Monday, May 26, 2014

Your Five Year Research Plan: Guest Post

This is a guest post from frequent Hook and Eye commenter, prolific scholar, and all round awesome person Julie Rak, Professor, Dept. of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. Thanks so much to Julie for sharing her insight with us, and also (urp) for her tremendous patience as I dilly-dallied getting this posted. This post really resonated with me, and while it's pitched to the professoriate, there's something useful in thinking through a graduate degree as a five year plan, too.

And so on to Julie ...

As a reader of Hook and Eye, I am interested in how people newer to the profession than I am think about their work lives. A quick scan of the keywords for different Hook and Eye entries recently showed me something interesting in this regard. There are no keywords for “research planning.” There’s a post about “planners” and quite a few about work-life balance (see “best-laid plans” and the popular “saving my sanity”). There’s a few more about conference papers and writing. But there’s not so much about research life or about planning it for the long term. So, I thought that I’d write something about adapting that time-honoured radical socialist approach to facilitating change, the five year plan as imagined by Trotsky, for your research.

Having a plan is a good plan 

No matter whether you are a graduate student or a full professor in the postsecondary system, you should have a long-term plan for your research career. It’s a central aspect to becoming a professional, and it’s something that we should keep on doing, throughout our careers. Otherwise, we live in a state of anxiety (omiGOD how am I going to get this essay/conference paper/grant/thesis/book/ANYTHING done) and we become reactive with regards to our careers, rather than proactive. We start responding to what others want (or what we imagine they want) and not to what we actually need or can reasonably achieve. I would say that this is particularly true for female academics, who often are asked to take up tasks for the good of a group or community. In short, we are asked to give to others because we are women, and because we are women, it can be hard to say no to the requests or demands of others. Planning is essential as you move through each stage of your research career arc so that you are not just reacting to what others want.

Since many of us came into the academy because we love research, planning for what we love can give us a measure of power and autonomy in our lives. It can help us make informed decisions about our careers. When you’re a student, other people make plans for you, and you respond to them. But when you stop being a student and start being a scholar, you’re in the driver’s seat of your research life and the course you set is your own. This can be intimidating, particularly as you move from one stage of your career to another.

I am a bit of a magpie as a scholar. I get interested in a lot of shiny objects (or ideas) and I want to pursue all of them. But realistically, I can’t. It also turns out that as you become more senior in academic life, you are asked to do more. It’s hard not to say “yes” just because you are asked. This past year, I did say “yes” to too much, and I ran out of steam. So in March 2014, I sat down and did a five year research plan to see where I was at and what I should do.

A five year plan 

Here’s what I did for my recent plan. I listed these areas:

  • Research Goals 
  • Current Projects 
  • Results (Books, Edited Books, Conferences, essays, conference papers, grants, public talks) 
  • Timeline, by year (2014-2019) 

My research goals are all the things I want to do by 2019. They range from the immediate (finish a conference paper), to the extended (write an article per year) to the long-term (run a kickass international research project). Then I listed all my current projects, whether they are large or small. That was an eye-opener. Some projects have nothing to do with my goals. What the heck am I doing them for? No wonder I am overwhelmed! I assigned priorities for my projects in light of what my goals are.

Then I made a Results list and keyed it to my Projects. That was interesting too: I could see that my work tends to cluster at certain times, probably because I say “yes” to too much. I could see too that I am prone to agreeing to do some things which, given my larger goals, maybe I shouldn’t. If I do agree to something, I should make sure that it’s in line with my goals and current projects.

I keyed that projects list to my timeline. I have a lot of things wrapping up in 2014, as it turns out. By 2017, I don’t have a lot there. I could tell from the timeline that I tend to react to opportunities and not plan for them. And I am very optimistic about how long it takes to do a project.

As I moved things around to make my life look less hectic, I thought about the latter years of the plan. What long-term things do I really want to do? What do I need to have in place in order to realize my goals? When I started listing what my desires really were and keying in how to plan for them, I learned a lot about what kind of research I want to do at this stage in my career. And, for the first time in awhile, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I could see what I should prioritize, and what I should just let go. I realized that I don’t have to do everything all at once. For a type-A person like me, that’s a big relief.

Doing a plan like this shouldn’t be another occasion for guilt. We are all going to be surprised by opportunities in our work lives, so it’s a good idea to go back and review goals, shuffle priorities and revise the plan from time to time. In a few months, I’ll look at my plan again and see where I’m at with it.

