balance · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · food · time crunch

Sunday Suppers

My relationship to food is a long and deep one. I come from a family that prizes Sunday dinners, at home or at my grandmother’s house, where the twenty-or-so of us would gather at least once a month for birthdays and holidays or just because. We’re a family that spends meals talking about other meals, that shares intel on really good cheeses like state secrets. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family nearly every night. My Valentine’s Day was spent cooking for those people, who all piled into our dining room for dinner despite how unromantic or uncool it might be to spend the day of love with your parents. It was awesome. (If you’re interested, we ate Martha’s mac and cheese, which was SO GOOD, plus a green salad with fennel and lemon, and a beet salad with citrus, pickled onion, olives, and pistachios. Mom brought brownies baked in a heart-shaped pan, Dad brought wine, and Colleen brought the secret cheese.)

From the time I was in high school, I was often the one responsible for getting dinner started, and I’ve fed myself–and often other people, roommates and friends and sisters and spouses–almost every night for more than a decade. I’ve kept a food blog, off and on, since 2006. I own somewhere north of a hundred cookbooks, many of which are dog eared and food splattered, plus boxes of cards that record recipes collected from my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my own mom, and the internet. I have a knife callus at the base of my right index finger, and mandoline scars marring the fingerprints on three others. I’m an extremely good cook, mostly because I love to eat good food and I had to learn a long time ago–especially during the dire grad school years, when money was not a thing that we had–to make it for myself. I also really love cooking, the act of turning raw ingredients into something much more than the sum of their parts, of adding a bit of this, and a little more of that, until whatever I’m making tastes exactly like itself. Tastes good. As Tamar Adler would put it, I like exerting my will over a little slice of the chaotic world through cooking.

Cooking is also–and it seems like a cliché to say it, these days–one of my primary forms of emotional labour, of care not only for myself but for the people I feed. And my love of cooking gets in my way when it comes to gender equity at home.

My partner is good at many things, but meal planning and walking into a kitchen and turning what’s in the fridge into a meal is not one of them. He’s a good cook, but because he’s had rather less practice than I have, his repertoire is much more limited, and his ease in the kitchen is less. It seems to me a natural consequence of living in households where women are (expected to be) the primary preparers of food, and because I like doing the thing that keeps us fed, I leave less room than I should to step in and take over. The tension between wanting to cook–to feed us both well–and wanting to create equitable divisions of labour in our family has long nagged at me, especially since cooking is one of the major tasks that make up the second shift, that after-work work that women do rather more of than men. My desire to find different ways of approaching food-labour also has to do with the fact that as much as I love to cook, I hate making weeknight dinners. After all those years starting dinner as the first one home, and because I don’t want to become the human fridge inventory and Magic 8-ball that answers the question of what’s for dinner, the last thing I want to do after walking in the door from work is pull out my knives and light the burners. Too, I work full time, finish my PhD part-time, freelance sometimes, and try do things like sleep and have fun with friends and move my body and watch the new X-Files and have a life that is full but not “busy.”

There is not time to make dinner every night and do all those things.

It’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seemingly found a solution that works for us that does not involve eating avocado toast for dinner every night or resorting to (and resenting) takeout, one that lets me indulge my love of making food, create room for my partner in the kitchen, transfer some of the food-labour to him, and get rid of weeknight dinner making. I call it Sunday suppers, and it is, in essence, a sort of leisurely batch cooking that makes me feel both relaxed and proficient, which is exactly how I want to feel before starting a new week. At some point on Sunday, I put a few things on the stove or in the oven or the slow cooker that will do their thing for awhile, with only a gentle nudge and prod from me as I do other things–read, write, watch Firefly for the thousandth time while I put away my laundry. I pull out my stacks of quart and half-quart takeout containers from the restaurant supply store, a roll of painter’s tape, and a Sharpie. I spend some time turning those simmering, bubbling pots into things that can be at the centre of a meal; this week’s pots of beans and cans of tomatoes became pasta e fagioli, channa masala, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter. There are usually a few pans of roasted vegetables in there, which most often become breakfast with a fried egg on top, or dinner piled onto toast and snowed under with Parmesan cheese, or blended into soup. Sometimes there’s quiche, or a sort of chili-pilaf cross, or Ethiopian lentil stew and greens, or falafel. Later, everything get packed and labelled and stowed in the fridge and freezer. On weeknights, my partner gets to be on assembling and pasta-boiling and salad-making duty, or we do it together because we like being in the kitchen together.

