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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Look up

Walking up to school this morning, my son said ‘I love the sky’. You can see why:

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It’s the beginning of spring on this side of the world, and Sydney celebrates with days in the mid 20s. Members of the Cloud Appreciation Society would have found little joy this morning. After a week of rain, it’s nothing but blue skies.

I was thinking about this moment of looking upwards together while reading The Taylorisation of Time: An effective strategy in the struggle to ‘manage’ work and life? from the Annals of Leisure Research.

Pat Thomson recently blogged about ideas for keeping a reading journal on the last thing you read, a reading that has stayed with you, something written really well and something in the media that speaks to your research. Her twenty questions include:

  • What’s the first thing you remember about this text? Write a sentence.
  • Did the text give you an idea? Write a sentence.
  • Does this book or paper connect with something else that you’ve read? Write a sentence.
  • How does this writing differ from other things you’ve read? Write a sentence.

The Taylorisation of Time uses data from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health, a longitudinal survey of over 57,000 women in three age cohorts (18-23, 45-50 and 70-75) which began in 1996 (another 17,000 women aged 18-23 were recruited to form a new cohort in 2012/13). I also read two other articles that draw on the same data set: ‘‘Melt Down’: Young women’s talk of time and its implications for health, wellbeing and identity in late modernity’ and ‘Time Pressure, Satisfaction with Leisure, and Health Among Australian Women’.

The outcome of asking women about their time is not surprising: a lot of Australian women feel pressured and anxious about competing demands. Middle-aged mothers of pre-school children who are working full-time are the most likely to describe themselves as “frequently rushed”.

  • “I feel totally out of control most of the time. I feel … that life is a rollercoaster and you just get on there and you just do it.”
  • “The most high pressured time of the day is trying to get out the door in the morning. Work is fine; the rest of my life is totally chaotic. Work has its routines, family life is unpredictable.”
  • “Between chauffeuring them to and from school on the way to work … I’m supposed to have a life which doesn’t exist”
  • “We’re trying to be perfect. Like, I feel guilty if my kids don’t get a proper meal.”
  • “I think with work … your children are treated like a commodity … a package you drop off at school, but there is no provision for the package losing a shoe, or getting sick, feeling like a cuddle, dawdling over breakfast…”

For all that everyone has the same quantity (1440 minutes a day), time pressure differentiates based on individual, cultural and political moderators (gender, age, employment and caring responsibilities being obvious examples).

The ‘Taylorisation’ of the title refers to scientific management of efficient workflows for productivity applied to family life. Think precise calendars, lists of tasks, household routines, rosters or timetables, and rewards or incentives. This work is overseen by a ‘time and motion’ expert who manages the temporal portfolios of individual family members. Sound familiar?

There were interesting insights, notably:

The ‘time budget’ mentality may exacerbate rather than alleviate stress and the flawed nature of the ‘time and motion’ approach is further exposed in the mismatch of children’s temporal rhythms to those of adults.

Reading this article, I was reminded of a poem by Rosemary Dobson (Australian poet, 1920-2012) we read in high school:

Cock Crow

Wanting to be myself, alone,
Between the lit house and the town
I took the road, and at the bridge
Turned back and walked the way I’d come.

Three times I took that lonely stretch,
Three times the dark trees closed me round,
The night absolved me of my bonds;
Only my footsteps held the ground.

My mother and my daughter slept,
One life behind and one before,
And I that stood between denied
Their needs in shutting-to the door.

And walking up and down the road
Knew myself, separate and alone,
Cut off from human cries, from pain,
And love that grows about the bone.

Too brief illusion! Thrice for me
I heard the cock crow on the hill,
And turned the handle of the door
Thinking I knew his meaning well.

As a group of 15 year olds who had rarely subjugated our needs in service of others, we had little insight into the brief respite described in this poem.

This week, I want to experience more moments of sky-gazing interruption.

If you are not quite there, you may want to align your leisure activities with academia in some way. For example, watch The Bachelor (now popular with academics thanks to a hunky astrophysicist) or read some novels featuring academic characters (I’ve just added Dear Committee Members to my reading list).

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I can also recommend the ABC’s comedy series Utopia, set in the office of the government’s National Building Authority. A word of warning: watching the inner working of bureaucracy can be uncomfortably familiar.

Sharing space

Last week I participated in the conference Beyond Mothering Myths? Motherhood in an Age of Neoliberalism and Individualisation. With a partner recovering from foot surgery, children on school holidays and a busy time at work, my attendance was partial and interrupted. Those presentations I did attend were provocative and affecting.

