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.

Slow academia: a panel discussion

This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.

Our talking points included the following challenging questions:

What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?

Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.

Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.

From Demelza Marlin:

  • Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
  • Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
  • Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
  • She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like

From Michelle Jamieson:

  • As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
  • Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
  • Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).

From Andrew Dunstall:

  • No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
  • Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
  • Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
  • Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).

From me:

  • Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that  was my pressure cooker
  • Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
  • I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences

From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:

  • daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
  • the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
  • writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
  • academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
  • the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
  • non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. I Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).

Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:

Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.

Too many papers

This is the final post in a trilogy following the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. In my first post, I described the conference, its location, theme and keynote presentations. In the second, I highlighted four presentations that stretched my thinking. In this post, I want to share the four papers I presented with colleagues, and issue a stern warning to myself to present fewer papers at future conferences.

Four papers is too many. Having co-authors made it possible (enjoyable even), but  I talked too much, and listened too little. When I was listening, I was too keyed up about my next paper to listen well. One of my papers was on slow academia; practice what you preach and other idioms apply.

  • The solace of slow academia (or breathing room)

This paper was a blend of theory, autoethnography and practical advice.

Theory: Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray make uneasy bedfellows, but reading their work together allows complex ideas to be explored. I read Irigaray’s work on breath awakening selfhood alongside Judith Butler’s relational performativity and slippage of identities.

Autoethnography: Reading, thinking and writing about slow academia and academic activism has become a way to manage the demands of work and the challenges of caring for a sick child.

Practical advice: Listen to this 5 minute meditation before writing, have the same three goals every day, read poetry.

I am using the theoretical work from this for a co-authored book chapter on collective experiences on (non)motherhood and (non)academia.

  • Pressed for time: Doctoral candidates and early career academics’ experiences of temporal anxiety (with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks)

The presentation included photos of Eye Shen’s Counting Time I took last month at the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. (Sydney folks: I can’t recommend this annual event highly enough as a family outing).

In the paper, we used Jacques Derrida’s conception of time and deferral to explore the temporal anxiety experienced by PhD candidates and ECAs, particularly as sessional staff members. For example, a PhD candidate says:

It frustrates me very much because I don’t have the time. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to a conference, which I think is pretty dire. I should have a chapter that’s ready. I should have something published. I should be going to conferences and meeting people but I just don’t feel like I have the time to do it. I do feel like it’s rushed to try and finish in three years. I wish I had more time for the other stuff.

And an early career academic says:

I hope to find a permanent position that allows me to do more research and writing, which is where my prime interest is. At the moment I am a casual lecturer which takes all my time and is financially a catastrophe. I have many ideas for articles, presentations and organising a conference but no time to pursue these goals. The big question is how long one manages to ‘hang in’ before giving up.

Lilia, Vanessa and I are currently writing this up as a journal article. Although it generated some great discussion, it was a bit of a downer, so we need to work on a hopeful ending.

  • Who cares? Gendered care-work and the limits of care at the “friendliest conference in the world” (with James Burford and Jan Smith)
  • Meeting ourselves, meeting the audience and meeting a discipline? (with Jeanette Fyffe)

Jamie has given a detailed summary of these papers which is difficult to top. You can read it at the wonderful blog Conference Inference. Here is his thoughtful comment about the complexities of academics writing about academic work:

While some might see my topic choices as a form of morbid self-absorption, I’ve tended to see this as a desire to begin where I am. Often I find myself using my ordinary environment and practices as a platform for inquiry. I think this can be valuable, as inhabiting a role or position can bring with it lots of questions, and research can be a helpful way to open ourselves up to further curiosity and even the odd answer. Perhaps at a broader level this is something that higher education researchers are always doing, as we go about researching our own profession and working contexts.

Our paper on gendered care and community work at conferences is currently under review. Jeanette and I plan to write our paper as a journal article next year. Right, Jeanette?

The immediacy of the conference and its imperatives are fading. Everyday life and work are taking over. I am trying to hold on to ideas, or at least record them for later. I am also trying to keep a sense of place. My mind returns to an onsen with a view of a rainforest river in torrent…

Vampires or zombies

Having finished Playing Beattie Bow (1980) and  Anne of Green Gables (1908), my daughter and I are now reading Natalie Bobbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1976), an American novel the explores the idea of immortality. Reading two American books in a row was unintentional, but enjoyable for the conversational idiosyncracies such as starting every sentence with ‘Well now…’

Next on our reading list is Victor Kelleher’s young adult dystopian novel Taronga (1986). Best to start dystopian fiction young, I think. For even younger children, I suggest the picture books The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard, and Sonya Hartnett’s The Boy and the Toy.

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This is an extract of a conversation in Tuck Everlasting between immortal Tuck and ten year old mortal Winnie:

“Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?” said Tuck, his voice low. “Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together … Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping … The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is
“Stuck. That’s what us Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel anymore … But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born … Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are … it don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got.”

Growing, moving and changing has been on my mind lately. My daughter is on the cusp of young adulthood, my son on the cusp of starting school, and we, their parents, are on the cusp of middle age. It’s heavy work, as Tuck says, but it’s a good feeling, mostly, being a part of the wheel.

As a teenager inclined toward a gothic sensibility and aesthetic, I used to want to live forever. This was fanned by what was I reading at the timeCamilla (1796), The Vampyre (1819), Dracula (1897),  Interview with a Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Tapestry (1980). In my final year of school, I wrote a personal interest project entitled ‘The Fangs of Feminism’, and even commissioned a friend of a friend to take photographs of me in a cape.

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Truth be told, as a middle-aged academic mother, I now feel a greater affinity with zombies. I am not the first to make a link between zombies and the lived experience of the neoliberal academy. At the 2012 Academic Identities conference in Auckland, Peter Wood gave a paper entitled Audit identity: Or, how the PBRF turned me into an ambitious zombie. The Performance Based Research Fund is the New Zealand government’s research excellence initiative, which Wood described as a ‘viral bite’ for the ways in which audit culture has infected the everyday practice of academic work and redefined academic identities. To quote an archived article from The Australian, academic zombies in Australia can be similarly identified by their “affectless references to DEST points, citation indices, ERA rankings, ARC applications, esteem factors, FoR codes, AUQA reviews and the like.”

Describing academics as zombies seems to be contagious. In Whackademia, Richard Hil (2012) refered to the “zombification of academic life in which scholars shuffle dolefully around campuses” in compliance with neoliberalism. And in Australia Universities’ Review, Suzanne Ryan (2012) suggested that academic zombification is a form of adaptation to “governance; audit; workload; workforce; and an acquiescent leadership.” My favourite in the academic zombies genre is the edited collection Zombies in the academy: Living death in higher education which examines the synthesis between academic life and living death.

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I no longer want immortality.

Almost every year—this is not a digression—my family visits the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. This year marks its tenth anniversary, and it is already in the calendar for September. There are usually around 30 sculptures, and there is truly something for everyone, a mix of the joyful, macabre, and curious. A couple of years ago, there is was a sculpture of a time meter (Buying Time by Graeme Pattison). Modelled on a parking meter, it allowed the user to purchase time. I was not tempted. Immortality was inviting as a teenager because I was only beginning to live.

Now, half-way around the wheel, more or less, I don’t want more time. I want to use the unknowably finite time I have better. At work, that means spending less of my energy chasing metrics that make me feel deficient, and more time on work that matters in the company of colleagues.