Uncategorized

If not you, then who?

“I’m so glad you’re talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this.”

“You told us we could come talk to you, and I don’t know who else to go do.”

“I can’t believe I’m in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time.”

“I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I’m just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses.”

These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They’re flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.

But you know what? I’m not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I’m feeling–can I be honest?–resentful and burnt out.

Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. “No one” else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I’m the “only one” of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don’t know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?

I’m doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it’s killing me.

There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you’re taking on too much, you can’t baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can’t manage work and classes that’s not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own ‘merits.’

This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I’ve come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here’s the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn’t do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.

I’m proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I’m truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I’m too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you’re in my classroom per week. Everything else is … not my problem.

Maybe what those professors are doing is not “not making more work for themselves” but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don’t think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone’s office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that’s true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it’s not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.

I can do this work, and I want to. But I can’t do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be “the only professor” who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students’ real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.

How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don’t see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it’s just not sustainable.

Uncategorized

Winter Wrap-up: how to finish the term gently

After three months of winter coldness, t’s the final week of term here at Waterloo, although there is a little stub of it left on Monday, I’m pretty much done teaching today.

I’ve had a harder than expected term, and I know my students are pushed to their limits, too. So I’m trying something new this year, a reflective and possibly even graceful way to wind down the term without cancelling class or generally goofing around. I’m taking some time to create the space for students to tie a bow around their own learning, together with each other and with me. I’m also using these last few classes to prepare students for exams.

I offer this for discussion, two classes I’m teaching right now and two different strategies for Ending the Terms in a Meaningful Way Beyond Dragging My Ass Across the Finish Line (TM). This is what week 12 of teaching looks like, according to my experiment.

First year course: 

They have a final exam, as well as a paper, so I’m trying to help them use class time to do both those things, in a productive way.

Exercise: in-class draft workshop a week before the paper is due. This was a soft-landing from binge-writing at the last minute. A full week before it was due, they had a complete first draft, and they read each other’s work using a rubric designed from the way that I would eventually grade the papers, so they learned about what was important, and how I grade, and how hard it is to give good feedback to people. I sat at the front and answered content questions, reference questions, format questions.

Exercise: I give students the exam skeleton. There’s a section for terms and definitions, so I make them collectively brainstorm 50 relevant terms from the course. I’ll choose 15, they’ll define 10. There’s a section on technology history, so I make them brainstorm as many historical questions they can think of and how they relate to the course as a whole. There’s a section on approaches and theories, so I make them brainstorm all the different academic approaches to new media we’ve studies.

Exercise: The last quiz of the term concerns the Big Scary Essay Question on the exam, which will be to perform some kind of analysis on a news story about new media. So what they have to do to get full marks on the quiz, is find a news story about new media, and tell me why it would be a good one to use on the exam. I’ll then choose the top five and share those on the last day, and pick one for the exam itself.

What I love about this is that all this brainstorming can be done by riffling through the books and notes from the term, can be done on the fly, requires no prep from any of us, and consitutes a really good study session. I love as well that it gets us all, as a class, and together, to go over and review the material from the entire term. It’s a great use of class time, that doesn’t overwhelm any one. Show up, get something of value for doing it in real time. It’s worth coming, AND we tie the semester up with a bow.

BONUS: my students have effectively produced the first draft of the exam for me. I’m literally picking the actual questions and terms from the one’s they put together in class. I won’t have to spend more than 20 minutes putting the final together. That’s a classic win-win, is what that is.

Fourth year course

There’s no exam, and they’re busy finishing their papers, so I suspect that assigning them a lot of new reading at the end of term is frustrating and fruitless. So I did these things instead.

Exercise: Reflective writing, taking the expressed learning outcomes of the class from the syllabus, and assessing if and how we have met those goals, detailing assignments and readings and exercises that contributed to learning.

Exercise: Reflective writing, answering the following four questions: Most valuable thing learned, Most surprising thing learned, Most counterintuitive thing learned, Most wrong thing learned. This prompts them to review the whole of the semester and to rank and evaluate the ideas presented. They then made groups of three and shared ideas, then I made a Google doc and let people populate it in a discussion. We had a really good chat, and it was great feedback for me on the course design, actually.

Exercise: For the last day of class, when they are handing in their papers and photography projects, each student will take 2-4 minutes to present a brief abstract or example to their classmates. Why should I be the only who knows what great and diverse ideas they’re all working on?