Everyone gets fed. I don’t feel resentful. We eat together, and well. It works, and we both get what we fundamentally want, which is full bellies and time to do the things we love and a marriage that keeps working to break down old barriers and ways of being that don’t work for us anymore.

Now to figure out a better system for the laundry…

balance · teaching · time crunch

How much is too much, and for whom?

My first year students are pretty happy. Well, as happy as they can be, having to hand in their final papers today, and having to prepare for a final exam on new media studies next Friday. They’re not panicking, at least, because they’ve been working steadily through the various stages of the essay for four weeks already–they had full drafts finished a week ago, and they’ve been editing and finalizing since. And I know they’re better prepared for the exam than they think they might be–we’ve had five substantial online quizzes across the full breadth of term, and in class I’ve had them write up their feedback on their own learning for most units, that I’ve collated and taken up in class. There’s someone from this class at my office hours every time I hold them. There was a six person lineup in the hall when I got there on Monday. I read everyone’s drafts.

They’ve be coached and coaxed and assessed and guided the whole term.

It’s almost killed me.

The cap on my course is 40 students. I finally learned all their names by Halloween (I’m really bad with names, I admit). We had a photographer who came to take photos to use in the University’s promotion and we were all so squashed into the classroom that he took everyone’s coats and bags and put them in a different room–he even took the overhead projector away.

The course is running the best it has ever run. After running this four times, I’ve finally got it right, for students: substantial attention to and development of their voice and skills and engagement as writers, and a strong grounding in new media studies content, both historical and theoretical.

What “getting it right” has meant for me is adding a bunch of assessments to support the course’s learning objectives. Getting it right means a ton more grading and feedback for me. And I think I’ve hit peak grading. For two years in a row, they complained that the textbook didn’t matter, and I tried to link the in-class work more heavily toward that material. I made speeches and lit more scented candles. It didn’t work. You know what did work? Adding six new assessments to focus their attention on material only death with in the textbook: five quizzes and a final. Add that to the six writing assignments, and it’s pushed me over the edge.

I’m so proud to say that pedagogically I think this course is rock solid: we use class time really productively, the students are engaged, all the work comes in on time, attendance is high, the writing is visibly improving, the thinking is getting more sophisticated. But I haven’t written a word on my book in months. And I’m behind on my email and admin work, and I’m getting up at 5:30 every day.

The best solution would be to lower the cap on the course–25 would be reasonable. A smaller cap would mean that the professor could still bring her A-game but cut the grading of each of the 12 assignments in the course in half, a substantial savings. But it’s too expensive to do that, maybe. And the course is a draw for majors, so reducing the number of students taking it might be a mistake. Running two smaller sections is even more expensive!

If we take instructor time seriously–the in this case tenured professor is also supposed to be writing a book–we would instead, perhaps, suggest something different. Cut the number of assignments in half, and the same savings in grading could be achieved. In this scenario, the pedagogy is compromised, and the professor may see her teaching scores decline, because of cuts to content.

I’m no noob. I know how to spend a mere 40 minutes prepping for an 80 minute class. And I grade FAST. I think I’ve found all the efficiencies in the process it is possible to find.

My discipline is English. I think it’s always got to be writing intensive, and doing that right is going to involve a lot of writing assignments and a lot of grading. I don’t think that can be skimped on. As I use these last two days before the final papers come in to catch up on the straggler grading I haven’t had time to do, and frantically put together the text of the final exam that I guess I’ll be grading all next weekend, I am just really struck by these structural constraints: the number of students conflicts with the kind of pedagogy which undermines balance in my work life. And how to fix it–FEWER STUDENTS IN EACH SECTION–seems like the one thing we’re not able to do.

Maybe someone will invent an app to solve all these problems. But I don’t think so.

balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

balance · style matters · time crunch · transition · well-heeled (so to speak) · women

On the ‘Do

In her last post (Go read and comment! It will make your day), Aimee so nicely suggested that she’s hoping to learn more from me “about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.” We’ll get to that, but today’s post is anything but life-of-the-mind-y. Rather than writing about what’s in my head, I’m writing about what’s on it–my hair, in all of its shiny and political glory. Hair (at least mine) might be frizzled, but it ain’t just frivolous.

