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.

Take a break

A reminder to myself that might be helpful to you: take a break.

For inspiration, I read Robert Dessaix’s The Pleasures of Leisure. (I picked up a copy for $3 at the local Vinnies; in pristine, unread condition, it is inscribed with a message of congratulations for “twenty years of unswerving, faithful service”).

Dessaix acknowledges the privilege of indolence, sloth and idleness. He quotes many well-known writers on the pleasure of doing nothing, and sums up:

Yes, that’s right—they’re all men. And all of them have nothing but contempt for busy bees. It’s hard to say who they thought would work the fields and slaughter the animals for their tables, build the roads, spin their cloth, erect and heat their houses, cook their food and print the publications they wrote for: those whose jobs it was to do so, presumably.

A thank you to those who continue to work when so many are on holiday (not least the firefighters, many of them volunteers, in Australia right now). I hope a rest is coming.

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In his conclusion (with chapters along the way on  Loafing, Nesting and grooming, and Play), here’s what Dessaix has to say: “Time … is for being happy in … It’s for magnifying your humanity in, for enjoying the flourishing of who you are.”

Here’s how I am hoping to flourish over the holidays.

Staying out of contact

If your work schedule permits, turn on an out-of-office reply and let others know you are taking a break. One of my colleagues has written: “ I am on my way to the North Pole with no or limited wifi.” I hope she enjoys the stay! I will switch it on this afternoon (after I finish some pressing tasks).

Having daytime naps

Sneak away from everyone and put your head on a pillow. It is ok to wake, disoriented, and find the day almost over. Or, if your children are younger, take a moment to ‘rest your eyes’ while watching Bluey.

Enjoying the guilty pleasure of 2am books all day

I have a reading category I call ‘2am books’. (My son did not sleep though the night until 5 years old, so I have been trained to stay awake. Reading a Kindle helps still my mind). 2am books are light page-turners, easy to follow, with simple narratives and few characters. Sufficiently well-written not to annoy, they do not linger on frightening or upsetting scenes. Young adult books work well, or escapist bedtime stories for adults. You can doze off and wake again without losing your place. You can skip paragraphs without becoming confused. At any other time of day they might seem vacuous and predictable. Here are some 2am books I read this year:

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I might read some more challenging books, including my Christmas present to myself:

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Scheduling a little bit, not too much

We have a week of daily swimming lessons in January but not much else booked. I have lots of ideas for fun when the bickering gets too much and everyone is irritable with cabin fever. But the rhythms of our days will be based on walking when we feel like it, eating when we are hungry, sleeping when tiredness takes us, being alone and coming together as our energy prompts us.

Spending time outdoors

The smoke haze and heat in Sydney makes time indoors a necessity, but we intend to spend some time outside every day in the company of our new puppy. Walking the streets, chatting to neighbours, discovering dog parks, collecting leaves and sticks, searching for Christmas beetles.

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Watching TV

I don’t watch a lot of television, but this year I have enjoyed Killing Eve, The Letdown, Cleverman and Fleabag. On my list for the holidays: some dystopian drama in Years and Years and The Commons and Aboriginal horror Dark Place.

Being creative

I want to put together a photo album of our family holiday to Japan—a simple task that has remained on the wishlist for over a year. We will all enjoy reminiscing about the places we visited, especially the 6 year old who holds memories differently (perhaps more lightly). We will also be thinking about future holidays, and I have bought the Lonely Planet Central Australia in anticipation.

Seeing friends and family

I haven’t sent any Christmas cards this year. The 6 year old gave and received more that anyone else. Highlights in the mail for me included “To our most loyal customer” from the chemist (and, to tell the truth, it was addressed to my daughter) and one from the local funeral home. I hope our friends are forgiving, and agree to catch up in the new year for picnics and indolent hanging out. Family won’t get a choice in the matter.

Saying yes

Why don’t we make choc chip biscuits? Can we go to a new park? Do you want to play Scrabble? Can I dye my hair blue? Let’s buy ice creams, wear our pyjamas all day, visit the pool, try a dog cafe, make tea iceblocks, stay up past bedtime… A reminder to myself: say yes.

