Frugal hedonism for academics

Over the weekend I read the delightful book The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb.

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Essentially a list of strategies for spending less money while enjoying life, it was the juxtaposition of frugal hedonism that grabbed me and the quirky tone that kept me reading. (Here’s a great podcast conversation with Annie on Slow Your Home that gives a taster). The authors describe frugal hedonism thus:

The truly savvy hedonist avoids blunting her capacity for pleasure against a barrage of constant stimulation. He knows that the rewards of the journey frequently trump instant gratification. She shuns that level of convenience and indulgence that insidiously erodes her mental and physical vigour. He makes non-monetised sources of pleasure his first port of call, so that he’s not trapped into shaping his life around earning. Far from being acts of martyrdom, such frugality-compatible behaviours can in fact be your best ticket to enjoying everything more on both the deeply fulfilling and sensually satisfying levels.

I started thinking about what these strategies might look like for academics. While I like the idea of spending less money in order to work less, the currency that matters for many academics is time and energy. How can I spend these wisely and enjoy work more? Many of the strategies Raser-Rowland and  Grubb suggest resonate: create your own normal, have lots of things you want to do with your freedom, undercomplicate things, give something. Here are a few of their ideas reimagined for those aspiring to slow academia. In a nutshell: frugal hedonism means time for contemplation, positive relationships and friendships with colleagues, and finding pleasure in work and beyond.

  • Relish

The authors recommend musing on the word relish “with its suggestion of immoderate sensory intensity.” What have you relished at work today? How have your senses been engaged? In a day unusually free of meetings—as though I had been given the gift of time—I relished conversations with colleagues and the start of semester buzz. There are students everywhere. It’s crowded, noisy, and finding a parking spot is near impossible. I tend to prefer quiet days on campus, but this bombardment of the senses provides music, colour, movement and opportunities for people watching. It’s exciting.

  • Indulge your curiosity

The thrill of discovery is a great motivator. I am always keen to know more. One of my most valuable conversations today was inspired by asking a colleague a question which required a longer answer, so we talked over coffee. This week I am indulging my love of learning by taking the time to attend a public lecture for International Women’s Day by Cordelia Fine, author of Testosterone Rex (which is currently in the reading pile next to my bed). I also indulge my curiosity through reading. Perhaps Producing Pleasure in the Contemporary University might be a good companion to this post—I’ll move it to the top of book pile.

  • People who need people are the luckiest people in the world

There are hashtags for this one: #academickindness #circleofniceness. I am part of collaborations with colleagues that feel rich and generous. These have been the highlights of my working life—research and writing teams, doctoral supervision, co-teaching, conferences. If you haven’t yet found like-minded souls, don’t despair. Indulge your curiosity, talk with people, seek out and relish experiences, read and write and you will find points of connection with others. This academic kindness notebook sharing initiative by Ellie Mackin Roberts is a great idea. I have just signed up!

  • Look up, think about constellations. Look down, think about magma.

I think the authors articulated the grandness of everything beyond the self well:

Look up. There is so infinitely much more matter than you out there, hurling forth glowing plumes, imploding into vortexes, converging into gaseous balls, the shattering into incandescent rain…

Look down. There is the great grinding, shifting, melting foundry for all the yawning canyons and toothed peaks and rift valleys. There is the alchemical trinity of moisture, mineral and organic debris that has the power to birth new life…

Remembering where and what you are should not be to the end of feeling like an insignificant speck. You are woven of this stuff, this starlight and magma, let it extend you and make you feel endless amongst it … Then scan what feels important to

(Here’s the children’s version in a picture book). The message for academics: you are stardust, so how much does your H-index really matter?

A final comment inspired by some boxed text the book: “We knew a man who spent some time teaching agricultural workshops in Peru, and he described how grandmothers would show up for class in this mountainous location, having thought nothing of taking a three day walk to get there.” If someone walked three days to be in your class, would you teach the same way you do now?

Bad feelings

This post returns to an idea from Rosalind Gill’s review of Les Back’s Academic Diary. She asks about bad affects:

Academic Diary is … overwhelmingly positive … Where are the other, less palatable, affects and behaviours? Where is the envy, the rage, the nastiness, the bullying, the bad behaviour, the competitiveness, the mean-spiritedness, the colleagues who dump on others, the people who just do not reply? It is not just that the pain and hurt of academic life seems absent, then, but also that much of the difficulty and messiness of academia is missing too.

Unsurprisingly, with the amount of work I have been missing and leaving undone or half-done while my daughter is sick, I haven’t had a lot of good feelings lately. There has been a great deal of difficulty and messiness for all of us. I was once described by a former manager as “relentlessly cheerful”—I even won an award for it—so this a big admission for me. I am drafting this post from hospital, where my brave daughter is undergoing another round of tests over the next few days.

So James Burford’s paper What might bad feelings be good for? Some queer-feminist thoughts on academic activism has been a timely publication and offered a welcome opportunity for reflection. It appears in the current special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy which I co-edited with Kate Bowles and Karina Luzia.

The bad feelings Burford writes about—numbness, shame, exhaustion, depression and anxiety—resonate for me right now. And, as always, the line between work and life is permeable, so bad feelings in either space contaminate feelings in the other. Here’s a taster of Burford’s argument:

I am concerned that some affects like cynicism, fear, hostility and depression are frequently written-off without due consideration of their agentive capacities. While I understand desires to move academics on from ‘dirges of despair’ (Kenway, Boden & Fahey, 2014, p. 259), I am suggesting that it may be politically profitable to think about what happens when academics feel bad, and the kinds of transformations these negative felt experiences might generate.

Here are some of the things that are making me feel bad: I am not at work, and have let people down by not honouring prior commitments. I am relying on others to do work for me. I am not answering emails promptly. I am not carefully checking work that has my name on it. I am feeling impatient with the ‘petty’ concerns of the workplace. I have little energy for the emotional labour of relationships with colleagues. If I am at work, I am distracted and working more slowly than usual.

So, challenged by Burford’s question, and now I have all that misery off my chest, what might these feelings be good for? I won’t be using them to make a wall of failures, but that is one example of bad feelings doing good.

There is much to be thankful for in the midst of these bad feelings. I must acknowledge the immense privilege of being able to ‘care less’ about work during this time and still have a paying job. That cannot be understated. I am grateful for the generosity of colleagues; for grandparents who have taken on childcare; for excellent healthcare; and for hospital volunteers who knit bears, visit with therapy dogs, make us laugh and give parents coffee breaks.

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Most importantly, bad feelings can be politicising. They offer further impetus to change higher education for the better. There are many who are at greater risk than I am of long-term ill-effects from bad feelings. This matters. For now, my daughter’s suffering has turned us inward, but as she slowly recovers I look forward to helping others, both individually and systematically, who are grappling with bad feelings in academia.

Kindness cards

1.

A few weeks ago my son came home from preschool proudly wearing a laminated card on a string around his neck. His friends had nominated him for a Kindness Card. It read ‘Thank you for sharing your kindness with us today”.

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We don’t always acknowledge kindness so visibly. (This is one of the reasons Academic Kindness on tumblr and twitter has been such a success).

This post is in lieu of nominating family, friends and colleagues for kindness cards. Since my last post, we have been inundated by kindnesses large and small. People have shared their experiences of epilepsy and illness in emails of support and hope. Colleagues have made my daughter feel welcome on campus. Her friends have visited and added some brightness to our days. Here is a snapshot of the delicious dinners that have been made for us.

2.

Being freed from the responsibilities of shopping and cooking has given me time to edit the final version of a book chapter on academic motherhood due this week. My chapter uses Luce Irigaray’s metaphor of mucus, and its connections with her concepts of sexual difference and women’s two sets of lips, to perform a feminist writing of the lived experience of motherhood and academia. To illustrate the worlds of maternity and the academy, italicised autoethnographic ‘sticky moments’ interrupt scholarly writing.

Our current experiences have made their impact felt. (This extract comes from the third part of the chapter, so apologies if it reads as though you have missed most of the conversation):

I am editing this chapter with my daughter on a beanbag next to me. Her epilepsy, up to now well controlled, has escalated. She spent last week in hospital having seizures lasting up to seven minutes every fifteen minutes. Out of hospital, she continues to have thirty seizures a day. She is bone tired but otherwise in good spirits. My colleagues have picked up my slack but I had things to do, and, let’s be honest, work is a good distraction…

Perhaps my current location and temporality leave a trace in my academic writing, even if I haven’t thought this through. Irigaray is interested in what is unthought and untheorised in philosophy—in particular, the feminine—but which leaves a trace. Mucus offers a metaphor for this. In her writing on visceral philosophy, Tamsin Lorraine writes that mucus is “Irigaray’s term for the unthought moving toward representation—those strangely uncanny aspects of experience that defy already established self/other and body/mind divisions” (1999, p 37). Exploring the qualities of mucus, Lorraine writes: “The body is inert without its relation to mucus. Mucus … presents a living material that brings one closer to the infinite beyond which exceeds all boundaries” (1999, p 40). It may be a stretch: mucus as the trace of the divine, the soul. A slippery idea.

I’ll tell you something else that is slippery: the flow of writing and trying to hold a line of argument when I am thinking about my daughter next to me, and how soon we need to pick up her brother. He vomited in the car this morning (I couldn’t make this up). He’s always had a weak stomach, prone to motion sickness, and is anxious about his sister’s unrelenting seizures. The car will stink after being in the sun all day …

… Nourished together, motherhood and academia open up different and creative ways of thinking about and being within the contemporary university. My line of argument is thus: Motherhood and academia leak into each other in messy ways. Separating and containing the subjectivities of academia and mother is impossible. Maintaining the competing priorities of plural subjectivities requires nourishment as women, mothers and academics. We speak and write of our experiences, share and create spaces and challenge the confines of our universities.

In my office, I am writing and mothering simultaneously. Outside the window, the sun is setting red and hazy from hazard reduction burns in the national park to the north. I rouse my daughter from a doze and set towards home. I don’t yet know it, but she is about to have a twelve minute seizure. And I will be thinking of angels, and trying to test the weight and meaning of feminist philosophy under harsh fluorescent hospital lights. I’d love to respond to the reviewer’s request to conclude with my key learnings from exploring the metaphor of mucus in academic motherhood, with what my sticky moments reveal about intersubjectivity and the soul, but I am found wanting. There are no neat endings here.

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