teaching · Uncategorized

An ode to the white board

This is an ode to the white board, the glossy surface sometimes made of glass, sometimes constructed from paint, sometimes a weird plastic thingy that’s oddly pitted. Squawk squeak! goes marker number one, emitting vaguely fruity smells quite vigorously but ink not nearly so much so. Skronk chirp squeak! goes marker number two, less smelly and also less shy about making a mark. I have a small collection of markers I hoard, and sometimes even a rag I bring to class with me to erase the board.

Photo on 1-16-19 at 10.35 AM.jpg
Only one of these markers works. All of them smell like “headache.”

I’m always running around class, writing on the board. Sometimes the boards run across two sides of the room and I fill them all, jumping over tables (yes) to access them in our too-tight spaces. Or sometimes, they’re layered at the front, where you can fill all the front ones and then shoot them up towards the ceiling, revealing a whole second set of boards! I jot little lightbulb ideas down low on the corner so I will remember them. I write down student brainstorms. I make big headings in all caps across several boards and then spend class getting everyone to work together to fill them in with notes. I put up the class agenda, with checkboxes, and check them off as we complete each item.

It’s a pretty amazing real-time, interactive, multimodal communication system. It doesn’t need log in credentials. It doesn’t need the projector to warm up. It doesn’t time out. It doesn’t need me to dim the lights. It always works, which is an advantage over classroom electronics.

But the whiteboard is a pretty good pedagogical tool, on its own merits. I have some strong opinions on this matter, and it’s going to involve trash talking slide presentations, which I realize are very very common and which I myself sometimes use in very specific and pointed ways so yes #NotAllPowerPoints but anyways.

First, pacing. A student came up to me after one of my undergrad classes last week. She wanted to compliment me on my use of the white board, instead of PowerPoint. That’s the contrast she made. “So refreshing!” she said. “Like it made it easier for me to follow.” Well, yes. It would. The white board is a lot slower than PowerPoint (so I guess the time you save fighting with the projection and podium system, you make up for in having to hand write in real time). That is a feature, not a bug. I know that many of us put hunks of text and notes and definitions on slides to project, because we have so much content, and it saves time to flash it up instead of write it out. But. How can your students write it down? We use PowerPoints, often, because we are trying to speed things up. We move at the speed of light (literally) and not at the speed of comprehension or contemplation. If I have enough time to write it down, my students have enough time to write it down. If that means I have to radically reduce how much content I can “share” in a given class, well, that’s probably for the best, if what I want is for students to understand what we’re doing rather than impress them with how much I know.

So, whiteboards make me teach more slowly. That’s good. I am a FAST FAST RIGHT NOW UGH I’M BORED GO GO GO kind of academic, and that’s not a good teaching stance. Better to slow my roll to the speed of reflection. To take the care to manage my handwriting. Give people a chance to take it in, to write it down. I honestly don’t think people can take in new ideas in novel fields any faster than they can write it by hand. So I don’t want to teach faster than that.

Second, whiteboards are way more dynamic, interactive, and responsive than projection. Yeah. I said what I said: PowerPoints suck the life and interaction out of any room they’re used in, 9 times out of 10. Slides are static: you can’t change them as you present. The content is already fixed. You come to class, you show it. Nothing that happens in the room can alter the lesson because it’s already 30 ordered slides from A to B, and if C and D come up there is no room for them. Oh this is a really interesting discussion we’re having but I’ve got 48 more slides to get through! If you have a habit of putting your slides online before or after class ask yourself: why is anyone coming to class? What are they getting out of sitting in a room watching you talk to and about a screen? What are they doing, other than listening? Sometimes, after class, I take photos of my whiteboards because class took such a turn that I did not expect that we made new knowledge that I didn’t have before and want to document for myself. Often, during class, what gets written on the whiteboards is what students say: Why is Big Data a paradigm shift? I ask them. It’s not in the textbook. They have to come up with the answers. I write them down. We refine them. Something new happened, something that they built, that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t here.

Basically, I want students to have stakes in class. The “lecture” and “content” of class is partly me giving them new information they don’t have other access to, part of it is them thinking through the ideas they’ve read in the book, and part of it is them working together with each other and with me, to decide what’s real and important and interesting and so we make our class notes together, on the whiteboard.

Third, my work at the whiteboard models distillation and synthesis for my students. I don’t write everything down. Obviously. What I write down is brief, but important. We can write down ideas that are finished, and we can write down stubs of things and refine them. We can brainstorm lists, then pick and choose what we want to keep and then think about some more. We can literally draw connections between things. We capture the gist, the crux, the kernel: learning to do that is incredibly important, and we’re all practicing together.