Control what you can control 

Whether we have permanent academic jobs or want them, one of the features of academic life is that we have a lot of control over what we decide to do as researchers and how we’re going to do it (this is what we really learn to do in graduate school). But one of the trickiest things about working in the postsecondary system is that aspects of that control are in fact given to others. We can propose a research goal, create a plan and apply to SSHRC, NEH or NSERC for the money, but we don’t have control over whether we get the funding or not. We can submit a paper to the best journal in our field, but we can’t control how long it takes to receive a decision, or what the decision will be.

Having a research plan means that we do get control over what it is possible to control. When we are successful, it feels great. When we’re not, at least planning means that we can choose another path and learn from what happened. Our sense of self-worth does not have to be keyed to how successful we are, but to how we are working to realize our goals. And no matter what, the decisions we make can be in line with what our values are, and what kind of people we want to be, at work and in the other parts of our lives.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

But what about me?

Negotiating priorities in my work has been really hard recently. And by recently I mean, oh, since the MLA back in January.

It's not that I haven't been working. I have. Oh, I have. York is undergoing a pan-university review exercise much like the TransformUS initiative that's been causing so much of a ruckus (and rightly so) at the University of Saskatchewan, and as one of only a few writers in my office, I've been heavily involved in the writing and editing of our Faculty's report. Scholarships and grants are never ending, and overtime has been rather more plentiful than I would like. A friend and I have (fingers crossed) a book-like online project about graduate training and reform launching soon, and that's required lots of tending, as has the newly published Digital Studies article about grad students in DH that he and I wrote with a bunch of wildly talented folks. I'm just finishing up the paper for the panel another friend and I put together for the ACQL at Congress, and a good chunk of my free time has been spent researching and editing for a scholarly edition of a Canadian play another friend is working on. Writing this paragraph, it seems that I've been doing a good job of working on collaborative projects, or stuff for other people, but not things for me.

In fact, in writing that last paragraph, I'm realizing that neglecting things for me--not just in terms of work and writing, but in terms of all the things--is precisely what I've been doing across the board. My dissertation is languishing in Scrivener, a fact that weaves a low hum of anxiety through most of my days. When my Dean asked me recently if there were ways that she could help facilitate my finishing, it didn't make me feel happy, or supported--it just made me feel guilty. I haven't kept my Thursday appointment with Hook & Eye for longer than I'd care to admit. I went for a walk after work today, stopping for gelato midway (because spring), but almost didn't go because I felt a little panicked about all of the things I need to do tonight (write this post! finish my ACQL paper! start packing!) and less than entitled to a break and some exercise. I've spent too much money on new clothes recently, because spending money on myself is the easiest way to remedy the feeling that I'm not doing a very good job of actually taking care of myself. When was the last time I did something creative? When was the last time I took an entire day off work, or took time off work and didn't feel guilty about it? No idea. And aren't those the things I was trying to steer myself away from by deciding to step off the tenure track?

I think the thing that frustrates me the most is the feeling that I've written this post before. I know that I've written this post before, and I know that there are so many other things that I could write about, that I'd rather write about, but I'm just...tapped out. I get it--it's not just me. We all know that we shouldn't be the last people on our own to-do lists. We all preach the gospel of self care. But we all live in a culture of productivity and anti-procrastination and self-realization through work. And when it comes down to the wire, do I practice what I preach on those subjects? You're damn right I don't. And if I think it's bad now, what about when the day comes that I've got a child? I'm nervous (read: terrified) just thinking about it.

I don't know what the solution is. I love my job, truly, and I really don't mind the overtime or the end-of-day mental exhaustion, most of the time. I really do want to finish my dissertation, for the personal satisfaction, and for the sunk costs, and because I do think it will get me ahead at work. I'm not willing to give up my writing on #altac or my other academic collaborations, and I've already cut most conferencing ( I go to the MLA and Congress, fin) and all additional training completely out of my schedule. I already have someone to help with the cleaning, and a partner/takeout to take care of the cooking when I don't have the time or energy to. I have the lowest maintenance pet I can imagine, except for when he misses my partner and takes some serious consoling before he'll stop crying at the top of his lungs (who needs a baby?). So what gives? In the end, it's quality time with my partner and my friends, and it's sleep, and it's me, and the things that no one but me is depending on me to get done.