(If you like these style posts, check out all the ones tagged with style matters. And please ignore the fact that I’m shamelessly revisiting Aimee’s post on her feminist haircut).

My recent hair obsession started with three things: 1) being too busy to get a haircut for what seemed like an age and then fussing about with my overgrown mop, 2) starting the new job and trying to figure out how to juggle looking put together at work and fitting in time at the gym before my hour-long commute and my 8:30 start, and 3) seeing a woman on the bus with a beautiful short crop that looked SO stylish and SO easy. In the easy department she beat my rather high-maintenance bob, which requires endless blow drying and ironing every time I wash it, else I look like a electrocuted poodle.

I wasn’t kidding.

In the throes of hair obsession, I seriously considered following the suit of my short-haired muse and hacking the whole business off. If you’ll permit me a whine, expectations around women’s hair just seem so unfair, and so expressly calculated to channel our energies into the frivolous and the decorative instead of into the useful and the intellectual. And I want that half-hour of sleep back, dammit. Most men–at least prior to the advent of the man-bun–can just shower and be on their way, little-to-no fluffing required. (They also aren’t expected by society to put on makeup, or strap themselves into bras, or paint their nails, or jam their feet into high heels–all things which I know I’m not ACTUALLY required to spend my time doing, in any objective sense, but do anyway because I like to look nice and because painting ones’ nails is, not unlike making risotto, very relaxing.) But women in most parts of the world are conditioned to equate long hair with femininity and attractiveness, and thus grow luscious locks that require more babying than my rather neurotic cat. There are exceptions, of course, like those who decide that they just don’t give a damn, or those, like Halle Berry or my friend Belinda, who are made for short hair. And of course there are women who have long hair or high-maintenance hair for reasons other than style. But the coded (and not so coded) message many women get is that short hair is unfeminine, unflattering, unsexy, and only for those beautiful or dynamic enough to make up for their lost hair-related appeal in other ways. (I can’t imagine how terribly those messages must be compounded for women who have lost their hair for medical reasons, and thus are told that they’re doubly unattractive, being both sick and bald.)

Having absorbed this equation of hair = beauty (and being, let’s be honest, just a mite vain), I spend all kinds of time–valuable time, time I could be spending on intellectual pursuits, or with my family, or exercising, or SLEEPING, for goodness sakes–washing my hair, drying my hair, ironing my hair, working to pay for expensive haircuts, shopping for hair products. Think about how much time I could devote to concocting some brilliant money-making scheme, or practicing my French, or writing my dissertation, if I started refusing to style my hair, or cut it into a style that doesn’t require styling. A lot! It’s madness, I tell you! It’s hair tyranny! 

Sure, there are other ways to say screw you to the hair establishment than cutting it all off. The low-maintenance (and very popular) long-hair-always-in-a-bun style (or the every popular ponytail) is certainly one way, although it often comes at the cost of headaches from the weight of all that hair perched atop one’s head all day. (I’d go that route, but the migraines aren’t worth it.) And dry shampoo is a godsend, that’s for certain.  But wouldn’t it be lovely if we lived in a world where beauty and femininity weren’t tied to hair? Where short-haired women were just as unremarkable as short-haired men? Where those of us not in possession of Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones didn’t feel like we needed hair to hide, or accentuate, parts of our faces? Where long hair was a simple choice, and not, as it is for some people, a screen, or armour? Where I could get sweaty and shower and be on my way in the morning, no potions or hair irons required?

Sadly, we don’t. And I’m brave about some things, but apparently not about this. My high-maintenance hair is, somewhat to my dismay, a part of my personal and professional identity, and so it stays. I still resent the time I spend on my coif, time I could be spending in other ways, but clearly not enough to give Hannah-the-hairdresser free rein with the clippers. I’m keeping my poodle-free bob, which looks quite nice, I do concede. But I’m also figuring out other ways I can take back my time from the demands of appearances. Time to invest in some no-iron clothes, perhaps?

Makeup, jewelry, dress, heels, manicure, contacts, hair did–the whole shebang.

