Tag 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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Body Intelligence

Body Intelligence (an excerpt)
by Rumi

Your intelligence is always with you,
overseeing your body, even though
you may not be aware of its work.

If you start doing something against
your health, your intelligence
will eventually scold you.

If it hadn’t been so lovingly close by,
and so constantly monitoring,
how could it rebuke?

You and your intelligence
are like the beauty and precision
of an astrolabe.

Together, you calculate how near
existence is to the sun!

Your intelligence is marvelously intimate.
It’s not in front of you or behind,
or to the left or the right.

The beginning of a poem by Rumi, reminding us that body and mind are meant to work in harmony, neither being sacrificed for the other.

From The Essential Rumi (New Expanded Edition). Translated by Coleman Barks. Page 151.

I like to move it move it!

Me assisting folks moving in Bryant Park, Summer 2013.
Me, moving about, assisting folks doing yoga in Bryant Park, 2013.

If you’re in academia, chances are you have long periods of sedentariness (and I don’t mean just the Netflix marathons). When I am working, I generally use a timer to remind me to get up and move about. These small pockets of movement in my day are good, but I have to remind myself to also prioritize making larger spaces in my schedule for yoga and to mix in other types of movement rather than fall into a yoga rut (which is way better than a Netflix rut, but still not desirable). I came across the following paragraph on movement in a post by Sara Seinberg on her Holistic Heath Coaching site. The whole post is a fun read, but the bit below spoke directly to this question of working movement into our day:

Start where you are. If you move a lot, bring in some variation and mix it up. If you don’t move at all, just start. Walk more. Take the stairs. Do a squat. Pick something you like. If you hate the gym, don’t go to the fucking gym. There is no such thing as a Gym Person. People tell me, “I’m not a Gym Person.” No one is a gym person. Going to the gym is a behavior. You go or you don’t. Who were people before gyms? Certainly still people. So. Maybe you find a gym you like. Maybe you start to hike. Or you dance at home between work breaks. Or maybe you go for walks or try running. Maybe you play tennis or you do the 7 minute workout a few times on your lunch break. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Don’t worry about what Bethany does because Bethany doesn’t have to live your life in your body. Do what you do. Bring a pal. Or if you’re very social, use movement to be alone. Leave your phone at home. Climb rocks and sightsee. Snowshoe. Ski. Swim. Lift weights. Shovel. Garden. Ice Skate. ANYTHING. Get a gang together. Or join mine! But Keep on Moving.

Yes, there’s a bit of an ad at the end, but her post was so well done that I figured I’d keep it in the quote, just in case you wanted to join her team.

So, choose one of her suggestions or one of my “sneaky moves” or make up your own and go MOVE it!

PS – I’ve just had the genius idea of adding a Spotify “move it” playlist here but have run out of blogging time. Will post it next week.

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.”

The Book Club That Ended All Book Clubs

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Image credit: The book club that ended all book clubs

Headed to a book club meeting later today (yes, “The Book Club That Ended All Book Clubs” is really the name of this book club) to discuss Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I was surprised that this varied group of visibly “professional” and/or “artistic” folk, primarily from the Brooklyn immigrant community, chose this book (it’s a democratic process that involves nominations and voting on Facebook). It seemed too “touchy feely” for this group. Although, I was happy to have this book be the choice because I had already started it and was having trouble finishing it (also, always happy not to have another book on my to-read list). I am very much looking forward to the meeting and seeing where the discussion goes.

Brené Brown intrigues me because she holds fast to her identity as an academic, but is part of this larger machine (propelled by the Oprah industry) that moves her into an arena that academics tend to frown at. From what I’ve seen, she straddles the line between the two areas and makes that line look a lot less defined, and a bit silly. This TED talk video basically sums up the book:

Sneaky moves

I’ve been having conversations with fellow academics lately about how to fit in movement and mindfulness now that school will soon begin, or has already begun, for Fall semester. It’s relatively easy to begin or recommit to a practice in the summer, when classes are out and you make your own schedule, but how to maintain this when the pressures of the semester begin to build and your calendar starts to look like an obstacle course?

