To my future self

It’s an anxious time in Sydney (and beyond) right now. With dam levels falling, water restrictions are starting to bite, and the skies are apocalyptic with bushfire smoke. Asthmatics (like me) are gripping puffers for dear life. Children are not allowed to play outside at school. This article by Mark Mordue in the Sydney Morning Herald put it well: “My experience of the city and its skies feels like an omen. I fret for my children getting home from school and the world that is coming for them.”

At my university, in the midst of a large university restructure (the disestablishment of a successful faculty), the feeling of uncertain dread is pervasive. The sky mirrors our unease. It looks like we are living in a dystopia. This photos was taken at 1pm on Tuesday.

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In an act that is deeply personal, and yet entirely political, I write a letter to my future self. It is hard to imagine past five years or so. In it, I worry over the future, and focus on what gives joy right now. As I write, our new puppy Esko (named by the kids), sits at my side.

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Dear Future Me,

I wonder what work and home look like now? I hope that I am happy with the balance between these domains of my life.

At home—have we managed to do the renovations we dream about? I imagine spaces that will be better for entertaining (18th birthdays and beyond) and look forward to hosting family Christmases. How has Esko settled into the family? I hope she is giving and receiving so much love.

[My children] are my greatest worry and hope for the future. They are my future. How has H navigated high school and the teen years? I would like us to have remained close, but to have allowed her to grow into independence.  I pray her epilepsy is well-controlled. How is T going in primary school (and beyond)? What interests and hobbies has he developed? I hope we travel again as a family and that, as the kids grow older, J and I enjoy more time together.

Writing to you, I worry over the shape of the future—the health of family members and friends, the unanticipated events that change lives irrevocably, the state of politics and uneven quality of life. I hope any dark times have not dimmed our love and hope. I want to imagine that everyone is still with me, well and whole and shining, that the world is optimistic.  I hope you are not sad.

At work—where are you and what are you doing? I hope there are familiar faces and new colleagues who are like-minded souls. What have we created? And what do we want to do next? Have you done the things you want to do—kept blogging, written a book, studied creative writing, got through the pile of books next to the bed?

This year, 2019, has been a difficult one at work in the university. I’m very tired right now and hope you don’t feel the same way. Whatever work looks like now, I hope it has some of my favourite ingredients: listening, speaking, reading and writing with humour and activism in the mix.

I have said ‘I hope’ a lot in this letter. There is so much uncertainty right now—at work, in the news, in the sky—yet I continue to hope. There are things to look forward to—Esko getting house trained, Christmas holidays, books to read, starting a Master of Creative writing, PhD candidates near completion, an upcoming writing retreat, and so much more…

With love, Agnes.

Today the sky is slightly bluer, and we can finally open the windows.

Imagining research futures

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The Higher Education Scholars have been at it again.

We are a group of higher education researchers based in and around Sydney who meet regularly. I’ve blogged about us before: A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, and The spirit of research. To recap: 30 odd people, predominantly women, a mix of professional (non-academic) staff, academics and academic developers, established scholars and doctoral candidates. The initial group was brought together by Tai Peseta as a way of examining research in the field of higher education. We span half a dozen universities, and meet three times a year, with institutions taking turns to host and provide lunch. You can read a bit about our meetings here.

This time we met at the University of Technology with the theme: Re-imagining a field: what should a new research centre for Higher Education do?

The first activity was an ice-breaker led by me: a research version of snakes and ladders. What enables your research (ladders)? What impedes you (snakes)?

We read:

We asked: What do these papers tell us about the kind of field higher education is? · What do these papers tell us about the kind of field we are writing into and shaping as HE researchers? Craft a question you want to take up with Clegg and Harland.

My question to Sue Clegg, had she been in the room, was to ask her thoughts on what a feminist view of the field of HE research might look like. And here are some of the books I am reading (or re-reading) to think about that question:

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We examined the practices of higher education research centres around the world, and had a go at designing our own. My team, led by Marina Harvey, created Reflection for Learning in Higher Education.

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A research centre whose work evidences the value of critical reflection for learning, leadership and practice for students, staff and the community.

Imagine a university where: health professionals train to be reflective practitioners; work and study retreats happen on campus; assessment of student reflection is evidence-based; and managers engage in contemplative practice to guide their leadership.

Now we just need find that $134 million in funding…

 

This is self care

Self-care is critical right now.

Three years after a change management experience in which I felt like a shunted  carriage in Thomas the Tank Engine, I am once again at the mercy of a university restructure. This time I have managerial responsibility for others who are facing redundancy. Supporting them is a good distraction from my own woes, but self care is critical if I am going to maintain health and energy during this time.

In and experimental paper (paywalled)—Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resistSiobhan O’Dwyer, Sarah Pinto and Sharon McDonough write a poem entitled 

Self care: a manifesto

Eat apple pancakes smothered in Nutella.

Practice yoga
Watch The English Patient
Turn off email notifications
Walk…
Wind wool around needles
Survive a spin class
Go to the movies in the middle of the day
Exist.
Write a list of self-care activities
Publish it in a good journal
Encourage your colleagues to reflect on their own self-care
Resist.

This post is a snapshot of what I am doing to prioritise self-care right now, specific to my context: career stage, available resources, caring responsibilities, working conditions and temperament. It is vital that self-care is not seen as the appropriate response to manage complex systemic problems. Universities are frequently workplaces that undercare for their staff. The solution is not to individualise care. Staff do not need workshops on how to manage their time or adopt mindful practices as the only response to role overload and workplace stress.