So that’s my ode to the whiteboard. It makes class more dynamic. It makes me more realistic about “content” coverage. It demonstrates how to find the main point, how to synthesize, how to write-to-learn.

What do you use your whiteboards for? Or do you have a spirited defense of PowerPoint to share?

advice · new year new plan · teaching · tidying up · Uncategorized

Saying “yes” and sparking joy

I’m kind of a Kondo-ite. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up rivals Pride and Prejudice on my list of sick-in-bed comfort reads. When stressed, I throw things out. It’s never been the wrong thing to do.

It’s my first week back to teaching, after my year-long sabbatical and I’m a little frazzled just from the change in pace, routine, number of people, details to manage, the excitement of a new semester. At night, my daughter and I crawl into bed together with the cat and the dog and fire up an episode of Tidying Up on the Netflix-machine and enjoy the transition from the overwhelm and frazzle of my messy day–oh, wait, I mean someone else’s messy home–to the beatific smiles that arise when you know that when you open that specific kitchen drawer, there’s an open spot to put the can opener back into. Ahhhhhh.

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You can use boxes to store and organize smaller items

It’s easy to focus on the before, on the piles and piles and piles of DVDs, the overflowing laundry baskets, counters encrusted with random bric-a-brac, the entire rumpus room of Christmas decorations in April. It’s easy to goggle at the enormous piles of garbage bags. It’s easy to spin cynical narratives of late capitalist over-accumulation and the soothing of every feeling of discomfort with “retail therapy,” easy to tut-tut at a particularly American drive to always have more, damn the torpedoes, the credit-rating, the square-footage of the dwelling, common sense. It’s easy to think: these people need to learn to say no, to get rid of, to limit, to control. A tightening of purse strings. Self-discipline. No. Consider some of the recent journalism on this. Very judgemental.

But.

The Mersier family (the episode I watched last night) made a special point of noting that Kondo doesn’t judge anyone’s possessions, anyone’s choice about what sparks joy and what doesn’t. And that’s true. Kondo is not so much about getting rid of clutter but of recalibrating your joy sensor. People don’t accumulate 200 pairs of socks because they’re trying to be slobs. They don’t stack every participation medal they’ve earned since 1983 into a shoe box and put it on the dining room table because they want to make sure everyone eats on the couch. People buy stuff, hold onto stuff, produce teetering piles in the corners of their rooms because at some point those objects felt like the solution to some sort of problem: mismatched and not enough socks, a way to show their care for their childrens’ childhoods, a way to keep cherished hobbies close to hand but not in the way. The impulses are always positive, the gratifications perhaps immediate, but the long-term effects unexpectedly, drip by drip, exhausting and overwhelming. People buy, and keep, and store things to create joy.  But they lose the way at some point without realising it and don’t know how to climb over the mountain of discount nutcrackers that are blocking their view of the future.

Kondo helps people find their joy again. It looks like throwing things away, it looks like saying no, forcefully, over and over: no, you don’t need to keep 40 years of baseball cards you collected with your kids who haven’t lived here for 20 years. No you don’t need an insulated coat you bought for Michigan now that you live in California. No you don’t need 80 cotton t-shirts. No your kids shouldn’t have so many possessions that they need secondary storage areas in the common rooms of your home. Violence, self-negation, rejection, deprivation.

But what if Kondo is asking us not to say no, but to say yes?

Why does everyone look more … free at the end of each episode than at the beginning? Their faces softer and more open, their gestures more expansive, their laughs full-throated? They have said yes to joy. They have found what they’re looking for: a ‘path to winning’ for the Mersiers, and the feeling that a downsized apartment has become a home. A path into the future, a wide-open retirement for the couple with enough Christmas decorations to do up all of Macy’s, enough baseball cards to open a store. An end to the petty arguments and helplessness of the couple with two young children and no counter space at all.

Kondo begins her magic by saying yes to the home. She sits on the floor. She closes her eyes and becomes still. She smiles a little, touches her fingertips to the floor and traces a little arc from her knees around to her hips. It is awkward and time-consuming and non-narrative … and unexpectedly moving. At least one woman cries on witnessing it. Others become awkwardly still, humbled, as if by someone praying. They bow their heads, they smile nervously. Kondo says yes to the home. Yes to the idea that home is a space of care, that we respect ourselves and our families and our great privilege by attending to this space.

I’m going somewhere with this.

I want to ask you: what are you saying yes to in your home, or, in your work? I’ve written a few times in the past year about my own sometimes frenzied sometimes deliberate sometimes emotional sometimes planned “tidying up” of my working spaces. I am hundreds and hundreds of pounds lighter in the most material of ways. I am lighter in other ways too: getting rid of something between 50 and 100 books gave me the freedom to read many more things, greet new ideas, cherish older ones, release my guilt and obligation. I’m not going to read Sadie Plant again, I never liked that book in the first place, I can let that book go. I can read something else.

