advice · disability · enter the confessional · teaching · Uncategorized

Work hack: adrenaline management

I prep almost all of my classes in the 90 minutes before they take place. I usually teach two classes per day, two days per week, so my two teaching days are actually prep-two-classes-teach-two-classes-do-office-hours days. It’s pretty intense. Ok, it’s really intense. I sleep really well after those days. I do my runs really fast and hard on those days. I talk a lot at supper on those days.

So much of our academic work is that goddamn cliched iceberg: you can only see the 10% that sticks up above the waterline, while the looming and awesome bulk, the main structure holding everything together, sinks deep down under the water and away from the light. I’m starting a series of posts where I am going to describe my 90%, and I invite you to pitch us some guest post work hacks of your own.

I had this idea for a long time that being a good and organized professor would be to map out a syllabus three months in advance, and then in the three months before term I should create detailed lesson plans and formal lectures and slide shows and extravagant LMS pages and the whole shebang could be in a three-hole punch splendor-binder of preparedness before day 1.

I have learned I’m never going to be that person.

First, after my first year on the tenure track, I have NEVER prepared a “lecture” per se. It takes me hooooouuuuuuuurrrrrrs and it’s boring to do and I hate it. Second, I have noticed that if I try to schedule a semester worth of lesson planning into sensible one hour blocks of effort over long period of time before the semester in question I simply procrastinate and then hate myself, which is not a good use of my time. After all that procrastinating and self-hating I was always doing it all at the last minute anyway and hating myself for that too.

After some years of this, and from sheer exhaustion, I gave up trying to do it “right.” I decided to try to manage my own inclinations into a functional work plan, one with less “procrastinating” and less “should” and less “hating myself” and more kind of finding my own talent and supporting it.

I now sometimes create ornate slideshows of images with headers and the headers are tied to topics that I will jot a 3 bullet set of notes for myself to speak from. You know how long it takes me to make a 30 slide presentation on internet history? 30 minutes. I am a MONSTER at Google image search and if Keynote were a symphony I would be first violin. Most days, though, usually I walk into class with one sheet of typed notes, with an agenda/outline for class at the top, and the briefest of notes to lead me through it. And I will have prepared that in the period just before class. I schedule this purposefully now. My teaching days are teaching-and-prep days and I schedule the time that I need to get the prep done before I teach and I’ve accepted that that’s how I do things. I have been teaching long enough that I’m pretty confident in setting aside the right amount of time. I know myself well enough to know that I’m more likely to hate myself for procrastinating if I try to start too soon than I am to succumb to panic because I’m not prepared enough.

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Good enough. Let’s go to class.

Caveat: I need a good syllabus for this, the kind I make in a one-day blast, where I have to pick out every single reading and set all the deadlines and lay out the entire schedule in excruciating detail. Normally before the semester starts, then, I have read all the materials I have assigned, at least once, even if I don’t have great (i.e., any) notes, so I’m not learning new content every day. As long as the frame of the semester–schedule, topics, reading, assignments, due dates–is laid out clearly in advance, I just need a short window of time before class to get my class plan ready.

So much of many of our troubles in this job come from not being taught the processes for producing the end products, and then, after that, from not knowing that there are many different ways to get to that end product and that some ways will work better for different scholars, depending on their natures, inclinations, life circumstances, and more. Me, I have an incredibly difficult time getting motivated to do things that I’m not 100% interested in doing right now–like many people with ADHD, rewards and consequences and importance I understand on a cognitive level but they just don’t make me stop procrastinating; I need interest, novelty, challenge, or urgency. I used to think I was lazy and irresponsible; I’m actually usually mostly just nearly dying of boredom. Prepping an 80 minute class in the 60 minutes directly before that class takes place is interesing, and urgent, and kind of a challenge. Highly motivating. Not boring.

It turns out that what I’ve been doing all these years is self-medicating my ADHD by producing an urgent situation that releases adrenaline into my system and allows me to focus intently. I get in the flow, and I really enjoy prepping my classes this way, and it all feels very fresh and fun when I walk into class with a brand new lesson plan still hot from the printer and I get to surf my way across the ideas and energy of the room and see if it’s all going to come together or not. I find the whole process very energizing, exciting, and rewarding. Mostly, it comes together and my students describe my classes as really active and engaged and fun. Me, I have a great time, too. It works for all of us because I’m playing to my own strengths instead of fighting them to do it “the right way” that’s never going to work for me.

I won a teaching award this year.

The flip side of this, of course, is having to learn that my way is not the only way. When I discovered this prep and teaching strategy I told all the teachers I knew, and urged them to try it. “It’s amazing!” I told them, “Everyone should do this! It’s so fun and efficient and functional!” Friends and colleagues demurred. I just could not understand these people, my friends!, who went to class with prepared lectures and handouts and worksheets, and novels with sticky notes in them, materials they laboured over in the summer or on their non-teaching days. It took me a long time to learn to really hear it when they would tell me that speaking in front of people was scary and they liked to be prepared in order to feel less anxious, or that they were more comfortable with a more encyclopedic command of the material in the case of any eventuality, or that they really liked the process of taking a few months in advance of a course to settle and refine their ideas. When I started, I thought my way was the Wrong Way and worked hard to be the Right Way; when I finally figured out that my own way was the Right Way, I wanted everyone else to do it that way too. Finally, I’m coming to a more mature understanding that maybe there are a lot of different right ways to prep for class, run that class, make a syllabus. If you feel good and competent, and your students feel adequately supported, and it’s not harming your health or burdening the support staff, then that’s the right way, too.

