Monday, January 30, 2012

Variations on a theme: Quality Time

Several of my colleagues refer to this trough of the year as Jebuary, and it comes with its own set of challenges. Jebuary is a proper noun--the stretch of January and February that, in Canada at least, accounts for some of the most soul-challenging weather of the year. One can also have a case of the Jebuaries. It is hard to muster the momentum and enthusiasm necessary to perform solid, engaging lectures, write those conference papers and articles, and attend meetings with the civic-mindedness that seems a bit easier to tap into in September. One of the constant concerns I have about posting on a Monday is tone. I fear that my tone has a tendency toward the frantic, the frenzied, the exhausted, and the fearful, and let's be frank, no one needs those tones on a Monday morning, however accurate they may be!

So here we are, in the midst of Jebuary, and it is a Monday no less. Obviously, I'm concerned about our collective and individual well being. And yet I am a month into a four-course teaching term that already has me begging for a little mercy. I wonder, as I write, about how to strike a balance between being frank about my experience as an LTA and the kinds of feelings I am having this term without dragging all y'all down.

What's the solution? Well, for me it is returning to that one entry I've managed to make in my #Reverb11: Quality. How does one beg, steal, or borrow quality, not to mention quality time, when there seems to be no time at all? While I was trying to work this question out I remembered Aime's post about how much can be accomplished in thirty minutes, and using it as a guide I've carved out thirty quality minutes for myself on a weekday morning. Friends, this term I live for Friday morning. On Friday mornings I teach an early class, this means I have no time to go home after my yoga practice. Instead of feeling guilty for leaving my partner with dog-walking duties, and rather than getting ahead on work for the coming week, I shower at the yoga studio and then walk to my favorite cafe and sit in the corner and read the local indy news. I drink fancy coffee, eat my breakfast, and buy another fancy coffee to go. All told I'm there for only about thirty or forty minutes, but they are some of the sweetest, calmest, and relaxing minutes of my week.


Here is a photo of me with my true blue pal and morning yoga partner Mia. We are in the lovely lobby of the yoga studio. If we look a bit smug it is because this photo is taken during the day as opposed to at the crack of dawn, which is when we are usually at the Shala.

I love hiding in the corner of The Smiling Goat, drinking amazing coffee, and reading The Coast on Friday mornings before I wade into the remains of the week.


 What about you? How do you carve out quality time just for you in the midst of the hectic and ennui-filled Jebuaries?




Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing on spec

In a fit of deadline-produced procrastination, I was looking up the word 'spec' yesterday. Interestingly, it has some conflicting meanings in idiomatic use. "Spec" sometimes means "to specification," as in "the contractor built the new porch to spec." This meaning describes something planned and agreed in advance, contractual. Another meaning, though, arises in common usage: to do work "on spec" means, "on speculation"--to produce something complete and for a particular purpose without being contracted to do so, and hope to be paid. Both kinds of spec apply to academic research writing, I think.

So.

Here's a question for you: which of the two following scenarios prompts your best work? Please circle your answer below:

A) To specification: You commit in advance to a project / abstract / topic / argument / idea to be submitted in advance of a real deadline for inclusion in a conference / proceedings / special issue / book / collection.

B) On spec: An idea somehow comes to you, unprompted, and you follow it up with research and writing until such time (whenever such time might eventually come) you decide it's well and truly Done, and you seek out a venue to which to submit it, and hope someone will take it.

This is really a vexed question for me. Like all undergraduates, I used to think I did my best work under very heavy deadline pressure: after all, all my essays were prepared the night before they were due, and I got A+ on everything, so that means it was the right way, right? That I need strong deadlines? Err, maybe not. Often, I was three-quarters through something (at 3am) and realized my main idea was wrong. I was, of course, unable to go back and start over, seeing as the paper would be at that point mostly written and due very soon. And the library would be closed. So I'd make the sentences nicer around a stinker of an idea.

The funny thing is, I have often thought as a tenure-review-fearing faculty member that deadlines might produce my best work. I would tell myself that if I committed to a conference paper on Topic X, I would surely be motivated to create something awesome. Or at least get my literature review done. But it turns out the same thing would happen as in my undergrad: I would back-end load a lot of the work, particularly during a teaching term. And worse, if I'd submitted a really detailed proposal or abstract, outlining my conclusions in advance, I was sort of committed to those conclusions, even if the research, as it advanced, was pulling me in a different, sometimes contrary direction. So ... B?