But I have said yes in other acts of “tidying up” as well. More is not always better. A little bravery and thoughtfulness might find joy in less. What looks like no can be a yes.

You can tidy up your habits, ideas of what work is, what you “should” be or do, what is essential and what is not. This tidying up, too, is magic.

When I started teaching, I had textbooks and a coursepacks and exams and oral presentations and a research paper. I wrote lectures. I had quizzes. For every course. I had accumulated all these teaching strategies from various places and figured I had to use all of them all the time. It was, if you will, cluttered and ill thought out. I did all those things to assuage my anxiety about my own competence. I did them to fit in with what I thought my colleagues were doing. I did it because I thought it was what students expected. It didn’t bring me joy. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to keep adding things. Do you see where this is going? When I tidied up my pedagogy and assessments, I got rid of a lot: don’t need an exam in a writing course; don’t need a research paper in a methods course; don’t need oral presentations from students in … most courses, don’t need readings for every single class. No to the piles and to the more and to the eveyrthing, yes to leaner, cleaner, focused work. One of my colleagues expressed great shock that I did away with the 10 page research paper in second year course on literary critical methods. But research what? Scansion? Methods are about applying techniques, about learning specialized language, about recognizing instances of a given thing–there are way better ways than ten-sources-at-least-one-academic-monograph-and-two-peer-reviewed-articles-and-not-more-than-one-internet-site research papers in MLA format following the hourglass structure. That’s just clutter. It does not spark joy. It weighs me down.

My dear colleague Frankie and I are teaching a project based graduate course together, one that blends her expertise in social movements, pedagogies of care, racial justice, and critical theory with mine in social and digital media, in design, in communities of online practice, in virality, in platform. We said no to trying to master one another’s fields; we said yes to learning from each other in class and modelling humility and curiosity in that way. We said no to all assigned reading, no to course packs, no to bookstore orders, no to PDFs on the course website, no to performing our own competence by generating overwhelming reference lists. We said yes to really committing to the project-based pedagogy, and so we said yes to supporting students’ research efforts more generously as they build their own reading lists. Students are anxious about what we’re asking them to do for group projects: but we have said yes to devoting the bulk of instructional and contact time to helping them work through it, as their main focus. I expect a lot of emails: I said no to assigned readings so I can say yes to that extra meeting, yes to reviewing that draft, yes to let’s have a look at that reference list. Just writing this out right now sparks joy.

I have said no to on-campus time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Friday mornings. Saying “no” to campus on those days is actually saying yes to: rebuilding my spoon stock by being quiet, wearing clothes that don’t chafe, taking yoga breaks, watching the birds out my window as I think and write and process. It is saying yes to a Thursday run during daylight hours instead of with a head lamp after supper. Yes to devoting my energy to the big tasks that need me to really manage my attention for a few hours, uninterrupted. Yes to putting some food into the slow cooker at lunchtime and having a hot meal, relaxed, with my family. These slow quiet focused gentle reflective days spark joy in me, make my work joyful. Yes.

On the flip side, I am saying yes to being on campus for 9.5 hours on Monday, with 4.5 of those actually in classroom teaching. I am on campus for 8 hours on Wednesdays, with grad meetings, and 2 hours of office hours, and 1.5 hours of teaching. I am saying yes, Mondays and Wednesdays, to being open and available and dressed professionally and with a packed lunch and collegiality. And I can find joy in this, too, because I do love teaching, spontaneous hallway chats, chance encounters, solving people’s problems, making handouts with jokes in them, and seeing students laugh. Yes to that shift in energy in a classroom when everyone suddenly gets it. Yes to the student who comes to my office to tell me something that is scaring them. Yes to that poster announcing that talk that I never would have thought I wanted to hear but becomes weirdly salient. Yes to enjoying my collection of 90s inspired mock turtlenecks and roomy pants that taper at the ankle, to patent lace-ups. Yes to the walk to and from campus through the park, feeling the wind, crunching the snow.

We all seek joy. We wish to be at peace, in comfort, in control, easeful. Our whole economic system is predicated on making us feel insufficient, not enough, and to find abundance by the accumulation of things. The academy, too, is based on muchness: higher grades, more reading, more publications, longer CVs, bigger grants, more more more. But it’s a trap. Like the contributors on Tidying Up, we have been trying to fulfil our very real needs for emotional and intellectual and practical safety, comfort, and joy by overstuffing our closets and our calendars, enacting positivity by saying yes to more sweaters, more assignments, more emails, more committees in ways that are counterproductive to these needs. Full of shame and fear, tired beyond belief, immured by all our own things and obligations and habits, we feel pushed to say no and it’s hard, like we’re being punished or like we are failing.

