Advice overload

What is there to write at a time like this? In contrast to a worldwide pandemic and widespread job losses, the concerns of a few weeks ago seem trivial and worrying over them ill-judged.

The internet is full of advice—maintaining physical and mental health; homeschooling;  reading/ watching/ listening lists; connecting while social distancing; creating timetables for family routines; making your own hand sanitiser; and participating in housebound activities such as decluttering, learning a musical instrument/ chess/ a language, baking and crafting. For those fortunate enough to continue working from home you are also using technologies like a pro; participating in lengthy online meetings; maintaining productivity; and mastering the art of remaining free from interruptions.

All this advice seems intended for better versions of ourselves. Or for families (and pets) more like the depiction in this Little Golden book I picked up secondhand:

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And for academics, it’s advice for an even more idealised version of Thornton’s (2013) ‘Benchmark Man’:

The ideal academic must be single-minded and ruthless in the pursuit of excellence, however defined at a particular moment … The ideal academic does not have time for work/life balance; work/work is what is demanded. If this paragon has children, someone else is expected to take responsibility for them. In the workplace, an army of support staff—administrators, casual teachers and research assistants, who are overwhelmingly women and probably also peripheral workers—cushion the life of the ideal academic.

He’s now self-isolating in a well-appointed and soundproof studio, relying on his helpmeet (simultaneously working, cleaning, shopping, cooking, homeschooling, and managing the increasingly time-consuming administration of everyday life) to deliver gourmet home-cooked meals to his door.

Here, by contrast, we are all muddling through it together. Because I can’t help myself, I do have one piece of advice (which applies at all levels), learnt from my family’s previous experience of combining work and homeschooling during a time of crisis: lower your expectations. Then lower them again.

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.

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.

Slow holidays

Our holidays are a bit different this year. The transition to high school and primary school means minimal vacation care for the kids, and a new job for their dad has limited his leave-taking. In Australia, kids get at least six weeks off over summer, which is at once a source of pleasure and frustration. I am returning to work slowly, with a patchwork combination of leave, grandparent care (thanks Ma and Da!) and work from home. I am hoping this means I get to hold onto the holiday feeling for longer, rather than feeling that I am low-level working both constantly and inefficiently.

Of course, for me, holidays = reading. One of my favourites so far has been Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self. Her final essay in the collection ‘This is not on the exam’ reflects on overwork and academia. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that this is often true of my reading matter, but it sometimes feels like one).

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There are many interesting observations in this essay—about encouraging students to speak, casual sexism, antipathy to emotions at work, infertility, and being a workaholic:

Why did I become a workaholic? The expectations for overwork were certainly management’s [but] the expectations for perfection were mine. When I could not get pregnant after my miscarriage, I told myself that I had failed at having children. I said it over and over, as if conception were an exam that I could have studied harder for. Unable to be a mother, I decided I would define myself through my job instead. I can see in hindsight that this was a mistake, as instead of grieving I threw myself more and more into my work…

I thought that if I could only stop wasting so much time being sad, I would be more productive …

In taking on yet more work, I was the architect of my own breakdown. But I was not alone on this road—the university was cheerleading me all the way…

And a point with which I disagree: “There is no mechanism for me to go to the people who run the university and say … ‘it might be time to tell your employees to slow down.’ That memo will never be sent. In fact, I can’t even imagine it being sent” (p 179). She has changed her practice with a series of notes to herself: value feelings, write, call out misogyny, be kind, eat properly, and listen.

A note to myself—imagine what this memo to the university (to the ‘people who run the university’, dare I say to ourselves, for we are the university) might look like.

But hold that thought, it’s time to enjoy the holidays.

The best present I gave this Christmas was to my husband: membership of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Membership includes a cloud photo a day via email—stunning images—but, in deference to copyright, here’s one he took on our holiday in Japan of the sky above the University of Hiroshima:

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And in an example of frugal hedonism at its best, the kids and I are enjoying themed days. Last week we had dragon day: making crystals, decorating dragon egg biscuits, reading books about dragons, Cosmic Kids yoga, watching How to Train Your Dragon and other dragonish things.

We are still picking themes for this week, but one day will focus on trees.