers and writing. But there’s not so much about research life or about planning it for the long term. So, I thought that I’d write something about adapting that time-honoured radical socialist approach to facilitating change, the five year plan as imagined by Trotsky, for your research.

Having a plan is a good plan 

No matter whether you are a graduate student or a full professor in the postsecondary system, you should have a long-term plan for your research career. It’s a central aspect to becoming a professional, and it’s something that we should keep on doing, throughout our careers. Otherwise, we live in a state of anxiety (omiGOD how am I going to get this essay/conference paper/grant/thesis/book/ANYTHING done) and we become reactive with regards to our careers, rather than proactive. We start responding to what others want (or what we imagine they want) and not to what we actually need or can reasonably achieve. I would say that this is particularly true for female academics, who often are asked to take up tasks for the good of a group or community. In short, we are asked to give to others because we are women, and because we are women, it can be hard to say no to the requests or demands of others. Planning is essential as you move through each stage of your research career arc so that you are not just reacting to what others want.

Since many of us came into the academy because we love research, planning for what we love can give us a measure of power and autonomy in our lives. It can help us make informed decisions about our careers. When you’re a student, other people make plans for you, and you respond to them. But when you stop being a student and start being a scholar, you’re in the driver’s seat of your research life and the course you set is your own. This can be intimidating, particularly as you move from one stage of your career to another.

I am a bit of a magpie as a scholar. I get interested in a lot of shiny objects (or ideas) and I want to pursue all of them. But realistically, I can’t. It also turns out that as you become more senior in academic life, you are asked to do more. It’s hard not to say “yes” just because you are asked. This past year, I did say “yes” to too much, and I ran out of steam. So in March 2014, I sat down and did a five year research plan to see where I was at and what I should do.

A five year plan 

Here’s what I did for my recent plan. I listed these areas:

  • Research Goals 
  • Current Projects 
  • Results (Books, Edited Books, Conferences, essays, conference papers, grants, public talks) 
  • Timeline, by year (2014-2019) 

My research goals are all the things I want to do by 2019. They range from the immediate (finish a conference paper), to the extended (write an article per year) to the long-term (run a kickass international research project). Then I listed all my current projects, whether they are large or small. That was an eye-opener. Some projects have nothing to do with my goals. What the heck am I doing them for? No wonder I am overwhelmed! I assigned priorities for my projects in light of what my goals are.

Then I made a Results list and keyed it to my Projects. That was interesting too: I could see that my work tends to cluster at certain times, probably because I say “yes” to too much. I could see too that I am prone to agreeing to do some things which, given my larger goals, maybe I shouldn’t. If I do agree to something, I should make sure that it’s in line with my goals and current projects.

I keyed that projects list to my timeline. I have a lot of things wrapping up in 2014, as it turns out. By 2017, I don’t have a lot there. I could tell from the timeline that I tend to react to opportunities and not plan for them. And I am very optimistic about how long it takes to do a project.

As I moved things around to make my life look less hectic, I thought about the latter years of the plan. What long-term things do I really want to do? What do I need to have in place in order to realize my goals? When I started listing what my desires really were and keying in how to plan for them, I learned a lot about what kind of research I want to do at this stage in my career. And, for the first time in awhile, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I could see what I should prioritize, and what I should just let go. I realized that I don’t have to do everything all at once. For a type-A person like me, that’s a big relief.

Doing a plan like this shouldn’t be another occasion for guilt. We are all going to be surprised by opportunities in our work lives, so it’s a good idea to go back and review goals, shuffle priorities and revise the plan from time to time. In a few months, I’ll look at my plan again and see where I’m at with it.

Control what you can control 

Whether we have permanent academic jobs or want them, one of the features of academic life is that we have a lot of control over what we decide to do as researchers and how we’re going to do it (this is what we really learn to do in graduate school). But one of the trickiest things about working in the postsecondary system is that aspects of that control are in fact given to others. We can propose a research goal, create a plan and apply to SSHRC, NEH or NSERC for the money, but we don’t have control over whether we get the funding or not. We can submit a paper to the best journal in our field, but we can’t control how long it takes to receive a decision, or what the decision will be.

