Monday, June 27, 2011

Just one day out of life ...

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

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

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


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


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


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


Great: From Tuesday on, time expanded, my heart opened up, and I just let everything go. Really: no emails, no NOTHING. We did yard work (new clothes line!), we went in to Toronto to the AGO, we went out for lunches, had naps, planned a barbecue party. I went to three yoga classes, and for many long bike rides, at 9am, even! My life felt qualitatively different: it wasn't just that I wasn't working my full days, it was that I wasn't working at all, and got to be the person I am when I'm not working.

  • Lesson 3: When you go on vacation, don't even work for 30 minutes a day, because you don't really get the benefits of letting it all go. Doing less academic work is work to rule; doing no academic work is a vacation.

Relaxing: We threw a party on Saturday. An outdoor party, with adults and kids. All day it threatened rain. People RSVP'ed late. I felt, though, remarkably zen about the whole thing: I can't control the weather, and we can just move inside! People will come, or they won't! More sweet potato fries on the grill for me! And it was awesome. I'm not laid back like that about work. But maybe I should learn to be a little less ... clenchy. Because relaxed felt pretty nice, and worked out awfully well.

  • Lesson 4: Work exacerbates my control-freak tendencies in ways that don't contribute to either my happiness or my effectiveness. Might need to rethink some stuff ...

Cheerful: So here it is, Monday. I've got some more writing to do, some committee stuff in my inbox, another dissertation on my desk. I'm kind of looking forward to getting at it. After all, I really do enjoy my work. I feel like I've got a bit of balance back, and I feel a lot less resentful, angry, and overwhelmed, the way I was getting to feel after this very intense year I've had. That's good news.

So. I did it. I took the whole week off, and puttered around my house and my city, spending time with my husband, taking it easy. And I feel fantastic now.

  • Lesson 5: Draw your own conclusions on holidays here ... Do you have a great holiday story you want to leave in the comments? 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mistress of Vice

As Erin wrote last week, by mid-June most academics are settling into a slower tempo, working at the pace for reading, writing, and contemplation. I, on the other hand, am ramping up to a July 1 start date for my new role as Vice Dean of Arts at the University of Alberta.

What does that mean? I wish I knew. The position is relatively new to universities, and it means different things in different contexts. I like to think of it as the Leo McGarry position, though I'd be content to be half the strategic thinker he is. With the responsibilities of a dean being largely external (60% of a Dean's job at the UofA is external), the Vice Dean often minds the shop, overseeing hiring and retention and programming. In our case, the Vice Dean is also in charge of space, consults closely on budget, and will coordinate international strategy and interdisciplinarity, as well as technology and innovation. You fill in for other associate deans (at the moment, I'm effectively AD Research, AD Teaching and Learning, and AD Grad, since there is a gap between people) and help sort out sticky HR situations. You push email, sprint from meeting to meeting, and respond to requests for information from - well, all over, from what I can see - while maintaining your supervisions, cranking out some research, and building the careers of those around you. Oh, and you don't get to teach.

I know what you're thinking, because I'm wondering the same thing: what on earth would compel anyone to take on such a role? Well, for one thing, I'm nosy. I like to know what's going on with people, with departments, with institutions. For another, I'm bossy. (Yeah, I was that six year old.) I've always wanted a job with "Vice" in the title - ideally Mistress of Vice, but Vice Dean will do. And evidently I just can't shake my career-long attraction to the intellectual question of how to make complicated institutions work better.

I will continue blogging here at Hook & Eye, though as I explained to my co-bloggers, the wonderful Aimee and Erin, there may be times where it simply isn't possible. I don't know, either, how freely I'll be able to speak. That's something I'll have to feel my way through. But because I care about this blog and its readers - you! - and because it might prove useful to record what it's like to learn a job like this, I want to keep my oar in.

So what's it like to learn a job like this? Scary. Prone to anxiety in general, particularly anticipatory anxiety, I am definitely getting my fill of things to worry about. There is just so much I've never done; like most professors, I feel junior even though I've been in the game a long time now. How do you hire colleagues, from job ad to signed contract? How do you write effectively to the government? How do you think through a new process in a way that's fair and expeditious? What if there is a dark side, and I'm on it? Whose emails do I answer first, and how promptly? How many and which errors are forgivable? What can I let go of? Where are the files on our subvention process, what are the terms of reference for this group I'm now chairing, and when is it okay (with me) to cancel a meeting with a student/friend/colleague? Will I lose my friends? Will my colleagues still respect me? Will they like me? - understand me, my job, the things I have to do? How much sleeve-tugging can you do before you're simply an annoyance? How do you learn all of these things at the same time, and still stay on top of email? And would I worry about any of this if I wasn't so conventionally gendered?

I will keep you posted.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summertime, and the research is...

It is mid-June. My lickety-split spring course--contemporary critical theory in 3.5 weeks--has finished. I've submitted my grading and filed all my papers and lectures in hard and digital copy. Congress has also passed. I learned that Fredericton is lovely. I made some new friends and colleagues. I was completely inspired by a panel on lyric scholarship. I had the wonderful good fortune of having generative responses to my own presentation (thanks SB, LM, and MG!) and my dear friend and collaborator TVM and I had the good fortune of chairing a phenomenally strong and interesting panel of papers given on a topic we curated! Bliss.

