Distractions

You want to escape from bushfires, coronavirus, university restructures, tragic news stories, wild weather, power outages, uncertainty about the future, politics on social media, other people’s gloom…

Your strategies for working during tough times and staying hopeful seem shallow or forced. You feel increasingly fragile, combative, anxious, or worn out to the back teeth…

You compulsively check apps and websites for bushfires near you, air quality measures, power outages, water quantity in dams, virus infection levels, weather reports…

You look for healthy ways to cope. You try new recipes (Maggie’s Recipes for Life promise to stave off dementia), exercise, meditate, get a massage, laugh, focus on what you can control, increase your step count, vent, plan a day off…

You think longingly of running away, being quarantined comfortably at home, having a head transplant, falling asleep for one hundred years…

Your internal monologue has shifted from ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘Done is better than perfect’ to ‘Decentre yourself’ and then the extreme: ‘I am murderbot’ (after Martha Well’s cyborg character who has hacked its governance protocols and stopped working for the Company)…

You wake at night, or too early in the morning, caught in a loop of what you could or should say and do and be. You overthink the human condition, Western individualism, academia, or middle age. Your 2am escapist fiction has become Why we can’t sleep: Women’s new midlife crisis

Why not choose your own version of the following:

  • music that transports you: Skinner’s The Cradle Song, the Run Lola Run soundtrack
  • a strangely compulsive video game (even for non-players): Dear Esther
  • a podcast that makes you laugh out loud: Ladies, we need to talk (Yumi, a mother of four in her 40s, tells her mother ‘It hurts when you call me a dingdong.’ Her mother replies, ‘Why? You are a dingdong.’)
  • a movie or tv show that takes you into another world: the uncomfortable, angry and funny Fleabag

And when your street looks like this, and you are without power and road access:

You enjoy: playing games by candlelight; sandwiches for dinner; the camaraderie of neighbours; and the simple unspeaking company of a sleepy dog.

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Recharge yourself ready for what comes next.

When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):

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I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?

Why slow (for organisations)

I have posted a lot on the benefits of slow academia for individuals and their families, especially for mental and physical health. But how do institutions benefit from slow academia?

Universities are knotty organisations.

On the one hand, they are what Lutz (1982) calls “organized anarchies”. Collegial governance and distributed leadership are valued, as are autonomy and academic freedom. Academic freedom is a contested notion, but I like Schreker’s (2010) matter-of-fact definition in The Lost Soul of Higher Education of a “system of procedures and protections that allow learning and scholarship to take place” and enable academics to entertain risky cultural or political viewpoints. On the other hand, universities are increasingly managerial, marked by output-driven, highly regulated, optimised audit practices.

This 5 minute Petty animation on the education contraption neatly captures some of the contradictions of our education system. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a version that can be embedded in this post, but it is worth clicking through. It asks: When it comes to the education system, have accounting and information replaced wonder and imagination?

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There is a lot of scholarly writing on the complex organisational culture of contemporary universities, but recently I have enjoyed reading  Does academic work make Australian academics happy?  (Spoiler: the answer is no) and re-reading Sparkes’ (2007) Embodiment, academics and the audit culture: A story seeking consideration. The latter is a fascinating paper – a fictionalised autoethnography recording Jim’s burnout that ends with the reviewers comments and written responses from seven colleagues. Sparkes’ (2007) describes Jim’s work like this:

But here, in this arena, he feels obliged to play a game in which the curriculum vitae as a central feature of academic life and an autobiographical practice becomes a call to account for the self that one is. When the panel members read the CV and the publications as performance outcomes, they are reading the self-story of the person … The self is then judged accordingly and consequences follow.

The article reports an individual academic who is suffering, but also shows a struggling system, especially in the area of teaching. My colleague Rebecca Ritchie shared this great post on teaching burnout with me recently:

Teachers can reach a place where teaching does nothing for them or their students. They don’t just wake up one morning and find themselves burned out; they’ve moved there gradually, and it’s a journey that often starts with tired teaching … With multiple courses to teach, we do get tired, but I think we regularly confuse physical fatigue with the more serious emotional tiredness that comes from a heavy workload of always being there, always giving, and always juggling multiple balls in the air.

The suggested responses – as in Duncan, Tilbrook and Krivokapic-Skoko’s (2015) happiness article – are thoughtful and can be implemented by individuals. Celebrate small successes. Take breaks. Collaborate with others. But, as Duncan et al (2015) point out, systemic changes are also required. (Although I don’t agree with their view that more uninterrupted time for research would necessarily make academics happier  – Sparkes’ paper tolls a warning bell on this).

I can see lots of possible (if utopian) organisational benefits for slow academia – quality teaching and research, satisfied students, sustainable workloads, active mentoring and well functioning university committees – but one of the greatest impacts would be the benefit to the psychological contract (the relationship, values and obligations between employer and employee). I like the work of Dabos & Rousseau (2013) on the importance of informal networks in shaping the psychological contract and the “social contagion” that means people in the same work area tend to hold similar beliefs about their organisation. (I have previously posted on the contagion of anxiety in universities).

Slow academia is often promoted as a resistance movement, but what might it look like as a collective action across a university? Here’s how my reflective colleague Marina Harvey imagined a ‘slow’ organisation in a comment left on an earlier post:

Imagine a campus where learning is reflective and creative, inspiring innovative thought and action. An organisation where reflection for learning is embedded across curricula, practice, planning and operations – supporting a mindful and focused approach to deep learning, teaching and knowing for our scholarly community (students, academics, professional staff and community partners). An academic environment designed to stimulate active and contemplative approaches to learning and cater to diverse learning needs.

I love it and I want to work there!

Research targets: the pirate code for academics

Today I had a short conversation with an early career academic that made me thankful that I decided to start this blog. I enjoyed talking with her – it was our first meeting, and she came across as smart, ambitious and engaging. She is also working at a punishing rate. She told me that six days a week she starts work at 5am and keeps going for 12 hours. She is currently teaching three subjects, has seven funded research projects, and has joined several committees. She has a young son. Her refrain was: It will get better, I just need to make it through this semester. 

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Source: Dirk’s Big Bunny Blog

I didn’t ask her about her hobbies. I mentioned that I’d started this blog and work three days a week. I talked a bit about why: because my wellbeing and that of my family comes first, because work has to accommodate the shitty things that sometimes happen, because my academic work  is not the only thing I love, and because work has to feel like something that I can keep doing well.

Like many, she questioned whether I am paid for three days but actually work a lot more. In the past, I would have answered something like ‘Of course I work more but so do all the full-time academics I know.’ But having worked as a 0.6 academic for almost seven years, I am getting better at it, and I have a lot of strategies to contain my work hours (and still get promoted). I will share these over time as I articulate them to myself, but one emerged clearly as a result of our conversation. I live by the pirate’s code for academics.

This ECA mentioned the high expectations of academics. I agreed. Take, for instance, the research strategy here which sets the following annual goals for a Level B or C academic: publishing 4-5 journal articles in high impact factor journals, having publications cited 5+ times per year, receiving $80-100k in external research funding, supervising 5 PhD completions. Note that for most academics research accounts for 40% of their workload, so there is also teaching and service to add to this list. Exhausting and unsustainable if not impossible.

It turns out she was seeing these targets as minimum requirements to achieve success. I think of them as a Pirate Code (more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules):

This is a conversation to have with your colleagues (senior and junior): do they follow the pirate code?