BONUS: I have a lot of grading in hand right now, and these types of classes take zero prep, which gives me more time to finish the grading quickly.

As I teach these classes in these ways, I’m noting how good I feel about it. Not gloating over the lack of prep, but really enjoying this group process of processing the whole term, together, collaboratively. Taking a bit of time to see how where we’ve ended up is different from where we started, what we know now is different from then, how our skills have developed over time. We see where we fit, what we have done and what we have left to do. Celebrating our accomplishments and looking forward. I’m going to do this again.

Do you have end of term wrap up activities that work in your classes? I’d love to hear about them.

ideas for change · mental health

Campus suicide: we need to talk

My campus has suffered two suicides this term alone, in the very same student residence. This is a tragedy, twice over, and beyond measure.

I’m working on this post watching over my 38 first year students as they quietly read and edit one another’s research papers. It could have been any one of them.  Indeed this student was a colleague to many of my own. I cannot bear that.

We can none of us bear this. Something has got to change. All of us can do something, and it feels really urgent to me that we start right now.

First this: first year university is incredibly hard. It’s lonely, it can be very isolating, our egos take substantial hits from the massive change in pedagogy and expectation and cohort. Early adulthood is massively challenging as we figure out who we are. New romantic and sexual relationships. Breakups. Difficulties functioning in the much less structured university environment. Imposter syndrome. Regrets. A discovery of our own intellectual limits. There’s nothing easy about any of this, and it is abundantly clear that students aren’t getting what they need as they transition to adulthood, to independence, to university study, to changing ideas of who they are and what they want and what their capacities are. My school is known for the incredibly competitive nature of some of its most famous programs of study, and that only increases the pressure on those lucky enough to get in.

Mental health, mental illness, and suicidality are serious ongoing structural risks to university study. We need something more than ‘campus wellness days’ and a 1-in-5 that only has happy people in the video. We need more than working groups and statements of support. We need concrete counseling supports diffused across campus, and in the residences. We need training for staff in spotting and supporting students in crisis. We need faculty training in how to design curriculum and pedagogy that is less structurally likely to push people over the edge. We need programs that work to ensure that all students are supported toward graduation, rather than celebrating toughness by measuring drop out rates. We need universities that don’t, structurally, haze students with sink-or-swim social, institutional, or academic models.

The brother of the student who committed suicide this week posted a heartfelt plea to Reddit this week, full of despair and sadness and anger. The thread extends for pages, an honest and brutal conversation that we are just not seeing anywhere else on campus. Have I received official notification of this? I have not. I teach first year students in the same program. I found out from reddit. Unacceptable. That’s several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame. The student newspaper has something, which I found after a colleague posted the Reddit thread on Facebook.

Silence is violence.

The Reddit post shows a grieving teenager adrift, but reaching out. We need to reach back. We need to extend our collective arms to support all our students. So many more of them are struggling than we are willing to acknowledge. We need to acknowledge the loss. To work towards mitigating the conditions that led us here. To do better. We can get through this together: suicide is preventable; suicidality is often momentary, but in that moment it can be fatal. Let’s get through those moments, together.

If you are Waterloo and you need help:
https://uwaterloo.ca/health-services/mental-health-services

Kids Help Phone:
https://www.kidshelpphone.ca/Teens/InfoBooth/Emotional-Health/Suicide.aspx?gclid=CNjli6X39tICFca3wAod-0IDiQ

How to support a friend who may be suicidal:
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-helping-someone-who-is-suicidal.htm

#heforshe · administration · equity · ideas for change · modest proposal · role models

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let’s say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let’s say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.

Professor A: “I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important.”

My spouse: “Well, no. We don’t even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests.”

Professor A, ten seconds later: “How much is in the fund?”

My spouse: “$10,000.”

Professor A, five seconds later: “That’s not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What’s his email address?”

Professor B: “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It’s a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

My spouse: “Of course! How much do you want?”

Professor B, after delay of three days: “I don’t know, is maybe $1000 too much?”

My spouse: “Don’t you need more than that? How much do you need?”

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: “I don’t want to be a bother! I’m so sorry I’m doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn’t submit this grant, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”

—-

Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don’t pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a “cookie jar” of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don’t perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don’t know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What’s your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money–like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, “God, she’s so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?” versus “He really has no tact, but what a genius!”