I’m still learning new tricks, going to workshops, reading about new kinds of class activities online in the blogs and the literature, talking to my colleagues. I’m refining My Way, trying to make space for other people to have Their Way, and learning from it all.

I would love to learn from you, too: do you have a class prep hack that really works for you? Pitch a post, or leave a comment, or suggest another iceberg-bottom-bit you’d like to see explored further.

 

Uncategorized

Composting

image via Getty

I’m teaching a new class this semester. It’s called The Personal Essay, and it is new to the department, the students, and me. It is a cross-listed creative writing and English course, and so I find myself in the delightful and slightly intimidating position of developing new in-class exercises, assignments, and ways of thinking about reading and writing.

As with most of my teaching, writing, and research prep, when I am at a loss for where to begin—too many ideas, too few, too amorphous—I turn to texts that have been recommended to me at some point. There are many! Last week, as I thought about how to get sixty-five students excited as well as informed about essay writing I picked up Writing Down The Bonesby Natalie Goldberg. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a pretty popular writing book. My copy is the thirtieth anniversary edition, if that give you any sense of its staying power. There are some things in the language of the text that show their age, but on the whole I find it a direct, clear, and surprisingly effective book of suggestions for getting yourself writing.

The section I brought to class last week is called “Composting.” In it Goldberg states,

It takes a while for our experiences to sift through out consciousness.

This is one of those observations that feels so obvious and yet also profound. From neuroscience to psychoanalysis to theory to practice there are myriad explanations of how humans take timeto process experiences fully.

Time. Huh.

This time business can be infuriating if you are impatient and if, like me, you are a human living in the twenty-first century when the speed and circulation of information, not to mention the ingestion and metabolism of information, is faster than ever before. I mean, this is not news, but still…

So composting: Natalie Goldberg uses it as a metaphor to remind writers that we need time and the distance it gives to distill our experiences. She puts it this way (note the evocative use of ‘garbage heap’ – I kind of love it, because here the garbage heap of the self is cast as a fertile bricolage of sense and experience):

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

 The solid ground of black soil. I love that. And I love that in preparing to teach a new class about writing the self I am starting to find ways to think through what it means to write publicly while feminist. It will take time. It has taken time. It will take more time.

But here I am, ready to sift.

 

 

disability · travel · Uncategorized

You Gotta Name It to Claim It

Basically, I need to travel like a toddler. I need to travel like a toddler because I have ADHD and am autistic and am easily overwhelmed by sound, temperature shifts, crowds, lack of control over my immediate context, and tight spaces. For me, travelling like a toddler means dressing in fluffy comfortable layers, having blankets, having snacks, along a schedule organized around my normal bedtimes. It means having an eye mask, and ear plugs, and my sweatshirt version of a heavy blanket (a Lululemon Scuba 2 hoodie that fits snug and thick, which covers for my hands and a hood that zips up high and tight like a deep-dive wetsuit of sensory dampening). It means making allowances for jet lag and major time shifts, for needs of hunger and sleep and quiet. It sometimes means seat upgrades, or paying for seat selection and boarding priority. It sometimes means an extra night in a hotel to manage all of it.

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Me on the floor at a gate in Denver: alarm just went off, so getting up for another flight.

Maybe you need to travel like a toddler too, but you can’t. Or you’re not supposed to.

My limit case was flying to Hawaii in August (more on that in another post). Hawaii is 7500km away from where I live. You can fly there in a day, sure, but add in customs and ground transportation and layovers and it’s, like, a WHOLE DAY. My flight there was: wake up at 2:30am, in taxi at 3am, drop bag and go through security and US customs at 4am, 2 hour flight at 6am, 3 hour layover in the crackly-noised sparkle-walled deep-freeze that is Chicago O’Hare, 9 hour flight to Honololu, land at 2pm (which is 8pm in my head), meet a whole bunch of people, settle in to residence, go for supper, and try to stay awake until 9 or 10 (so 3am or 4am) in my head.

 

I was terrified to do this. Terrified enough that I talked to my doctor about it, and he just kind of said, it is what it is, do whatever you can to make yourself more comfortable. So I went full toddler. I slept in the taxi; I slept at gates, on the floor. I retreated into a cocoon of me. I did what I had to get through it without a meltdown or a panic attack or wrecking my chances of acclimating to the time change once I arrived. Still, it was really really gruelling. That was Tuesday. Wednesday morning, we started work at 9 am, and did a full day. And then Thursday. And then Friday. Oof.

Academic and other work travel is full of indignities and compromises usually related to cost and time. Usually, the worker is the one absorbing the cost and giving up the time and the employer or other funder reaps the savings. My brother in law, for example, flies from Toronto to North Carolina for meetings fairly regularly. His company puts him on a 6 am flight, and then he works all day in the US, and then they fly him home in the evening. They count that as a day of work, very efficient, but of course, he is losing a night of sleep (getting up a 2:30 to be on that 6am flight), working exhausted, and then driving home in the dark to get back home at bedtime. And he’s in at the office the next morning. The company saves on a hotel and can claim to make it a shorter, easier trip for my BIL, but of course, the money is saved at the cost of his sleep, his downtime, his family. You know what I’m talking about: you have surely done this too, to save money at the cost of your own health needs.

Me, I just can’t do it. My body can’t do it, and my brain just fritzes right out. And because I have the diagnoses I now have, I can push back on the requirements of “cheapest possible flight” and “least number of overnight stays”–because those savings are debiting an account in my body that’s always on the verge of overdrawn. And I have the paperwork that says so.