Then again, in the year or so before I went up for tenure, those deadlines, some sought out by me and some being the result of direct invitations, actually lit a kind of productive fire under my rear end. I produced more and better work than I had managed before. So maybe those obligations, those firm external deadlines, made me do more than I would have made myself do otherwise. And maybe I thrived. Like how sometimes a yoga teacher can make you do a one-minute plank, or 15 sun salutations in a row, that you would never push yourself to do at home, and you discover your own strength? Hm. Maybe ... A?

When I finally handed in my dissertation, I swore I was going to let my research breathe, give it air, let it take the time it took, until it was fully cooked. My discretion, my meandering scholarly path, my digressions and side projects, my integrity. I would let the ideas lead me. It would be great, organic, natural. Except my productivity slowed, and I procrastinated a lot, usually out of terror either that my ideas were terrible or that they were good. Yeah. Definitely ... A.

Only, sometimes when I commit to something in advance, I change my mind on the whole fundamental idea, or the topic, or the theory, or my conclusion contradicts my initial aims. Sometimes, I just can't get it done on time, and the guilt and panic prompt sleeplessness for months. Or maybe I can get it done but I really think it needs six more months and a different venue. I send it off and see it in print and think ... no, that's not quite right yet ... so, B?

I think maybe that this last couple of years, with all of its B-prompted writing, I have seen how much I can get done when I apply myself. I've maybe learned not to be so afraid of my own ideas or my own inadequacies: with application, the work gets done and it's usually pretty good. So maybe, left to the whims of A-prompts, I might not procrastinate so endlessly, revealing in the potential of something rather than the execution or completion of it.

Do I need hard deadlines to make me work to potential? I'm not sure. Do you? Do you write best on spec? Or to specification? Do tell.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tuned in

Last week I optimistically told you that I am aiming for 2012 to be a year of quality: quality of life, of work, of attention, and of efforts. Guess what? I'm a few weeks in and finding it pretty difficult to put my idealism into practice. It is possible that writing a grant application may have something to do with my strained mood... Lately, in an effort to at least gesture towards my goal of a quality-filled year, I have been listening to music while I work.

Music and work have a long history in my life. Do you remember when everyone claimed that Mozart would enhance your brainpower? I sure do. It was 1995 and I was not excelling in math. I know, cliched, huh? In addition to trying tutors and study sessions I clung to the belief that listening to classical music would help me through my math tests. It didn't, but I did develop a genuine love of listening to music while I worked. When I was in high school it was Tori Amos, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey. I would sit in my room working on my model United Nations project or writing a term paper and imagine Life Beyond High School. While I was in university I worked at the campus radio station and began to develop a love of jazz and blues: Freddie Hubbard, Etta James, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Sun Ra. You name it, I devoured it. I still recall the first English paper I wrote in university every time I listen to Alice Coltrane's Ptah, the El Daoud. God, I love jazz harp!

A funny thing happened when I began my Masters, however. Suddenly, I couldn't listen to music while I wrote anymore. It was as though my mind was too full, trying to wrap itself around new concepts, new routines, new modes of being, and, let's be frank, new presentations of self. I have worked in relative silence for the last number of years, until very recently. Just as suddenly, I have returned to my voracious listening/working ways. I have even taken to playing music quietly in my office at school, which always seems to take visitors by surprise. This week, I think I will return to one of my favorites: the great, and now late Etta James.


So what about you readers? In the spirit of quality, will you share your playlists with me (work or otherwise)?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Idealism: the life of the mind versus institutional cynicism

I don't know about you, but when I decided, back when I was several inches shorter and living rent free with my parents and legally obligated still to attend school, to be a professor when I grew up, one of the main inducements was this:

I would never have to sully myself with the concerns of the world.

By that, I sort of understood that most private sector jobs (my mom, I should note, was an elementary school teacher before retirement, and my dad worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources before his, so "private sector" was always sort of imaginary for me) involved worshiping the god of profit, which seemed sorta Glengarry Glen Ross to me, or maybe Clerks. And I always imagined this worship was going to involve compromising my principles. I just couldn't square that circle in my head, of being a Nine Inch Nails / Nirvana-listening, nose-ring wearing, Salinger reading, Sassy subscribing weirdo social justice vegetarian eco-friendly feminist, with ... what other people called "real life." So I chose what I imagined to be the intellectual meritocracy of School-for-Life.

And I kept choosing it, because, as a bachelor's then master's then PhD student, it kinda is an intellectual meritocracy. Learning for the sake of learning! Taking the long view! Searching after (contingent and partial, but nevertheless meaningful) truth!