But maybe it’s not about the garbage bags, not about the awful spectacle of how you let it get to this point. Maybe it’s about the way you can exhale more deeply, about the room freed up in your head when everywhere you set your eyes does not reproach you with some obligation unmet for some problem not yet solved. Maybe it really is about the joy, about the yes, not the no.

What can you say yes to, this semester, by tidying up–saying yes, even though it looks like a no–some small part of your habits and work? Could you, maybe, find a little space for a tiny act of joy?

disability · enter the confessional · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Blank space: post-sabbatical re-entry

My sabbatical ended on December 31–the university officially opened today, January 2, so here I am, being, what? Not-on-sabbatical? That’s pretty much what I’m getting done today: being not-on-sabbatical.

Transitions are not my strong suit, and major life changes are always very emotionally gruelling for me. It was hard for me to go on sabbatical, and now it’s hard for me to end. Before sabbatical, I did a lot of clearing the decks in the months leading up to January, and it did me a world of good to take stock of my office, my books, my career, all the stuff that accumulates, unnoticed, and crufts up one’s soul. And I have done similar before coming back, taking time over the last two months to really think about who I want to be as a teacher, researcher, and colleague upon my return. There may have been free writing and visualization exercises. I know that in the past year I have really gained a lot of confidence as a researcher and writer: freed from both excuses and obligations (and with a coach and, crucially, medication treatment for my ADHD) I discovered with joy that I love my research, that I am a good writer, that others also find value in what I can do with ideas. I haven’t felt that kind of joy and freedom and alive-ness about research since, probably, grad school. I know I want to hold onto that. I’m not just a pretty-good-teacher, service workhorse, and verbally dextrous smartass who wrote an inventive dissertation but probably peaked at the moment of hiring. I’m a very good teacher, actually, and a verbally dextrous smartass who has lots of writing emerging and published. I was maybe a service martyr, and I should not be.

I set some boundaries around my teaching, related to asking for course assignments and schedules that reflect that I have historically taught 30%-100% more students each term than some of my colleagues nominally on the same “teaching load” as me, while also supervising more PhD students than average. So maybe teaching won’t be a black hole of grading and resentment this time around.

I’m coming back with zero administrative assignments. Surely, I’ll be asked to serve on some committees, but I’m now a lot more mindful of what saying yes means (tl;dr: it means saying no to something else). I’m going to do my share, and do it well, and that’s enough.

I’ve been making plans and making lists. My daughter and I walked to campus yesterday bearing indoor shoes and snacks and textbooks and essential oil room spray (“Awake”–lots of mint). I took the time to make lists of what needs doing before classes start on Monday. I cleared the desk, and she made plans to make me new art for the corkboards to replaces some of the … 8 year old drawings fading in the sun.

I came in this morning imagining myself misting the air in invigorating mint, sitting down, setting the timer, and banging out syllabuses and permission forms and emails, and ticking the items off my carefully planned lists. But I’m not.

I’ve spent the morning haunted by all the ghosts in this room, dust-covered noise-maker I got from a Sandy Stone performance in 2001. A photo from a family celebration in 2004. Sarcastic postcards I pinned to my board  at least ten years ago. Books that have faded in the sun against the sharp lines of the books filed next to them. Piles of printouts of research for articles I’ve already published. Assigned readings for grad courses I hardly remember teaching. Coffee cups I feel emotionally exhausted just looking at.

It’s hard to make a fresh start in a room you’ve occupied for almost 15 years. My sabbatical was all about personal and professional renewal, about healing and moving forward, about new beginnings, about letting go of what’s not working.

But when I sat down this morning, it felt like nothing had changed. My soul got re-crufted. And so I have been throwing even more things out, putting more books on the giveaway shelf, dusting, spraying room spray like holy water, exorcising all the stuckness and ruts and bad feelings and self-hatred and exhaustion.

I tend to characterize myself as one who hates change. I guess that’s how I wound up with one postcard slightly askew for more than 10 years on the same spot on my corkboard, having left a slightly askew sun-fade behind. And yes, transitions are hard and I hate them. Still, I find myself thinking that there are more changes coming, that for all the changes I’ve made all year, I’m not done yet.

I’m not done yet. I don’t know where this is going, this post or my return to work or my identity as a professor, or why I suddenly need to buy mock turtlenecks and paper-bag waist pants. I am not yet fully become the person that sabbatical allowed me to discover.

I guess that’s what I do now, back at work, back to teaching, back among my colleagues.

Maybe this afternoon, I’ll get that syllabus draft fully fleshed out. Or maybe I’ll sit here and have a good cry. Or maybe I’ll buy new pens. It turns out, returning to campus after a year’s sabbatical is not really coming back. Maybe it’s coming forward, not quite sure where I’m going to land.