In my head, I’m a sophisticated cosmopolitan. I wear work clothes to travel, to save packing space. I only have my rollaway bag, because checked bags are for losers. I wear makeup and do my hair, to make travel glamourous again. I fly in early in the day to maximize my productivity. I like thinking of myself this way, controlled, productive, fashionable, lightweight. But I can’t actually be that way, really. And why should I? Whose needs does that serve? What a con! Air travel is legitimately awful and getting worse: overcrowded, no food, no storage, incredibly tightly crammed, ridiculous security theatre requirements that rob dignity and steal time. Why should I put on makeup for that and hop off the plane ready to attend a meeting? I’ve been through hell and need a nap, and a shower, and a good cry, usually. It’s all a scam, this idea that somehow we can create these economies of time and cost and comfort and nothing is lost: it’s just that the costs have been transferred onto the individuals who are made to feel like they should be able to hack it. That they should smile while doing it, feel good about how much they can cram in, in what terrible circumstances, how cute and carefree they can look while doing so.

I can’t. And maybe you can’t either. The thing is, only some of us (me) have the paperwork to push back.

As I lean more into what it means to be a disabled academic, I’m thinking of ways that I can use my experiences, and the accommodations I fight for, to extend more kindness and balance and humanity to other academics who are increasingly finding their time, mental health, physical health, and well-being imperilled by the speed-up and belt-tightening of academic work. These conditions are inhumane and disabling to all of us, and my diagnoses has finally given me the clarity of a frame through which to say: I can’t do it this way, and I won’t, and I don’t have to. I hope to be a wedge opening up a bigger crack, to show that many of the conditions under which we all are pushed to work are also fundamentally disabling and inhumane and that we all ought to be able to push back.

So expect more posts from this year about academic-ing while disabled, as I come to terms with what that means for me. I’m still on sabbatical, so I’ll have more to say on that, too. As usual, I’ll have lots to say about grad students, and writing, and academic politics. Of course, if you have any tips on how to make academic travel any less awful, please drop a comment!

adjuncts · contract work · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Feeling Included as Contingent Faculty

At the end of last year my first book was longlisted for a literary prize. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I didn’t care. I know that awards are a little bit arbitrary, but that day I felt as if a space had opened up for me in the world of Canadian literature; I counted and the work I was doing mattered.

I teach at a respected university and I was pleased to see that someone posted a link to the prize announcement on my department’s Facebook page. For a moment, I wondered if someone might send out a congratulatory email on the department listserv. But when no one did, I felt silly for needing for such overt validation at work.

When it comes to work as a contract faculty member, I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve worked as a sessional lecturer for over a decade now and, for the most part, I like my job. I love working with students. And my days are flexible enough that I can make time for a writing career.  Not only that, I’m lucky enough to be regularized, which means I have job security that many sessionals are denied.

Despite all these benefits I continue to feel the absence of something crucial in my life at the university: a sense of belonging. At first, wanting to belong seemed trivial—especially when so many contingent faculty across North America are worried about more basic things like job security or healthcare. But a quick search yields tons of research on the importance of belonging in the workplace. It matters. And in academia it especially matters for contract faculty.

An acquaintance tells me that she gave up on collegial respect years ago. She loves teaching and she finds meaning in her relationships with students—and that’s enough for her. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s enough for me too, but maybe it isn’t. And why should it be? Academia has a reputation for being competitive and exclusionary, but this is especially true for contract faculty— professionals whose work is, by definition, provisional.

I’m not alone in my frustration. I’ve heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances at a variety of institutions. An adjunct who worked long hours to win a big grant, only to have a tenured faculty member announce it at meeting while she was away, never bothering to mention her name or thank her. A sessional who passes the head of his department in the hallway every day, but even after two years has yet to hear a hello. A writer who was deemed unqualified to teach an intro-level literature class but was invited to guest lecture about his work, which was on the course syllabus.

In this way, I get the illusion of value: my accomplishments are as likely to be used for promoting the school’s public image as any tenured faculty member’s; but only one of us gets supported and promoted for the work.

The weight of any single instance of alienation or lack of recognition may vary, but their accumulation is heavy. I’ve spent some time thinking about the question of what my university, my department, my colleagues owe me. And I haven’t come up with a good answer.

My contract specifies that I show up to teach three days a week and that I keep a minimum number of office hours. That’s it. It doesn’t mandate—or even suggest—that I attend department meetings or serve on committees or advise students either formally or informally. In fact, because anything that isn’t in a sessional faculty member’s contract is considered unpaid work, we are often discouraged from doing any departmental service at all. This leaves contract faculty with two options. We can invest the time we don’t spend prepping, teaching, and marking in additional department activities with no additional pay. Or we can pursue opportunities for belonging and community outside of the institution. Over the course of my sessional career, I’ve experimented with both approaches, but neither has felt totally satisfying. Do I need invitations to a tenured professor’s holiday party? Not really. But would I like it if there was a culture of warmth and recognition, if we all knew each other’s names and used them? Definitely.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “I know I can also do more to create the community I’m looking for. But I am interested in considering how the institution is set up to create and sustain hierarchies—and how those hierarchies get in the way of genuine collegiality. I often sense a scarcity of resources: not enough courses or merit or grant money to go around. Not enough time to do everything that needs doing. Not enough jobs for each graduating cohort. Class sizes that are temporarily raised and then never readjusted, a cost-saving measure that sends those at the bottom of the hierarchy back on the job market.

Contract —in ways both obvious and subtle—that we are replaceable. In this climate, why would department heads or more permanent faculty bother getting to know new sessional or adjunct hires? If a sessional receives a contract for four or eight months, why bother attending department meetings? And, if you are lucky and those months turn into years, a point comes at which it seems too late to say hello to someone in the copy room when you’ve not said hello for the past three semesters.

