Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Listening, or something I'm learning to do

I'm an extravert: I gain energy from being around people, and normally that means talking. I love writing blog posts because it has a real audience, real "someones" that my words will reach. When I get stuck in a bog of conflicting research sources, I collar someone and explain my problem to them, as a way out. Or I write a pretend email to a Good Listener. When my ideas are at a tipping point, but not quite tipped, I cancel my evening 30 Rock episode on the couch with my husband and make him listen to me explain how I'm almost almost there and sometimes that will tip me over. I think out loud at meetings--that is, by talking--as though the process of putting things into sentences turns nothingness into plans.

I'm a talker. It's how I learn. It's how I generate ideas. It's how I formulate and consolidate plans.

You know what, historically, I'm not super good at? Listening. I'm working on it.

I like to tell myself that I'm an "active listener"--I'm interrupting you to show how interested I am! I'm restating what you said so you'll know I hear you! I'm grabbing the kernel of what you just said and moving it forward to the next idea, or the solution, or the resolution. I like to tell myself all those things, but really, it's all just rationalization for my talking habit.

In my new grad chair role, my listening deficits must be addressed. I'm meeting with a lot of graduate students, to discuss the particularities of their projects and degree progress. I'm meeting with professors to talk about any and all issues related to our grad programs, and other things. I'm meeting with our departmental staff to learn how things work; I'm meeting with other grad chairs to find out what they do. This has required a tremendous amount not just of shutting up (which, honestly, I'm really not good at, I know) but also listening, really listening.

Shutting up is staying silent and letting other people have the floor. Brute force lip clamping can achieve this. But listening is something different, harder, more profound. Listening, I find, means being radically open to the possibility that what someone else is saying might just shift everything. These conversations are not a scene from a play, where once I hear my cue I know what I'm going to say next. These conversations should be radically interactive: that is to say, they ought to be engaged with as though they will produce unknown outcomes. Listening entails a tacit acknowledgment of a pretty fundamental kind of "I don't know."

Really listening, that is, is an act of humility and vulnerability, when in my heart of hearts I prefer to be invincible and always right--a benevolent dictator who has all the right ideas, already. When I'm really listening, it's ontologically as well as practically terrifying: who will I be if I learn something new in the next 30 second? Who knows what might happen next? I might have to change what I think, change what I do. Admit that I didn't know something and just learned it right now.

I had a meeting this week where I made a conscious effort to listen. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. I let the other person talk until she went silent on her own. I thought about what she said. And then I had to reframe what I thought I knew, and change my mind about something I was pretty confident about. And then it kept happening, with each conversational turn! Wow.

It's easier to already know all the right answers, even if they're just the "right answers," for me at least. Easier to craft diatribes and pronouncements with pauses to allow for murmurs of approval and applause. Much harder to not know, to make mistakes, to ask for actual advice--and then to take it--rather than a rubber stamp on a course of action already decided on.

Listening. I'm going to keep practicing. It's humbling and it's difficult, but I'm really learning things. I think this might be good.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Guest Post: Academic Alternatives