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“I’ve got a blank space, baaaaaaby”
sabbatical · self care · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Sabbatical Report Card

Today’s guest post is Part II of Colleen Derkatch’s sabbatical life lessons. If you missed Part I, catch up here.

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I passed!

No, I’m not talking about how I did on my sabbatical. I’m talking about how I did on my first figure skating test in almost 3 decades, an ice dance that I passed this week with the totally fine grade of “satisfactory.”

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This is what they call “squeaking by.”

Let me rewind. When I went on sabbatical, I made a deal with myself to invest some of my newfound time and emotional energy into making myself feel more human again after a devastating and exhausting few years sprinting along the tenure track. I was determined that my sabbatical year would be different. Well, reader, it was! I had space and time to think new thoughts, to get my body and my mind back into shape, and to reclaim my evenings and weekends. It was glorious.

And now it’s over.

I came back to regular faculty life in September and, as I near the end of my first semester back in the classroom, it’s time to give myself a final grade for my sabbatical and to see how I’ve translated what I learned to my post-sabbatical work. First, the Report Card.

Where I excelled:

I lowered my expectations. Initially, I had unreasonable goals for my sabbatical. I thought I would write a whole book from scratch in the oodles of time freed up by not teaching or doing university service. But some wise senior colleagues advised me to spend the first couple months catching my breath and decompressing, which I dutifully did. I caught a taste of what it was like to not have a headache all the time, to not have chronic acid reflux or insomnia. I felt brand-new.

By fall, however, as my friends and colleagues returned to class, my Type-A personality came screaming back, reminding me that I owed it to everyone—my university, my colleagues, my family, contingent faculty who don’t have the same sabbatical privilege—to crank out research. And so I forgot my plan to become human again and had a too-busy fall. Headaches and everything else came back with a fury. I had to do something different.

I tried a new way of working. After ending up right back where I’d been pre-sabbatical, I took a leap of faith partway through the year and started working with a coach-slash-project-manager. As I outlined in Part 1 of this post, I put myself in her hands and let her restructure my working life from the bottom up. It went against all my instincts. Gone were wide-open calendar days of “research.” Gone were long hours at my desk, reading or writing (or, more often, stressing about not doing either while refreshing Twitter every 5 seconds).

I started working in short, scheduled bursts of 15-20 minutes on highly specific tasks, marking each burst on a calendar on my desk. My coach/project manager and I chatted weekly to set a full schedule for that week so I would know each day what I needed to do and how long to do it. We re-jigged the schedule as necessary and I always knew what was on the immediate and distant horizons. My workdays often totalled no more than an hour or two, and sometimes even less. It felt wrong, like I was cheating, but I eventually trained myself to work that way, slowly upping the time until I hit the sweet spot where I was getting tons of stuff done without feeling like I was really trying. I’ve never been more productive and yet I somehow had more free time, too. Evenings and weekends were mine again.

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Full sheets go up on The Wall of Triumph

I made time to live. I prioritized non-work activities, like studying French and taking up figure skating again. I cooked, I read, I worked out. I traveled and I spent lots of time with my kid. I also dove deep into my workplace extended health benefits, loading up on therapy, physio, massage, and osteopathy to undo the knots in my brain and body.

Short of spending the year abroad, I made maximal use of my time “off.” But you can probably see where this is going: I went kind of overboard. If I was Type A about my work life before my sabbatical, I became Type A about my non-work life during it.

Where I “needed improvement”:

I tried to do all the things. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t yet registered how much I had taken on in my sabbatical “life” project. It’s true I was getting a ton of academic work done with little sweat but, between skating and French and the many types of therapy I was doing, I wound up exhausted nonetheless.

My coach says this is normal: stress and anxiety don’t just disappear when you start working in less stress- and anxiety-provoking ways, they just get funneled in different directions. So all the nervous energy about work that once whirled around me like dust around Pig Pen became a cloud of nervous energy about whether I was relaxed enough. Funny how that works. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly what I needed to do, to swing the pendulum way too far in the opposite direction so that, with practice, it would end up somewhere in the middle.

Final grade: A+

Why an A+? Because I got a lot of stuff done. Because I took good care of myself. Because I tried to do all the things. Because academics are just too damn hard on themselves. Because, ultimately, my sabbatical changed my life.

My sabbatical helped me make some significant changes that I’ve been able to translate into my post-sabbatical life, and they appear to be lasting. The idea I had that I need to suffer to produce good academic work was deeply etched into my DNA but I’ve been slowly de-coding it. Breaking my work into manageable bite-sized bits helped me develop a new relationship to my job because it’s much less daunting to tackle a 20-minute bit of highly specific work than a hulking, amorphous task that could take all day or all week. Add up these small bits and the hulking, amorphous tasks almost complete themselves. I’m not the first to try this approach but the hulking, amorphous task of shifting academia’s culture of overwork can only be done bit by bit, and this post is mine.