A culture of social alienation is endemic to academia and damaging to everyone who works there, regardless of where you fall on the social ladder. It’s easy to point out systemic institutional problems, but it’s harder to figure out how to change them. I don’t have the answers but I have a few questions:

What resources really are scarce in our institutions? And how might we make space for those resources that aren’t limited by actual material constraints—things like warmth, recognition, and personal connection? How does the (over)emphasis on hard work and competition sustain the social hierarchies of academia? And how might we begin to question the notion of academia as a pure meritocracy, where status is always earned or deserved? How does the implicit expendability of contract faculty contribute to a culture of social alienation and dehumanization? What might those in positions of stability and power—tenured and tenure-track faculty, administrators, department heads—do to make those with less stability and less recognition feel like valuable, contributing members of a community?

I’m genuinely interested in the answers to these questions—and the further questions they inspire. I hope  they continue the conversation about belonging, validation, and community within the institution.

__________________________________________________________________________

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Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her first book How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays was published in 2017. She’s been teaching writing and literature for over a decade.

grad school · risky writing · Uncategorized

Guest Post: On Feeling Unsure

Today’s guest post is from Jessica McDonald, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Thanks for writing, Jessica!


Most of the time, in most contexts, I feel unsure.

I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years — ah, let’s be real: over the course of my entire life. But as I’ve worked my way through the Ph.D., it has become a more prominent, more pressing, and also more interesting pattern to me. Nowadays, I try to chalk it up to a healthy and useful practice of “shakiness” — an attention to nuance over sureness, a belief in shades of grey over the black-or-white.

Feeling unsure delivers some advantages to me. I am frequently greeted with feelings of unsureness when I encounter a text, like a book, or an article shared via Facebook, and those feelings mediate my immediate responses to the text. This is useful: I might more seriously weigh the pros and cons of any given issue, might consider the text’s biases, merits, and gaps. I might not have the, say, surety to know how to respond to a text in the moment. I hesitate. Feeling unsure gives me space and time for reflection.

I have also been lucky to make connections with other people because I am open about being unsure. Long conversations with like-minded, similarly unsure colleagues over the various complicated dimensions of any given event in the news – an event, say, on which others have taken stark and strong stands – can be incredibly meaningful experiences. Unsureness bonds me to others.

And students respond, often times, with a combination of surprise, relief, and healthy relaxation when I model unsureness in the classroom. My unsureness as an instructor means that interactions in the classroom become more honest. A common first-day-of-class icebreaker I facilitate asks students to reveal (after I’ve first revealed myself) something they don’t know but they think they should know, or to admit something they fail at. Teaching a class themed around Literature and Place, I admitted to terrible skills in geography. (Seriously terrible. I still get the arrangement of the Canadian provinces mixed up. It’s that bad.)

But while being a deliberately unsure instructor has produced benefits, there are of course risks and challenges. For example, an obstacle to making unsureness an explicit part of my teaching is that, naturally, students sometimes want sureness in an instructor. Learning is hard; sureness can provide helpful stability in the process of negotiating slippery concepts. And when my being unsure is not perceived as intellectually productive, that can shake down into results that are not always positive. For example, student evaluations—troubling and troubled in so many ways, and hotly contested as they are—more often highlight my approachability or my willingness to listen to many viewpoints, rather than my intellectual skills or capabilities in leading students through course content. I don’t doubt that this is, in part, a consequence of my being a woman who dares to be unsure even as an instructor whose theoretical job is to lead classroom learning.

In the face of an unsure person, too, there are those who capitalize on it: let me tell you how things are, since you appear not to know. In the face of an unsure woman, I’ve found, there are one-hundred-and-one Very Sure Men who will swoop in to let her know what’s what.

When I’ve articulated this feeling in academic contexts, I have been met with mixed reviews. Often, I’m advised by well-meaning and wise friends, colleagues, and mentors to simulate an authority I do not care to assume. Particularly for someone like me who is precariously employed and uncertain about where my future employment will come from, the advice is to exude a kind of sureness that I don’t feel comfortable with on the best of days: five-year research plan? no sweat; recite The Narrative of Canadian Literature off-the-cuff? that’s what I’m here for.

I often wonder what this kind of simulated sureness does to the profession: how does it contribute to our health, or the health of our professional relationships? how are students shaped by Very Sure Instructors? in what ways might our published research be failed by the goal of surety?

Talking about how unsure we are can be terrifying for a host of reasons: the atmosphere of competition that academia fosters, which compels us to put our best foot forward at all times; the material effects that publicly embracing unsureness can produce, especially for those seeking employment or financial stability; the ways that articulating unsureness can further marginalize individuals who already experience powerful intersections of oppression and marginalization, such as disabled, queer, trans, and BIPOC scholars.

There are risks, then, to speaking up. But again, let’s be honest: as a cis white woman, I have unearned privilege which means that being unsure, in public and elsewhere, does not greatly endanger my ability to maintain the institutional, structural, and other benefits I reap even in the face of these disclosures. It is not this easy for others. But as a public, official articulation of my hitherto only casually expressed feelings, this post feels liberating to me. Speaking about unsureness can be a relief. A call to others who might feel the same to talk back, collect, change the script.

And how might that script be changed? I’ve been trying to think through how this unsureness, this thing I once perceived as a self-deficit, can productively and meaningfully guide my research and pedagogy. How can I let it inform my interactions with colleagues, mentors, friends? I wonder about how building this feeling into the very systems and structures we occupy might change them.