It’s a well-known fact that after defending one’s PhD, a person is in want of direction. Few of us have the strategic training to line up a tenure-track job while ABD, were there an adequate supply tenure track jobs. I defended in January 2008. The time after my defence was exhilarating. I felt like a crack addict who tasted the world anew. But with all drugs, the euphoria passed and I plummeted into the dark dungeon of the academic job-market, exacerbated by the post-economic-collapse of the 2008 mortgage crisis. The attrition of tenure-track jobs was a lethal combination with the absence of conversation and advising about alternatives to academia, well documented by Hook and Eye, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and others concerned by the corporatization of the university. 
Out of fear of disappointing my advisors and myself for failing to obtain a position at an “acceptable” research institution, I took an Assistant Professorship at the American University of Dubai in 2010. To my great surprise it transformed and invigorated my desire to teach and to pursue my scholarship. With housing and a tax-free salary, it was also financially sound. An overseas academic job was for me, and friends, a circuitous but fruitful path. Though I taught four courses a semester, and often two during a summer term, I found time to write and think and travel. In the three years I lived in Dubai, I published four peer-reviewed articles and a book review, and traveled to nearly fifteen countries in addition to paid visits home every summer.  
There are many, many problems with working and living in the Middle East, including the exploitation of the labour class, the for-profit university model, and the rampant racism and sexism. It would be easy to dismiss Dubai and the American University in Dubai for all manners of social justice and environmental crimes, and one day I might write in more detail about these, but on the ground I was also able to encounter incredible people and their narratives, to witness and to learn about colonial legacies, and to challenge my Western-centric political assumptions about the Middle East, globalization, postcoloniality, capitalism, literature and religion. Many of us talk about learning from students in our pedagogical statements, but this was not really true for me until I witnessed the many social, cultural, and political negotiations my students undertook everyday: Emirati students were full of joy and pride for their country’s rise, but unwilling to attend to the enslavement of construction workers; brilliant Indian and Pakistani students whose families helped Dubai grow were pained by exclusionary policies which prevented their families from obtaining Emirati citizenship; Nigerian and Kenyan students sought to understand their countries’ neocolonial legacies and corruption, while embracing Western culture; bright Iranian women worked assiduously to prove themselves to their families, but feared feminism; Kazakh students espoused conservative Muslim beliefs, although they enjoyed hard liquor, fast cars, and sexual promiscuity; Egyptian students brimmed with excitement during the revolution Arab Spring but understood little about their country’s history. They all, admirably, spoke three or four languages, respected their parents, and held professors in high esteem. As a quirky, unmarried, enthusiastic, socially-attuned, and reasonably young woman, I felt that I also offered a model for a differing subjectivity that alerted students to richer possibilities than what cultural and patriarchal norms establish, almost universally. (These same issues also surface in classrooms in New York, which shows the extensive convergences between “East” and “West.”) 
Not all of us can go overseas or desire to live in blinding heat and under a liberal Sharia law, but for those who love teaching and the possibilities of the world, there is much to advise about seeking academic work in Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe at schools accredited or affiliated with North American institutions. 
My Dubai experience of teaching a diverse student body surely helped me to obtain a tenure-track position at Hostos Community College in 2013. Hostos belongs to the City University of New York consortium of 24 colleges and has a special history of serving the underserved Hispanic and Black communities of the South Bronx. Its faculty are devoted, long-serving, and passionate teachers and scholars. My colleagues are amazing. They support and pursue teaching innovation, encourage rigorous scholarship, provide mentoring about the tenure process, and nurture junior scholars. My scholarly presentations and publications are received with enthusiasm, not with competitive jealousy. The tenure process is clearly outlined by the union and the college, rather than obscured and ambiguated. Collaboration is encouraged and lauded. Because it is part of CUNY, I would venture that Hostos functions like some small postsecondary institutions in terms of the culture of scholarship and opportunities for pedagogical and research development. There is an awards officer who works closely with us to produce successful grant applications, and both the Provost and the Dean of Academic Affairs wholeheartedly advocate time and funding for conferencing and research.
There is something incredibly human about Hostos. Space is limited, supplies are modest, work is abundant, and energy is seemingly unlimited. The teaching load is, as it was in Dubai, four courses a semester, half composition and half literature classes. I have fewer students than adjuncts who teach two or three courses at larger institutions. My students might work full time, live out of a shelter, have childcare responsibilities, experience gang violence on a daily basis, be victims of domestic abuse, and battle racial and ethnic brutality everyday. I sense that some have been nearly hollowed out by social abjection. Never have I been more convinced of the necessity of power of education. I have learned that students are the same everywhere, that they try, fail, try again, if there is the right engagement from their professors. I don’t yet know if I am succeeding. I do know that I am thankful for this work, for this job, and for my colleagues. 
It takes some imaginative work to carve out your own path after the defence, and that path should be broader than the dream of a position at an R1 (first-level, research) institution. There is a snobbishness about teaching positions, whether at a technical school, a community college, a writing center, a liberal arts college, or a non-research institution; it implies that one has not made the cut or is less “intellectual”. It is also an unstated rejection of the labour of academia, which we would rather contract out to adjuncts. This attitude is particularly baffling in light of my alma mater, which structures the PhD package so that most candidates teach first-year classes from the start. Many of us benefitted intellectually and pedagogically from these classroom experiences, and yet it was always understood that we should aim “higher” than a teaching position. On the contrary, teaching positions have enabled me to do the work that I love: teach. I don’t glamorize it or marry my life to it. I experience my rewards when students arrive at a breakthrough or offer small thanks. I worry about the ones who sift through urban war-zones and private minefields to get an education. At the end of the day, I try to leave the weight of my students’ troubles at the office. Other friends who have landed permanent work at liberal arts or non-research colleges (Vancouver Island University, Quest University, NAIT) enjoy a similar experience as I: we do the work we trained to do.