What about you? Is your ‘do a drag, a drain, a distraction from more important things? Or is your coif something you celebrate? Do you find the discussion of follicles frivolous, or fraught? Do tell!

being undone · best laid plans · day in the life · enter the confessional · kid stuff · time crunch


It’s very early Wednesday morning. My husband and daughter and I just came home yesterday evening from a funeral in North Bay. We found out on Friday that my husband’s aunt had died, and hurriedly made arrangements to get there for the funeral. Parts of Friday were spent in making these arrangements: my husband secured permission from his boss to be out of the office on Monday and Tuesday, reset his voicemail and email away message, called family, organized a cat sitter. I called our daughter’s school to let them know she wouldn’t be there, got some luggage out of the attic, arranged for us to stay with my parents, arranged for the the dog to stay with my sister in Mississauga and how he and he crate were going to get there. I was going to miss my graduate class–I contacted them to let them know what to do in my absence. I emailed my chair and the graduate chair, to let them know I would be absent, and when I would be back. I tried to get out in front of my email. I booked extra office hours for my return.

Did I mention we were already committed to go to an out-of-town baby shower on Saturday? In Oshawa?

Beyond stress and grief, the last four days have been marked by a 14 to 17 hours in the car, packing and unpacking, scheduling and rescheduling, gassing up, packing snacks, charging the iPad, phoning people and being phoned and getting directions and ironing shirts and trying to remember names and sleeping in someone else’s bed.

But it’s today, Wednesday, in my bathrobe with my cup of coffee and my computer in front of me, that I’m going to burst into tears.

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are wonderful. They are humane. But when you’re gone, the work does not get done in your absence. When I am gone, my grad class meets without me, and when I come back to check my calendar, I see I can’t hold all the office hours I want because I’m booked in a lot of meetings. And I can’t catch up on my grading because those meetings have briefing notes, or I’m going to be leading them and need to prepare the meeting notes. And we have no food in the house, and my daughter’s homework is not done, and I’m running out of underwear, and I have carrying $800 worth of insurance and honorarium cheques in the back pocket of my jeans for long enough that they’re both stained blue because I can’t get to the bank, and now the toilet seems to be leaking. And who is going to write this blog post? Grading! Prep! My new passport is at the postal outlet and I can’t get there! What the hell are we going to have for supper tonight?

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about my situation. There’s nothing, really, that’s even a little remarkable about it. We all have births and deaths in our families. We all have households (even if they just consist of ourselves) to maintain and to care for. We all have work to do, work that gets interrupted by everything else. And my husband and I are so lucky to have access to paid leave, lucky that my parents live where we were unexpectedly having to travel to, that they could do a lot of childcare this weekend and make our daughter feel like she was on a special vacation. We are not just completely ordinary, but luckier than most in our ordinariness. But the particular person who is me, right now, in my family and in my work, is overwhelmed. Even if this situation is perfectly ordinary, it feels perfectly unmanageable from my particular place in the universe, today.

We all feel like this, more or less, at the end of term, or in the middle of an unexpected life event. I don’t know what to do about it, other than take some deep breaths, and try to tackle what needs doing with a little bit of patience and grace, as I write out yet more apologetic emails, as I race from meeting to meeting across the four corners of campus, as I lock the dog up in his crate again, rush my girl to the bus stop, dump half my coffee down the sink undrunk. I’ll catch up, eventually, right?

How do you handle the unforeseen?

advice · research · saving my sanity · time crunch · writing · you're awesome

Shut up and write!