Now that things have slowed down a wee bit (read: I am unemployed until August 1st when my new contract begins) I've been thinking about how best to spend my summer. Last summer I flailed. I spend a huge amount of time fretting about being unemployed, an equally huge amount of time trying to generate an immense amount of research, and ultimately I spent a good deal of the summer feeling paralyzed in front of my computer. I managed to write a bit, but readers it was not a pretty or productive scene. What's worse, I hardly rested. I felt far too guilty when I was relaxing to ever properly relax.

I'm 365 days older and while I might not be that much wiser I have gathered some strategies that I'd like to share with any of you readers who like me have hugely ambitious summer research plans that don't also include lazing on the beach/biking riding/drinking wine at a cafe or whatever enables you to let the tightness out of your shoulders.

One of the things I've done this year is join an online writing group. This is a direct result of Aimée: she's written about Academic Ladder, and finally in a mid-May grading fit of despair I joined. Academic Ladder costs money, and for me that's part of what works. I've paid to join a writing group where really what I get is kind peer pressure, encouragement, empathy, and suggestions for writing block, organizing my time etc. So far, so good. I've written an article, a conference paper, and a draft of another article all while teaching M-R for three hours a day.

You might find this is a little hokey (actually I kind of do too, but I marvel at how it has worked for me). If you're not into paying for peer pressure (hmm...) then why not write a list of all the research and writing related things you want to/have to accomplish over the summer. Everything: course prep, book orders, book proposals, manuscript, research trips, all of it. Then consider sharing your list. I shared mine with my pal TVM on Google Docs and he sent me his list. We've offered each other strategies for prioritizing and we're checking in with one another regularly. I'm also a big fan of crossing out rather than deleting a task when it is finished as I feel like I can see my progress.

In addition to making lists and prioritizing my tasks I'm trying to set some fairly firm limitations on how much I work. I must work over the summer, as I suspect many of you must, but I've finally clued in to the fact that it is imperative that I relax as well. To that end I've decided that work stops at 3pm. I practice yoga in the morning and then come home, clean up, and walk Felix the Dog, so that puts me at my desk around 9:30-10:00. Setting an end-time is proving to be the most challenging for me. I don't have the family obligations that many of you do, and my partner works out of town during the week, so I have to push myself to unplug as step away from the desk. But let me tell you, once I've shut off my computer and called it a day I feel pretty darn good. Ending at a reasonable time gives me the tangible sense that I've worked, but allows me the freedom to have a huge chunk of the day to myself. I've been reading books for pleasure...!

There's no silver bullet for balancing life/research life in research, but writing down my goals, sharing them, tracking my progress daily, and quitting early regularly is really working for me. How about you? What are your strategies for balancing work/life/summer?

Monday, June 6, 2011

To all the men

Right now, I'm on my sixth conference / presentation / workshop trip of the last nine weeks. Let me just say that if I never get on an airplane again for another year (barring the flight home from here of course) it will still be too soon.

Still, traveling and conferencing and workshopping is great, and one of the reasons  is the opportunity to catch up with old friends, with mentors, with former students, and to make new contacts. This latest round of travel for me has felt really strange and wonderful because, for me, it feels a little like a victory lap: I got on my first plane right around the time my tenure was confirmed, and as I had tweeted and facebooked and emailed my friends about it, word spread. Every where I went, people congratulated me, sincerely and joyfully. People I knew well, and people I hardly knew at all. That really made it real for me, and even when Air Canada lost my Congress-bound luggage and I had to present in yesterday's traveling clothes (hilariously, on a social media panel, wearing a t-shirt that reads "I have tenure and I blog"), I still felt supported and comfortable. Well, as comfortable you can be in a yoga bra in public, without a belt to hold your pants up. (I don't like to set off the metal detector at the airport …)

What were we talking about? Oh, right. Men and why I'm thanking them particularly, today.

What has really struck me, this spring, is how much of my career and its success I owe to, well, men. Men who have supported me, even when I told them our field was dominated by middle-aged white guys. Men who held a plum gig for me even when I bowed up one year, to give birth, and plenty of others would have been happy to take my spot, and keep it. Men who wrote letters explaining what I contributed to a collaboration. Men who happily agreed to explain how work in my field doesn't look like regular English professing, and what it's worth. Men--high-profile, senior, busy men--wrote obviously very supportive reviews of my tenure file.

I knew that the colleagues I had solicited to write support letters for me were awesome. But as I travelled around this spring, tenure assessors came out of the woodwork, eager to know what had happened and very eager to wish me well. Other interested parties made a point of welcoming me to the next stage of my career, expressing genuine support for my work.

We talk a lot here about women moving up the ranks and taking positions of power and influence as chairs or deans or full professors or even vocal members of hiring committees. But for a moment I want to recognize the men who've made my climb a little smoother, my ascent a little higher than it might otherwise have been. Starting even with the man who emailed me to solicit my application for the job at which I've just been tenured.

Thanks, guys. I'm impressed by your caring, and by your outreach, and humbled by your support. Now, let's tenure and promote some more women so they can share some of this avuncular glory ;-)