Even seeking out The Job still seemed to be the path of ideals: what is tenure after all but the guarantor of academic freedom, the heady amazing freedom sometimes to say, when no one else can risk it, that the emperor has no clothes?

So it has proven to be in my scholarship. I say whatever I want, on the basis of my critical judgement and careful research. I am of course subject to peer review, and rigorously held to high standards of enquiry. Totally fair, and totally awesome. And so it has been too in my public pursuits: public and university lectures, news interviews, TV punditry, national radio--I say what I want, on the basis of my expertise, serving no agenda but what I perceive as what's right and what's true.

But in my service? In my teaching? Hm. Maybe not. I'm a staunch idealist in these areas, too, but I don't know if that's what's required--if that's what's effective, or pragmatic, or leading to anything but frustration and eye-rolls all around. Over my seven years here, I have both earned the nickname "Gosh, tell us what you REALLY think," and been counselled to choose which battles to fight, to be more pragmatic, to engage in horse-trading, etc.

As I enter the mid-career stretch, facing more administrative work, and more important administrative work, I wonder: what is the place of idealism in the academy?

Was I wrong, in high school, to think I could do this job and keep my ideals intact? To not have to hold my nose and go along with something I think is wrong? To not lobby hard for something I think is right, and damn the torpedoes?

I'm no saint, nor am I omniscient. Sometimes I'm wrong--I'm always willing to change my mind in the light of new evidence or clearer thinking. But I always vote / write / grade / decide according only to my best judgement of what's really right: I proceed according to my ideals, not any other kind of calculation. I'm worried, though, that being effective at this level means believing one thing, but doing another, in some kind of cost-benefit calculus where I play the balance of effects rather than the absolutes I currently hold so dear. And I don't like the person I am when I think about doing that.

Am I naive? Am I avoiding the hard decisions? Am I being a Pollyanna? Or a priss? What do you think?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Two Words


I love our friends over at University of Venus, they have such good ideas! In December they invited participants to join the in reverb. You can find the description here. Ever slightly behind, I found this challenge in January and have only made it through the first prompt. I have decided that I will try to move through the prompts a few times a month. Here's what I came up with.

Prompt: Encapsulate the year 2011 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2012 for you?

Work n. 1. Physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.
The past decade has been hard work. From graduating UNC in 2001 and flinging myself—with neither plan nor agenda—into the Kootenays, to moving to Montreal to do my MA, to moving to Alberta to do my PhD and all that entailed, to struggling to launch my career (and keep it afloat on the waves of recession) and moving to Nova Scotia. 2011 was especially full of work though because I felt as though I was finally getting my legs under me in terms of my career, and that meant I was able to devote an immense amount of time and energy to it. However, I noticed periodically that I often was devoting effort rather than—what?—efficiency? Genuine time to think? As though putting in the hours, no matter how I put in the hours, was all that mattered. I can’t even relax or rest if I don’t feel I’ve “done enough,” though I realize I haven’t really had a clear idea of what that means. I was working for work's sake.

This theme was true not only of my career—teaching, writing (especially), conferences, collaboration. It was true of my yoga practice as well. 2011 was the first year of practicing five or six days a week, which was in many ways an excellent decision. It has fundamentally changed my life if in no other way than that I have to go to bed earlier (my practice is very very early in the morning). I have a better sense of how my body feels, and of how my mind is as well. That said I’ve tended in this last year to muscle through a practice regardless of how I notice I feel so that I get enough done. What is enough? Enough exercise so that I don’t obsess about the bad effects of sitting in a chair in front of my computer all day? So that I can get my leg behind my head one day? I initially began practicing yoga as a means of quieting my mind, but as I grew stronger and more confident in my poses that little voice that says 'do more!' got louder and louder. It is a fine line, it seems, between being consistent and hard-working, and being aggressive and stubborn and detrimentally exacting, for me, at any rate.

Work is unavoidable--and I certainly don't want to avoid it--but it can become a road block between me and the rest of my life. Academia rewards relentless work, or at least that's the mantra I've been telling myself. Though I don't foresee a reduction in my work in the near future (quite the opposite, actually) I do want to refine and reframe the way I conceive of and approach work.

Quality n. 1a. An inherent or distinguishing characteristic. b. A personal trait, esp. a character trait 2a. Excellence of a kind. b. Degree or grade of excellence.
A year from today I would like the word to be quality. Quality of work, quality of life, quality of effort.

How about you? What word encapsulates your last year? What would you like this next year to say?