So, how’s your research going, now that the academic year is in full swing (for academics in North America and Europe, at least)? Good, right? And that grant/scholarship/fellowship application? It’s probably writing itself by now, am I right? ‘Cause now’s the time, isn’t it, before student essays start coming in for marking in earnest, before midterms, and before finals, and before “oh look, it’s December!”
Yes, I know. I’m with you. I’m trying to pressure/convince myself of the same things. You’ll see me wandering the halls muttering things like “no time like the present!” and “what? only one week until SSHRCs are due?” and “how is it only September 26?” in faulty punctuation and capitalization, because who has time to edit one’s mutterings anymore?
And I look at Er and envy her well laid-out plans. Then I look at Aimée, and admire her, too, for having developed good research and writing habits. And then I talk to my friends in the hallways and in the offices. And you know what? They’re having a hard time, too. And then? Then I go to my own office, alone with my Facebook or Twitter. Or I go to the library, on my own, and give people I see studying in groups the stink-eye for disturbing a “quiet space.”
Actually, I don’t. Not really. Not openly. Not a lot. But I do wish I were part of their group, or a group, ‘cause that’s what works for me. Accountability. Camaraderie. Community.
So, I’m taking matters in my own hands, and calling all people in physical or virtual proximity to join me for a recurring Shut Up and Write! session Thursdays 10 am – 1pm. For people at the U of A, you can join me physically, in HC 3-47*. For those not, why not convene your own: make a Facebook group, or a Google Document, or a Google Hangout, or a MeetUp, and organize weekly get-togethers in a café, a library, or some other easily accessible place. You don’t have to go every time; the group will take a life of its own. You also don’t have to be there for the whole time. People can come and go. The point is to create the opportunity for the writing group to emerge, and then it might surprise you how it can take of its own existence.
This, obviously, is not my idea. Bay Area group(s) were formed way back in 2007. Inger Mewburn, curator of The Thesis Whisperer has blogged about her group in Melbourne, Australia last year. Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote about it in 2010 as one of the ways to be productive over the summer. She also provides many other suggestions for writing, which might be useful for you if this one isn’t. I’m sure many other people shut up and write all over the place, because that’s what works for them. Here in my own department, we used to have a group like this a couple of years ago, and it worked really well.
So, I’m crowd-sourcing my writing opportunities. Because, hey, you’ve got to find what works for you, right? Also, because I want to practice what I’m preaching. I tell my students that to be able to develop your writing skills, you need to write regularly. That essay writing is a skill that can only be attained through practice, and that practice entails daily free-writing and ink-shedding, and other sorts of habit-forming activities. However, I didn’t always heed my own advice, and writing (especially in incipient stages, the ones involving the blank page/document) was paralyzing and anxiety-inducing for me.
Luckily, I was here to read when Aimée was talking about daily writing and how she developed the daily writing habit by using it, and I took her advice. I joined Academic Ladder this summer, and the accountability it demanded of me made me much more productive. They advocate the pomodoro method, and so do other people. All of a sudden, thinking about writing—whether a conference paper, a job letter, or a research proposal—in small chunks of time (45 minutes, but one can start with however long or short suits one) took the anxiety and paralysis out of it. Most importantly, it helped me, too, build that habit, and expect that I produce some writing daily.
Academic Ladder is a paid service ($70 for 4 weeks), and I might try to wean myself off it, and see if I can “maintain the momentum,” like Erin said, or if my good habits can work when I am not directly accountable to someone else. Instead, I hope to find my support among friends, whom I can physically see once a week for this purpose. Will you join us? Or, better yet, will you give us tips of what worked for you? Or warn us of what didn’t and should never again ever be attempted? 

*With many thanks to a certain wonderful person in the admin of my department, who made the booking possible. M M-D, you are awesome!

balance · day in the life · good things · having it all · summer · time crunch

Just one day out of life …

You know, if we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate? It would be-e-e-e, it would be! so! nice!

This post is a couple of hours late because I took a holiday. A vacation. A break. Some time off. For almost nine days in a row, no work. That’s the longest stretch of real time off I’ve taken in over a year. And I’ve lived to tell the tale! I feel like it’s my duty to tell you how hard it was to let go of everything (it took a couple of days), how great it was to be free of all of it, and how relaxed and cheerful I am about returning to work today.

Hard: My last ‘working day’ on the Friday coincided with a very big writing deadline, which I met, but not without some injury to my soul. I felt like I had spent the day trying to dig a ditch through bedrock with my fingernails, with the result that at 5:30, when I tried to go into vacation mode, I was bitchy, headachy, and thoroughly weepy.

  • Lesson 1: You can’t do a week of work in one day in anticipation of five days off. At least, I can’t.

Hard: It was hard to maintain vacation mode when I had a defense to participate in on Monday. (Of course, the defense is harder for the candidate; this is worthy work; I’m glad to do it, it’s an honour and a privilege, and it was a great dissertation. Of course.) It was really hard to gussy myself up, go in for three hours and then, again, expect I would be immediately transformed into a blissfully vacationing happy person once the papers were signed. Instead, I got crabby and took a nap.

  • Lesson 2: “Switching it off” is not an instantaneous thing. It’s less like a light switch (“click!”) and more like the garden hose — first you turn the tap off, then you gravity-drain the hose, then you turn off the valve inside the house, and drain that. There’s steps. It takes some time.