A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I’m going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that’s not, actually, fair. Maybe that’s not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It’s resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other “soft” requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain “wiggle room.” I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that’s fine. So do I. But it’s worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it’s not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you “no,” but it’s not “NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN’T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU.” It’s more, “no, can’t do it — reframe the request and I’ll consider it again.” Or sometimes it’s just, “no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well.” Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It’s admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I’m never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term — maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role — maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses — maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that’s ok. But maybe it will be yes.

enter the confessional · mental health

I get by with a little help from my friends … and structural privilege

So here is a thing that happened: last Wednesday at lunchtime, about 16 hours after I put up my post about academic overwhelm, anxiety, and insomnia, my chair emailed me to offer a department-funded grader for 50 hours.

I’m going to wait while you process that for a moment.

How do you feel about it? Tenured prof teaching two classes gets 50 hours of grader help. Prominent blogger complains to the internet, gets rescued by soft money. Struggling and ill professor gets needed accommodation, informally. People behaved like humans to help another human. All of these humans are very privileged. People have way more urgent problems than this prof.

Me? I have many feelings. I feel tremendous relief. I feel tremendous guilt. I have something that feels a bit like shame swirling around. I am embarrassed. I feel grateful.

Those 50 hours are going to cover most of the rest of the grading for my first year class, with 40 students handing in 1 page assignments for the next three weeks with five-day turnarounds, and then handing in 5-7 page papers after that, and then an exam. It’s going to free up about 6-8 hours per week for the rest of the term, hours that I desperately need to do admin work, the grading for my other course, and my prep. I feel I can breathe again, like the level of busyness this 50 hours buys me will be keep me on the intense side of the line, but not on the impossible end of the spectrum where it was before. I have stopped panicking. I only worked for 2 hours instead of 10 this weekend. I needed this.

And yet.

Many colleagues teach more courses and more students than me, labour under the same or worse health constraints as I face, have less security, don’t have offices with chairs to push together for a nap, can’t commute on foot to get some needed fresh air. It was intimated to me that the help is justified under the cover of my (actually pretty damn heavy) administrative role. I am the exception. But there’s nothing really special about me, no way I deserve any more than any one else. In many ways I feel I deserve it less.

Here is another thing that happened: when this incredible gift was offered to me, I almost turned it down, because I didn’t want to be a bother. Also, weirdly, I wanted somehow, deep inside, to tough it out and be a hero, even though the point of my post was to deflate precisely that kind of thinking, that hazing model of academic excellence and bravura. But there it was, in my own head. And then: once I accepted, I felt so much better able to cope with what was left on my plate that I doubted whether I was actually unwell enough to deserve the help in the first place.

I’m narrating all this for you because it is evidence of the structural problems of the academy and my own deeply fucked-up reactions to a needed offer of help. I could show you my FitBit sleep logs and you would see how little rest I have been getting. I’ve been subtweeting my own anxiety for months, under panic of light jokes, like this little one from early in the term:

That tweet? It’s top of mind because yesterday all of a sudden it was all over my mentions again: my tweet was embedded on the main page of Twitter in one of its ‘Moments’ feature. Heading? “Ha Ha Ha” with a gif of a kitten falling asleep standing up and falling over. It was a collection of ha-ha-funny tweets all containing the word ‘micro sleep.’ But it’s not funny. I did fall asleep sitting up grading. I did have a semi-lucid dream. Ha ha ha. Now I’ve got 270 likes and a bunch of retweets labelled ‘teacher problems, lol.’ These should not be teacher problems.

I’m not asking for you to absolve me, dear colleagues. I just need you to know (since so many of you were so kindly solicitous of my situation) that things are considerably better now. And I wish such happy outcomes were equally available to all of us academic workers. And that even though I seem to be pretty open about how awful I felt and how poorly I was doing, I still don’t want to accept help and don’t feel like I deserve it. I went back to class today considerably springier in my step, staring down a full but not overwhelming work week, with a smile and plan. That felt good. But it feels terrible to know that others don’t feel near so well.

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enter the confessional

Not waving but drowning

Okay here’s the thing. Everything is awful and I’m not okay. Have you missed me these past weeks? I haven’t posted because I just couldn’t get my act together. I didn’t even tell all my other lovelies that I needed a break. (I’m so sorry …) I just disappeared.