For me, foregrounding unsureness in the academy could look something like this: relationships with students and colleagues that are anchored in honesty and in open articulations of the limits of our own understandings; built-in time for unsureness to unfold, or for slow and careful consideration to be practiced, in both research and teaching contexts; the ability for unsureness to shape how we practice self-care (how would we feel if we exchanged the pressures of mastery for the possibilities of uncertainty?) and how we negotiate imposter syndrome or other feelings of deficiency that seem so built into the structures of the academy. For me, too, foregrounding unsureness means respecting, trusting, and even prioritizing the knowledge and experiences of others—being accountable to that knowledge and, as an instructor in particular, releasing myself from the banking model of education (critiqued by Paulo Freire) that purports I have knowledge to give and students are there to receive.

Embracing unsureness as a scholar and teacher has helped me envision these possibilities and, in some small ways, put these visions into practice. I offer them as entry points into a conversation I hope to keep having with anyone who is interested. So, I ask: what would an unsure academy look like to you? What would we give up? What would we gain?


McDonald J picJessica McDonald is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She researches Canadian literature, literary cartography, and postcolonial theories and literatures. When not working, she enjoys making lots of lists and writing poems about crop tops and selfies.

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Clearing the decks

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I said I would write about some of the work I did in the six months leading up to my sabbatical in order to prepare to make the most it when the time came. One the main things I did was clear the decks, in a pretty thoroughgoing way. There were many “decks” to clear: my home office, my campus office, my two computers, my cloud storage, my grading and feedback for graduate students, peer review obligations.

I had this worry that January 1 would roll around, and I would helplessly spin around in one or another of my offices, with no surfaces to put things onto, desperately trying to remember where I put a printout. I had visions of endless search-and-preview loops on my MacBook, trying to find a document I knew existed but where I had just digitally stuffed in the wrong place out of expedience. I woke up at night afraid the towering pile of dissertations and INCs would smother me at any moment, anxious also of forms unsigned and letters unsent, chewing my nails about article reviews coming due and me forgetting them, or worse, spending all my time on them.

So I read a lot of dissertations, made plans with students, took scrupulous care to get all of my grading and peer reviews done before the end of fall term.

The more serious problems were in many ways the more straightforward ones of space.

I had too much stuff: too many books, so that new ones had no place. Too many stacks of printouts, and no room in the cabinets, too many references in my Zotero just dumped in, too many folders and subfolders for all my projects across two computers and two cloud storage services. Too many late library books, and fines.

It was probably early October, sitting in my office hours, brain dead from having submitted my SSHRC IG application, that I decided to do something, right now. Sitting at my desk, I looked at the big pile of books stacked like a tower in the corner. I would put them away. But there was no shelf space left.

Something in me snapped. All I could see were the wrong books in the wrong places and the right books hidden and no room to breathe anywhere. Ghosts of the past, past roles and past theories and outmoded scholarship and fields I don’t participate in. I removed somewhere between 8 and 10 linear feet of books, and brought them all to the giveaway cabinet in the common area. This took hours. I sneezed nearly the entire time. Everything was dusty and neglected and crammed in. I made space. I shelved all my new books. It was beautiful.

This started an avalanche of paper. I went through my teaching files: 13 years of lesson plans and overhead transparencies and grading rubrics and printouts and attendance records. Recycled. I went through the 4 linear feet of printouts stacked in piles on my bookshelves: from course packs and grad classes, stuff I copied out of my own books, stuff I didn’t care about, stuff that was outdated and useless. About two linear feet went right in the bin: the other two went to my RA, who put them all in my Zotero database, and filed everything. I went through research notes from projects long completed, marked up drafts, correspondence, notes-to-self. Recycled. Grad chair documentation of an informational and non-confidential nature: recycled. I freed up over a hundred file folders this way. Then I recycled the file folders to the giveaway cabinet.

I have been a professor for 13 years. In the beginning, it was important to accumulate lesson plans and course evaluations and desk copies of textbooks and my new scholarly library. I have been in the same office for 13 years. I didn’t notice when not-enough-stuff became enough-stuff and certainly not when enough-stuff because way-too-much-stuff. I’m going to have to remember to do the work at regular intervals. It’s remarkably invigorating.

There was, suddenly, room to breathe. I had removed literally hundreds of pounds of paper from the office, linear foot upon linear foot of stuff I don’t need, desk drawer after cabinet of stuff squirrelled away and completely forgotten. Oh yeah: I cleaned out all my desk drawers, too. Goodbye powdery packets of tea dated 2008, au revoir mystery bag of … aspirin? ibuprofen?, so long 20 stick pens that don’t work, one weirdly rock solid Clif bar.

I found my awfully late library books. I paid my fines.

I did the same work at home: box after box of books–textbook samples, books I bought in grad school, old notebooks full of old notes about things I’m not ever going to need to think about again. Goodbye to all that.

It felt good. It felt like taking off all these chains attaching me to the past, to projects never-completed, or well completed, to paths I really am never going to pursue, to things that have outlived their usefulness, to clutter and distraction. I made space for new printouts and new books and new ideas. It felt fantastic. It took, literally, weeks.

And then the digital decluttering: my MacBook Pro was sending out cries for help in the form of crashes and meltdowns. Since 2004, with every new computer I got (five?) I used Migration Assistant to copy the old hard drive over to the new one. The result was a crufted up machine with three versions of MS Word, incompatible suites of Adobe software, and backups of an iPod I haven’t had since 2010. My 500GB only had 30GB of space left. At the Apple store we rebuilt the machine from scratch, and I completely reviewed all my documents and folders. I deleted A LOT. My 500GB hard drive now has a little more than **300GB** of storage free. And it doesn’t crash anymore. Like in my physical offices, I made space and set things up to foreground the work I want to do now, making everything easy to find and easy to call to hand. This took over a week.

