Monday, July 25, 2011

Work vs. Summer: Variations on a Theme

Earlier this week I found myself posting a mildly histrionic status update on Facebook. "It is mid-July," I wrote, "and I am way behind on my summer to do list." This slightly whinging update garnered almost 20 replies in a very short period of time. Either I have indulgent interweb friends or I hit a nerve.

As I sat down to write this post yesterday I realized that almost everything I've written for the blog this summer has related to overly ambitious lists (read: desperation), relaxation (read: guilt), or anxiety (read: I don't have a special word to make this sound better). What's the deal?

It is true, I am behind on that list I wrote in the spring, but I'm behind on a wildly ambitious list that was written in my end-of-May-classes-are-over-I'll-get-everything-yes-EVERYTHING-I've-evern-been-meaning -to-do-done-this-summer-and-learn-to-make-jam-exuberance. It is also true that I haven't been lounging on the couch eating bon-bons and watching Mad Men reruns, though that sounds nice. Since May I've done two rounds of a job interview, one of which was at Congress, one of which was across the country. While at Congress I also gave a paper, chaired two panels, and danced on the speakers at the ACCUTE dance party. Then I came home and finished teaching, finished grading, submitted grades, began two new collaborative projects, wrote two book reviews, began revising a conference paper for an article, created a new graduate course replete with week-by-week reading and assignments, began talks with a production company for a community building performance project, made new friends, hosted an old friend, got married, worked on syllabi for next year, began circulating a book proposal to publishers, and am working on several grant applications. Oh yeah, and I'm writing an article.

So why do I feel like a layabout?

Last week Aimee posted about the kind of tangible confidence and authorization that something like a receiving a grant can do. Indeed! But what I am realizing (again... I'm a slow learner) is just how very true her post is for me. External validation is *so* vital. And while this might be contentious or simply navel-gazing, I'd warrant this is especially true at the student, graduate student, sessional, LTA, tenure-track-but-pre-tenure stage of things. Or maybe not, but based on this and this I'm going to bank on that pernicious sense of guilt easing off. A bit.

Sure, part of my sense of bon-bon eating idleness is my own deeply entrenched masochistic work ethic. Working hard feels good; working hard helps me to feel as though I have some control of my future in this unpredictable profession. But I'm well aware as, I'm certain, are you readers with whom this chimes, that not only is there a limit to how hard one can work, there is certainly a point where 'hard work' morphs into anxious procrastination. Moreover, I find that while I am regularly and well-meaningly cajoled by my friends and colleagues to take it easy it turns out that for me being told to relax is ridiculously stressful.

So what's the solution to saving some summer and some sanity? In the short term I am reorganizing my to do list to include only necessary and (more) realistic goals. I'm also reserving some time at the end of August to go on vacation (which I should point out is easier said than done as I am currently unemployed until my contract--and paycheque--begin in late August).

In the longer term, however, I think the work-round-the-clock-slaving-academic-mentality needs to be thought through together (and without Margaret Wente $#!&^). What would a slow academy really look like? What does summer ideally look like when one works in the academy? Not laziness, necessarily, but surely not this intensified sense of failure and anxiety. Might it look like Jennifer Blair's wonderful meditation on procrastination? Or like Bethany Nowviskie's brainchild #alt-academy? You tell me. For now, I'm going back to paring down my list, doing a few hours of work and then, because it is a rare sunny day in Halifax, I'm knocking off to the beach.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Authorized to speak

What my SSHRC Standard Research Grant has given me is the authority to speak. This was unexpected.

I was at a conference recently where it happened that many different people asked me about my research: What are you working on? Are you writing this summer? What are you researching? Are you going to any conferences next year? Strange to say, I answered them easily, happily. I had a two-sentence answer that summarized my big project that just sort of rolls off the tongue. I also, if they were interested, told them about the current set of ideas I'm trying to think through about a specific problem. I asked them for book recommendations, to respond to my ideas, to suggest publications venues.

This is all new.

Used to be, I'd talk vaguely about an overarching research interest without clear plans attached to it ("I am interested in questions that relate to how regular people use technology."). Or about my dissertation ("For example, my dissertation looked at how computers used to be for experts and now they're for toddlers."). Or about an article I'd published a year or two ago ("Um, in 2004, I did something similar with videogames and movies in an article?"). Or deflect the conversation to teaching ("Isn't it hard to get a lab set up for multimedia instruction?") or to the profession ("I think service is underrated in the evaluation of faculty work"), topics I felt much better able to speak competently and confidently.