I find myself experiencing serious overwhelm. I am hurting. It’s not clear to me how I’m going to get through this semester. I just want to be real about it for a moment. Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I push two chairs together in my office, crawl under my coat and fall deeply asleep for 40 minutes. When my iPhone alarm goes off, I’m staggeringly disoriented. Sometimes, I cry.

I pushed back a grading thing by a week, which moved another deadline by a week, for my first years. Still, I’ve graded, for them, 40 short papers, and 120 online quizzes, and answered at least 40 intro emails, and met with a dozen of them in office hours. My fourth years have also produced 35 short papers that have been graded, and they’ve been coming to meet me about their projects, and it’s a new course so I’m hauling ass to get everything prepped. My first year class turned into a new prep too, because my Dropbox got hacked and all my teaching materials disappeared (please don’t give me advice on how to fix this: trust me when I say I’ve tried everything).

A couple of days ago, I told my daughter to stop jumping up and down on the squeaky part of the floor because “I don’t like that noise, and you must stop.” Her response? “Mom, there’s a LOT of things you don’t like.” It’s true. I’m very short tempered and impatient, lately.

The first week back at school I had a dissertation defence. I’ve got through one advisee chapter since then, and half of another, and I have two more on my desk that need my attention. Three students are waiting on me for stuff. I’ve organized two more defences since then, and two others took place this week.

Yesterday, I snapped at my husband in the car, for singing a funny song to make our kid laugh. “It’s too loud and I need you to stop that right now!” I barked at him. Poor man. He’s been making suppers and being quiet, and taking on extra chores. But I’m snappish and mean.

I’ve led four three-hour grad committee meetings, four Fridays in a row. We’ve also had team meetings, and a department meeting. And we’re doing a program review and there’s lots I’m in charge of. And my annual performance review files I had to pull together and narrate. And the kind of crisis that pops up unexpectedly but with great force in a big grad program, sometimes, that takes 10 hours and 30 emails to fix. Also we’re doing an internal recruitment thing that means I’m having a lot of meetings with candidates and assessing a lot of files on my own instead of passing them to the committee. I’m asking for money, I’m planning an event, I’m dealing with people upset about decisions.

From January 30 to February 18, I worked every single day. And every night I slept in two short naps, usually between 11 and 3, and then from 5:30-6:30. I spent the intervening hours with a racing heart and racing mind, miserable. Some mornings, I isolated myself from my family, because I could not bring myself to be nice to them. Everything is too loud and too bright and too itchy, and if you drop a pencil too close to me, I will scream and my heart rate will shoot up to 140.

January 31, I co-planned a rally attended by more than 600 people. I did press, I did promotions. I cooked a meal for a local refugee family on the same day, in a fit of terrible scheduling. It was my birthday, and I had to be dragged out. I cried a little before we went to the restaurant. I missed, somehow, an email from my kid’s school about an important meeting, so I missed the meeting, too.

I wrote a 6000 word research talk, and made a 72 slide Keynote deck to go with it. I spent a (truly lovely, inspiring, and amazing) day at McMaster to present it and meet people. The woman who introduced me made a big deal out of how important Hook and Eye was to her.  It was so touching! When I got back home, every email I’d missed reminded me how that time was not really mine to use for research.

I have two boxes of Cliff bars and a dozen meal replacement shakes in my office. I don’t take lunches. I shovel food in my face dashing between my office and the department photocopier. I guzzle a latte between my office and my fourth year class. I guzzle a Diet Coke between my office and my first year class.

I have to convert the Works Cited for an accepted chapter into MLA 8. I hid from the editor so successfully because I couldn’t find time to do it that she actually phoned my chair. This is my life now.

I’m not well. One day, I had to cancel some meetings because every time I stood up, I got dizzy. My insomnia is literally impairing my ability to think: I tried to drive somewhere a couple of days ago, and when I got in the car I couldn’t visualize the whole route, I just knew which direction to start in. I figured I’d recognize it as I went. I did. That was scary. I had to meet a student today, and I went to school in oversized track pants and my pyjama shirt. I have not had a shower today. I feel like if I have to gussy myself up for one more thing I am going to have a complete meltdown.

I haven’t been to yoga for months, except to teach.

A faculty member recently came to my office to berate me for asking him to spend ten minutes writing a reference letter: did I not know how busy he was? and what an outrageous claim on his time this was? I had a vision of screams and fire and violence. I saw myself grow to the size of the entire building, rampaging. I pressed my nails into my palms and stayed quiet.