When January 1 rolled around, I had at least a clear sense of what I was going to do, and, importantly, I had enough mental space, enough shelf space, enough desk space, and enough hard drive space to just get right to it. Everything was radically simplified and pared down. It turned out to be one of the very best things I did to get ready for my sabbatical.

advice · disability · enter the confessional · productivity · Uncategorized

I did it myyyyyyy waaaaay: and you should, too

I love paper. I love paper journals and notepads, I love printouts, I love paper books. I love pens and highlighters and pencils and erasers and tape-flags and Post-Its. I love sorting my printed-out grading into stacks, into piles. I love cerlox-bound dissertations on my lap, squeaking under my highlighter. I love 12 sheets of scrap paper on my desk as 12 weeks of a semester as I plan out a grad course. I love fanning my research notes across a 7′ by 10′ area rug and crawling among them, attaching paper sticky notes. I love printing out 40 pages chapter drafts and arranging them linearly across all my kitchen counters, then cutting them with scissors, sticking bits together with tape, and rearranging them linearly, over and over. I even do outlines on tiny strips of paper that I cut up and arrange and rearrange and cut and add and throw away and rearrange again.

IMG_1224
Please note the paper bits are actually in bulleted and sub-bulleted lists.

I love paper. E-stuff, hilariously and paradoxically, I’m not so keen on. I love social media and happily surf multiple streams and platforms simultaneously, obviously: this is my research area, after all. But. I don’t read journal articles online, don’t grade online, don’t buy e-books, or e-magazines, don’t use a stylus on a tablet. I’m happy to read the whole internet online, and happy to free write and do maybe up to 30% of my editing work online. The whole work online thing gives me the heeby-jeebies and makes me desperately confused.

 

I often feel like some cranky Luddite, making my students print papers and hand them in. I feel like a monster for compulsively printing hundreds of pages of research articles when I’ve got them all stored as PDFs on my tree-saving screen. I feel dumb and old-fashioned when I ask my coordinator to print out all the bits and pieces of the graduate teaching assignment instead of working virtually on the beautiful spreadsheet she’s made.

Basically, there’s a part of me that knows I get the best results, more happily and easily, when I use my paper methods. And there’s a part of me that thinks I should instead do it completely online and virtually because my way is weird and therefore terrible.

I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine.

I suggest to you, too, that maybe those “one weird trick for productivity” hacks that you use and are secretly ashamed of, might be something YOU should be proud of, too.

For me, paper is visible in very important ways: scale, scope, the gist. How much progress I’m making, how much I have left. Where the holes are, sometimes literally. Paper is a massive memory aid, an externalization of my working memory, all the more crucial the larger or more complex a task becomes. Colour coded sticky notes and pens and paper clips and highlighting–I scan it from above and easily zoom down to what I need.

For me, electronic text is inscrutable and frustrating, like trying to watch a movie in the front row of the cinema with a pinhole camera: I can’t get any sense of scale or make sense of anything, and I get dizzy, to boot. There’s no way I could follow any kind of narrative and it’s a challenge not to barf. All the blue light, not enough screen, too many tabs and open windows and nothing findable. Stress nap!

I thought requiring my paper memory prosthetics meant I was too dumb to “keep it all in my head.” I thought that getting frustrated and anxious using virtual text meant I had no attention span (well, okay, that’s true). But honestly, who cares? As I build up a body of research and teaching and service, I can see that I actually produce really good stuff. Who cares if I do it weird? Pretty much no one, actually. So why am I (are we?) so hard on myself (ourselves?) for doing it my way?

My former coordinator, watching me use pencils and scrap paper and printouts and rulers and tick boxes and lists and hand-drawn tables to slot 140 grad students into 3 semesters of teaching with no overlaps, howlers, or inequities, laughed at me a little (rightly so, I look like a loon; we laughed together a lot) but she kept all those sheets: they really worked, and it was fast, and it was fair. It all eventually got put into a spreadsheet for tracking purposes, but it was okay that I did it my way.

And it’s okay that you do it your way. This job is supposed to be about results; we are supposed to be free to do the work how and when we want, as long as we produce the required end-products–a syllabus, a lesson plan, a dissertation, a teaching schedule, an academic article. But in truth I think a lot of us secretly or not-so-secretly berate ourselves for doing it wrong. It seems so strange to me but here it is: in a profession where we get almost no training in the methods for actually doing our jobs, when we figure out our own methods, we’re nearly always convinced we’re doing it wrong, and should be ashamed of ourself, or at least very secretive so we don’t get found out.

There’s a vast market in productivity advice (I know, I write a lot of it) and there is much we can learn from different kinds of best practices and different kinds of systems, particularly when we haven’t yet found a system that works for us. We should remember, though, that there are different systems, and it’s okay to prefer one kind of working style over another.

So now you know my one weird trick: Print everything, and spread over all flat surfaces with paper so that I can see everything I’m working on and with at the same time. What’s your one weird trick?

being undone · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

A la recherche de temps perdu

I have been considering the phrase “making up for lost time.” I have been considering the nature of academic temporality, generally, and it strikes me we are often expressing overwhelm about the present, regret about the past, and a kind of desperate and yet hopeful anxiety about the future. We will somehow have time to write later because we are drowning in busyness right now and that later is going to allow us to make up for lost time.

Lost. time.