I'm at a bit of a loss, because I can't see where something else can give, and something else has gotta give. In the meantime, until I figure it out, I guess I'll keep trucking along, put the credit card away, and hope that my annual Congress visit with the other lovely ladies of Hook & Eye will bring some enlightenment, or at least some sympathy.

See you in St. Catherine's?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don't tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They've had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I'm teaching, it's a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that's mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these "cinq à sept", because this kind of party runs from five until seven--note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you're scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I'm here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I'm kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I'm being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn't want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o'clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I'm not there until 6:45, and who's going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it's unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I'm sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am--I know you've probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It's just that I don't want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

20 Minute Workout: Keep writing, and the ideas will come

I'm giving the opening keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on June 2. I've been working on it for a year. It's not done yet. And by "not done," I mean, I have in the document titled DHSI_Keynote about 5000 words of fuzzy non-sequiturs and wild claims. I also have a bunch (like 10 or 11) 200-300 word document stubs with evocative titles and one snappy paragraph. And that's it. Don't believe me? Allow me to excerpt the draft in progress. Sample wild claim: "Is DH like bronies? Trampling the 8 year old girls in the name of spurious revolution?" Sample non sequitur: "I’m more the engineering model. More the know your history model. Rules help us all enjoy the game more, if you know what I mean. But now, I’ve changed my mind. Because fan studies."

It's a mess, and I've got three weeks to get it done.

Now, this morning, it occurs to me, in a blaze of clarity, that I've been barking (and writing) up the wrong tree for about a month. And I need to chuck 90% of what I've got (bronies? WTH?) and reframe the entire thing.

It's okay. I can write my way out, and I know how. It's going to be okay because I write every single day, even when I don't want to. In fact, in this case, it was because I sat down not wanting to, but did it anyways, that both the Major Problem and the Clever Solution presented themselves to me. Or rather, that I diagnosed my problem and created my solution.

Here's what happened. I set my 20 minute time, and plunked my cursor into the keynote document, which I was starting to dread, and on which I was getting kind of stuck, and so I wrote about my stuckness and my resistance, because I had to write about something, and all of a sudden (POOF!) I knew what was wrong and why and how, and I had a little idea of how I could fix it. So I shifted over into a new document and wrote to myself some little threads exploring the new frame and the new idea and I can see that it's going to work and that I've already got a bunch of pieces that will tie into this nicely.

I didn't used to write like this. This way is better. You should do it, too, if you don't.

To flag what's important here:

  1. If you set a timer for 20 minutes, and make yourself sit there writing the whole time, you will wind up having an idea. It has never been the case that I've just circled the drain that whole time. The fact is that we're all pretty smart and pretty well read and it necessarily follows that at some moment in that 20 minutes, despite ourselves, we'll have an idea, just because we're typing out words. The idea might be big ("Omigod, someone needs to do qualitative research on the child fans of MLP: FiM") or it might just be footnote-worthy ("Hey, that's a visual pun on Dr. Who and Rose there, in those background ponies, and I wonder if that's to amuse the writers, the animators, or the bronies ... maybe see where else that happens in cartoons?")
  2. If you just write every day, even just 20 or 30 minutes, you'll always have so much half-assed writing lying around that you'll never be in a panic to just hit the right word count for the deadline. Because writing while panicking is waaaaay less efficient than writing while not suffering from whooshing ear noises and tunnel vision and shakily glugging triple lattes and engaging in subvocalized self-loathing. By the time you really need to get serious about producing 25 superb pages, you'll already have 50 shitty but intriguing ones--you'll already be in the admirable position of needing to prune and fine-tune rather than produce out of sheer nothingness.
  3. This giant stack of half-baked pages is comforting even in just its giant stackness. My "book" "typescript" is about 330 pages long now. The other day, I threw out 30 pages in disgust, because they were wrong wrong wrong. But that was easy for me to do because the thing is already 330 (now 300) pages long and I'm not done writing yet. Easy to make the right decision, because sooooo much writing already.
  4. If you write every day your brain is conditioned to Always Be Thinking and Always Be Writing. This means I can just plunk my rear end in the chair and start. At Canadian Tire waiting for the snow tires to get taken off. In my office in the 20 minutes before a meeting. On my front porch after I drop my kid off at the bus. I don't need a major warmup ritual. I'm already limber, and my brain just knows what to do without much conscious effort to start. So twenty minutes of writing is now preceded by 15 seconds of setting my timer, or 30 seconds of shooing the cat off my lap, rather than by two hours of procrastination and the ritual sacrifice of my sense of self and happiness.
  5. You train your gut. Every day that I write, I'm also sifting out my ideas--good, bad, better, best, in this category, in that category, original, example, digression, important, funny, trivial. They're whizzing past my critical thinking apparatus all the time. So I'm getting pretty good and pretty efficient at cutting something loose when it's time to let it go, pretty good at knowing something is underdeveloped but really important, pretty good at figuring out when it needs another pair of eyes, or when it's ready to submit for peer review. I'm not so tortured about these decisions anymore because I make them all the time.
This is what I'm learning from my daily writing habit. I'm more productive and less stressed. I'm producing higher quality work, and more of it, with less anguish.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Identity Trouble