I don’t need anyone to help me — that is, this post is not itself a cry for help. It’s reading week now, and I’m going to try very hard to catch my breath. I’ve taken some walks. I’ve played piano. I’ve baked with my kid, and cuddled my spouse. I’m letting myself sleep. I do myself the kindness of reaching out to the people who love me, who are loving me, and it helps. I’m writing this post.

What I’m intending with this post is to just flag that …. what? That I have all kinds of good advice and good habits and boundaries and all the rest of it but sometimes there’s just actually too much work to do. That this can imperil your health and your happiness. That sometimes, mid-semester, all you can do is cling on by your fingernails, cut corners where you can, and wait for it to end. The problem right now is that there is just too much work to be done, and it’s important sometimes just to recognize that. To recognize as well that my body is giving me strong signals that this is not sustainable: the dizziness, and the insomnia, will soon enough knock me flat on my ass, and force me to take a sick day. My body sends important signals, and I should listen.

If this is you, too, please know: I feel you. I’m sorry this is happening. Do not grin and bear it — you might have to bear it, but there’s no need to be cheerful about it. If you want to unburden yourself in the comments, please do. I do not want to normalize or heroize this kind of labour. I want to call it what it is–terribly and unhealthy, and harmful in many ways–and work towards making the kind of university where it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does.

academic work · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · productivity · protip

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by “linked,” you mean “hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I’m bound.” I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I’m willing to work (if by willing you mean “what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down”), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak’s piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I’m currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let’s say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you’ve mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let’s say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you’ll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I … freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I’m working on–assessing grad admissions files, say–and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I’ll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: “Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it’s been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don’t have three hours because I have to do that grading and I’ll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can’t write now because I’m worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I’M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I’m a terrible person because now it’s been another five minutes and I’m no farther ahead on this and I think I’ll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research …”

It’s exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don’t work, because I’m panicking about work, about how I’ll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn’t get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I’m reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander (“If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I’m going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?”) I remind myself that I’ve scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It’s a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what’s happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I’ll never finish another book ever) is a fool’s game. And if we play it too often, we don’t do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That’s untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I’m worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I’m going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

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The Internet I want to live in

Lindy West left Twitter yesterday. I noticed that around the time I was holding her book Shrill in my hands, so I could transcribe the title of an essay into the syllabus of one of my courses: “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself.” The essay is about the notion of ‘confidence’ and what it means, culturally and personally, to be a confident fat woman. It begins with body acceptance, and according to West, the chapter could be only sixteen words long and it would say this and be complete: “Look at pictures of fat women on the Internet until they don’t make you uncomfortable anymore.”

West reminds us that representation matters. She narrates the process of seeing, over and over, and then actively seeking out and voraciously consuming, photos of fat women, starting with Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project, and moving through blogs and hashtags. Seeing her own body type represented, over and over, and celebrated and loved and just simply being, cracked something open.

When West married, she produced this. This is the internet I want to live in.

However, the internet I actually have is a little different. It’s an internet where even after 10 years, Twitter’s best anti-harassment tool is to make is so those who are being abused can “mute” their harassers, whose hate everyone can still see. It’s an internet that Sherman Alexie also just left on New Years, tweeting “Hey folks, I’m leaving Twitter because its negatives increasingly outweigh its positives. Thank you for the follows.” Ta-Nehisi Coates is gone, too, though maybe temporarily. It’s a platform for fake news and gas lighting and hate speech and doxxing and dog-piling. It’s weaponized virality with the aim of silencing oppressed and minoritized populations. It’s developing its own vocabulary, even.

Maybe the internet was started by computer nerds–government funded misfits and model train builders and hippies and prodigies. Somewhere along the line–in Usenet groups, through Reddit and 4chan, and leaping onto the WWW and sites like Facebook and Twitter–the internet itself became a tool of oppression. And I think this was in direct proportion to its utility and effectiveness as a tool of liberation. The internet gave us #GirlsLikeUs, #BlackLivesMatter, #MMIW, #ILookLikeAProfessor and more, a platform that no one gave to us, but that we took. That internet is under attack, and we risk losing it.

To say we live in a moment of powerful backlash against acknowledging and celebrating the always-there-but-often-suppressed diversity and plurality of our shared world would be an understatement.