I don't remember, even while writing my dissertation, ever being able to talk about research in progress as though I had any agency, or control, or authority. But now I do. It's not that my articles are getting through peer review any more easily, or that I've become a ton smarter. So, what?

Recently, I was corresponding with another academic about something or other, and it came up that we had both had our projects funded--that we had 'won' our SSHRCs. It was she who first gave me the idea that, beyond the funding for a new computer, a graduate researcher, and conference travel, the fact of 'winning' the grant seemed to convey ... authority.

It's true, I think. I find myself talking about the project like a living thing that exists, even while I'm at the stage of ... just thinking about what I'm really going to focus on. But the project still feels real, and I still somehow feel like an expert on it. Having the grant--the government is funding this research!--also makes me feel like I have a duty to talk about it, to make it known.

Above the financial capital associated with the grant, I think I might have underestimated the cultural capital it would bring.

Hm.

Have you ever experienced anything similar? I think I felt a version of this surprising competence when I won my SSHRC doctoral fellowship back in the day, and definitely earning tenure did something to the inside of my brain.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

One week in

I think I love it.

Not that being a Vice Dean isn't hard. If I stand back and think about the responsibilities, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and underskilled. I'm doing stuff I have never done before and learning hand over fist - but I really enjoy that. I find hard work interesting (see "protestantism") and I like to be stretched.

Among this week's insights/confirmations:
  1. I like working with women. In particular, I respect my boss, which is crucial to my professional wellbeing and something I learned the hard way; as a bonus, I also really like her. Our Faculty administration right now is almost all women: Dean, Vice Dean, Associate Dean (Research) - now, that's radical! - and Assistant Dean (Admin). In fact, the men on the academic admin team are playing the "rover" positions (that's a co-ed softball metaphor): Teaching and Learning, and Student Programs. I find this interesting. Especially gratifying is that the non-academic administrators, also predominantly women, like working with women too. Three times this week I've had women co-workers say, "It's so great to work with a bunch of smart women." Or, "It's fun that we're all girls." Which is jarring to the ear, I'll admit, but I appreciate the sentiment. Do I think gynocracy might also have drawbacks? Yes. Same perspective = good, but it also means we are likely to have the same blindnesses. It's surprising to feel cautious about living the change we want to see.
  2. Not everybody plays by the same rules. Here's a little fable. Once upon a time, the government of a province in western Canada proposed funding a dozen or so research chairs to be shared among four universities. I was tasked with developing the proposal for a social science chair that would fit the province's designated categories. I did this by consulting the appropriate department chairs. Together we narrowed down the various possibilities to a single strong proposal, which we developed through several email exchanges. I took our proposal to the university-wide meeting chaired by the Vice President Research. And there I discovered that other Faculties on campus proposed several such chairs, all to be housed in their own shop. I felt both stupid and incredulous - and I still do. It turns out that when someone says, "I'm making pie, do you want some?," it simply does not occur to me to say, "Yes, please. I'll take the round piece." 
  3. Only chumps beat the deadline. Before the Canada Day weekend I was told, "I need this for a meeting first thing Monday. So - Sunday night latest." However, I had plans for the long weekend. I was having my family over for a bbq, and I was taking my littlest niece birthday shopping, and Mo and I were going to oil the deck. You know, weekend things, life things. So I got the necessary doc off my desk around 3pm on the Thursday before the holiday. What did that get me? A request for MORE work, sent at 3:50pm on Thursday 30 June. And a whole bunch of follow-up emails on the weekend.
  4. Schedules are good (for me). I have said it before and I'll say it again: although I like to believe I am a wild child of nature, I am in fact a deeply routinized cardpuncher with a worrying capacity for repetitive activities. The formlessness of summers is something I find particularly difficult. I also love it, of course, but we talk about loving it all the time. More interesting to me is how satisfying it is to get work done, at work, even in the summer. I go to bed at night feeling good about the day. Related: I like working with people, and a workplace makes that happen.
  5. Strong principles make hard decisions easier. One of the things I worried about before taking on this position is that I would alienate friends and colleagues by being part of "the dark side." That might still happen - I think fundamentally changing the default mindset of academia might be a bit more than I can achieve, at least in the first year - but I know why I am making the decisions that I do. When you make principled decisions, you might disappoint some people, but you sleep okay at night.
Whew. I think that's it. Averages out to one lesson a day, which is not bad.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Guest post: academic rituals, life rituals

    This from Lynn Siemens, whom I have shamelessly harassed for a couple of months to do a guest post. If I have met you (yes, YOU, I'm looking at you, you know who you are, all dozen or so of you) you know that you promised to write one, too, you did. Make blogging an essential part of your summer ...