Friday, January 13, 2012

What grad supervision looks like

I was talking with a colleague the other day, about the crisis in graduate education. (Pick your crisis, I guess: is it the no-academic jobs crisis, the time to completion crisis, the building grad programs to staff crappy teaching assignments crisis, what?) We were actually talking about the problem of graduate supervision: that is, how are you supposed to supervise a PhD student?

I mean, there are department or faculty milestones and such, like how many courses are required, and what constitutes passing the language requirement hurdle, and how many times you can attempt the comprehensive exam, and the Faculty of Graduate Studies or whatever it's called where you are has rules around the font size in the dissertation. And our guidebook here says something about "reading drafts in a timely manner" and "yearly meetings."

But, to supervise a graduate student, beyond simply flagging for that student the dates they are well enough able to look up unassisted. What does that entail, really? Go on, try to answer me. Now think: where did you get your ideas from? Was it from your own dissertation process, being supervised?

Uh-oh.

Think about teaching. Those of us who've taken any of the university teaching workshops at all know that generally, the only teaching training most of us used to get was ... sitting in classrooms being taught. And so when called upon to teach, we replicated that. At least most PhD students starting to teach have taken something upwards of 40 courses, which, while not the ideal way to learn how to teach, at least offers some range of perspectives and methods brought to bear on the problem.

But again: how do you supervise a graduate student? If we assume the same passive training model (that is, teach as you have yourself been taught) all of us really only have one experience to draw on. And that experience may or may not have been ideal, but in any case it's hard to generalize from one experience.

And do we, once professors, really see how our colleagues supervise graduate students? I don't think so--or at least, I don't see it. These strike me as very private relationships. And yes, the projects are individual and the relationship is much more strictly interpersonal than other aspects of our teaching careers, but still, we probably could stand to think more systematically about what, in essence, competent (never mind good or excellent) supervision looks like. Does the university teaching centre offer courses in how to supervise a dissertating student in the humanities? Err, not here.

So let's bring it out into the open. I ask you: how were you supervised, how do you supervise, what are good strategies and what are poor strategies for graduate supervision? Let's build up some real data, with some heft to it, and then maybe we can start to generalize. Please bring on your good ideas, your bad experiences, your helpful suggestions, your terrible warnings, the tips you've learned from books, or the research you've consulted. Let's shine some light on this question, could we?

I'll go out on a limb and say that, for me, graduate supervision is an act of teaching and mentoring, as much as it is one of assessment. It is an active process, or should be. You may disagree, and please! Tell me more!

For myself, I think competent supervision entails attention to the student's professional goals (what kind of job do you want to get, and how can we get from here to there?), intellectual development (yes, but what do you really mean when you say "discourse"?), academic professionalization (how to apply for grants, which conferences, when to try to publish and how), and writing skills and process (no, that's not how you use a semi-colon, actually; binge writing does not lead to good results or a happy life). I'm still working out how to model those skills or do that teaching.

You?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Realistic Lists (& how I have not yet learned to write them)

I love lists. I am the kind of person who revels in writing down to do lists and relishes the bliss not only of crossing off accomplishments, but also adores the slightly skewed sense of satisfaction I get from looking at an impossibly long list. I use a digital calendar in my computer, a digital calendar on my phone that also synchs with my computer, I use Wunderlist, and I keep an analogue Moleskine day planner as well. I email lists. I write them on little pieces of paper. It isn't just that I like writing lists, I suspect that writing down everything I have to do (or want to do...or feel I should be doing) allows me some modicum of control. I write lists that begin with something I have already crossed off in order to make them seem possible. Indeed I must admit that I have been known to write lists that look like this:

Today:
-go to yoga
-walk dogs
-prep class a, b, and c for the month of January
-lunch
-write article draft
-prep class d for month of January
-paper abstract
-coffee with friend I should see more often
-spin class
-cook dinner
-plan manuscript project
-watch movie
-spend quality time with loved one
-leisure reading
-start writing a journal again
-bed

Sure, some might call this delusional, I call it optimistic. Alright, I also call it delusional, but doesn't it seem some days that these kind of lists that require time machines and clones are the only way that you'll accomplish all your goals as well as everything that needs doing not to mention the Abstract But Looming Expectations of Others? Doesn't it?

