Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.

Staying in place

I taught my first tutorial at my current university eighteen years ago. In academia, there’s something shameful in admitting you’ve stayed in one university. Being deeply rooted is an anathema in higher education. I have been on the receiving end of this advice many times: if you want to succeed/ thrive/ stay employed, you must move/ be mobile/ remain unfettered.

The precarity of employment in higher education makes moving a necessary choice for many. (Although I disagree with the framing, this piece from Stylish Academic includes questions to evaluate your mobility: Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? Do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time? Can I live without pets?) Staying in one place may well mean re-evaluating your ideas about success in academia. It is not always the comfortable choice but, in my experience, rarely means staying still. I have had countless jobs in the one university: tutor, research assistant, project manager, lecturer, teaching fellow, and now associate dean. I started working in the coffee shop as an undergraduate!

On the weekend, I attended a beautiful memorial service for a colleague, Linda Kerr, who recently died, too early, after living with cancer for many years. Linda was strongly connected to Macquarie University and the National Tertiary Education union. She called the union the soul of the university. She had planned the memorial herself, which ended with fireworks overlooking the water at Clarkes Point Reserve, Woolwich. The photos below were taken by Nikki Balnave. Along with family and friends, our colleague Cathy Rytmeister spoke about Linda’s commitment and generosity.

linda

fireworks

I’ve been thinking about our connections to places, people, and universities in particular, since Linda’s memorial.

Last year, I missed a meeting of the Sydney-based informal higher education scholars network on ‘Making place in higher education research’ hosted by Geidre Kligyte and Jan MacLean at the University of Technology. They defined place as being about ‘a space that has been made meaningful’ and shared Ilaria Vanni Accarigi’s website on Place-based Methodologies:

We can think of place with art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard 1997, p. 7).

This has also been a prompt to catch up with some reading I set myself, including a call for a ‘placeful’ university (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2016):

Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa.

Vanni Accarigi’s extended definition of place is worth pondering. I love geographer Doreen Massey’s term ‘throwntogetherness’ (the way in which different elements, human, non-human, social, environmental, cultural and political come together to define a here and now) to think about the experiences of being a part of a university.

Here and now, I take a moment to remember Linda, and look out the window while eating lunch—sumac orange chicken, chickpeas in tomato sauce and couscous—before walking through the drizzle to a meeting.

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Learning to listen

I love reading memoirs. I enjoy the intimacy of an encounter with the defining event(s) of someone else’s life. I recently read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on her experiences of becoming a mother at the same time as her fluidly gendered partner, artist Harry Dodge, underwent surgery and testosterone treatment. As someone who enjoys talking, this paragraph resonated for me:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

Interestingly, I found this paragraph more resonant than Maggie Nelson’s descriptions of motherhood. She mentions only in passing that her son was critically ill. I found this difficult as I wanted to read more:

I’m not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin; it is not precious or rich to me. All I will say is that there is still a loop of time, or there is still a part of me, that is removing the side of a raised hospital crib in the morning light and climbing into it beside him, unwilling to move or let go or keep living until he lifts his head, until he gives any sign that he will make it out.

This feeling of missed connection with writing also happened to me during my PhD, and I mourned the loss of pleasure in feminist theory when it didn’t match my lived experience of mothering a sick child. (I will post on this and other unexpected consequences of becoming a mother while completing a PhD in feminist philosophy in future).

The Argonauts   The Rules Do Not Apply

I also recently read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. I had a lot of points of connection with her story, including the experience of placental abruption. My birth story had a happier ending—I took home a live baby, whereas Levy birthed her son alone at 19 weeks gestation and watched him take his first and only breaths. It’s a harrowing story, but I found the reviews disheartening: on Goodreads and in the press, Levy is criticised for her privilege, narcissism and for writing about ‘just’ a miscarriage and a divorce. In this review Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement, I agree with just one point: Levy “stays contracted around herself” in her memoir. Grief —not just privilege—can do that. Levy does indeed write from a wide field of options, and grieves the loss of entitlement and control she imagined for her life. Reading her memoir, I didn’t need to hear a universal story. As with all the memoirs I read, I appreciated its specificity; there were moments of both connection and disconnection.

Like talking, the pleasures of writing—my thoughts, my trajectories—run deep. I suspect this is also true for Levy. One of my favourite methodologies is autoethnography, which tends to focus on “epiphanies” or “remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life … times of existential crisis that forced a person to attend to and analyse lived experience … and events after which life does not seem quite the same” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). There is a space for listening here too. As Ellis et al. (2011) put it: “The questions most important to autoethnographers are: Who reads our work, how are they affected by it, and how does it keep a conversation going?”

I want to learn to listen better, to relinquish the deep pleasure of talking, to keep a conversation going. I am currently writing a (slow) paper with a colleague on the role of listening in writing groups. Interestingly, no one in our writing group considers themselves a good listener. We all struggle to listen well.

My listening ability is often dependent on my mental state or the kind of day I’m having … Sometimes, such as when conditions are challenging, listening requires a more conscious effort than at other times when it is more automated.

It is hard to quiet my internal voice and listen actively. It is also hard to quiet my external voice and allow enough time for other people to speak. A lot of busyness and activity detracts from listening. So much of what I do is about completing tasks, rather than taking the time to share ideas. This is very unfortunate in an academic context!

And here is a taster on the role of listening as part of a writing group:

When I listen to feedback I have received during writing group, I feel some distance between myself and my writing because I am seeing it through the eyes of others. This provides me with the opportunity to reflect on what I have written, why certain sentences or paragraphs require further clarification and how I need to tackle revisions … I have developed the capacity to ‘think alongside of others’ instead of just imposing my opinions on their writing.

Following Lloyd’s (2009) work, we are reflecting on the importance of listening as a labour of care. I like the way in which she calls for ‘good enough’ listening to dissenting voices. This makes a space for listening through the moments of disconnection, not only enjoying the times we are in furious agreement with one another.