ideas for change · productivity

Feeling anxious? Try safe mode!

I’d like to break my silence on this thing to introduce you to a small productivity concept that has resonated strongly with me. 

Do you sometimes wake up feeling anxious? Depressed? Rundown, disoriented, and nondirectional? Do you poop out of parties?



Or, did you have a little too much fun last night, and can’t afford to take the day off? Feeling overwhelmed about all your myriad projects, big & small?


Why not try putting yourself into what my good friend Allison calls “safe mode”? 

“Safe mode” is a diagnostic state in computer operating systems in which the computer runs tasks and completes operations at a slower, less efficient rate. This is because something is wrong with the system and it cannot fully function, so it runs basic functionality including only the essentials until the larger problem is addressed. It is perhaps akin to low battery mode on iPhone, when background refresh, automatic downloads, and certain visual effects are deactivated. You can still text, check apps, make calls–but nothing fancy, important, or overly taxing.

When I wake up feeling anxious or otherwise, I go into safe mode. I make a list of small, easily executed tasks that perhaps I have been putting off. Emails, stray response papers that need grading, an online training course I’ve been avoiding, scanning PDFs for my class, updating the format of my CV, setting up Grade Center on Blackboard, ordering books for next semester. (Did I mention emails?) Nothing that involves too much active energy or engagement, nothing that deals in high stakes. These are arranged in a sequential order such that the small feat of completing one task enables you to pass onto the next one – like passing on to the next level in a video game. 

I prioritize things that will make me feel better about myself, reinforce my competency, and translate the nebulous work of much of academia into itemized tangibles–or, dare I use the language of assessment, deliverables. I end the day with a sense of satisfaction that I honored my need for some distance from my major, stress-inducing responsibilities, while having crossed a number of items off a list, clearing space for greater focus once I feel well enough to reenter normal mode. 

Leave the big tasks for a different day, when your desk is free of the small stuff. Try safe mode! It acts not only as a symptom of anxiety, but also serves as an antidote, for the accumulated little things can contribute to overwhelm in ways that we might not even recognize.

Source: mytherapistsays on IG

Safe mode is sometimes useful to switch on even when you aren’t feeling anxious or overwhelmed, because it is so easy to let the small things pile up, and before you know it you’ve missed a deadline or disappointed a friend or colleague. I guess in that instance, you might be in safe mode and you don’t even know it, sloughing off on the tasks that don’t present themselves to you as immediately pressing. But at any rate, you might want to try blocking out a section of time on your calendar for safe mode tasks. With safe mode, you can spoon your way to better mental health!


day in the life · productivity · writing

Going old school: the return of pen and paper

It’s not so long ago that I finished the revisions to my dissertation and submitted the final version–not even six months. And I developed a very structured and consistent writing practice during the years I was finishing it, one that relied entirely on technology. Because I wrote in short bursts in multiple locations–at home before work, on my lunch at work, in transit–I relied heavily on the ability of my Macbook, iPad, and iPhone to sync seamlessly so that I could write on anything, from anywhere, and (because I keep all of my research backed up to Google Drive) access my research at the same time.

But after I submitted my dissertation and tried to apply the writing practice I’d developed to other projects, and even to old ones–I’m writing fiction, working on the book proposal for my dissertation monograph, publishing articles with Chronicle Vitae and Inside Higher Ed, putting together three separate book chapters, and of course writing here–I failed. I’d sit down at the computer and come up empty. The white vastness of a blank Word document was paralyzing. My old strategy–sit at computer, write things–no longer worked.