Great: From Tuesday on, time expanded, my heart opened up, and I just let everything go. Really: no emails, no NOTHING. We did yard work (new clothes line!), we went in to Toronto to the AGO, we went out for lunches, had naps, planned a barbecue party. I went to three yoga classes, and for many long bike rides, at 9am, even! My life felt qualitatively different: it wasn’t just that I wasn’t working my full days, it was that I wasn’t working at all, and got to be the person I am when I’m not working.
  • Lesson 3: When you go on vacation, don’t even work for 30 minutes a day, because you don’t really get the benefits of letting it all go. Doing less academic work is work to rule; doing no academic work is a vacation.
Relaxing: We threw a party on Saturday. An outdoor party, with adults and kids. All day it threatened rain. People RSVP’ed late. I felt, though, remarkably zen about the whole thing: I can’t control the weather, and we can just move inside! People will come, or they won’t! More sweet potato fries on the grill for me! And it was awesome. I’m not laid back like that about work. But maybe I should learn to be a little less … clenchy. Because relaxed felt pretty nice, and worked out awfully well.
  • Lesson 4: Work exacerbates my control-freak tendencies in ways that don’t contribute to either my happiness or my effectiveness. Might need to rethink some stuff …
Cheerful: So here it is, Monday. I’ve got some more writing to do, some committee stuff in my inbox, another dissertation on my desk. I’m kind of looking forward to getting at it. After all, I really do enjoy my work. I feel like I’ve got a bit of balance back, and I feel a lot less resentful, angry, and overwhelmed, the way I was getting to feel after this very intense year I’ve had. That’s good news.
So. I did it. I took the whole week off, and puttered around my house and my city, spending time with my husband, taking it easy. And I feel fantastic now.
  • Lesson 5: Draw your own conclusions on holidays here … Do you have a great holiday story you want to leave in the comments? 
emotional labour · job notes · saving my sanity · time crunch

The J Curve

About eight years into my job as a professor, I realized that although I hadn’t yet done everything there is to do at a university, I’d done enough that I could more or less figure out whatever came my way. I called that stage “inevitable competence.” I realize that sounds at once grandiose and pitiful, but at the time it gave me an enormous sense of relief.

I’m reminded of that because the last few posts and comments here at Hook & Eye, particularly Aimee’s Friday missive, emphasize how hard this job can be, particularly with a young family.

This job is hard.

But it gets easier.

The getting-easier is what this post is about. One of the worst parts of being in a difficult place is not recognizing your experience as part of a specific and temporary phenomenon, and so I want to lay out here some of the things that made the job easier for me, over time. The transition from grad school to tenure is a kind of J-curve. You graduate elated with your success (I’m finished!!) and then each year gets a little harder and a little worse until, little by little, it turns around, and you find yourself on an upward trajectory. Everybody’s different, of course, but here are some of the good things I’ve noticed, and that you might experience or anticipate, too.