Many states and provinces have college consortiums (Texas, Georgia, California, Illinois, New York) and online application systems that will list positions from their various colleges. University Affairs has international job listings for those interested in overseas positions. Look for schools called “American University” or “Canadian University”. NYU has several global campuses, including one in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Writing Programs and Centers at these institutions yield interesting positions. Don’t be afraid of venturing into a two-or-three-year contract. There is no guarantee, but it will be an adventure.

Hostos Community College

Monday, September 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

Here is an example:



And another:



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

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

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

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






Friday, September 12, 2014

Fateful Assumptions

Five seems to be a fateful number for me. It keeps cropping up every time I move to a new place, and still operate on the assumptions of my previous location. When I moved to Canada, some ten years ago, I started my MA after a couple of months, and I took five of the nine courses required for my course-based MA, assuming that there are two semesters, as there had been in Romania and Germany, where I had studied before. Nobody told me otherwise. Nobody thought to inform me that there were both a spring *and* a summer term, in which MA students could finalize their coursework. It's adult education, and I was in charge of my own studies, and I should have asked. You might think I learned my lesson ten years ago.

Here we are, ten years later, though, and I and my big humongous assumptions lead me astray once more. I am teaching--you guessed it--no less than five courses this term. Am I happy I moved to a new city *and* a new contract? You bet! Am I lucky to have landed that contract in the first place? Of course! Should I have accepted f-i-v-e courses I had not taught before right after a cross-country move? You bet your derrière not! But, you see, the assumptions interfered yet again: "they wouldn't offer five courses if they thought it was an impossible workload, would they?" "they must have a system in place that ensures prep and marking are not quite as time-consuming as a brand spankin' new course usually is, mustn't they?" "I've been teaching continually for the past nine years, so, while not a breeze, it will be doable, no?" I will leave the answers to those questions up to your imagination.

It's the second week of classes, and I'm no longer as lost in spaces of all kinds as last week: I know about 80% of my almost 150 students' names. I got a grip on the course material--it's not *that* much new material, as I'm teaching four sections of one course, and one of another; there is, indeed, a wealth of shared material which would otherwise take oodles of time to create from scratch; people are collaborative, and eager to respond to my questions, as well as volunteer information I had not asked for, because I didn't really know to ask. I'm not very good at asking, as you might have already divined.

The first week's mental hurdle passed, together with my constant questioning of my own sanity, I am now looking back and wondering why I had just said yes, instead of trying to determine the appropriateness of *my*--instead of a generic experienced post-secondary English instructor--teaching five courses two months after moving to a new city and province. Would I have any advice to give to my past self three months or so ago when I was made the contract offer?

20-20 hindsight  notwithstanding, I don't think I could, given the academic culture of scarcity we inhabit, have done things any differently. Here were my other fateful assumptions:
- it's a take-it-or-leave-it offer, as contract academics, as the underbelly of the system, do not get to negotiate
Image source
- they must really think highly of me, if they offered me f-i-v-e courses (on the effect of being a contract academic on self-esteem, much virtual ink has been skillfully used)
- one must do all one can to secure "a foot in the door," no matter the cost for one's sanity, health, family, relationships, etc.
- institutional support structures must be in place to ensure seamlessness between the teaching and learning in these courses, and I'll be able to make the most of it from the very beginning.

The flip side to this story is that I am adaptable, and have a wonderful personal support structure in my family, friends, the larger academic community, and my new city--think school and child care close by, friends willing to listen and commiserate. Also, the students: always to be found on the flip side of precarity.

And yet... I'm too fresh to this situation to have formulated any nuggets of wisdom--not that I've accustomed you, gentle reader, to such in the past--so I don't have a conclusion for this post. But I do wonder what, if any, assumptions can we make in the context of today's academia?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Silenced by Fear and Doubt: Blogging in the #Altac


The year is still new, but I’m already looking back. I didn’t post nearly as much as I wanted to last year. There were a few reasons. I was busy trying to figure out how to be a full time administrator and a PhD student and a friend and a partner and a homeowner and Moose's person at the same time. I was tired and anxious, because a year of doing everything for the first time and wanting to do it really well will do that to you. I had a hard time coming up with post ideas that pleased me, that I thought would please you, our readers. Those are all okay reasons. But the biggest reason I deleted so many of the posts I started was the thought of displeasing a very specific some of you, our readers. You see, my co-workers, including the Dean and people I report to, read this blog. Not all the time, I’m sure, but on occasion. Often enough that my posts have come up in conversation around the office. Often enough that it makes me very wary of talking openly about some of the biggest challenges and changes of being a flexible academic who has chosen to move into administration.

Talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the #altac is what I’m here for, for the most part. We have Boyda and Jana to talk about various stages of the graduate student experience, Erin and Margrit to speak to the contingent and in-transition perspective, and Aimee and Lily to be our tenured viewpoints. We’re also bringing on a whole host of fantastic guest bloggers this year to speak to a wider range of jobbed and lived perspectives than we've ever spoken to before. We all have our niches, and I’m the #altac girl. Sure, I like to write about my research on occasion, and I’ll be doing more of that this year than last because I feel like I’ve mostly got a grip on how to be a flexible academic who works and researches at the same time. Yes, I like to write about gender and sexism in literature and life and the media. Sometimes I want to talk about my haircut, or my cat. But more often than not, I want to talk about work, the work that I’ve discovered I love after worrying for years that finding fulfillment in non-professorial work would be impossible. My posts on #altac issues tend to be pretty popular around here, at least in part (I think) because many of you feel the same way, and want a view into what life is like on the other side. It's mostly good, but not always. And I feel like I can’t give you a clear view, at least not in the ways I want to.

When I started my job, all of this seemed much easier than it's proven to be. But something has changed since that first day in the office, and my identity as an #altac blogger has proven much less stable than my previous identity as a graduate student one. Given the negative experiences of others who have collided headlong with the limitations of free speech as non-tenured academic writers, there are still lots of questions to be answered about how to go about blogging in the #altac. How can flexible academics effectively talk about potential issues like workload, sexism in the workplace, possible career trajectories, or negotiating our commitments to work and family when the promise of safety and freedom that tenure brings doesn't exist in the same way in the #altac? How can we #alt-academics negotiate our sense of responsibility to the academic community--a responsibility that I argue strongly for, and one that demands the ability to speak openly and honestly about life as a flexible academic--and our responsibility to maintaining workplace protocols and collegiality? Is the university community able to read honest criticisms of its less admirable practices and attitudes from those who have seen it from all sides--as students, and teachers, and staff--as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks? These are questions that I don’t know how to answer--they’re questions that even feel risky to ask openly--and they’re keeping me silent.

I am very aware that there are many of us who have to negotiate the balance between self-expression and self-protection. With the majority of academic work being contingent and outside of the structures of tenure, that number is ever increasing. I know that I’m late to the game in my realization of how difficult this negotiation can be. Erin has written, and Margrit has spoken, about their belief that their openness on Hook & Eye has been to the detriment of their careers. As Aimee has noted, Heather's voice took on a perhaps uncomfortable weight when she became Vice Dean, and she stopped writing for us not long after. Lee has long been contract academic faculty and a blogger, and now has to negotiate her new status as an #alt-academic who writes in public. This is an issue for all of us who are untenured, who don’t have the protections to our freedom of speech that tenure provides, or who have the protections of tenure only for our lives as researchers and not for our lives as administrators (a sharp divide, as Robert Buckingham so memorably found out). That leaves just Aimee and Lily who can, ostensibly, say what they like and not feel constrained by signing their names to it. Aimee recognizes this, and she speaks out for us when we can't.

Not having that freedom for myself rankles, especially given the commitment of everyone who writes for H&E to sign our names to our writing. But I am junior. I am untenured, and will never have the protections of tenure. I rely on good relationships with the people I work with--relationships I do have, because the people I work with are great and they seem to think the same about me--to make my working life go smoothly, and to ensure that I’ll be able to move up and on when I’m ready. I could lose a promotion, as Anne Whisnant did when she criticized the way the academy integrates (or fails to integrate) doctorate-holding staff into its ranks. I could even lose my job. I don't want that to be me, and I’m in a genuine pickle about how to move forward without putting myself at risk.

Whatever the answer is, or even if there isn't one, it's a start to have the questions out in the open.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Yelling, and other things I've forgotten in ten years

Last Wednesday, I shouted myself hoarse. Or, more specifically, I talked so much and so loudly for so much of the day that I gave myself a pounding headache and my braces tore up the inside of my mouth. I told myself it was because the "Faculty Speed Dating" orientation session was really loud, and since I was the one that had to get people to move tables every five minutes, it was the yelling that did it (note to self for next year: buy a bell, or a gong). But then Thursday: headache again. And all I had done was a presentation to 20 continuing PhD students, for an hour. Perhaps I was coming down with something?