First, I recommend blocking off time for self-care in your calendar that is sacred. That means no moving it around for anyone or anything. That also means not choosing a time that you know will be challenged constantly. Everyone’s calendar is different, but after you’ve mapped class times, monthly meetings (the ones you know at the beginning of the semester), and other regular time commitments in for the semester, see what time for the week you can block out just for yourself. If you’re ambitious, maybe two blocks per week. Or, maybe that time period can coincide with your favorite yoga class or meditation sitting.

Second, try to work in short 2-minute breath meditations in the interstices of your day. (If you have no interstices, make some. If you can’t figure out how, reevaluate your scheduling…is it necessary to do everything back-to-back?) Just sit, close your eyes (and your door if you’re in your campus office) and count 15 deep breaths. That easy.

Third, sneak some mindful movement into your day. Below are some suggestions for various times.

Morning

Sun Salutations. These are a ready-made way to squeeze strengthening, stretching, and centering into your day. Too many benefits to name and if you do a few right as you roll out of bed, then you’re done for the whole day. See “5 Reasons Sun Salutations are the Best Way to Start Your Day” for some specific benefits and a visual guide to the traditional Surya A.

But what about when you’re having one of those days, when even rolling out of bed takes effort. For those days I just scoot down off my pillow and do a modified version on my back. The key is to move with your breath. Inhale, arms above head, exhale arms back down. You can add on by brining a knee to your chest on the exhale and hugging it in for a bit. Then alternating knees. Feel free to improvise. When you’ve done a few, bring both knees to your chest, roll to your right side, and push up to seated. Guess what, now you’re almost out of bed!

Throughout the day

As the title of the article indicates, these exercises can be done at any point during your day; so, for between classes, or during mandatory 5-10 minute writing/grading breaks, squeeze in the following moves described in “Anywhere, Anytime Pilates Moves You Should Squeeze into Your Day.” They help to bring your mind out of the academic trenches and move your body out of the perennial computer crunch. Some are designed to be done right there at your desk. I especially like any that make me take my shoes off and move my toes; there’s just something so decadent about that.

Evening

Technically, you could close your day with those bed salutes described above, but, for variety, try these “3 easy stretches you should do every night.” The first one is a bit confusing, but I think it’s your top leg that you should let hang off the bed. Also suggest you do that one last since who wants to then get up and do the other two?

Of course, there are lots of other ways to sneak mindfulness and movement into your day. I hope these few suggestions show how easy it can be. But even so, try to also get to a yoga or meditations class now and again throughout the semester to commune with other folks committed to this contemplative life.

Wishing everyone a great Fall semester!

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Motivation and teaching

From the New York Times article, “The Secret of Effective Motivation“:

THERE are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

That’s the first paragraph; it sets up much of what comes after. It’s a fairly short article, and not all about teaching, but the last portion struck me as relevant to teachers of all stripes and subjects:

There is a temptation among educators and instructors to use whatever motivational tools are available to recruit participants or improve performance. […]for students uninterested in learning, financial incentives for good attendance or pizza parties for high performance may prompt them to participate, but it may result in less well-educated students.

The same goes for motivating teachers themselves. We wring our hands when they “teach to the test” because we fear that it detracts from actual educating. It is possible that teachers do this because of an overreliance on accountability that transforms the instrumental consequences of good teaching (things like salary bonuses) into instrumental motives. Accountability is important, but structured crudely, it can create the very behavior (such as poor teaching) that it is designed to prevent.

Unfortunately, as teachers, we may not always have control over how students are brought into the classroom – whether it’s a college classroom or a yoga studio – neither should we stick our heads in the sand about some of the incentives that may have brought them there. The authors of the article – Amy Wrzesniewski, Yale School of Management and Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College – conclude by cautioning:

Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.

This advice is relevant not only in academic situations but also any learning environment. If a student is physically present for instrumental reasons only – say, a partner has pressured said student into attending a yoga class; or a student needs a class for a gen ed credit – then he or she is at best, only semi-available to learn. If we have no say in how or why the student shows up, how do we reach the ones who do?