Have y'all read this? It's long, but oh-so-good: Jordana Rosenberg's captivating essay-cum-personal memoir on making sense of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble as a young lesbian whose conservative mother cannot accept her sexuality. It's a tale of abandonment, grief, confusion, and self-doubt, and anything I say about it here cannot really do it justice. Beyond the sheer pathos and engagability of her story, I think it admirable that Rosenberg deploys the notoriously jargony pages of Butler's prose as an element in her life-narrative and struggle, thus challenging the artificial divide between critical and personal we as scholars tend to maintain. Further, she opens a space for "unknowing" as a crucial political and academic act, urging her students and her readers to embrace texts and situations that we don't understand, which would allow us to internalize the value of risk, of humility, of un-understanding the world. Only once we learn to extend ourselves into unfamiliar situations will we learn to truly become ourselves and enact political transformation. The idea of empowerment as rooted in our own epistemological undoing is, I think, highly radical.

Rosenberg got me thinking about the issue of how open we should be to our parents, family, nonacademic relations, people we love: not just regarding our sexuality, but also regarding such potentially objectionable things as feminism, atheism, leftism, advocacy for reproductive rights, whatever. In making this kind of comparison between Rosenberg's coming out and other kinds of coming out, I in no way mean to imply that the different forms are equal: sexual politics hold a particular transgressive valence for most conservative folk, and emerging LGBTQ people often meet with more violence than emerging feminists. Personally, I will never be disowned for my political beliefs, though I might still be faced with the pain of wounding people I love and possible subsequent alienation. Outing oneself is something we tend to applaud and support at all costs, and I am often ashamed to admit that I have not expressed to eveeyone the extent of how much my beliefs and convictions have evolved in the last few years. Interestingly, however, Rosenberg expresses an at least initial sense of regret after having come out to her mother: she claims that she "decided the whole project of coming out had been bankrupt – that [she] had been misled by identity politics into a contraction of the political field to the microuniverse of the bourgeois family." She never mentions whether the clashing of these two very different worlds in the name of identity politics is something she ultimately supports, but her lifelong struggle with communicating with and forgiving her mother may give us some indication of how she felt. We are not left with a sense of redemption and self-discovery here; her story seems to answer the question of "Does it get better?" with a resounding "....not really."

Perhaps, then, honesty is not always the best policy--especially involving cases that might incur irreparable damage upon your relationships and your future, and lead family members into believing you may be a lost cause, or into fearing for your soul. For me, it is an ongoing challenge to negotiate my identity as scholar and daughter, and deciding when it might be appropriate for my various selves to be made available to my various worlds at various times. So to the broader question: how do we ethically maintain our pursuit of feminist politics within the academy while minimizing emotional damage and trauma incurred upon people we love (who actually may believe we're going to hell if they knew the extent of it! Can you imagine believing that about someone??)? How do we cultivate our identities as ethical scholars and loving daughters? What selves and what bodies should we exhibit to the different communities of which we are a part?

These questions do not have easy answers, just as Gender Trouble commits itself to refusing (or troubling) easy answers as well. As Rosenberg observes, Gender Trouble "has to be hard" because you
have to subject yourself to the difficulty of its language in order to begin to unstitch the only-seemingly coherent logic of gender, order, and discourse that you have grown accustomed to, that has been made natural to you – no, through which you, your gender, has been made to seem natural. 
And so we are back to an issue I've blogged about before: the issue of committing ourselves to difficult language and struggling through our complicated networks of desires, relationships, and responsibilities. Reading Gender Trouble for the first time has to be hard--and so does composing our intersecting identities as scholars, daughters, wives, partners, mothers, teachers, and feminists. I'm trying, and good lord I might be failing in all sorts of ways, but that is all part of the impossible quest to discover the evasive and forever deferred "I."