West deserves a break. Alexie, too. Leslie Jones deserved a break. Hashtag activists deserve a break. It’s time for those of us who have remained behind the front lines, benefiting from their cover, to step forward. We are going to have to fight for the internet we want, because it’s not a given. I’m collecting strategies and resources, and trying to do my part. You might start here, with Femtech Net’s Centre for Solutions to Online Violence. Or, if you you want to get down and dirty, consider something like Sleeping Giants. And, crucially, stay online. Stay on Twitter as a progressive. Stay on Facebook and keep reporting those fake news sites. Keep blogging, keep linking, keep sharing.

Representation matters. Women, people of colour, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, rural people, the underemployed, we’ve enjoyed a really good run with online publishing tools, producing vast troves of amazing content, and cobbling together amazing communities. This is all at risk. Fight. And maybe someday Lindy West will come back.

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Take care, take time

Radical thought, oh my academic friends: take at least a week off this holiday break. Like, off off: don’t check your work email, don’t work on your syllabus, don’t try to revise that article. If you are someone’s supervisor or someone’s boss, for goodness sake, be explicit that you hope those who report to you do not work or check email or ‘get ahead’ or ‘work on a project’ over the break.

I hear the howls of protest already: but I’m so behind! It’s my only chance to not be interrupted! I need to get ahead! I have all these loose ends! Everything is on fire!  But I like working every day of the year!

No. I mean, let me try to be empathetic here: I know you feel a lot of pressure, but working straight through the holiday is only going to make it worse. Worse right away because you will feel lousy and exhausted and exploited. Worse later because people will expect you to be always working. Worse for everyone else who would really like work life balance because you are setting a precedent for not needing it. So, no.

Are you tired? Has the term been tough? Have you studied / taught / researched / served with all your might, juggled too many things at once, set lofty goals and not quite reached them, dropped a couple of things? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, soften, rest.

Do you have a big term coming up at the start of January? Writing deadlines, new prep, admissions season, lofty goals you’re not quite sure you can reach? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, build up a little cushion of restedness to be ready to tackle January when it comes.

The longer I do this the more I understand the values of boundaries. This job will take any amount of time you throw at it, and ask for more, and the work will still never be done. So I set boundaries: this amount of time for course prep and no more. A dedicated writing appointment every time for 60 minutes. No work emails after 5 pm (and if I write them after that, I wait until morning to send them). Take the weekends off (unless I am overcome by an urge to write). This makes me more productive and more relaxed–it’s true.

And I’m setting boundaries not just on a daily or a weekly basis: I’m setting semester boundaries. This means, particularly between Fall and Winter semesters, when my family celebrates Christmas, I take a break. Don’t work. Sleep in. Read novels. Go sledding. Drink mimosas at 10am. Hit the Boxing Day sales. Hang out with friends and family.

The best part is digging out my office keys on the first day back, walking down the hallway to my office, and seeing everything with fresh eyes. It feels like I’ve been away. It’s fresh, a little strange. I’m ready to go.

Everyone deserves this feeling.

When I was a grad student I used to fly home for the holiday with half a suitcase full of books. I never read them. They were heavy to carry. I felt an ambient looming guilt over not reading them when I was out walking in the snow or sipping egg nog. I felt regret when I dragged them all back to Edmonton unread, starting the semester feeling like a failure.

As as prof, I’m very, very careful to not give my own students anything to do over the break. No really late paper submission deadlines so that they write all through the holiday, no pre-semester reading list or assignments. No chapter revisions for my supervisees. Nothing.

You need a break. I need a break. I assure that I myself take one every year at this time and I’m still employed and relatively successful. And happy.

So my holiday wish for you is: visions of sugarplums, and not Zizek, dancing in your head, for at least a week. You can do it. You deserve it.

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Open Letters and Commitments to Equity

I was honoured over the last week or so to work with my colleagues Frankie Condon, Jay Dolmage, Jennifer Harris, Heather Smyth, and Vinh Nguyen to craft an open letter–as so many others have done!–expressing our disavowal of the politics of hate and division the recent US election seems to portend. We wanted to stake a claim for justice. And we wanted it to be local, and we wanted it to do something rather than just say something. So there are action items in here, that I am going to post on my office door for all to see, and on my office bulletin board to guide my actions every day.

