Category Archives: academia

The Year of No

Hello, it’s been a while. Mostly due to a research trip I took to Jamaica. I thought I would be able to keep up with all my usual activities while there, including blogging, but soon found that for various reasons – archival research, family time, unreliable internet, heat, a wholly different pace of life – I had to start letting all non-urgent activity go undone. It was a good lesson for me in prioritizing, and also in facing the fact that I do too much.

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Way at the beginning of my trip, when I thought I had all the time in the world. Sadly, this was my one and only beach trip for two months.

Unfortunately, because I came back to all those non-urgent activities waiting for me, some of which had become urgent in the meantime, I haven’t had time to reassess my priorities while here. Often people say in such situations it’s sink or swim, but for the past two weeks I’ve felt like I’ve been in a perpetual state of floundering, neither sinking nor swimming and certainly not the easy float I’d come to know while in Jamaica.

An aside: Floating isn’t a universal way of life in Jamaica (much as the popular media may have you believe it is). It’s just that I was there for a single purpose and so didn’t have to contend with the distractions of real life during those two months.

So, I mention all the above not to brag (though, feel free to think more highly of me for what I could fashion as a single-minded dedication to research) but to bring up this question of how much we have on our plates. I am speaking even more specifically of how much work we have on our plates. Academics – active and productive ones anyway – tend to have several projects going at once. Most of them we do because we have some passion for the work involved and are invested in the expected outcome. A few (if we are lucky, only a few) we do because some force outside ourselves (the job market, the tenure track, the department chair) decreed we should. Let’s ignore the latter for a moment and look critically at the former. How much of your passion do you really have to pursue right now? Right this minute? How much of it can you pursue? That is, do you have the resources – time, energy and attention being the most important ones here – to do so many of them justice?

I’ve been on sabbatical for this past year, so I’ve had the luxury of indulging in primarily what I’m passionate about (including more yoga!) but now it’s summer and I can see the end of this freedom fast approaching. That imminent change, along with my experience while in Jamaica, has prompted me to declare June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016 “the year of no.” I plan to say no to as many requests for my time, energy and attention as possible.

“No” is a lot more difficult than “yes,” more difficult even than “no, but…” There’s so much wrapped up in “no,” so many unknowns, whereas yes seems paradoxically clear cut. I’ve already had the opportunity to decline a request this week and I opted for the “no, but…” escape. Baby steps. I still, however, have very high hopes of practicing saying “no” for the next twelve months. The hardest part, I have found in just the four days so far, is saying no to myself. Reminding myself that just because a project should be done, does not mean that I should be the one to do it. Wish me luck. I’ll occasionally let you know how I’m doing (because I’m still saying yes to blogging!)

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brilliant honesty

One of the positive comments I often get on my work is that my writing style is remarkably candid and direct. Such comments go back to graduate school when peers would read my work and has followed me through my years as a professor. This consistency often bothers me because I want to be commended for being “smart,” dare I hope “brilliant,” sometimes I’d even take “interesting” over “honest.” I know theoretically that this desire has more to do with the self-doubt that academia is structured to instill in scholars than with my own desires, but that doesn’t stop my cringing.

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What often happens when I get such comments is that I immediately want to take everything back. I want a do-over because I feel over-exposed and under-assimilated into the profession that I’ve chosen to pursue. One of the things that daily mediation has helped me to do is to notice my behavior patterns. And I recently had cause to notice and reflect on this particular pattern when I received an email about work I had shared with a group and the following sentence triggered my insecurities:

Thank you for bravely sharing your thoughts on your pedagogical experiment, for modeling a kind of honest wrestling with difficult questions that is rare in the all-too-often performative realm of the academy.

I had the initial knee-jerk reaction: “Crap, there it is again. So much for the ground-breaking I was shooting for. I need to work harder to make it innovative. I should…I’m not…Why can’t I? etc. etc. etc.” All the monkey-mind negative thoughts that have made their home in my head. (Whenever I really pay attention to such thoughts I think of the sitcom, Herman’s Head, where parts of the title character’s psyche were personified and viewers became privy to how his thoughts and actions were connected).

But the whole email was so beautifully written that I had to reread it. And the rereading gave me enough space to pause and notice the path I was travelling mentally. I realized that my work was being described as valuable. Indeed, uniquely so. Brilliance is so firmly established as the ideal for academic work that we see anything less as, well, less. Is there something to be said for other types of contributions? Like honesty? And candor?

Of course, the negative thoughts haven’t packed up and left. But they have been relegated to a corner for a bit while I play with this notion of other virtues of academic writing. And with the budding realization that this is my academic style. Readers aren’t randomly choosing similar words to describe my work. Actually, I’ve gotten some similar comments from friends about my Calm Strength posts as well, so it seems that I am the one privileging this approach in my writing. (Although it took lots of attempts and deletions to almost state that brilliance may not be the end-all/be-all/everything of academic writing.)

All this to say, I am noticing three patterns here: my writing approach, the responses to my writing, and my response to those responses. Thanks to my work with daily meditation, rather than constantly coming down on myself for not changing my writing style, I am learning to insert a little space between the second and third of these patterns.

the art of practice

So, I haven’t been blogging much in 2015. Ok, I haven’t blogged at all. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but just not made the time to sit down and write any of them out. In part, it’s because I have been doing a lot of writing on my new project and so I haven’t wanted to do any additional writing that I saw as “non-required.” But I’m trying to be better at exercising my writing muscle and that includes blogging. So, I’ll share how I’ve come to think of writing and yoga as parallel practices.