But I had a thought. About halfway through 2016, I decided to abandon my 100% digital task- and time-management system (Todoist + Google/Outlook calendars) and go back using a physical planner/journal. I’d been pseudo bullet journalling for a long time before I decided to move digital, and so I went back to it in a slightly different form, using the awesome Hobonichi Techo Cousin planner, plus a Rhodia notebook for longer notes, lists, and my cooking and reading journals. (Yes, I’m a planner geek. But if you’re into “bujo,” as the kids call it these days, or into fountain pens and good paper, you know that Hobonichis and Rhodias are awesome.) I’d also been gifted a couple of gorgeous entry-level fountain pens (a lime green Twsbi Diamond 780 and a gold Pilot Metropolitan, for those of you who like pens) as graduation presents. And I found that I really loved the tactility of planning and recording my days on paper. The feeling of a super smooth fountain pen nib on Rhodia paper is really nice, and writing on paper is physically and visually pleasurable in a way that makes me want to find something to write just for the fun of seeing the bold black lines of my handwriting against the white sheet. Too, I loved the way that handwriting slowed and controlled my thoughts, narrowed my focus only to the words I was thinking and placing on the page before me.

My planner + case combo.

So I picked up a big Rhodia notebook and began working out my ideas for those bigger writing projects on paper. Articles for IHE and Chronicle Vitae that I’d been stuck on streamed out. I didn’t even need to write out the whole piece for the move to paper to be effective–handwriting got me over the hurdle of getting started and drafting the first few tricky paragraphs, and I could then outline the rest and type it up fast. Same goes for my book proposal–I was stuck until I put pen to paper–and all of my recent Hook & Eye posts, which I’ve entirely handwritten. I’m working toward drafting longer book chapters on paper, and to making this writing practice as sustainable as the old one was for me–I had to take a bit of a break after finishing my dissertation, but I’m ready to get back to the levels of writing productivity and consistency I had then, and indeed I’m nearly there.

Handwriting this post.

If you know me, you know I’m all for new technology where it makes my life better or easier. I love my Chromecast and my iPhone and my wifi-enabled lightbulbs. But in this case, old technologies–the smooth glide of ink, the delicious curves of cursive, the stark contrast of soot-black ink on snowy white paper–serve me better and give me more pleasure. I’m on the lookout for other places in my life where that might also be the case: I still do a fair bit of digital reading, but I’m trying to spend more time with actual books. I’m all for a newfangled loaf of Jim Lahey’s no knead bread, but I’m also baking sourdough with my own starter.

Just don’t make me give up my Instant Pot.

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!

academy · dissertation · faster feminism · grad school · parenting · PhD · productivity · reform · women

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

It was with mixed feelings that I welcomed September and the onset of autumn this semester. Most years, with the yellow-tinged leaves and the crisp morning dew, I find myself back in the classroom, gearing up for a semester of teaching, welcoming new students, or training incoming RAs.

This year, I’m gearing up for a different kind of semester. I began the term filling out Employment Insurance (EI) forms instead of post-doctoral applications. Instead of stacks of papers mid-semester, I’ll be dealing with stacks of diapers. Instead of scheduled student hours, I’ll be at the beck and call of unscheduled infant cries: my second child is due to arrive at the end of October.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my experience of pregnancy, parental leave, and the academy has been on the second go-around.

Although both my children will be born during my PhD, the first arrived at the end of my first year, while I was funded through SSHRC. The second comes at the tail end of my program, as I submit my final chapter, re-write my introduction, and finish my conclusion. My funding has shifted from scholarship-based to teaching-based, and with that shift comes a complete alteration in how (and whether) I qualify for paid maternity and parental leave.

As it turns out, there are vastly different parental benefits available to graduate students at the University of Alberta depending on the source of their academic funding. Although every graduate student is permitted to take up to three years of unpaid parental leave, qualifying for paid leave depends on precisely how you are paid: 1) by scholarship, 2) as a Graduate Student Research/Teaching Assistant, or 3) as a Contract Academic Employee. Each of these options has various benefits and drawbacks, but most graduate students don’t actively chose which one they happen to qualify for. Much depends on how a particular department happens to be able to fund its graduate students, or the scholarships those graduate students themselves happen to win.

1) If you are paid by scholarship, paid parental leave depends on the scholarship itself. If you hold an external SSHRC doctoral award, you qualify for up to six months of paid parental leave at 100% of your stipend. If you hold other awards, it depends on that award. Surprisingly (to me, at least), many of these awards, both external to the university (like the prestigious Killam) or internal (like the now-defunct Dissertation Fellowship) offer no paid parental leave at all, meaning you would qualify for nothing if you happened to need parental or maternity leave while holding these awards.