But what’s the catch?

Maintaining my commitment to keep myself in one piece has not come without costs. I’m not as good a teacher as I was: I do the best I can but I don’t give every last bit of me to teaching, as I once did. I’m not as good a colleague as I was, either: there are too many committees, too many new initiatives, and I can only do so much if I want to do it well and stay in one piece.

I’ve figured out that if I want to give academia the best version of me—the most productive, the most energetic, the most fair, incisive, and useful version of me—it can’t have all of me. The part I keep back for myself is what allows me to do the rest. And so I’m fiercely protective of my time. I’ve reserved two precious, immovable research days a week. The other days are for teaching and service. I book everything into a weekly schedule, with lots of flexibility built in, and I unapologetically stick to that schedule. I don’t work on evenings or weekends, and I generally pass on work-related evening events, too.

Of course, I have all the comfort and security of tenure. But I think much of what I’ve described here can be parlayed for those who are pre-tenure or off the tenure-track. Being mercilessly protective of my time has allowed me to do well the things I need to do, often well ahead of schedule. And because I take concrete blocks of time off, I’m more rested and ready when I’m “on.”

So where did my cloud of nervous energy go? Some of it simply dissipated. And the rest, I now funnel not into work but into skating. It is physically and intellectually demanding, requiring full concentration and exacting precision, and it takes up a lot of time, skating 3-4 days a week. But making time for it somehow helps me make time for everything else. And it burns off that nervous energy better than any amount of reading or writing or teaching ever could. Plus, I’m getting seriously strong, which makes it much easier to sit down to work when I need to.

I may have only gotten “satisfactory” on my recent skating test but I’ve learned to be satisfied with that.

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3 of these pairs are mine…
affect · sabbatical · self care · selfcare · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Sabbatical Life Lessons, Part I

Today’s guest post is from Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University. Part I was written while Colleen was on sabbatical. Part II, in which Colleen reflects back on the lessons she learned on sabbatical and how she’s applying them now that she’s back on campus, will be up next week–stay tuned!

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Last fall, inspired by Melissa Dalgleish’s post, “Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?” , I reflected very publicly in a Twitter thread about my own experience as a recently tenured Associate Professor:

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Focussing on the pervasive culture of overwork in academia, I described being flattened by exhaustion by the time I got tenure, my body wrecked in all the ways chronic stress can wreck a body. Naturally, my ability to feel guilty and anxious remained undiminished, having been fine-tuned over my years of grad school, adjuncting, and pre-tenure work, so I was not only exhausted but also hardwired to feel guilty and anxious about it. Perfect.

I’m pretty sure my own disposition and work habits contributed to my wrecked post-tenure state but the very structure of academe seems designed to fail those who study, work, and try to live within it. These structural problems are stuff for another post but, if academia almost wrecked me—a person with quite a bit of privilege as a cis het white woman on the tenure-track, working at a relatively humane institution, with generous extended health benefits, and living in a dual-income household—then what does it to do my less privileged colleagues? Universities seem pretty uninterested in finding out.

And I was left to pick up my own pieces.

So I made a promise to myself (and the Internet) about how I would use my sabbatical:

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I’ve just passed the halfway point in my yearlong leave so let’s see how I’ve done so far, shall we?

What I looked forward to most about sabbatical was the opportunity just to be curious again. Our day-to-day engagements with scholarship are often instrumental, with little time for deep reflection: many of us have to zoom through course prep and marking (because there’s so much of both) and read the literature in our fields selectively and strategically (because there’s so much of it, and because our jobs valorize writing, not reading). And so, in the spirit of intellectual renewal, I gathered a stack of books I’d been wanting to read and headed to the tropics to spend 2 weeks gloriously alone, reading.

Except I wasn’t alone: for the first time since my comps (in 2004!), I was able to luxuriate in the voices and ideas of others, following wherever they took me without any thought about how I would use them in my own work. Freed of my everyday obligations, there was nothing else I “should” be doing, not even writing, because that wasn’t the purpose of the retreat. As the days went by, I felt myself unfurl and de-clench, little by little—forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders. Lingering in others’ thinking pushed mine in new and exciting ways. And because reading involves input, not output, my retreat fed my tired soul.

By the middle of week 2, however, the anxiety and guilt crept back. As my departure neared, I wondered: Had I been productive enough? Was the trip a good use of time? Did it justify abdicating my Mom duties?

Lesson 1: De-clenching takes time and requires ongoing practice.

