Advice overload

What is there to write at a time like this? In contrast to a worldwide pandemic and widespread job losses, the concerns of a few weeks ago seem trivial and worrying over them ill-judged.

The internet is full of advice—maintaining physical and mental health; homeschooling;  reading/ watching/ listening lists; connecting while social distancing; creating timetables for family routines; making your own hand sanitiser; and participating in housebound activities such as decluttering, learning a musical instrument/ chess/ a language, baking and crafting. For those fortunate enough to continue working from home you are also using technologies like a pro; participating in lengthy online meetings; maintaining productivity; and mastering the art of remaining free from interruptions.

All this advice seems intended for better versions of ourselves. Or for families (and pets) more like the depiction in this Little Golden book I picked up secondhand:

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And for academics, it’s advice for an even more idealised version of Thornton’s (2013) ‘Benchmark Man’:

The ideal academic must be single-minded and ruthless in the pursuit of excellence, however defined at a particular moment … The ideal academic does not have time for work/life balance; work/work is what is demanded. If this paragon has children, someone else is expected to take responsibility for them. In the workplace, an army of support staff—administrators, casual teachers and research assistants, who are overwhelmingly women and probably also peripheral workers—cushion the life of the ideal academic.

He’s now self-isolating in a well-appointed and soundproof studio, relying on his helpmeet (simultaneously working, cleaning, shopping, cooking, homeschooling, and managing the increasingly time-consuming administration of everyday life) to deliver gourmet home-cooked meals to his door.

Here, by contrast, we are all muddling through it together. Because I can’t help myself, I do have one piece of advice (which applies at all levels), learnt from my family’s previous experience of combining work and homeschooling during a time of crisis: lower your expectations. Then lower them again.

Storytelling

I’ve had little to blog. Work has been a constant stream of meetings, and complex and challenging, but uninspiring, tasks. I’m listening to Classical Music for Reading while doing this work. I’ve been wondering: where’s the story in that? This highlights a recent preoccupation of mine: the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we do.

This year I am studying creative writing—a wonderful, yet daunting, experience but one that is solely mine and not in service to other people’s needs and wants. It is only week one but it is already priming me to notice how we craft stories.

I recently read Australian songwriter Clare Bowditch’s You Own Kind of Girl about her experience of overcoming debilitating anxiety. We have posted her mantra on the kitchen wall: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass. Bowditch found this in Claire Weekes’ 1960s work Self Help for Your Nerves. (Books follow books: I am now reading Judith Hoare’s The Woman who Cracked the Anxiety Code).

Above all, Bowditch tells a good story. In a podcast with Wil Anderson about writing her book, Clare used the word story many times (and turned attention to Wil’s own stories, to his seeming discomfort).

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Clare. My daughter and I listened to her songs a lot during a tough year. ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’, ‘People Like Me’ and ‘You Make My Happy’ buoyed us. In response to an open call for correspondence, my daughter emailed Clare to tell her this, and received an affirming letter in return.

While writing this post, I was reminded of an example I used when teaching visual narratives many years ago. It was an extract from Robert Winston’s BBC series The Human Body which showed the life story of ‘Charlotte’ from birth to death. (Note to self: I must rewatch the Raging Teens episode). The series was made in 1998 (!) and I’ve been unable to find a good quality copy online. The scene I was thinking of was a statistical version of a life in fast forward—6 months on the loo, 2 weeks kissing, 28m of fingernails, eight years at work, 150 friends,  sex 2580 times, 12 years talking, and only 2 of her 8 great-grandchildren remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell in academic contexts, beyond what can be quantified. I have just started reading The Positioning and Making of Female Professors—some great stories in this edited collection.

I continue to reflect on Tamson Pietsch’s excellent blog post on rewriting her academic biography. She writes:

[My academic biography] says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home.

She re-narrates her story, noting that it was an uncomfortable experience.

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle illustrates a similar discomfort in ‘Academic career construction: personnel documents as personal documents‘. This journal article is a great read (and includes ‘don’t be driven by stories’ as advice given to early career academics). Ortiz-Vilarelle tells a story:

I felt discouraged by my department from applying for promotion to Full Professor because conventional advice about my publication gap of more than two years and the language of ‘continuous’ scholarly publication … I applied anyway … I had a choice to make. I could let the gap stand as a ‘trace,’ a story not told, and risk that at each level of review, it would somehow speak for itself … Or I could ‘get personal’ and explain the reasons for my gap … I included two lines, just two lines, that read: ‘Obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship are two medically complicated pregnancies following tenure, one of which required leave time, and the care and passing of my terminally ill mother shortly after my promotion to Associate Professor. More recently, I required a medical leave in Spring 2017 for several necessary surgeries.’ That’s all. Not very elegant. Not much at all in terms of word count, but such a trace.

I haven’t yet condensed my story as well as those told above—regular readers will know this blog is itself a story in progress.

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