Last week as I sat down to write my New Year's resolutions alongside my list for this term's looming tasks I found myself unable to write either. I have been writing resolution lists that resemble my delusional to do lists for years now, and for some reason I couldn't do it this year. Why? Part of the challenge, I suspect, is that I have been writing--and failing to complete--these impossible lists for many many years now. Another part of my challenge comes from an increasingly convoluted sense of what actually needs to be done. Sure, I know that papers need to be marked, and I have those upcoming conference papers scheduled, but after four years of teaching overloads and maintaining a relatively reasonable research profile, squeezing in service where I can, and yes, trying to cultivate a rich personal and social life I know that some things need to be jettisoned, but which ones?

So this year my resolutions are thus far just two: 1) be kinder to myself and 2) read more for pleasure

How do you do it, readers? Do you write resolutions? How do you keep your expectations of yourself both realistic and challenging?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sabbatical: wide, open space

The desktop dictionary* on my Mac defines sabbatical as "a period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year: she's away on sabbatical." That's nice they used a lady professor for their example, but isn't it funny, the idea--the very definition!--that a sabbatical is for study or for travel? I absorbed through my thin academic skin very early that the sabbatical is the time that FEVERISH WRITING FOR PUBLICATION happens. If those professors on sabbaticals were often spotted in flip-flops and muumuus wandering dazed through the ValuMart, it wasn't because they were just back from (an exploratory trip to an archive in) Hawaii, but rather that they didn't have time to shower, so frantic were their intellectual labours. Study! Travel! Isn't it really all about "getting the book finished and out to the publisher," or "slamming all those research notes into several articles, pronto"?

And I like the leadoff phrase: "a period of paid leave," again, as though one is absent from 'work' and getting paid for it. But that's not quite right, is it? Usually, a sabbatical involves a pay reduction and a replacement of teaching work with other work.

So my definition, if I were to rewrite this, would be: "sabbatical (noun): a period free from teaching or internal service obligations, at reduced salary, granted to a college teacher to generate publishable research, traditionally for 12 months after six years of teaching, or for 6 months after three years of teaching."

Still. A sabbatical is a pretty sweet thing, a shift in the routine, a break from what can sometimes feel like an unceasing hamster wheel of prep / teach / grade / meetings / more meetings / email / rinse / repeat. I'm on sabbatical, as of January 1st, and until June 30th.

Woohoo!

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You know what? On my last half-sabbatical, I actually did go to Hawaii (International Auto/Biography Association biennial conference, can I get a what-what?!), but it seems funnier to both acknowledge it here and leave it in the text above. It struck me at the time as funny enough that I took this photo on the beach at Waikiki:



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Everyone here was back in class, as of 8:30 Tuesday morning. I'm in ... limbo. I'm wearing my writing clothes, but since my daughter is still on Christmas vacation until Monday of next week, I'm doing the stay-at-home mom thing until then. Which is a kind of neither/nor situation. It was jarring, driving to campus to pick up my husband after work on Tuesday, and to suddenly realize, hey, it's on, and I'm not in it. But I'm not yet out of it either, in that all-research-all-the-time zone that the sabbatical is supposed to foster. Next week.

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During my last sabbatical, my husband and I were forced from our home by condo developers, selling and buying in a frantic sort of way. He was between jobs. Then we moved, right when he was starting a new job. Two new jobs, actually. Our daughter was about a year-and-a-half old, in that first year of catch-absolutely-everything germiness at daycare. She got pneumonia. I got four sinus infections, and was pretty sure my eardrums were going to explode on one research trip that involved flying to California with three hops along the way. I gripped my armrests and howled silently, willing my ears to stay intact, and wondering how I could talk to my real estate agent on the phone if I was deaf. I was terrified about everything: my house situation, our jobs situation (would I get tenure? would hubby get established in his new career?), my daughter in daycare, being sick sick sick for months on end, moving, all of it.

So I guess my Pavlovian reaction to thinking about the sabbatical is this: panic.

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What does a sabbatical mean now, now that I have tenure, and a research grant, never mind a stable housing situation and everyone in much better health?

What can drive me forward now, if not the panic of the last sabbatical, of the whole pre-tenure time generally? What do I want to do: to think about, to write, to read?

So far, I have no commitments. I want to find out what I can get done, when I'm at liberty to do it, but not driven by the lashings of someone else's (book, conference, public talk) deadline snapping me in the ass.

I'll let you know.

And of course, I both welcome and solicit any advice or stories about sabbaticals that you can share.

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* it's funny to me to start out this essay like so many of our undergrads do, by recourse to the dictionary. It's funny because, I suspect, I'm not teaching this semester and so won't have to read any of those essays ... does the sabbatical then have it's own special brand of humour? I'll keep you posted, dear readers.