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Pattabhi Jois is often credited with saying “Practice and all is coming.” Consequently, Ashtanga practitioners are expected to practice six days a week, with exceptions only for moon days and menstruation. I know of no other exceptions. And the practice should be done first thing in the morning, partially for biological reasons, but also to ensure it gets done that day. If you stick to this practice, everything that will come from your yoga – poses, peace of mind, strength, clarity, etc – will come. If you don’t practice, then it’s simply less likely that any of those benefits will find you. Certainly not all of them.

Writing is similar. We like to think of the ideal situation where we have hours and hours of time to sit and meditate on a subject, maybe do some research, and then write. But for most of us the writing does not come easy. It turns out that here too, “practice and all is coming.” I have often scoffed at daily writing, but I’ve recently become a convert (at least, for the “required” type of writing…still working on blogging). In January I did a writing challenge with two friends. The idea for the challenge sprung from an article about academic productivity we’d been forwarded combined with our just having done a daily fitness challenge in December. We used Whatsapp for check-ins and basically, it worked in the following way:

Each day (Monday through Friday only) we stated a daily writing (either time period or word count) and we sent a “done” when we’d completed it. Our goals could be big or small and generally ranged between 30 minutes and 3 hours depending on what else we had happening that day. If we failed for that day, we put what we had done. There was a little to no conversation because we didn’t want to add to our reading load. The daily writing needed to be directly related to our research, not service or teaching.

At the beginning of the month, we also stated our goal of what we wanted to have done by the end of the month. In order to avoid the overwhelming fear of the blank page, I kept handy this list of “ten ways to write daily“(also suggested in the article above) for those days when I had no idea what I would do for even 30 minutes.

Surprisingly, at least to me, it worked! I finished all but one of my writing goals for the month, and on time. My colleagues were also similarly successful. Their support was, of course, a significant part of my success; but building the habit of writing daily – even if what I wrote that day would eventually just wind up in the virtual trash can – was the foundation for that success.

So, all that to say practice might not make perfect, but it does make “done.”

Performing academia

I was more than a little hesitant to commit to this project of the Calm Strength blog. There are many reasons for that, but the most relevant for this post is my reluctance to appear to do anything other than academic work. A major part of grad school is the indoctrination into the idea that your work is your life, your whole life. I had to do a lot of what a colleague calls “deprogramming” to even consider admitting publicly that I don’t research/write/teach/think literature during all my waking hours.

There has recently been more attention paid to the life choices academics make both as graduate students and as faculty (full- and part-time).  This year, in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in blog posts and longer articles about not choosing the academic life. So much so that the genre has been dubbed #quitlit (see a spreadsheet on the subject here). The “going public” of the various factors involved in deciding to continue in academia is a welcome change. As Melonie Fullick writes in “Fight and Flight”:

The “Quit Lit” seeks to fill that silence with something other than the assumption of failure, one that’s perpetuated in the meritocratic culture of academe (where incredibly smart, capable people must keep insisting, “I was good enough”).

And:

They function as correctives, and often as confessions, too. The correction being made is usually one about how leaving an academic career is in fact a decision or a choice (and not usually an easy one – based on context), not simply an outcome of one’s lack of capacity or tenacity or merit. Not only that but the posts are statements about identity, choice, and control, even when they are full of the anger and grief and self-doubt that many people feel when they depart.

Beyond the vague mention that one could leave with a master’s degree, there was no discussion of choice when I was a graduate student. I clearly remember bringing the topic up with my advisor and him saying: “But what else would you do?” It is possible he meant the question seriously but I took it as rhetorical and continued on the PhD path. I haven’t always been happy with that choice (indeed, I have had to make that choice multiple times at various junctures of my professional and person life) but I have thus far landed softly each time.

I am incredibly privileged to have a full-time, tenured faculty position. I know I am and for the most part I am actually happy and grateful to be in said position. I won’t say I worked hard for it, because many worked hard alongside me and do not have this privilege. And, to look the thing square in the face, there are also many who did not work so hard and have a similar privilege. And I don’t use “privileged” to mean lucky. Unless we are talking the age-old redefinition of lucky to mean “when hard work meets opportunity” rather than the dictionary definition of simple “chance” or “accident.” Otherwise, I would be misrepresenting the path I have chosen to take.

A major theme in #quitlit is the refusal to continue to do what I call perform academia. That is, to be an academic at all times, in all situations, in every corner of your life. If left unchecked, academic work can take over your 168 hours per week (yes, even the few hours you may let yourself sleep). And, if it doesn’t, you have to pretend it does in order to avoid suspicion from those who hold your future in their hands (read hiring and tenuring committees). Don’t have hobbies, don’t have babies, don’t have a life outside the ivory tower, because for true, worthy academics, there is no life outside the ivory tower.

To return to Melonie Fullick’s article (you really should go read it – after this, of course – not just for the article itself but also because it’s chockfull of interesting links):

Lots of others have pointed this out, but it’s worth emphasizing that academic culture encourages us to see professional identity as personal identity – and thus to see “work” as “life”. What are you left with, then, when you walk away from the work? This has also been questioned through the recent criticisms of the idea of “do what you love”, which is in some ways the epitome of the rhetoric around higher education careers.

I sometimes fall victim myself to the myth of an academic career as part of the DWYL path. That is, until I am faced with some part of it that I unequivocally do not love. And then I remind myself that I have chosen this as a career, not a life. That I am allowed to embrace the choice as a good one for me in this moment, but not the only one I could have, or can ever make. That I am allowed to do other things I love. And, probably most difficult, that I am allowed to step off the stage and admit I do other things I love.