    Thanks, Lynn!

    -----

    A few months ago, Aimée asked about the kinds of things that we do to relax (see the post for some excellent suggestions.) Over the past while, I got to thinking about some of these strategies, but from a different perspective, that is, a focus on those rituals that gets us through each day as we balance work, life, and everything else that comes our way.

    It has been one of those months, which work-wise has included writing conference papers, traveling to the conferences (across multiple time zones and multiple airports), recovering from said conferences, delivering a five day workshop and hosting related social events, and preparing for sabbatical (who knew this actually took time?). At the same time, on the home front, the work travel prompt various activities, including delivering and picking up dogs from the kennel, stocking the fridge with food so children and grandparents could eat while I was at above mentioned conferences and preparing lists of activities with maps. And there is, of course, the regular family and home life, which included getting the garden ready for the summer (perhaps more, accurately, finally getting around to the fall clean up), driving children all over the city, attending the numerous “end of the school year” events at children’s schools, and of course, watching the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs to the Stanley Cup finals (Hopefully, by the time this is posted, the Canucks will have won [ed: oops. Sorry Lynn, there was a riot, too. I should have posted this sooner].) Needless to say, this has not left a lot of extra time for me, not that I necessarily want or need lots, or am even complaining. (For the record, I love my family and work!)

    But, I realize that I have certain rituals to my day that serve to create that space that I need to accomplish the above with some sense of good nature and grace (you will have to ask my family if I am at all successful with this goal.)

    For me, my day does not feel right until I have had my coffee, read the Globe and Mail newspaper and completed the Sudoku puzzle. This is a ritual that I attempt to continue even when I am traveling or super busy and should probably be writing that conference paper, answering emails, attending to children and spouse, and the various other things on my to do list instead of “playing games”. Despite the time these activities take away from other things, these rituals create the mental space I need for the day and to accomplish the above list. So important is this activity, that if I don’t have time before I need to begin work, I will carry the puzzle with me and find a few minutes to finish it. For me, this does not count as relaxation because relaxation should come after the hard work. In fact, this ritual must happen so that I can do the work and other necessary activities (hard or not).

    So, as we look forward to a summer of work and rest, what are the rituals that will be an integral part of your day, without which no day is complete?

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    On Reading

    Yesterday, I read a book while sitting on my back porch.

    This shouldn't be particularly shocking given that I have a PhD in literature and that all of my teaching and research is about texts, if not the old school book. But reader, I tell you, sitting down and starting as well as finishing a book in a single day was a luxury. It also made me feel a little guilty.

    I am a voracious reader at heart. When I was in elementary school I read and completed 100 book reports in a year simply because it was enjoyable. I loved reading and then telling someone why I liked--or didn't--what I'd read. My parents took me to the library to get my own card when I was quite young because I read so quickly that buying books felt like a bit of an impossible investment (truth be told my dad cut a deal with himself: he'd buy me the classics but I'd take things like The Babysitters Club out of the library). I read a non-thesis or dissertation related book a week throughout the duration of my graduate work. Heck, I read War and Peace while taking trains across Europe, and when I had accumulated too many things in my knapsack to fit the tome I cut the chapters up and scattered them in bus stops. OK, a bit melodramatic, but you get the point: I love reading.

    However, reading is something that seems to get pushed out of my everyday. A few weeks ago I posted about my summer research plan. I've been sticking to it, mostly. Some unforeseen things have popped up (more on those when I can write about them) but all in all I'm on schedule. So why did I feel *so* guilty yesterday as I sat happily in the sun reading a book?

    Well, for one thing, even though I advocate and encourage others to take a vacation I am having a hard time doing it myself. Sure, I know it is necessary. Yes, I understand that I'll be better rested and ready to do work, but gosh, the constant shadow of anxiety that hovers over we on the non-tenured track is a heavy, shady, and dogged thing.

    I think, too, that for me research is always in service of production these days. This is related to the anxiety/guilt I mentioned a moment ago, certainly, and I wonder if others struggle with this? I find I've been giving myself little time to let my mind wander lately, and so that's my task for myself in the following weeks: read, and read widely. Read for work, read for pleasure, and be ready to be surprised if the books/articles/etc. start to migrate from 'pleasure' to 'work'. Following the lead of one of my favourite scholarly bloggers, I'll end with a partial reading list. There's no rhyme or reason to it (& I would love it if you all would post yours):

    Commonwealth (Hardt & Negri)

    Cree Narrative Memory (Neal McLeod)

    something by Henning Mankell

    Emotionally Weird (Kate Atkinson)


    Exit Capitalism (Simon During)