Friday found me standing in the graduate coordinator's office, clutching my throat and my head, moaning. J is a singer, with a degree in music. She knows about throats, and yelling, and of course, about managing grad chairs. She offered me a headache pill and then some advice.

She said I should stop yelling and start speaking loudly, from the diaphragm. Pfft, I said, I know how to do that, I've done theater! And singing (very very poorly)! And public speaking! She told me, then,  kindly, that her own speech therapist noted that every September, she was besieged by ... teachers. Experienced ones.

July marked the 10th anniversary of my hiring at Waterloo. I've been a professor for ten years. Ten! Tenured now for three. The "new carpet" I brag about my office having is now ten years old. Some of the books I bought new with my first grant now have sun-scorched spines. I've taught somewhere in the vicinity of 35 classes, ranging from 10 to 200 students, and given what feel like countless presentations and papers.

But here I was, like a rookie, squelching up my throat and squeezing my vocal cords and pinching my voice and yelling. Like a rookie.

Ten years in the same office, with the same departments, many of the same colleagues, and surprisingly many of the same classes. This stability is, of course, one of the great privileges of tenured and tenure-track appointments, but in the midst of all this incremental moving from one September to the next, it's easy to forget that I am changing, still learning, forgetting things. This year, over the summer, somehow I've started yelling instead of projecting. So my project is to remember how to be loud without giving myself a headache.

My career here attains the rhythm of a long, slow, Sunday run. I'm focused on endurance, and maybe enjoying the view, listening to the birds. Ten years behind me and at least another 25 in front of me, in the same office with the same carpet, and many of the same colleagues. I'm not racing to put together enough work for the fall. Not sending applications out wildly into a future I can't see. Not packing or unpacking for or from a major move. In ten years? I'll still be here, most likely, doing much what I'm doing now.

Yet, things change. To keep to the running metaphor, if the job hunt is like racing for the bus in heels while dragging a laptop and 50 student papers behind you, and tenure is a long, slow training run, you might say that I've got time to work more carefully on my form. And so I am. This term it's my own voice, as well as using informal daily writing in my first year class. Last year it was shifting my fourth year design course to a fully major-project focus. I'm learning about anti-racist feminism and how to integrate this better in my teaching. I'm trying to figure out how to help graduate students train as writers rather than just as subject-area experts. I'm writing my first book. Since I finally understand how the courses fit together in our degree programs, I'm starting to think of new and old courses in terms of their fit in the curriculum. I'm taking on bigger administrative roles.

Ten years ago, I was having trouble imagining how I could do one thing for 35 years. I was used to running pell-mell from one milestone to the next, waiting for my real life to start. Ten years in, I can say it's started. It turns out I'm still feeling just as challenged as ever, and even if I'm in some ways developing new and more advanced skills, sometimes I'm learning the same lessons over again. Like how to project my voice into a big room.

I've been catching up with my departmental colleagues this past week, and like they do--like I do--every year, they report the same dream we all started having as children: it's the first day of class, and I'm not wearing anything; I'm in the wrong room; I'm meant to be teaching in Japanese; the books didn't arrive on time. Ten years in, I'm still as excited and nervous--nervouscited?--about the new school year as I ever was.

Once I get this headache under control, that's going to be really cheering to think about.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Leaf September

I'm not one for giving advice, not really--not when it comes to time management, at least. My cobloggers have already offered some excellent pointers regarding how to whip ourselves into shape for the new school year. How to manage life as a flexible academic, how to squeeze in daily writing time, how to adjust to a new program as a newbie graduate student, figuring out our responsibility to new students as contract professors, and, most recently, training ourselves to pay attention and structure our own time in the absence of externally enforced structure.

But I repeat. I am not one for giving advice--at least not in bullet points, at least not at this stage in my career. I work very hard, to be sure, but I do it in very nonconventional, nonstructured ways. I have always been an avid daydreamer with an overly active imagination (oh hey, I'm writing a dissertation on dream visions! Work and life FTW). Sometimes my head rests so far in the midst of the clouds that, for example, the other day I got on the wrong train, then got off on the wrong stop of the wrong train, and then found myself wandering through some random midtown street, so enthralled in the music I was listening to that I actually had to remind myself to keep my eyes open. (I. Know.)  I sometimes forget to eat, I often wake up at 9 or 10 am, I often stay up working until 2 or 3, I have a very bad habit of hanging out in the Dark Playground.