The edge of knowing

Several times recently I have become aware of the limits of knowledge, and what it is  like to feel uncertain and unknowing.

In writing group, I gave feedback on a paper about teaching grammar to young children. Unfortunately, I came of age in an era of Australian education that refused to teach grammatics. The limit of my knowledge: a verb is a doing word; a statement I have subsequently discovered to be false, or only partly true. At the risk of stating the obvious for some readers, verbs can be doing words AND saying words, sensing words, relating words, or existing words.

I have an excellent tacit knowledge of grammar, but reading a paper on its teaching made me aware of the limits of my understanding. To familiarise myself with linguistics terminology, I looked at first year lecture notes. (My university has an online learning commons—that is, lecture notes for most courses are open to staff across the university). So much I have not learned.

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Once a week, I volunteer at my son’s school for 45 minutes of individual reading with children in his class. The five and six year olds guess words more often than not. From week to week, their learning is palpable, as is the pleasure in their achievements. It’s amazing to witness their progress after only 15 weeks of school.

My daughter’s high school recently hosted an evening program on adolescent development. The teenage brain is a truly frightening place! (The raising children website has a good summary of the back-to-front development of the brain during adolescence). Referencing Dweck’s work on growth mindset, the school psychologists reinforced the power of ‘yet’ (for our children and ourselves).

I can’t do this … yet.

I don’t know this … yet.

This week I read some new (to me) theoretical work. I am impatient. I want to gulp it down and regurgitate it for a paper I am writing. I want to perform an institutionalised reading. I need to slow down and sip the reading. I don’t understand it … yet.

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‘Threshold concepts’ is Meyer and Land’s well-known phrase for how learners navigate difficult or troublesome knowledge. As they describe it in their seminal (or should I say oeuvral?) work:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

This ‘portal’ or liminal phase of learning is marked by unknowingness and uncertainty.  It is a transformative time during which shifts in subjectivity occur. The learner is a different person on the other side of the portal. As Kiley and Wisker (2009) characterise it in the context of doctoral education, the liminal state is defined by change and oscillation:

This altered identity often comes after a liminal period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt, something akin to the transition within a rite of passage … Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one … It is while in this state that doctoral students are often likely to feel ‘stuck’, depressed, unable to continue, challenged and confused.

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My colleague Jayde Cahir and I wrote about our experiences of liminality as doctoral candidates (‘What Feelings Didn’t I Experience!’: Affect and Identity in PhD Writing, published in Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin’s edited collection Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers).

Did you experience any identity shifts during the process of writing your dissertation?

Agnes: Becoming a mother completely changed me as a person. It consequently changed my research – in fact, my whole orientation towards feminist theory changed … [It] meant a great deal of change and uncertainty. I felt completely different … I think this was an element in my subsequent transition to a different discipline – one dominated by a practical rather than a theoretical orientation.

Jayde: At the beginning of my candidature I felt that I was ready to ‘become’ an academic but as time went on I found that I was asking myself questions like – do I want to be an academic?  And why am I ‘doing’ a PhD? Looking back this was most likely due to the anxiety that I experienced while writing my dissertation but in saying that, the process of writing and research during my doctoral education made me seriously question who I was and where I was going career wise.

What became apparent to us in writing about our learning experiences as doctoral candidates and early career academics was that liminality was ongoing. We never reach a state of complete knowingness.

What did you learn during the process of transitioning from doctoral candidate to early-career researcher?

Agnes: This was a huge learning curve as I changed disciplines. I became a student again, enrolling in a higher education qualification, which prepared me for the shift to a new discipline. Three years on, I still feel that I am establishing myself as a researcher and a writer.

Jayde: I think the key thing that I learnt … was how much more work there was to do. Even though I had spent four years developing and improving my skills, I was really only at the beginning – again.

Photos in this post were taken on a recent family bushwalk; same spot, camera pointing in different directions.

We cross one threshold, only to encounter another. I am keenly aware of this, once again, as an academic and as a mother.