  1. You get a job. It may not be the job of your dreams. It may not be in the city you always fancied. It may not be in the same place as your partner’s job, which really bites, and maybe it’s not an academic job at all. The job comes through or you move on (even if “moving on” = “settling”). The holding pattern Erin described does not last forever, I promise.
  2. You learn how to teach. You figure out who you really are as a teacher – not just when you’re TAing or teaching that one class while you tidy up your dissertation, but who you are as a person who heads into the classroom three or six or nine or twelve times a week, addressing students at different levels and on different topics. You become more comfortable in your teacherly persona. You develop course materials and teaching strategies you can reuse. You tolerate less bullshit, or maybe more, but you spend less energy setting boundaries and more time existing within them. Best of all, grading gets easier (not “easy,” but “easier”!).
  3. Research comes to you. When you first start out, everything is a cold call. You submit abstracts to conferences, some of which turn you down. You submit articles to journals, some of which turn you down. But some things come through. And as you start putting your work out there in the world, opportunities approach you. People invite you to participate in symposia, on roundtables, in working groups. Colleagues seek out your opinion (is there anything sweeter than the first time you’re asked to review a paper for publication?). You get asked to give keynotes, essays are solicited. I think you’re never free of the courage-screwing obligation to send your vulnerable ideas out into the chill academic air, but after a while that’s not all you do.
  4. Administrative service gives you knowledge. As Jo-Ann blogged last fall, “you know stuff.” By working on committees, you learn the acronyms, the unofficial rules, the loopholes, the perils and the benefits that not even the most well-meaning institutions ever spell out. You figure out how your institution really works. You meet people who model the kind of academic you want to be; as importantly, you figure out who you don’t want to be! And by building your reputation in administrative service, you set yourself up for recognition and opportunities down the road. 
  5. Your family grows up. Admittedly, I’m treading on thin (i.e., non-experiential) ice here, but everybody I know says that taking care of pre-school kids is the hardest. Once your kids are sleeping through the night and spending days in school, family life is easier. For one thing, you don’t have to pay (as much) for daycare. For another, you and your partner, if you have one, will have worked out how to co-parent, and you will have established some network or support system. As with grading, I’m not sure family life ever gets “easy” – isn’t that the joy of it? – but it does get easier. At least until they’re teenagers.
  6. You make more money. Buy more space, hire a housecleaner, get a(nother) vehicle, eat out more often – some problems really can be solved by throwing money at them.
  7. You start saying no by saying yes. What I mean by this puzzling turn of phrase is that by accumulating things you want to do, you have a legitimate way of turning down the things you don’t so much want to do. This is an important variation on the “just say no” theme, advice that I find suspect for many reasons (see future post?). For now, suffice it to say that work is easier when you like what you’re doing. Do more of that.
  8. The “firsts” get fewer and farther between. First graduate seminar? First university-level meeting? First semester juggling multiple expectations? First supervisory obligation? First kid? Check, check, check and check. With each tick of the box, you acquire experience. And with more experience, things take less time and – this is key, especially for women, I believe – carry fewer emotional vicissitudes. You’re more confident, less subject to doubt. Bad weeks come around, and you never actually cure yourself of anxiety (or at least I never have): there is always more work to do than the time available to do it and the inbox will never be empty. But living in a state of perpetual behindness becomes a fact of life rather than an acutely perilous condition.

Welcome to the glorious plateau of inevitable competence!

emotional labour · having it all · kid stuff · new year new plan · saving my sanity · time crunch

The irony is that a lot of my research is about mothering, actually …

Have you read that Tina Fey essay from the New Yorker, that’s making the rounds as an email attachment? It’s about that elusive work / life balance issue. She writes, compellingly, I think, that “[t]he topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield. It is less dangerous to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam […] than it is to speak honestly about this topic.”

(pause to strap on tap shoes)

My life is fantastic! Most days, here’s what happens: we get up, as a family, around 7:20. My hubs goes downstairs to eat breakfast; Daughter and I join him after we have a bed snug, go to the bathroom (like girls, in a group), and I get her dressed. She chats up her dad, or her My Little Ponys, and I make her breakfast. After, she watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse while I make her lunch and pack her bag. I bring her to the bus stop and we play in the snow. I blow her kisses, and sometimes we wave at Dad as he drives past on the way to work.

I go home, make beds, clean up the breakfast messes, have a shower.

I work. I do some laundry. I work. I do some yoga. I go to Starbucks and work. I’m writing / researching about three hours a day. That’s pretty sweet.

I make something from scratch for dinner, and wait for Husband to bring daughter home. We hang out, eat supper, he baths her, I put her to bed. Unless I’m gone to yoga, in which case he does it all.

Sounds balanced and pretty much idyllic, right? Yeah. It’s totally an artificial, once-in-a-century, stars-aligned kind of thing. All this work / life balance is made possible by my ‘pre-tenure course release’–I’m not teaching a damn thing this semester. That’s 40% of my work life, just taken right off my plate.

Basically, that 40% is being used to salvage my family life, a family life that has been buckling under the increasing weight of my tenure application and all the work and stress and heavy expectation that goes along with being a junior faculty member. I have spent the better part of the last 18 months angry and stressed and anxious and insomniac and guilty and heartsore about being torn in twelve directions at once. When I came to grips, in September, with the idea that, unlike at daycare, junior kindergarden required me to pack my girl a lunch from home every day, I cried with frustration: I really didn’t feel I had it in me to make lunches, on top of everything else.

I love my job. Maybe it’s not writing and starring in 30 Rock, but I love it. I love the writing, and the teaching, and sometimes even the meetings (mostly the ones where I get to wield the whiteboard markers …). It’s just that, even with all my freedom and autonomy and benefits and salary and security and short commute, it’s still too much.