2) If you are paid as an Research or Teaching Assistant (either full or part-time), you are permitted to take either: parental leave, which allows for 16 weeks of leave at 75% of your current stipend; or maternity leave at 100% of your stipend for six weeks, followed by 75% of your stipend for the remaining 10 weeks. (For more, see the Graduate Student Assistantship Collective Agreement).

3) If you are paid as a Contract Academic Employee, you *may* qualify for leave through Employment Insurance as long as you meet the requirements (you must have worked 600 insured hours as a Contract Academic Employee in the previous 52 weeks, which is not typical for most graduate students). This would permit you to take a full year of paid leave, at 55% percent of your salary.

These, of course, are just the policies at my own university–the University of Alberta. While other Canadian universities operate on similar lines (ie: whether you qualify for leave depends on how you are paid), many actually don’t offer any paid leave at all for students supported through the university (ie: as a research or teaching assistant).

In my particular case, in this second pregnancy, I managed to qualify for a full year of leave through EI by working as a Contract Academic Employee. I got a bit lucky because I was offered an extra course through another department at my university, and a spring course through my own department (which I was not guaranteed with my particular funding package). This meant I was able to work the amount of insurable hours I needed to qualify, and it means that this time I will be taking a full year of paid leave, versus four months last time–which I felt was insufficient (in fact, I wasn’t able to find full-time childcare until well after my four months of official leave). There was, of course, a trade-off: I almost certainly slowed my progress to completion by taking on the additional teaching work.

How, then, might universities better support graduate students who become parents during the course of their degrees?

What I’d really love to see is a full year of paid parental leave for all graduate students, regardless of how they are paid. This would go a very long way in helping women to succeed in academia. However, given that even the best leave (SSHRC) only pays six months of leave (albeit at 100%), I feel like this is a good second choice. So, I’d love to see all graduate students qualify for six months of leave at 100%, regardless of their funding sources. It would also be great to see the qualifying period simply be based on the student’s previous four months of pay. This would negate the need for students to undertake more work (and thus slow their time to completion) simply in order to qualify.

Both these things would help reduce the academic opacity that seems to surround the decision to have a family, and make it more fair for students who happen to be on scholarships or funding packages that mean they don’t qualify. Really, all graduate students should be entitled to paid leave, regardless of the source of their funding.

collaboration · gradgrind · PhD · productivity · social media

Ideas for the Break: Online Dissertation Boot Camp

Today, my brilliant Americanist colleague Christy Pottroff has graciously agreed to let me repost her piece (originally posted on the Fordham Graduate Digital Humanities Group blog) describing her experience with the online, collective dissertation writing group we formed over our Spring Break in March (I called it “Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp,” but there was very little booting, only cheering). I know the semester is winding down for many folks in the great white north, and you should all, first and foremost, take an actual break after the hard work of the academic year–but once you’re ready to move back into working mode, consider forming an online writing group! I was very pleased with the way this Facebook post blossomed into a productive, collaborative community of motivated women hailing from various universities across the continent. Three H&E-ers–myself, Melissa, and Jana–took part in the group, so it seems only appropriate that it should be discussed here. Without further ado, here’s Christy:

___________________

For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my Texts & Contexts course. I don’t have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It’s a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.

An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?

A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire [*blush*], Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond. The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn’t critique one another’s writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e. read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan). Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.

The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member’s goals. Here’s our group’s template:

Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with each other’s goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.

At the end of each day, I would set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.

Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them. What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group’s institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don’t know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.

Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it’s not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you’ll use your time and hold one another accountable.

___
Christy Pottroff is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University in New York City where she specializes in nineteenth-century American literature, queer and feminist theory, and rural studies. Thank you, Christy!

mental health · productivity · reflection · silence · winter · you're awesome

Slowing Down

It’s mid-semester. We’re all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to……:

SLOW DOWN. 
Here’s some Rothko for ya. Click on the image. It’ll help.

I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I’m constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.

The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me–or, worse, annoyed or indifferent–because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I’d suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and “idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts,” according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes–about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I’m partial to “Deep Focus”).