Lesson 2: Reading retreats rule.

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Overall, I’m happy with my academic progress since the fall: I produced an article from scratch (now accepted and in press), I submitted a grant application (I got it!), and now I’m deep in research for my next book. More importantly, however, I found my curiosity again and have incubated it in the warm pocket of space and time that sabbaticals give. But how will I maintain that precious curiosity when I return to the everyday demands of my job? And what about my progress as a person, putting myself back together? I didn’t realize until this year how intertwined those two things are, that for me to be a functioning academic I need to be a functioning person.

I see now that I got burnt out partly because my identity was so deeply bound up in my work, even though I’d thought I wasn’t one of those academics. But if you spend enough time in grad school, on the job market, and on the tenure track, you really do start to see yourself as measurable only by your productivity. Our academic lives are defined by metrics: teaching evaluation scores, CV lines, impact factors, citations, granting agency scores. I had to learn new ways to measure my life.

Lesson 3: You are not your CV (obvs, yet often hard to remember).

And that’s how I found myself this January, at 41, back in figure skating lessons. And taking French classes. And working with an academic coach. Things finally began to click: the person in me started to wake up.

I took my last skating test in 1990, before I got too cool as a teenager to skate. I always wanted to go back and finish my tests but felt I was too busy as an academic and a parent. What’s more, this may be Canadian sacrilege but I find figure skating aesthetically ridiculous so I was reluctant to admit to myself that nothing beats the way it feels to skate well on the ice. But I promised myself I would spend more time this year doing things that feel good so now I hit the ice every Sunday with a crew of other adult skaters and I practice for my first test in 28 years. I’m no Tessa Virtue but I’m trying to embrace my awkwardness. And I love it.

Lesson 4: Do what feels good, even if it means looking goofy or falling on your ass. Especially if it means that.

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The French class, I’m taking because my kid is going to full-French school next year and I should probably be able to understand some of what’s going on, and also because speaking French is just a good life skill to have. Being on the other side of the classroom again is a total trip. I got so sweaty with nerves during my placement interview, conducted in my rusty French, that I thought I would cry. Now I have piles of homework to do and my daughter is thrilled to help me with it. The role reversal is oddly comforting.

Lesson 5: It’s good to sweat it out in the student’s seat.

Finally, I’ve tried more consciously to round out my life, which means cooking more, getting more sleep, taking evenings and weekends off, saying no to social things I don’t want to do, and perhaps most importantly, hiring a coach for my academic work (thanks for the recommendation, Aimée!). My wonderful coach Rebecca works like a project manager, helping me plot my short- and long-term goals into realistic schedules that keep me on-target and unfrazzled. I’ve never felt more calm and focussed in my work and I don’t feel like I’ve been working very hard but my word count tells me otherwise. Now, you might think of the coach as benefitting me academically but, more importantly, I would call this one a win for me as a person: if I can get though my days without crushing guilt and anxiety, the whole-self me wins.

Lesson 6: You don’t have to do it all by yourself all the time.

So that’s where I’m at seven months into my sabbatical. I’ve made progress as both an academic and a person, and I’ll keep at it over the next five months before I dive back into the fire come September. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Alright, I’ve got French homework to go do.

Uncategorized

Workshops: A Necessary Togetherness

I am in the midst of one of the most amazing intellectual experiences of my life. It has got me thinking about the isolated and competitive, scarcity-based, defensive kinds of work we normally do as scholars and how, actually, we don’t have to work that way. That we could, instead, be generous, and generative, and collaborative, and that working this way produces more and better scholarship, of course, but also builds and tends interpersonal and research networks that can make this work a joy rather than a terror.

The catch is that it’s kind of expensive. And that it runs counter to  how we imagine that excellence is produced.

What I want to tell you about is a workshop I attended this summer, in the context of a special issue of the journal Biography, dedicated to the concept of “biographic mediation” developed by Ebony Coletu.

I am going to break to post into two parts. Today’s post will be about the magic of bringing people together in real time and real geography, and feeding and watering them, and putting them to work on a shared goal. About how this magic is expensive and undervalued and available in diminishing quantities but is worth fighting for. Next week, I’ll write about what it means to be a generous reader, a “believing reader” in my friend Frankie Condon’s phrase, and how such generous readings can produce much better scholarship than we can create in the standard peer review setup.

Today, then, let’s consider the materialities of workshopping for a moment. This really matters, much more than we (or our funders) tend to give us credit for.