And I wonder if other readers have similar struggles.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How to Avoid Post-Semester Illness (in 82 easy steps)

1. Before your semester starts, get lots of rest.
2. Spend a relaxing Christmas break away from drama of any kind.
3. Attend a maximum of one Christmas/pre-semester Party.
4. Gear up for beginning of semester by taking a day or two to wrap up any unfinished business from last semester before the semester begins.
5. Take time to plan out your semester.
6. Divide your time into segments.
7. Under no circumstances should you undertake work outside of the hours of 8-5, Monday to Friday.
8. Allot no more than 10% of your time to administrative duties.
9. Allot no more than 10% of your time to answering emails.
10. Allot no more than 15% of your time to teaching prep.
11. Allot no more than 5% of your time to grading.
12. Allot no more than 2% of your time to office hours.
13. Allot no more than 5% of your time to attending workshops.
14. Allot no more than 5% of your time to attending conferences.
15. Allot no more than 5% of your time to exploring new digital tools.
16. Allot no more than 5% of your time to reading in your field(s) to keep up with current research.
17. Allot no more than 2% of your time to other research projects after current project concludes.
18. Allot no more than 5% of your time to writing blog posts.
19. Allot no more than 5% of your time to networking with other academics.
20. Allot no more than 5% of your time to applying for awards, fellowships, and grants.
21. Allot no more than 5% of your time to maintaining personal or professional websites.
22. Allot no more than 10% of your time to committee meetings.
23. Allot no more than 10% of your time to applying for jobs.
24. Allot no more than 5% of your time to preparing your cv.
25. Allot no more than 5% of your time to preparing a shadow cv.
26. Allot no more than 5% of your time gaining work experience for a possible career in alt-ac.
27. Allot no more than 5% of your time to mentoring.
28. Allot no more than 5% of your time to writing letters of recommendation.
29. Allot no more than 5% of your time to advising.
30. Allot no more than 5% of your time to additional, unforseen duties.
31. Allot no more than 2% of your time to planning research trips.
32.  Leave 30% of your time to primary research.
33. Leave 40% of your time to manuscript/dissertation writing.
34. Avoid unnecessary and time consuming academic service.
35. Do not plan a symposium.*
36. Do not plan a conference.*
37. Do not plan a roundtable.*
38. Do not plan a colloquium.*
39. Do not plan a public lecture.*
40. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.
41. Run at least 3 times a week.
42. Attend regular yoga classes.
43. Swim.
44. Cycle.
45. Eat food rich in Vitamin C (or supplement).
46. Eat food rich in Vitamin D (or supplement).
47. Eat food rich in Vitamin A (or supplement).
48. Eat food rich in Vitamin E (or supplement).
49. Eat food rich in B16 (or supplement).
50. Eat food rich in B12 (or supplement).
51. Eat food rich in B (or supplement).
52. Eat food rich in protein (or supplement).
53. Eat food rich in calcium (or supplement).
54. Eat food rich in potassium (or supplement).
55. Avoid caffeine.
56. Avoid alcohol. 
57. For richness, enjoyment, and balance in life, participate in religious organization.
58. For richness, enjoyment, and balance in life, participate in community-based organization.
59. For richness, enjoyment and balance in life, participate in political organizations.
60. Volunteer for community-based organization.
61. Volunteer for religious-based organization.
62. Volunteer for political organizations.
63. Maintain friendships.
64. Maintain professional relationships.
65. Spend time with parents.
66. Spend time with extended family.
67. Spend time with partner.
68. Spend time with children.
69. Spend ample time on vacation.
70. Stay away from ill friends.
71. Stay away from ill students.
72. Stay away from ill colleagues.
73. Stay away from ill parents.
74. Stay away from ill extended family.
75. Stay away from ill partner.
76. If possible, do not allow your toddler to go to daycare (they are petrie dishes for illness of all kinds).
77. Seclude toddler from all other ill children.
78. Seclude toddler from all ill adults.
79. DO NOT allow ill toddler to hold your hands.
80. DO NOT allow ill toddler to place dirty hands on your person.
81. DO NOT allow ill toddler to cough in your mouth.

*do, however, ensure you attend these important events.