In the introduction to Mindfulness in the Academy, Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough (2018) write:

[We] question suggestions that academics in any university developing mindfulness and compassion practices should simply ‘cope’ with systemic factors such as the stress of poor resourcing, excessive workloads, or aggressive behaviour from colleagues … We do not solve the systemic problems that exist in higher education as this problem solving cannot be done individually. We write this book from a perspective that encourages us, and readers, to examine how we can look at ourselves as individuals within the environment and how might we disrupt those environments through mindful actions and formal or informal mindfulness practices.

The need for individual self-care in universities makes institutional care imperative.

That said, these are my current self-care practices.

1. Focus on health

This depends on your age and your physical and mental wellbeing and ability. For me, it has meant scheduling preventative health checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, cervical cancer screening, breast check, dental check up, eye test). I am also following up with specialists to manage my specific health conditions (including Hashimoto’s disease, increased risk of glaucoma, and chronic pain managed with an implanted neurostimulator).

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I exercise daily with an app that means I can workout at home while the kids get ready for school. My phone counts my daily steps, and I have started to log the food I eat to encourage wholefood choices. I recently sought the advice of a dietician and exercise physiologist to manage having the metabolism of a peri-menopausal woman. (To put that another way: my six year old’s calorie needs are much higher than mine).

2. Reflect on priorities

Self-care can be uncomfortable work. I have been asking myself some challenging questions:

  • Does this matter?
  • Is this what I want to do?
  • What can I control?
  • What do I need to do to look after myself today?
  • What would an ideal day look like?
  • What is getting in the way?

This year I have been fortunate to work with a coach as part of a professional development program, who has helped me think through these questions. (You may not have these resources available to you, but find out what is on offer. At my university, six coaching or counselling sessions per year are available to all staff, including casuals, and their immediate family members).

I’ve focussed on the things that sustain me and contribute to my wellbeing—spending time with family, outsourcing home tasks (such as online food shopping), going outside and reading for pleasure. I’ve identified what detracts from my wellbeing, and I have set myself specific tasks (which are works in progress):

  • Schedule two half-hour slots per week in my work calendar for unstructured time
  • Rearrange my morning routine so that I don’t check work emails first thing
  • Take a daily iron supplement
  • Make time to text friends at least twice a week
  • Give my parents a thank you present for taking the kids to daily swimming lessons during school holidays
  • Read from my TBR (to-be-read) pile before buying or borrowing new books

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3. Get help and support from others

Self-care is not an individual pursuit.

Putting your own needs first, however briefly, means letting go of things you usually control, requesting help, relying on others, saying no to things, knowing work has to be done by someone else, leaving work undone, asking for more time. During a stressful time at work, the company of like-minded souls is more important than ever. And the retreat of time with family and friends, and the nourishment of time alone, are crucial.

4. Enjoy yourself

In the midst of workplace upheaval, I’m looking forward to many things in the coming weeks and months:

  • getting a dog
  • lunches with old friends
  • young adult book club (for adults only). This month we’re reading boarding school books
  • seeing collaborative research writing (completed over many, many years) submitted for publication
  • visiting a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Sydney without the kids
  • going to the beach during January school holidays
  • receiving Narelle Lemon’s mindful self-care cards
  • the next book(s) on my shelf. I was going to list just one, but who am I kidding? Let’s make it the four I can’t decide between next: The TestamentsThe Old Lie, Imaginary Friend, and Girl, Woman, Other
  • visiting Japan Supernatural at the NSW Art Gallery
  • discovering the Australian bird of the year. Will it be the endangered black-throated finch?

Not too many work tasks made the above list, but I will look for enjoyment there too.

A month of tweets

In September, I tweeted every weekday (plus a weekend recap on Mondays). Inspired by Tseen Khoo (half of the Research Whisperer) I joined The Leveraged PhD social media challenge. Thanks to Melanie Bruce for fun and thought-provoking prompts. Here are some of my posts over the month:

Despite some pointed (and personal) criticism about why I might do such a thing, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Tseen reflects on the first 10 days here. Similarly, I found it a valuable way to get to know others outside the usual boundaries of work. I gained insights into the lives of people I know, and got to know new folk across the world. Here are some of my favourite posts:

A benefit of more Twitter time was exposure to interesting links. Here’s a roundup of what made me think/ wonder/ exclaim during the month of the challenge and beyond:

  • Women’s working lives in the managerial university and the pernicious effects of the ‘normal’ academic career (by Angela McRobbie on the LSE Impact blog):

“The ideal career track in the academy, especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants, seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life … Embracing the idea of ordinariness may be good for the soul, while letting go of the drive to succeed, or to get the perfect ‘balance’ in life and work, could mean inventing new ways of thinking about work.”

  • How I work and thrive in academia – From Affirmation, Not for Affirmation (by Beronda Montgomery on Being Lazy and Slowing Down):

“Even in the very last stages of my time on the planet, I imagine one of the most comforting things that I could hear from loved ones is the affirmation that I matter, that I executed my role in their life well … Academic environments simply are not designed as genuinely “affirming” spaces.”

“Universities have fenced ourselves off temporarily from critical conversations about the future of work because we have instead invested in the short-term promise that jobs are good, employability is our value proposition, and we’re not responsible for the impact of privileged lives on the lives of others.”

“Carers aware of the link between academic excellence and care-freeness often hide their carer status … Those who are more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (i.e. a white, middle-class, cis-gender, heterosexual, male academic) are less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups.”

A month of tweeting every day is indeed challenging, but I highly recommended a social media challenge. It brought the opportunity for self-reflection, connection with others and new ideas. The downsides were a glimpse of trolling and less time for blogging.