Having a research plan means that we do get control over what it is possible to control. When we are successful, it feels great. When we’re not, at least planning means that we can choose another path and learn from what happened. Our sense of self-worth does not have to be keyed to how successful we are, but to how we are working to realize our goals. And no matter what, the decisions we make can be in line with what our values are, and what kind of people we want to be, at work and in the other parts of our lives.

advice · research · saving my sanity · writing

20 Minute Workout: Keep writing, and the ideas will come

I’m giving the opening keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on June 2. I’ve been working on it for a year. It’s not done yet. And by “not done,” I mean, I have in the document titled DHSI_Keynote about 5000 words of fuzzy non-sequiturs and wild claims. I also have a bunch (like 10 or 11) 200-300 word document stubs with evocative titles and one snappy paragraph. And that’s it. Don’t believe me? Allow me to excerpt the draft in progress. Sample wild claim: “Is DH like bronies? Trampling the 8 year old girls in the name of spurious revolution?” Sample non sequitur: “I’m more the engineering model. More the know your history model. Rules help us all enjoy the game more, if you know what I mean. But now, I’ve changed my mind. Because fan studies.”

It’s a mess, and I’ve got three weeks to get it done.

Now, this morning, it occurs to me, in a blaze of clarity, that I’ve been barking (and writing) up the wrong tree for about a month. And I need to chuck 90% of what I’ve got (bronies? WTH?) and reframe the entire thing.

It’s okay. I can write my way out, and I know how. It’s going to be okay because I write every single day, even when I don’t want to. In fact, in this case, it was because I sat down not wanting to, but did it anyways, that both the Major Problem and the Clever Solution presented themselves to me. Or rather, that I diagnosed my problem and created my solution.

Here’s what happened. I set my 20 minute time, and plunked my cursor into the keynote document, which I was starting to dread, and on which I was getting kind of stuck, and so I wrote about my stuckness and my resistance, because I had to write about something, and all of a sudden (POOF!) I knew what was wrong and why and how, and I had a little idea of how I could fix it. So I shifted over into a new document and wrote to myself some little threads exploring the new frame and the new idea and I can see that it’s going to work and that I’ve already got a bunch of pieces that will tie into this nicely.

I didn’t used to write like this. This way is better. You should do it, too, if you don’t.

To flag what’s important here:

  1. If you set a timer for 20 minutes, and make yourself sit there writing the whole time, you will wind up having an idea. It has never been the case that I’ve just circled the drain that whole time. The fact is that we’re all pretty smart and pretty well read and it necessarily follows that at some moment in that 20 minutes, despite ourselves, we’ll have an idea, just because we’re typing out words. The idea might be big (“Omigod, someone needs to do qualitative research on the child fans of MLP: FiM“) or it might just be footnote-worthy (“Hey, that’s a visual pun on Dr. Who and Rose there, in those background ponies, and I wonder if that’s to amuse the writers, the animators, or the bronies … maybe see where else that happens in cartoons?”)
  2. If you just write every day, even just 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll always have so much half-assed writing lying around that you’ll never be in a panic to just hit the right word count for the deadline. Because writing while panicking is waaaaay less efficient than writing while not suffering from whooshing ear noises and tunnel vision and shakily glugging triple lattes and engaging in subvocalized self-loathing. By the time you really need to get serious about producing 25 superb pages, you’ll already have 50 shitty but intriguing ones–you’ll already be in the admirable position of needing to prune and fine-tune rather than produce out of sheer nothingness.
  3. This giant stack of half-baked pages is comforting even in just its giant stackness. My “book” “typescript” is about 330 pages long now. The other day, I threw out 30 pages in disgust, because they were wrong wrong wrong. But that was easy for me to do because the thing is already 330 (now 300) pages long and I’m not done writing yet. Easy to make the right decision, because sooooo much writing already.
  4. If you write every day your brain is conditioned to Always Be Thinking and Always Be Writing. This means I can just plunk my rear end in the chair and start. At Canadian Tire waiting for the snow tires to get taken off. In my office in the 20 minutes before a meeting. On my front porch after I drop my kid off at the bus. I don’t need a major warmup ritual. I’m already limber, and my brain just knows what to do without much conscious effort to start. So twenty minutes of writing is now preceded by 15 seconds of setting my timer, or 30 seconds of shooing the cat off my lap, rather than by two hours of procrastination and the ritual sacrifice of my sense of self and happiness.
  5. You train your gut. Every day that I write, I’m also sifting out my ideas–good, bad, better, best, in this category, in that category, original, example, digression, important, funny, trivial. They’re whizzing past my critical thinking apparatus all the time. So I’m getting pretty good and pretty efficient at cutting something loose when it’s time to let it go, pretty good at knowing something is underdeveloped but really important, pretty good at figuring out when it needs another pair of eyes, or when it’s ready to submit for peer review. I’m not so tortured about these decisions anymore because I make them all the time.

This is what I’m learning from my daily writing habit. I’m more productive and less stressed. I’m producing higher quality work, and more of it, with less anguish.

You?