Our letter, because we want it to be impactful, has to be local. If you are a UW staff, faculty, or alumni and want your name added, leave you name in the comments, or send me an email and I’ll add it.

If you like the letter but are not at the University of Waterloo, take what you will from it, and start a letter for your own institution.

Beliefs that are not voice have no impact; but statements without action are just as bad. We will hold ourselves to this, and try to make our little corner of the world a better place. We would love you to join us.

Please share widely.


Open letter to the University of Waterloo

We recognize that our feelings of anger, grief, and fear in response to the recent U.S. election are shared by many of our colleagues and students at the University of Waterloo. We condemn the hate crimes, hate speech, and everyday appeals to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ableism, and trans- and homophobia across North America and abroad that have so marred our collective hope for more fully realized global social justice.

We are committed to racial justice, religious freedom, and social equality. We stand in solidarity with colleagues and students whose well-being is threatened in the current political climate especially with those who are racialized Others, who are LGBTQ2, who are Muslims and Jews, immigrants and refugees, Indigenous, or disabled. We acknowledge and accept our right and our responsibility to act on this commitment to solidarity in our classrooms, our offices, our meeting rooms, and in our research, as well as in our communities beyond the bounds of our universities.

We are committed to the work of creating a just future in which Othered and dissenting perspectives and voices are acknowledged and respected, in which the rights of all peoples to full economic and political empowerment are recognized, and in which rights to religious freedom are honoured. We stand together against the politics of racism, white supremacy, hatred, and misogyny. We call on our institutional leaders and our colleagues to join with us in challenging and dismantling hate in all its forms on our campus, in our communities, our province, and our nation.

We, the undersigned, commit to the following actions:

  • We will foster and sustain equitable spaces for discussion in the classroom 
  • We will craft inclusive syllabi that recognize the plurality of voices, traditions, and perspectives in academic work, as well as in our student body 
  • We refuse to ignore, normalize, or explain away overt racism, homo- and transphobia, misogyny and xenophobia in our teaching, service, research, or public work for any reason, including undue deference to position or institution 
  • We will work to create a more just, equitable, supportive, and inclusive university, from our classrooms, to our offices, to our faculties and the broader institution, through policy initiatives and daily action 

We call on our university to:

  • Indigenize, by taking the following steps: 
    • Prioritize and follow through on the hiring of indigenous scholars in every faculty and discipline 
    • Include territorial acknowledgement prominently on all public documents and public relations materials as well as on syllabi and online course materials
    • Create conduits for indigenous students at all levels of study to attend the University of Waterloo 
    • Encourage and support University initiatives that particularly focus on innovation that works WITH indigenous communities to address inequalities, injustices, environmental, economic, and political problems that particularly impact on indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. 
  • Work harder and more visibly to create and sustain a university environment that is fair, equitable, and welcoming for students, faculty, and staff of all faiths, gender identities, abilities, ethnicities, races, and nationalities paying particular attention to and with particular care for the needs and interests of those most likely to face discrimination 
  • Publicly recognize and dedicate the university’s care and attention to the arts and humanities where the values of justice, equality, fairness, and inclusion, where the histories, philosophical and spiritual traditions, arts and cultures of diverse peoples are studied and told 
  • Publicly recognize and support public intellectualism across all faculties and disciplines; that is, value and support faculty and student engagement beyond the bounds of the university with social, cultural, political, and economic reform or transformation toward the goal of social justice 

Dr. Carol Acton, Department of English Language and Literature, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lamees Al Ethari, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Alicia Batten, Department of Religious Studies & Theological Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lizbeth Berbary-Mohamed, Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kate Rybczynski, Department of Economics, University of Waterloo
Dr. Frankie Condon, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Bruce Dadey, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jay Dolmage, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Marlene Epp, Departments of History and Peace & Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Robert Gorbet, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Dorothy Hadfield, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ken Hirschkop, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Sara Humphreys, St. Jerome’s University
Dr. Corey W. Johnson, Recreation and Leisure Studies, Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ashley Kelly, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Victoria Lamont, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Shana MacDonald, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo
Dr. John McLevey, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Andrew McMurry, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Aimée Morrison, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vinh Nguyen, Renison College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jane Nicholas, Departments of History and Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kathryn Plaisance, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Lorna Rourke, Librarian, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vanessa Schweizer, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Gordon Slethaug, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Heather Smyth, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Linda Warley, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts
Dr. Vershawn Young, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo