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:
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.
Walking up to school this morning, my son said ‘I love the sky’. You can see why:
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.
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 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:
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 Membersto my reading list).
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.
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:
Precarity not only means the inability to say no, but also losing all perspective on the need to say it. When you’re precariously employed, EVERYTHING looks like an opportunity, a possibility, a way out. And the guff around ‘seizing the day’, ‘having one shot’ etc doesn’t help.
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:
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.