I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don’t always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because “academic” is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.

Related to the power of boredom is the “power of patience” (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should “take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences” of students, learning to guide practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive…), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?

So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I’m preaching right this moment and head to bed.

*For this article, as well as the “slow looking” exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative–and generous–Facebook post!

best laid plans · gradgrind · grading · PhD · productivity

Grading Strategies (…I need ’em)

(read Erin’s post from yesterday first, if you haven’t already!)

It’s that time of year, to invoke the old academic cliche (when is it not that time of year?). I have a stack of grading that I’ve barely touched: 31 4-page papers, plus 30 journals that span roughly the last month of weekly journal entries. Plus I have to teach those courses, sometimes be observed by my superiors teaching those courses (twice in the last week, including this morning, which is why this blog is late, apologies), and I’m supposed to have written two chapters of my dissertation by the end of this semester.

Oh, and the venerable holiday of Halloween happened.

 My partner and I, as “American Goths”

So yeah, that was important to make time for too (…I’m serious!). To some of you, this schedule–basically juggling two things, teaching and dissertation–may seem pretty tame. Some of you have hundreds of students, hundreds of papers to grade, you’re writing three books, some of you teach at multiple institutions, some of you have families and kids and administrative responsibilities and…overall, I know I should be thankful that my schedule is relatively simplified, but to be perfectly honest,  I’ve never taught more than one course at a time before and so am finding managing two plus general dissertation workload quite difficult. You have my permission to scoff.

So, I think it’s time to consolidate some grading tips! We haven’t talked about that too much on this thing, it seems; Aime discussed clumping her papers in a 2011 post, generating a useful discussion in the comments with such strategies as recording rather than writing your comments, and giving detailed feedback only on the first page. I clump, but I can’t see myself recording, and I am constantly plagued with guilt when I don’t comment on every page or paragraph so I’m not really sure about that last one either. Here are some other strategies I’ve thought about, discussed, learned, attempted to put into practice (key word: attempted):

1. First things first, establish reasonable expectations. I have heard of first-year Composition & Rhetoric courses requiring something like 4-page papers every week. I think we can all agree that that’s too much for all parties involved, engendering writing produced under exhaustion and duress, and stressed-out and overworked professors. Immersive, high-pressure learning environments work, arguably, for language acquisition, but not for writing, when the goals are more geared around precision, nuance, attention to detail, personal expression. So, teachers, if it is within your power, don’t construct an unreasonable syllabus! Remember that the demands of the academy and the pervasive DWYL dictum within academia ask too much of us to justify spending every waking moment grading; we simply aren’t paid enough, aren’t compensated for our labor enough, to sacrifice personal or research time for written feedback to students, who generally care more about the letter grade anyway.

2. Structure peer review into the writing process. Jana talked about this a little bit last year. At the very least, forcing them to write and print out a rough draft gets them thinking about and wrestling with their projects early on, and instills in them a sense of writing as a process, not an isolated event.  I’ve found, however, that my in-class peer reviews yield mixed results, as my students are often too nice to one another to provide useful critical feedback, or they get caught up in (important, but still) local problems such as formatting the Works Cited page rather than global issues. I always distribute a handout, but have adopted different formats;  on the one hand I don’t want to set them loose on each others’ papers with no guidance, but on the other I want to leave room for personal engagement and independent critical thinking. For my last essay, I had them read each other’s drafts over the weekend and write neutral summaries of them; then, in class, I gave them a handout with guiding questions for their conversations. The authors were supposed to chronicle on this handout the feedback they received, but I think they got too caught up in conversations to be able to complete that fully. I want to keep experimenting with formats that keep them responsible to each other as well as sparking independent thinking.
The point is: peer review and sequenced assignments should help produce better quality work in the end, allowing for an easier grading process.