Lost academic time can take many forms: How am I supposed to read all these candidate files before Monday? How did I manage to only grade 6 papers today when I literally did nothing else? How is it 2pm and I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning? And then there is the temps perdu of research, where our sense of loss and bewilderment, often, runs pretty deep. The tenured and tenure-tack run a small version of this lost-time-loop every summer, where the endless acres of 16 weeks of research time is supposed to produce 2 full articles and a grant proposal and a tan and Fall syllabi and a sense of well-being, and somehow at the end of it, I’m at the photocopier on labour day, wan and regretful, with only 1/3 to 1/2 as much done as I wanted. Dissertation can be pretty awful for temps perdu syndrome: all we do through coursework and exams is complain about how much time we are spending on other people’s stuff and how all we want to do is finally work on our project and when we somehow don’t it starts a shame spiral that only seems solvable by self-loathing and secret binge-writing.

Gillian Anderson in "The X-Files - The Movie."
“But Mulder, time doesn’t just disappear. I’m a scientist, and I am going to write a peer reviewed paper about that during my sabbatical.”

I have, myself, a deep sense of lost time. Time that, like many, I imagine I can “make up for” on a sabbatical. Sabbatical time is magical! I will do all the things I have so far failed to do! I will catch up! And, more insidiously, I tell myself, during that time, I will live up to my promise, make up for lost time, lost ambition, lost to everyone’s glowing expectations of what I could do with my life, prove that I am not here by accident. One by one I will silence my regrets over missed opportunities and missed deadlines by doing all the work that over the years I feel bad about not getting done.

This is a good way to be miserable, and to burn out. We can’t turn back time. Hermione can’t do it in a sustainable way. It’s not clear that even Cher could do it, Bob Mackie dress or not.

All we have is right now. Right now does not care if you wish you had published a book five years ago: you can’t work 12 hours a day to make up for that regret. Worse, even trying to do so will ensure that you get nothing done in the right now, because you burn out. Regrets about the past, and the self-loathing that often accompanies these regrets, are heavy to carry and useless in the battle of today. Trying to “make up” for lost time just loses more time, and is exhausting. Maybe shame is not really a good productivity tool.

It can be really hard to let go of the past, even if thinking about it brings us nothing but negative feelings. Somehow, holding out some dim hope that once we get time to just work hard enough and long enough we can patch over all those holes in our CV, and in that way put all our regretful anxiety to rest seems easier than just … letting go. We’d almost rather keep hating ourselves right now because we imagine a future in which this self-loathing has fuelled some kind of productive burst that will get 10 years of work done in 1.

But time doesn’t work like that.

Better, maybe, to take some time to let go of the past, and just try to work right now. Work right now as if it brought us some sense of pride and accomplishment, not as if it were a desperate attempt to make up for an earlier failure. What would it feel like to sit down to an article, a syllabus, a dissertation, without the expectation of accomplishing all the ‘missed’ work at the same time?

That’s hard to do. (Ask me how I know.)

I’m trying each day when I sit down to work on this book project that I’ve been working on for [inaudible temporal mumbles] to just work on what’s in front of me, not get caught up in some internal narrative telling me it should have been finished years ago, trying to stop telling myself that if I don’t make up for that lost time by working ten times as hard right now it’ll be worth nothing. Every day I try anew. It’s sort of working, but it’s a practice I have to mindfully engage.

Here’s what I tell myself and here’s what I wish for you to tell yourselves. You are enough just as you are. Do the work in front of you just for what it is: a research problem, a new direction, a literature review. It’s not a referendum on your worth as a human, and it’s not some magical clock that’s already run out.

I’m enjoying my work a lot more, now that I’m not trying to get ten years of work done every day, now that I’ve given myself permission to try to get one day of work done each day. It’s not a punishment, and I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone that trying to write for 12 hours a day is going to prove. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, astonished at how much fun I’m having when I stop regretting the past, and just start living my todays, one at a time.

risky writing · sabbatical · Uncategorized · writing

How much can I write in a day?

There is a big tra-la-la on Twitter currently, about profs working 60 hour weeks and other profs not working 60 hour weeks and people talking about power and performance-of-busyness and overwork and systems and ranks and all of it.

This post is not about that. This post is about how much I can write in one day: for how long, what kind of writing, and how.

I’ve been on sabbatical for just over a month. So, I’m not doing much, work wise, except writing. My email is minimal; I have no department or administrative meetings; I’m not teaching. I am still working with my grad students and their writing, and I did go to a conference for three days.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • How much I can write? Between 300-4000 words per day, depending on what kind of writing I’m doing
  • For how long? Between 4 and 6 thirty-minute poms, which, with breaks, means a workday that begins about 9am and runs to 1 or 2pm. (Total writing time is between 2 and 3 hours; total workday is 4 or 5 hours long)
  • What kind of writing? I have been free-writing (easy and fun); note-taking and bookmarking (easy and boring); birds-eye overview of main ideas and the main point of the chapter (intense and exciting); crafting outlines and trying to carve out a structure (hard and slow)
  • How? I write in 30 minute bursts, according to a task list and schedule my coach and I set up once a week, for the coming week.

I had this idea that being on sabbatical would mean that I would be Working On My Research for 8 hours a day. I know writing is taxing, so I figured I would only do that for three or four hours a day (I didn’t seem to plan any breaks in there), and then after lunch, I would read books and article and take notes or do library searches or some such.

That was way too much. That was just not possible for me.

In the 2-3 hours of total writing time, spread over 4 or 5 hours of the day, over the past three weeks, I have got an incredible amount of work done: I have made huge progress on the book chapter I’m working on, including: finding and bookmarking and taking notes (about 7000 words) on all my primary sources, and the popular sources that engage them; adding 4500 words to the chapter draft; creating a solid and workable outline of the structure and arguments of the chapter from scratch; creating a research task list, organized and referenced, for my RA; creating section outlines and cutting and pasting the whole chapter draft into the correct sections of the new outline; and starting to fill the holes that I now see in the draft.