Lilia Mantai and I presented (on behalf of co-authors Jayde Cahir, Gail Crimmins, Janet Free, Karina Luzia and Ann Werner) a paper entitled Living with and letting go of motherhood and academia: A narrative in seven voices. Here is one of the seven voices (which might be familiar to regular readers):

Twelve years ago, when I was a PhD student, my daughter was born. Following a life-threatening placental abruption, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Last year, her seizures worsened with the onset of puberty (“Mum, don’t say that word”)—thirty to forty a day, lasting up to twenty minutes each. She was unable to attend school for half the year. She spent a lot of time on a beanbag in my university office on the top floor of a brutalist concrete building, with walls painted a horrid pale apricot. But the view of remnant turpentine ironbark forest is spectacular. I keep the windows open, just a crack so the birds don’t enter.

She missed the school trip to Canberra while she was sick, so we visited as a family. At the  National Art Gallery, we entered The Breathing Room by Patricia Piccinini. An audiovisual space of multiple screens, like entering the insides of a strange fleshy creature. The creature is similar in colour to my office. Sometimes it panics and its breathing and heartbeat roar. Sometimes it sleeps.  The room was both comforting and disturbing in its intimacy. A bit like being and having a mother, I thought.

Now, her epilepsy controlled by five medications, she is going on school camp for four nights. We have an A4 size blister pack with tablets in individually sealed compartments. The packet promises “peace of mind for relatives, carers and loved ones.

The presentation was an edited version of a forthcoming book chapter on motherhood and academia. The other voices in the chapter make for a diverse collection of first person narratives that illustrate complex and conflicting identities. We wrote the narratives in response to a prompt to think about ‘breathing room’ in our identities along a continuum as researchers/non-researchers, academics/non-academics, writers/non-writers, and mothers/ non-mothers. Our chapter is entitled ‘Breathing Room’ and I will share details of the edited collection when it is published.

One of the things I enjoyed about the conference was the way participants, predominantly mothers and children, inhabited and changed the space of the university. Bec van Dyke shared some beautiful illustrations of the conference:

via Twitter @becvandyke

As well as children playing on the floor and public breastfeeding, there was a large knitted sculpture of a placenta:

via Twitter @Polly Dunning

The placenta makes for an excellent metaphor for creating a shared space for mothers and children in the university.

In Je, Tu, Nous, French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray  interviews biologist Hélène Rouch about the complex role played by the placenta: “On the one hand, it is the mediating space between mother and fetus, which means there is never a fusion of maternal and embryonic tissues. On the other hand, it constitutes a system regulating exchanges between the two organisms.” In contrast to commonly held views, the relationship is not one of “fusion (a … mixture of the bodies or blood of mother and foetus)” nor one of “aggression (the foetus as a foreign body devouring from the inside, a vampire in the maternal body)”; instead, the placenta is an organ that is formed by the embryo but behaves independently and relatively autonomously (Irigaray, 1993b, p 39).

In the provocatively titled “The Promiscuous Placenta”, Jane-Maree Maher describes the placenta as “the point of communication between pregnant woman and foetal entity, allowing for and recognising their difference” (2001, p 202). She continues: “The placenta … offends and refigures bodily integrity and boundaries, it allows for at least two to work together at the site of one, while preventing against a collapse into singularity” (2001, p 202).

Imagine two subjects—let’s call them the ideal academic and the leaky mother—in a shared (university) space.

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Image: the University of Sydney law school, location of the conference.

You can read more about the placenta project online, and see more of the conference on Twitter #beyondmotheringmyths.

Always interruptable

I’m halfway through reading Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History (published elsewhere as Mother is a Verb). This was initially homework for the academic identities cultural history project—each member of the team read a different book (there’s a cultural history of almost everything you can imagine: sex, food, weather, places, objects, actions)—but I have become deeply immersed in this book.

The author Sarah Knott is an academic, historian, feminist mother. The book combines history, specifically motherhood in the UK and US from around the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and memoir (Knott had her first child while researching and writing the book). This is history with a ‘small h’ based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The focus is very much on the sensory, the “tactile experience” of caring for infants in the past. I can almost smell the close four-room house during the Depression era, where wet nappies were dried in front of the fire without being washed.

One of my favourite children’s books, now sadly out of print, is Marion Halligan’s The Midwife’s Daughters. I bought it over twenty years ago at Better Read than Dead in Sydney’s Newtown (when the bookstore, and I, were young).

“When I was a girl,” says the midwife, “back in the Old Country, the mothers took the nappies off the babies and hung them in front of the fire to dry.”

“What!” say the daughters. “Didn’t they wash them first?”

“No they didn’t,” says the mother. “Back in the Old Country”—she means England—”it was damp and cold and hard to wash things and harder still to dry them so you took the nappies off the babies and hung them on the guard in front of the fire to dry and put them back on. Not the pooey ones of course.”