  • The sponsoring journal paid for everyone’s travel, lodging, and food. (I have to mention, this was travel, lodging, and food in Hawaii, where the journal is based.)
  • Again: they paid for everything.
  • Lunches and breakfasts were catered with local Hawaiian food, and the cultural and geographic context of place were foregrounded and shared. Place and culture were made meaningful (perhaps more so because we were there during the Hurricane Lane crisis and were surrounded by sandbags and advised to stockpile food and water.) Dinners were undertaken as a group; everyone’s dietary needs were supported.
  • The schedule was produced with ample (catered) breaks factored in, and each of us had a packet of information about special features of the campus and neighbourhood.
  • Local hosts were incredibly generous and kind: picking us up from the airport, driving us to hotels and events, taking notes so the group could just talk, doing everything they could to make us feel safe and comfortable during the hurricane emergency. Craig Howes, one of the journal’s editors, knows that I run–he took me out on daily 5am runs around the campus and neighbourhood, a fount of local knowledge (“I used to see Haruki Murakami running along this road”), and, during the major rain storm, to his secret five-storey parking garage run route (not as weird as you think!).

If you are a faculty member, and particularly if you apply for grants, you will know that it’s nearly impossible to even justify attending a regular conference. It is well nigh impossible to imagine putting in a grant request to fly 8-10 people to a campus, pay all their expenses, and do group editing. I mean, we have Skype, and Google docs, and, hell, even email and track changes, right?

Right?

No. There is something magical and intense about being together, in a room, for three days. There is something about looking people in the eye as 15 of us work on the same problem at the same time, everyone scribbling. You can see some people nodding, others frowning, others pull out their phones to look something up. People finish each others sentences, cross-talk, laugh, roll their eyes, look delighted. It is an intensely embodied process, communication across textual, gestural, oral, and digital channels simultaneously, in ways that no other technology than In Person Meeting can really handle. It was an incredibly rich communication environment, multi-channel. I cannot believe how much we got done, how far everyone’s ideas developed.

All of this felt incredibly, well, human to me, attending to the whole person, intellectual, corporeal, social, emotional, in ways I have given up expecting to be recognized at work. I could have cried from simple gratitude at the attention and thoughtfullness with which we were fed and housed and just generally cared for during our time together.

When we come together, we make human connections. In the evenings, little groups gathered over wine or tequila or tea, and talked about TV shows, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and, inevitably, our scholarship. By the end of it there was a lot of hugging: I met some absolutely incredible people I am honoured to now call colleagues and friends. Not unrelated to this, I have never ingested so many new ideas in three days in my life. Never felt so supported and cared for in an academic setting.

We like to think we can cheat time and expense. We like to think an email can take the place of a meeting, or a webinar can take the place of a conference. A lot of our digital tools are a lot better, though, at pushing reams and streams of information into our heads. They’re really no good for collaboration, in a lot of ways. We like to think we can devote ourselves fully to a conference call even as we try to tidy the kitchen. We like to think we’re going to find a five hour block of time to read all those papers and send careful feedback, without taking anything else off the schedule. But multitasking is bullshit: getting together in one place to do a shared task is often the most efficient and best way to get that task done. Yes, we have to not do all the other things, but we already do way too many things, and the more we do at once, the worse we do it. Workshops resist speed-up. There are structural reasons we multitask and cut corners the way we do, and this is often framed as an advantage–but it isn’t. Doing one thing, making the time, saying no to other things, is really valuable. It is, also, a privilege most of us can’t access, to everyone’s detriment, I think.

Our institutions and our funders, of course, would like us to not leave campus for five days, would like to not pay for us to go to conferences when we can read journals instead, not go to workshops when we could Google docs instead, not have catered meals for the day long meetings, not pay for overnight stays. Of course. But it’s penny-wise and pound foolish, if I can judge from what this workshop got done for me and everyone else.

It is not enough to put on the SSHRC application that you need conference funding to go to a conference. You have to say what is of value at that conference that you can’t get with just publishing and reading. And now of course no one can be funded to attend a conference without presenting at that conference, which has led inevitably to incredibly bloated conference programs where everything is so frantic no one learns anything–and where, often, all the coffee breaks are cancelled to make room for more sessions so more academics can justify the cost to come together and rush past each other in massive hotel hallways always trying to do three things at once.

So here’s to getting together, in small groups, in nice settings. Here’s to the mix of structured and unstructured time, to formal and informal interactions, to attending to and appreciating the specificity of the place you are and the people you are with. Here’s to making time, and making space, to produce and nurture a collective that is greater than the simple sum of its far-flung parts.

And a parting idea–the journal Biography gets the money together to do this every year, from its JSTOR revenues. It is a very high quality journal and draws a lot of page views and citations. One of the editors, in fact, tells me that their most popular and most cited issues are these self-same (two time award winning) annual special issues that come out of this intense and expensive workshop process. It’s something to think about.

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Why did the campus chicken cross the road? To make it to the morning session on time.
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.