3. Make sure the assignments are carefully scaffolded so that they can be as prepared as possible to write. Relating to #2, but there are lots of things you can do besides peer review: devote time in class to having them pair up and talk through thesis statements/outlines, brainstorm research possibilities together, have them write out intro paragraphs in class and then ask for volunteers to read and discuss them. (N.b: if you’re teaching Comp, you can turn this into a fun exercise in tone–pass out slips of paper that provide individual instructions for rewriting their introductions from different perspectives, eg. “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are a strongly right-wing critic,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the introduction to a children’s book,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the beginning of a manifesto,” etc. Learning to approach the material from different perspectives will help them nuance and master their material, and it’s always a fun exercise to have them read out their paragraphs to one another, having them guess what persona they’ve adopted.)

4. Maintain a routine. Set the timer, keep to it. I aim for 20 minutes per 4-page paper. Sometimes I (still) take longer than this, but having the timer go off as I’m still reading through the last page will give me added urgency to speed things up and get to the end comment as quickly as possible. I also always grade with the same blue pen, play music that peps me up, keeps me cheerful, or calms me down as necessary, and (of course) take short breaks to minimize my own crankiness.

5. Experiment with oral forms of presentation/grading. Someone in a recent Facebook discussion noted that she actually grades in concentrated one-on-one settings, which seems to me to be a little too high pressure (for both me and the student; I know I often have a hard time concentrating with someone [who has a vested interest in what I’m doing] just sitting and watching me!). But perhaps you could transform a written assignment into an oral presentation to the class. Explain to your students that this is an opportunity for them to hone their oral delivery skills, cater their arguments to a broader audience, and experiment with different kinds of electronic media, such as Prezi.

6. Skim through all the papers and stack them according to what you initially perceive as A, B, and C-worthy papers. I actually don’t do this much anymore, because when I did I often couldn’t help but engage with the work the first-time around, and then it ended up taking approximately twice as much time if I had to go through them all twice.

7. Quality over quantity; fewer assignments, higher stakes. I recently decided it was unreasonable of me to give written feedback on every single weekly journal entry (and my students probably weren’t reading/absorbing everything either), so I adjusted my policies so that students choose one out of four or so entries to submit as a hard copy for written feedback; the others, I just skim through online, keep a log of what I anticipate their grade to be, and leave short comments, briefly observing what worked in the entry and what didn’t.

Those are what I’ve come up with so far; now I really need to go put these suggestions into practice! Maybe I just need to continue to channel the austere, hardworking spirit of the American Gothic couple. More tips welcome!

grad school · mental health · new year new plan · productivity · spirit animal

New Leaf September

I’m not one for giving advice, not really–not when it comes to time management, at least. My cobloggers have already offered some excellent pointers regarding how to whip ourselves into shape for the new school year. How to manage life as a flexible academic, how to squeeze in daily writing time, how to adjust to a new program as a newbie graduate student, figuring out our responsibility to new students as contract professors, and, most recently, training ourselves to pay attention and structure our own time in the absence of externally enforced structure.

But I repeat. I am not one for giving advice–at least not in bullet points, at least not at this stage in my career. I work very hard, to be sure, but I do it in very nonconventional, nonstructured ways. I have always been an avid daydreamer with an overly active imagination (oh hey, I’m writing a dissertation on dream visions! Work and life FTW). Sometimes my head rests so far in the midst of the clouds that, for example, the other day I got on the wrong train, then got off on the wrong stop of the wrong train, and then found myself wandering through some random midtown street, so enthralled in the music I was listening to that I actually had to remind myself to keep my eyes open. (I. Know.)  I sometimes forget to eat, I often wake up at 9 or 10 am, I often stay up working until 2 or 3, I have a very bad habit of hanging out in the Dark Playground.

(“The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.”)

Perhaps we all feel this way, all us bloggers, and I always admire our collective ability to admit we’ve failed, we continue to fail, we will inevitably fail more in the future. But readers, please–be gracious to yourselves. Accept that the goals we set are often unreasonable, worsened by a metrics-based system of output that demands that we make the maximum use of our time and work. So I think the best advice I can give, from my very humble and relatively privileged position as a funded graduate student with very few daily administrative or professional duties, is to be fair to yourself, and fair to your own natural rhythms when sussing out a work regime. Are you a night owl, like me? Respect that about yourself–don’t be night-shamed by those eager beaver morning risers! If you have the luxury of not having to be somewhere at 9 am every day, or not having to drop your kid off at daycare, embrace your night-owl-ness, while being sure to allot yourself a few hours each day for self-care and/or mental rest, be it alone or with a few close supportive friends. I cherish those quiet hours after midnight. While I’m at it, I just want to call upon an essay by Anne Fadiman for a moment:

Something amazing happens when the rest of the world is sleeping. I am glued to my chair. I forget that I ever wanted to do anything but write. The crowded city, the crowded apartment, and the crowded calendar suddenly seem spacious. Three or four hours pass in a moment; I have no idea what time it is, because I never check the clock. If I chose to listen, I could hear the swish of taxis bound for downtown bars or the soft saxophone rifts that drift from a neighbor’s window, but nothing gets through. I am suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, and the very lack of sensation is delicious. (“Night Owl,” The Norton Reader 67)

[^Ok, this doesn’t always happen to me, but sometimes. It’s a beautiful thing.]

Currently, I’m returning to the classroom after an 8-month break (thanks, SSHRC!), so am trying to reinstall structure and focus into my previously seamless schedule.  At the risk of sounding contradictory, but responding to Erin’s call for focusing techniques from yesterday, I do have a few personal strategies and goals that I’ve set for myself this month, and maybe my experience will give you some good ideas as well. Maybe not. Either way, I’m using this blog as a means of keeping myself accountable to my goals during this self-proclaimed, momentous “New Leaf September.”

1. I’ve temporarily deactivated my Facebook account.
It was hard, guys. I think I’ve deactivated it once in the 8 years since I’ve joined, and that lasted about, maybe, a day. I’m slightly addicted to social interaction and the digital community that Facebook establishes just has not been helping with that lately. Now, instead of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and wondering why this or that person hasn’t liked my latest photo or responded to my fb chat, blah blah blah, stupid social media anxiety, I’m relying on Twitter to supply me with news and ideas and an electronic friend circle, and I’m trying to redirect my mental energy into other, more creative things. I even finished a book today! I’m on Day 2. We’ll see how this goes (it’s possible that by the time you’re reading this, I’ve reactivated; don’t judge.).

2. I’m slotting my various responsibilities into various spaces around the city. 
Teaching stuff? Either campus or my office at home. Dissertation stuff? Coffee shops or libraries. I have been fortunate enough to become a member of the Wertheim Study program at NYPL, which means I have access to a scholars-only room with designated shelf space and other important-looking studious scholars who make me feel like I need to be important-looking and studious too. When I’m there, I have to be working on my dissertation: I’m not allowed to grade or respond to student emails or text my friends (*cough*). Trying to maintain designated spaces for different tasks will help me feel like I’m off-duty when I head home every day.

3. I keep a daily research journal where I sketch out my accomplishments and note what needs to be done next. Not only does this help me celebrate what I’ve done, but it helps me pick back up again whenever I sit down to my dissertation, minimizing the paralysis that sometimes occurs when transitioning between very different tasks. I keep this journal specific and realistic and allow myself to freak out in it a little bit too, screaming silently when things go wrong or when I haven’t met my goals. Freak out in your research journals, people.

While I know I’ll fail as I turn over a new leaf this year, I want to be gracious to my own strengths and weaknesses as a person, and allow myself micro-celebrations when things go right. I guess that’s what this entire blog is about, in a way. I’m barreling into this new year after a summer that, well, wasn’t the best from a feminist perspective, feeling strong and energized, ready to “put words out into the world that do something,” as Erin so eloquently reminded us to do last week. 

In a sense, I want to barrel into the new academic year like this amazing dog named Walter who dashes into the Ionian sea with a camera strapped to his back.

Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to share that video.

grad school · guilt · mental health · PhD · productivity

The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a brief follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive.  Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for it’s own sake?

How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 
Photographed by me

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marvelled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

bad academics · balance · being undone · day in the life · free time · mental health · productivity

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can’t get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow …]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I’m running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn’t even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I’m a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I’m asking myself:

  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I’m listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?

There’s a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it’s difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you’re trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it’s enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here’s to the blank spaces and what they do for us.