“Yuk,” say the daughters of the midwife, wrinkling their noses. “The smell! The smell of old pee!”

And the poor little babies, wearing those stiff and stinky nappies! Their poor little bottoms got red and raw and they cried in the damp, dark houses, they yelled and screamed and roared, and the houses got smaller and colder and darker for all the noise of the sore-bottomed babies howling in them.

In Mother, Knott’s narrative follows the experience of pregnancy, birth and early infancy. A chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, nighttime arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: “8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up.”

My son was small when he was born full-term: five and half pounds, or not quite two and half kilograms. I tracked his feeds on an app: time awake, left breast, time taken, right breast, time taken, time back to sleep. He fed slowly and, it felt, continuously. He doubled his weight in six weeks. I deleted the app about eighteen months later when, still exhausted, I looked back and realised that in his early days I had spent over eight hours in every twenty-four breastfeeding. Six years on, and far from those nights, I wish I had kept the record.

The book invites these recollections. Reading it brought back the experience of caring for newborns in a visceral way.

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Of interest to readers of this blog, Knott also documents the intersections of academic work and pregnancy. On planning to have children:

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I am not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce, a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least, I think we both know—that surveys suggest men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women,

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

Indeed. The baby or babies don’t always follow your plans.

On the slowing success of academic mothers, there has been much written. Challenges for academic women, and mothers in particular, include maintaining research trajectories during career interruptions; proportionally higher teaching workloads; concentration at lower levels, in casual and contract positions; and contributions to university service, academic and domestic ‘housekeeping’, emotional labour and care within and beyond the academy. Further reading: Young and Wright, 2001; Williams, 2005; Grant, 2006; Toffoletti and Starr, 2016; Amsler and Motta, 2017. Titles include “I’ve worked very hard and slept very little” (Fothergill and Feltey, 2003) and “I just couldn’t fit it in” (Probert, 2005).

In Acker and Armenti’s (2004) “Sleepless in Academia”, Canadian women academics reveal late nights, obstructive institutional practices, and feeling “frenzied, fatigued and malcontent” (p 13).  In an article that was surprisingly vexatious to many, Australian academics Klocker and Drozdzewski (2012) ask: “How many papers is a baby worth?” The answer, after some deliberation, is approximately 2.4 depending on previous output. Ward and Wolf-Wendel (2004) sum up the experience of American academic mothers at research-intensive universities with the phrase “dark clouds and silver linings”. They identify four commonalities: (a) joy in professional and personal roles, (b) the “greedy” nature of academic and family life, (c) watching the clock, and (d) that having children puts work into perspective (2004, p 241). Oh, yes, watching the clock.

But the story is complex.

In an international comparison of research output, Aiston and Jung (2015) found that women average fewer publications than male colleagues; on the issue of motherhood, however, academic mothers produced more research output than women colleagues without children (although this differed across disciplines and countries). Examining why this data seems counter-intuitive, they suggest that one explanation for women’s under-performance as a whole lies in inequitable workloads.

Workload in academia is more complex than it first appears. In a study of Australian academic women, Dobele, Rundle-Thiele and Kopanidis (2014) demonstrate that workloads are equitable between men and women, but inequity is evident according to academic position. That is, women “outperform” men within their academic ranking suggesting that “women are not getting promoted on the basis of workload performance” (p 465).

While pregnant, Knott writes of work sliding away:

I am still working: sitting on the table at the front of the lecture hall, seemliness gone. Work is sliding away from me. There is a last set of students essays to evaluate. I stir myself to deduce final marks even though my ind shrinks away from the narrow lists of numbers and into the expanse of my trunk.

I never want pregnancy to be over. We defy mathematics: one plus one equals one. I am myself and not myself; I am eating for two. The relation I have to this extra life is not unlike that I have to my dreams and thoughts, which I can tell K or a friend, but which cannot be an object for us in the same way. I am happier than usual, though I cry easily.

I cannot wait for pregnancy to be over so I can feel normal again: hug my sweetheart, cross my legs. I bump crossly into older habits, only to find the way blocked by my body sticking out before me—hard belly on my thigh as I lean to tie a shoelace, a pull from my side on turning to check the front door is properly shut.

This is a luxurious tangle of feelings.

Finally, the title of this post. Always interruptible. I wrote this post, on and off, interrupted by the tasks of looking after children in the evening of the last day of a long school term. The relentless and formative interruptions of maternity constitute its main condition, suggests Professor of Psychosocial Theory Lisa Baraitser. Her books Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption (1989) and Enduring Time (2017) are now added to my reading list. But first to finish Knott’s Mother, after I’ve found some missing size six pyjamas and read some bedtime stories.

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