("The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It's a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn't actually fun because it's completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.")

Perhaps we all feel this way, all us bloggers, and I always admire our collective ability to admit we've failed, we continue to fail, we will inevitably fail more in the future. But readers, please--be gracious to yourselves. Accept that the goals we set are often unreasonable, worsened by a metrics-based system of output that demands that we make the maximum use of our time and work. So I think the best advice I can give, from my very humble and relatively privileged position as a funded graduate student with very few daily administrative or professional duties, is to be fair to yourself, and fair to your own natural rhythms when sussing out a work regime. Are you a night owl, like me? Respect that about yourself--don't be night-shamed by those eager beaver morning risers! If you have the luxury of not having to be somewhere at 9 am every day, or not having to drop your kid off at daycare, embrace your night-owl-ness, while being sure to allot yourself a few hours each day for self-care and/or mental rest, be it alone or with a few close supportive friends. I cherish those quiet hours after midnight. While I'm at it, I just want to call upon an essay by Anne Fadiman for a moment:
Something amazing happens when the rest of the world is sleeping. I am glued to my chair. I forget that I ever wanted to do anything but write. The crowded city, the crowded apartment, and the crowded calendar suddenly seem spacious. Three or four hours pass in a moment; I have no idea what time it is, because I never check the clock. If I chose to listen, I could hear the swish of taxis bound for downtown bars or the soft saxophone rifts that drift from a neighbor's window, but nothing gets through. I am suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, and the very lack of sensation is delicious. ("Night Owl," The Norton Reader 67)
[^Ok, this doesn't always happen to me, but sometimes. It's a beautiful thing.]

Currently, I'm returning to the classroom after an 8-month break (thanks, SSHRC!), so am trying to reinstall structure and focus into my previously seamless schedule.  At the risk of sounding contradictory, but responding to Erin's call for focusing techniques from yesterday, I do have a few personal strategies and goals that I've set for myself this month, and maybe my experience will give you some good ideas as well. Maybe not. Either way, I'm using this blog as a means of keeping myself accountable to my goals during this self-proclaimed, momentous "New Leaf September."

1. I've temporarily deactivated my Facebook account.
It was hard, guys. I think I've deactivated it once in the 8 years since I've joined, and that lasted about, maybe, a day. I'm slightly addicted to social interaction and the digital community that Facebook establishes just has not been helping with that lately. Now, instead of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and wondering why this or that person hasn't liked my latest photo or responded to my fb chat, blah blah blah, stupid social media anxiety, I'm relying on Twitter to supply me with news and ideas and an electronic friend circle, and I'm trying to redirect my mental energy into other, more creative things. I even finished a book today! I'm on Day 2. We'll see how this goes (it's possible that by the time you're reading this, I've reactivated; don't judge.).

2. I'm slotting my various responsibilities into various spaces around the city. 
Teaching stuff? Either campus or my office at home. Dissertation stuff? Coffee shops or libraries. I have been fortunate enough to become a member of the Wertheim Study program at NYPL, which means I have access to a scholars-only room with designated shelf space and other important-looking studious scholars who make me feel like I need to be important-looking and studious too. When I'm there, I have to be working on my dissertation: I'm not allowed to grade or respond to student emails or text my friends (*cough*). Trying to maintain designated spaces for different tasks will help me feel like I'm off-duty when I head home every day.

3. I keep a daily research journal where I sketch out my accomplishments and note what needs to be done next. Not only does this help me celebrate what I've done, but it helps me pick back up again whenever I sit down to my dissertation, minimizing the paralysis that sometimes occurs when transitioning between very different tasks. I keep this journal specific and realistic and allow myself to freak out in it a little bit too, screaming silently when things go wrong or when I haven't met my goals. Freak out in your research journals, people.

While I know I'll fail as I turn over a new leaf this year, I want to be gracious to my own strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow myself micro-celebrations when things go right. I guess that's what this entire blog is about, in a way. I'm barreling into this new year after a summer that, well, wasn't the best from a feminist perspective, feeling strong and energized, ready to "put words out into the world that do something," as Erin so eloquently reminded us to do last week. 

In a sense, I want to barrel into the new academic year like this amazing dog named Walter who dashes into the Ionian sea with a camera strapped to his back.
Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to share that video.