In three weeks, writing for not more than 3 hours per day, I’ve brought a book chapter from 10% done to about 65% done. I’m on track to finish it by the end of the month, which is to say, I will have written a solid draft of a whole book chapter in about 6 weeks. In a work week that usually has between 12-15 hours of writing in it and not the 40 I thought were going to be necessary.

I keep thinking I must not be working hard enough. That I’m slacking off. But I’ll tell you, first, that what I am doing is exhausting: by the end of my writing time each day, I just climb into bed with the cat and a Magic Bag and pass out hard for 45 minutes. I am spent; I have nothing left in me to write or think anymore by the time my last pom is done. Second, by the time I get up the next morning, I am excited and full of energy, and eager to sit back down and start writing. That has been a revelation. Third, I’m able to take care of myself and that makes a huge difference: I am trying new recipes in my Instant Pot; running five times a week, three of those with a running group; going to bed on time; spending quality time with my husband and daughter; taking the weekends to just … live my life. I am feeling really, really good. It’s nice.

So sabbatical for me looks like 16-20 hours of work during the week, and none during the weekend. I expect that the burst of frenetic thinking and writing and editing that comes from finishing a piece will mean the occasional week where I work more than that, and weeks where I travel for talks or conferences will look a little different, too.

But I wanted you to know: in the ideal circumstance of the sabbatical, where writing is my only job, I still can’t do it for more than 6 poms in a day, and that 6 poms a day is proving to be remarkably productive. I would say it’s okay to have limits, but we actually don’t have a choice about our limits. They are what they are. By respecting what my limits are, I am able, paradoxically, to do much better work than when I push myself harder, and am able to be happy, and balanced, and healthy. We don’t hear a lot of stories about doing less. So I wanted to tell you mine.

 

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

All the things I’ve said “no” to

Like many academic women, I’m trying to learn how to say no–I can’t believe how deeply socialized I am to never want to disappoint anyone, how deeply-rooted is my fear of being ‘unlikeable’, how unshakeable my imposter syndrome that any opportunity turned down represents the tide turning toward my inevitable unmasking and the end of everything.

I have a problem with saying yes that is partly being socialized female, partly about an ADHD time-tunnel problem where there is only ‘now’ where I can make someone happy and get excited about a new opportunity and a vast amorphous and distant ‘not now’ where somehow the work will happen and I’m not mysteriously triple-booked, and partly about feeling a deep moral imperative to use the incredibly privilege of my tenured professorship to be available to committees and students and collaborations and such. Basically, I am afraid to say no, I feel like an asshole when I say no, and I have terrible foresight into what all my yesses might mean for my actual workflow.

Knowing this, I vowed to make a change on sabbatical. I booked myself a 365-day, all-day meeting and it runs like a ribbon all across my iCal for 2018:

say not
I know there’s a typo. I’m just NOT going to go and change it. No. I’m saying no.

And! I have indeed been saying no. And it was very hard! I was still eating Christmas cookies and day-drinking when I got an email at the very end of December asking me if I would be interested to keynote an undergraduate media conference … in mid-January. I immediately dropped everything and stood in my kitchen, rationalizing a way to say yes, while my partner stood there agog. I was all like, “well, I think I have a paper I could really easily convert into something for this, and it’s on a weekend so that wouldn’t eat into my writing time and it’s close by so …”

No. I said no. It was hard but then? I stopped thinking about it. Poof: literally one less thing to worry about. Because, to be honest, I would have been stressing about slides and making the talk perfect and it would totally have taken away writing time.

Saying no is getting easier. I did not say yes to all the students who asked me for reference letters, just the ones who are working directly with me. I did not say yes to reading all the CVs of our job applicants. I did not say yes to a campus advocacy thing. I did not say yes to participating in another conference. I did not say yes to three separate request for peer review. I said no.

Something amazing happened: I immediately forgot all the things I said no to. I actually had to dig through my email to generate the list above. Let me be clear: I am not wracked with guilt or regret. It’s amazing and freeing! I simply do not even remember what I have said no to. I just moved on. Another thing: no one wrote back to beg me to reconsider. No one. I have not ruined anyone’s life by saying no.

Saying no to all these other things has meant more clearly saying yes to my own sabbatical project: I have made incredible progress this month on a book chapter that was nothing but a good idea and some free writing–it’s grown into a real thing and I have enjoyed focusing exclusively on that this month. It feels really, really good to focus like this, not in a rush and not in a race and not in a panic and not stuffed into the cracks of All The Other Things.

I am still saying yes to things other than my writing: I’m meeting with grad students about their chapters, and I’m participating in defences. I gave a lunch time talk to a women’s group, and am giving that same talk to a staff association lunch. And I am saying yes to some opportunities–that I am choosing, for my own needs–to give talks on my current research in ways that feel like they support what I want to get done this year.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that, ultimately, saying yes to one thing always has costs, because time is not infinitely elastic, nor is attention.  (This is very hard for me to learn.) A yes to something is always, ultimately, a no to something else, and I’m trying to learn to do that accounting every time I’m presented with an opportunity. I said that I wanted to use this sabbatical to really focus on finishing my big projects, and I find that since I’m saying no to things that aren’t that, I actually am making real progress on the thing I am trying to prioritize.

So I have said no, and the results of my negative responses to all these asks has been positive progress on my main goal, and a more positive and less-stressful rhythm to my days. I have said no, and I’m here to tell you: it feels good.