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Staying optimistic

When I mentioned to my kids last Friday morning that it was board game night, they both cheered. This response kept me happy all day. Playing together has been enjoyable for all of us. There have been other benefits: I am finding it easier not to win, something I have enjoyed most of my life. I emphasise that I am not letting go of winning (merely biding my time).

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I am playing Junior Scrabble and Junior Monopoly with a different primary goal in mind: how to help the youngest player (6) compete against a determined-to-win older sister (13). (Hint to other players: order of play and seating arrangements are key, but two players working cooperatively can undermine a single player whose strategies include hoarding the ‘good’ letters. Note that once I shared this insight with the teen player, she combined strategic cooperation with a determination to win, an unbeatable combination).

Is this an analogy for academia? Isn’t everything? To name just a few on social media: broken chairs, lego, vending machines, and Game of Thrones.

The spark of joy that lasted all day (my cheering kids) matters this week. My usual joie de vivre has been fleeting and delicate. Hence this post: I have needed to work at optimism. Call it what you will—optimism (not the cruel sort), resilience, durability, perseverance, grit (as it is named on the Australian Qualifications Framework review discussion paper). I mean the thing that keeps me feeling, on the whole, more positive than negative about my work, myself and my university.

For a more academic version of this, with lots of references, here is how colleagues and I describe engagement with work in a recent paper on early career academics:

Engagement is a state characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli,Bakker, & Salanova, 2006), opposite to burnout, which is characterised by reductions in motivation and productivity, as well as cynicism and exhaustion (González-Romá, Schau-feli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The extent to which workers perceive their organisation cares about their wellbeing and values their contribution, both now and in the future, influences engagement in workplaces (Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Vandenberghe, 2009). Support can be demonstrated through a range of rewards, benefits and flexible work arrangements, along with a supportive culture with clear and reasonable expectations for workers (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2017; Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Van-denberghe, 2009; Saks, 2006). In addition to increased engagement, job satisfaction and wellbeing, perceived organisational support also increases workers’ affective commitment to their organisation along with objective performance (Kurtessis et al., 2017).

Universities are not always caring institutions. So what did I do to re-engage myself, to renew my ‘vigour, dedication and absorption’ in work and my ‘affective commitment’ to my university? First, I disengaged. I took a day off work. Mid-week, I spent a day alone doing things I like. I loved it, and would like to do it more often.

On my return to work, with colleagues commenting on how relaxed I looked, I arranged future coffee and lunch meetings to catch up with people whose company revives me. I focused on tasks I enjoy. I looked for the positive and I read Humans of Macquarie on Instagram. Here are brief excerpts. You can read the full posts, and see photos on Instagram.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I never knew why; I felt really bright in primary school but it kind of faded into dullness when I hit high school and I just kind of drifted for a few years. I struggled a lot with mental health and identity issues. I was finally able to open up, and I started developing into my own person when I found real, meaningful relationships with other people (Sam, Psych & Education)

 I suppose my biggest fear was just being a filler person. You know, that kind of person that although in every practical sense lives a decent life, untimely ends up as just another tally on the population counter. University I feel has been able to subside that fear by exposing me to opportunities and incredible people, giving me some direction in my otherwise messy life. (Alysha, Anthropology)

My mother was barely in adulthood when she decided to go to New Zealand from Fiji and pursue further studies, against the wishes of her conservative Hindu family. She’s now one of the most high-ranked Registered Nurses at her hospital. Here’s where I come along: a cheeky brown kid in year 6, about to conclude my ‘About Me’ speech. I told my class that I WILL become a Barrister. The teacher chuckled, for according to her I had many imperfections. Like my mother, I refuse to accept the perceptions of others. (Krishna, History, English & Law).

These stories are nourishing.

Postscript: My teenager told me to write this: she is growing into a strong, determined-to-win, brave and courageous hero. Her greatest strength is her ability to creatively ‘ship’ Harry Potter characters. (Here’s Urban Dictionary on shipping for the uninitiated).