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.

Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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On this side

I’ve enjoyed reading recent blog posts on how to say ‘no’ in academic work contexts from Research Whisperer Tseen Khoo (‘Leveling up in saying no’) and Conference Inference’s James Burford (‘Saying no to conference opportunities’). Saying no is invaluable, and I liked the intentionality Tseen and James demonstrate. Our time and energy are finite, even if our curiosity is not. Tseen links to six other posts on saying no, in case her strategies don’t resonate. There is a lot of nuance here: saying no is an ethical obligation in the battle against systemic overwork, but service, generosity and collegiality are crucial to being good academic citizens.

While reading about saying no, I kept thinking about Lauren Berlant’s  ‘cruel optimism’: when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Berlant, whose book of the same name I am currently reading, writes about our persistent attachment to the unachievable fantasy of the ‘good life’ “with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy”. I’m not sure why this kept catching my thoughts; sometimes I need to write to work out the links between ideas.

In connecting Berlant’s work and saying no, perhaps I am thinking about all the ‘yeses’ and the rewards we imagine they will bring. Or the yearning to do all the things, even while driving ourselves into the ground. Or what Berlant calls ‘crisis ordinariness’—everyday, mundane collective trauma that defines the present era and the loss of the fantasy of the good life. Or perhaps I am trying to say, along with Berlant’s arguments about precarity, that the repercussions for saying no are uneven. (I made this point in relation to undercare in the academy). I’m still reading Cruel Optimism—it requires heavy thinking so I’m taking it slowly (and Berlant has interesting things to say about temporality, and slowness)so these are likely temporary thoughts.

And, what do you know, Acahacker has made this point more succinctly in a tweet:

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I haven’t said no a lot lately.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post on strategies for working during tough times. These were short-term ways of slowing work in times of crisis. I am now experiencing the joy of being on the other side. My daughter is well, and has started high school full of enthusiasm for learning, new friendships and extra-curricular activities such as fencing and theatresports. My son has started his first year of primary school, and is especially excited about ‘risky play’ activities at after-school care. I am revelling in having two healthy kids at school. And, while always aware of the consequences of taking on too much, I am enjoying working full-time and saying yes to things. (The title of this post ‘On this side’ is a nod to a Clare Bowditch song about unanticipated ordinary happiness).

In a previous post, I named some of these things, including the Idea of the University reading group. We meet online fortnightly and are currently reading Raewyn Connell’s The Good University. Our discussion has been wide-ranging: revolution, democracy, research-teaching as collective work and readership.

Following another yes, I had a conversation with Sally Purcell about higher degree research and beyond for the Resourceful HDR podcast. I talk about my slow PhD experience, parenting a sick baby, feminist theory, shifting ideas of career and identity, changing discipline, returning to study, the infinite game, sitting with uncertainty, working part-time and job crafting. I am looking forward to listening to the other episodes (including with Professor Nick Mansfield, who was my PhD supervisor). You can listen via the website or on your favourite podcast platform. And I love Sally’s black and white image of the university library:

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The other thing I  said yes to was joining a writing group. We are a group of four women in Educational Studies, supported by two senior researchers, meeting fortnightly and sharing feedback on work in progress. Already I have stretched my thinking by reading about flipped classroom experiences for teacher education and children learning grammar in writing.

I have keenly missed being part of a writing group since an organisational change scattered members of my previous close-knit group. We wrote about our experiences in three papers: An intimate circle (on writing together as women in higher education), Reflection, speed dating and word clouds (evaluating our practice as a group) and From speed dating to intimacy (re-evaluating our practice as a group). We also wrote a guide on forming your own writing group, which is available for free (although you do need to go through a checkout) at Spectrum Academic Mentoring.

Lest saying yes sounds all optimism and no cruelty, in a future post I want to talk about the many committees I have said yes to, academic housekeeping and the ‘wives’ of the organisation.

Wearing academic life

The prompt for my recent Making ShiFt Happen panel discussion with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope was:

Reimagining academia … Like [the pleasure of wearing] a loose-fitting garment – finding liberating and enabling ways to wear an academic life

During the session I spoke of my maternal grandmother, a dress-maker who created garments for my mother and her sisters from a sketch or an image in a magazine. Her grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters do not share her skill, but many of us alter our shop-bought clothing in one way or another. And we have an abiding interest in clothing design, fabrics, accessories and the indefinable elements of style. I was thinking of these associations when I considered how women wear academia and shape it to fit comfortably.

I am very slowly reading from the pile of books on my desk (although I keep adding more so it never diminishes). This week I read Frances Kelly’s chapter ‘The lecturer’s new clothes: an academic life, in textiles’ from Lived Experiences of Women in Academia. (I also started Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser, which I gave to my mother for Christmas along with a cork tote bag).

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In her chapter, Fran mentions blogs that discuss academic dress, including  Thesis Whisper and Tenure, She Wrote. Others add to this: The Professor Is In now hosts Makeup Monday, Stylish Academic takes fashion seriously, and Pat Thomson (of Patter) co-blogs with Amanda Heffernan at Women, Wardrobes and Leadership which looks at the clothing choices of school leaders. In common, these blogs see fashion as worthy of intellectual attention (ethics, performance, power, identity politics) and often have an explicit feminist focus.

Fran sums up the importance of clothing in academic contexts as an object of research and a representation of an ‘academic’ identity:

Clothes demand greater scholarly attention precisely because they are personally meaningful and of such significance in the social and public world; they exist on the borders of the inner and outer dimensions of experience.

In the chapter, which is a pleasure to read, Fran shares four vignettes of garments that represent points of transition in her academic life—being a PhD candidate (a neo-Victorian skirt), becoming a mother (a brown apron), teaching (a long dress with sleeves, a fitted waist and a full skirt) and promotion to senior lecturer (a blue woven shirt with threads of black and white). In the final vignette, she writes:

Blue is a good colour to work in, in the university: it is associated with truth and knowledge, with heaven. It is also blue-collar, denim overalls … I was raised by two teachers at the end of the social-democratic decades in Aotearoa; I want to be connected to my academic work, my teaching, research , the committees vital to academic citizenship and the democratic university …

Fran writes of her Senior Lecturer wardrobe: “Definitely no florals”. Mine is the opposite. Today I am wearing a dress that always makes me think of a childhood neighbour, Mrs Canning. It’s a blue floral linen shift with pockets. It somehow evokes my memories of the aprons Mrs Canning wore, and her delicious lamingtons. It feels both utilitarian (linen, pockets) and frivolous (bright floral). This reminder of domestic life sits comfortably as I attend events that mark International Women’s Day and my university’s gender equity week.

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What are you wearing today?