It’s too much. At least for now.

And so, when I handed in my grades in December, and contemplated all the free time that comes with not teaching again until September, I snuggled on the couch with my husband and squealed with excitement … about homemade spaghetti sauce, home made by me! About crawling into bed with my girl every morning so she can tell me her dreams while she sticks her bare feet against my belly. About waiting to have the house to myself so I could have the whole thing tidy and organized before 10am, instead of after 10pm. About him maybe getting to work on time more than once a month.

I’m writing a lot, but if I can be perfectly frank, it’s not my number one priority this term. I want to, as we say in yoga, align with my intention. My intention has always been to pursue my career passionately and competently, but within the boundaries of maintaining and nurturing my family, and me within it. It’s so very easy to lose sight of that in the race for tenure, where great is never good enough, and there’s always more you can do, always more you’ll be asked to do. Now that I’m home in my pyjamas scraping peanut butter off the baseboard while I wait for my Writing Coffee to finish brewing, I’m just a lot happier. I’m more patient. Less bitchy. More relaxed. Less … overscheduled.

I like how this feels. I wonder how I can keep this up once that 40% of my job I’m supposed to devote to teaching makes its way back into my life. My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me, and while I want to give some of that back, mostly I just really miss them. I’ve been overwhelmed, and I have overwhelmed them, and I didn’t realize how I was suffocating until the life-giving air of time and simplicity blew back into my life. What happens in September?

bad academics · best laid plans · having it all · saving my sanity · time crunch

Multitask? Or multipurpose?

I don’t know about you, but I seem to be getting busier every day. The more established I become in my field, my department, my university, and my community, the more my name seems to be top of mind when someone needs a paper reviewed or a chapter written, a committee seat filled, a report written, or a public talk delivered. People ask a lot more of me now than they did, say, when I landed here in Waterloo with a freshly-framed diploma and my excellent collection of ironic t-shirts. And yet, my time available seems to have dwindled significantly in the interim, just like that Astroboy shirt doesn’t quite seem to go over those yoga-powered deltoids and that pregnancy-‘enhanced’ belly roll.

That is, I have way more to do but seem to have less time to do it.

It’s a pickle, it is. Right now, for example, I’m sitting on my couch in my polar fleece pajamas, sipping gin and decompressing after my second public lecture of the week. Next week, I have an article draft due to a peer-reviewed journal, and soon after that, a deadline for my draft of one chapter of a writing handbook revision. I just handed in a SSHRC SRG grant, it seems.

I used to think I could do it all, if only I would be important enough for people to ask me to do it. I said yes to everything, to increase my profile and test my mettle. My mettle, it turns out, is not unlimited. I am, perforce, shifting my work philosophy from an ethic of multitasking to one of multipurposing.

Here’s how it works: Got a contract to revise a writing handbook? Angle to teach a first year course, then assign them the current version of the handbook. BOOM! It’s teaching, and it’s work on the revision, all at once. Scheduled to give two public talks on something about your research and teaching interests in two different towns two nights in a row? Give a thinly reworked version of the same damn talk (apologize profusely to the one graduate student who attends both events). Bonus points if the talk can use as one of its four case studies the survey results that form the backbone of that article that’s due … next week. Bonus bonus points if you’ve organized your grad class to have as its assigned readings material you need to complete this current research. All of this work should be drawing liberally from the literature review from the SSHRC SRG bibliography. Doing university service? Can it be on a web design committee that is great fodder for your digital design seminar?

I am so. frigging. busy. that it is a matter of some urgency, lately, try to wring the maximum amount of product from every research activity I undertake. Perhaps this is a ‘well, duh’ insight for you. Not for me. I used to think (ha!) that every talk, every class, every committee, every article had to be something new. I had this idea that it was somehow cheating to do otherwise, like how students are told not to submit the same paper in two different courses. For me, it’s only ever rarely the ‘same’ paper, but I have really needed to stop creating everything from absolute scratch for every occasion.

So now, I don’t multitask anymore. I multipurpose.

In that vein, if you want to know more about social media and privacy, why don’t you read this newspaper article? The writer wanted to talk to me about my ideas, but I handed him the paper copy of my lecture when it was over and told him to quote as liberally as he liked. No extra work for me, and, bonus! he quoted me exactly, from my own script. (God bless him, he’s made the whole presentation sound coherent, to boot.)