Things that help

I have too much work to do. I have made optimistic promises of writing, editing, feedback, reviews and references to co-authors, editors, committees and colleagues. Ideally, this should all be done in the next couple of weeks, and I am off to Adelaide (my first visit) for the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference next week. So far, my presentation is roughly scribbled on a piece of paper with no powerpoint slides in sight. My to-do list is an exercise in dread and guilt. Sound familiar?

It’s the middle of winter, with a top of 17º in Sydney today (that’s cold for us!) so the temptation is to take a doona day. Perhaps that will be my reward at the end of this busy period. In the meantime, here is a list of non-academic (some frivolous) indulgences that are helping me to feel good right now.

  • Porridge of all sorts

Not all mixed together, but as the basis for experimenting with a variety of porridge recipes: oats, chia seeds, LSA, almond milk, coconut milk, cinnamon, almonds, stewed fruit, berries, grated apple, linseed. This list could go on. Here an LSA porridge I tried recently (recipe and photo from the Natural Nutritionist). Even better made with love for another person.

LSA Porridge

  • Comfort reading

My young adult book club (for adults only) is reading Tamora Pierce for our next meeting. I somehow missed these when I was of age, so it has been a pleasure to dive into some escapist YA (girls dressing as boys to become knights, dragons, talking animals, magic) and these books offer respite from tougher YA (some of recent book club reads have dealt with suicide, police shootings, domestic violence, rape).  In other comfort reads, I am enjoying Sulari Gentill’s Australian historical crime series featuring Rowland Sinclair. As well as tasks left undone, I’ll be taking a loaded Kindle to Adelaide with me.

8176796 11102852 12955425 Paving the New Road (Rowland Sinclair #4)

  • Coloured tights

This winter I am wearing coloured or patterned tights or leggings most days. So far this week I have worn mustard and black with paper cranes (from my favourite source Zohara—I first found a pair in a thrift store (new in the packet) and have bought a couple more pairs since). Those tights are pricey. I supplement them with a collection of patterned leggings my mother found for me at a discount shop.  I’ve ordered some inexpensive bottle green, dark purple and burgundy to add to my options this winter. I’ve loved coloured tights since I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love as a teenager, with its descriptions of stockings:

Gudrun was the more beautiful and attractive … Ursula was more physical, more womanly … Gudrun’s dress … was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale, greenish straw, the colour of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

  • Getting outside

One of the curses of too much to do is the amount of time and energy consumed in thinking about how much has to be done. Day and night. It can feel as though you are mentally ‘at work’ almost all the time. It’s not just work, it’s the administration of everyday life—bills to pay, appointments to schedule, gifts to buy, forms to complete. It’s relentless. On the weekend, I had an experience that completely stopped me thinking about all this stuff. I participated in a Treetops Adventure with my daughter, her friends (one of whom was celebrating her birthday) and another mother. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and entirely consumed my thoughts for several hours.

Image result for treetops adventure cumberland

Values and leadership

I have been thinking a lot about values lately. It’s surprisingly difficult to articulate the handful of things I consider most important and to which I want to give most of my time and energy. (Thanks to a colleague in Psychology who started me on this reflective path during a walking meeting last year).

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a small group presentation by our Vice-Chancellor on his approach to leadership. He started the session with a photo of himself as a baby in rural Australia, and asked: How did I get from there to here? With that imprimatur, here I am at 6 months old. To reorient the question in relation to values: what have I taken from there to here? I think the optimism and the cheeky attitude persist:


The VC spoke openly about his experiences as a learner and a leader, and his dedication to Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership. He shared, and demonstrated through personal stories, some ideas from his leadership toolbox: the importance of telling stories and the priceless value of having a mentor. He asked us, as leaders, to reflect on three questions: What do you have control over? What do you want to influence? And what do you need to know about?

He also offered tips that articulated his values: recognise that you are part of an ecosystem, enjoy networking and learn to listen to others. He emphasised the latter point: it is crucial to put the pause button on sending and switch to receiving. In question time, I asked him about learning to listen. How do you move from talking too much (he described doing this as an early career doctor) to listening better. He suggested having a friendly colleague observe you in a meeting and give honest feedback (his colleague counted up the number of times he said ‘yes but’).

As part of this session, we participated in an exercise to articulate our personal values. In a task adapted from Miller, C’de Baca, Matthews and Wilbourne (2001), we sorted and ranked our personal values from a collection of fifty into categories (from Very Important to Me to Least Important to Me). I found this useful, and would like to follow up in conversations with colleagues to make it more valuable.


A similar task of articulating values can be found at the excellent ImaginePhD website. (You can also explore your interests and skills). In that exercise, my five key work values emerged as: collegial, intellectually challenging, balance, community and ethics. The site allows you to explore these values more deeply, with a definition of the term and some questions to ask of others. (ImaginePhD suggests to ask them when interviewing for a role in an organisation, but there are applications for contexts such as mentoring, starting a project with a new team or, indeed, asking them of a role you currently occupy). Here are some examples:

  •  What are some of the pet peeves you have about working here? (Collegial)
  • What was one of the most interesting projects you have worked on? (Intellectually challenging)
  • How often are you learning new things? (Intellectually challenging)
  • What does a typical day look like? How predictable is the work?  Are there clear beginning and end points for the workday? (Balance)
  • Do most who work there seem to have active and healthy lives outside of work, or do they “live” there? (Balance)
  • Are there social spaces in the physical work environment, and do people use them? (Community)
  • Where do people eat lunch? (Community)
  • What is the toughest decision you have had to make in this organization? (Ethics)

This week I am away at a retreat to think through curriculum at my university, and I am reflecting on questions about leadership and values from this perspective. How are my values reflected, or not, in our curriculum? In other words, how are we creating curricula that enable challenge, nurturing, openness and collegiality? Does the university contribute to knowledge, growth, health, creativity and hope for students and staff? With some of these values, I can answer an unequivocal yes. With others, if I feel the alignment is tentative, I ask myself: can I live with that?

Notes on privilege

I had much of this post sketched out when I saw that the roguelinguist Alison Edwards has published a thoughtful thesiswhisperer post (and excellent round-up of links) on the privilege of slow academia:

Slow academia represents privilege, they say: it’s for those who can afford it, who have already reached the scholarly summit, and it comes at a cost to those below them on the academic food chain … Slow risks acquiring the stink of self-righteousness.

I edited this post in response, because I think the conversation should continue, and there is much nuance and complexity to consider. The value of slow academia lies in its emphasis on care and well-being; its risk lies in reinforcing the inequities of academia.

One point I want to make: much of the slow academia I blog about here is the experience of navigating academic work while caring for a sick child. Having my daughter unable to attend 20 weeks of school over the last year has enforced slowness on the entire family. I am privileged to be an academic, which has made combining work and care more manageable than many other professions, but my view of slow academia is not one of unmitigated privilege. Sometimes slow sucks.

I recently read Helen Hayward’s A Slow Childhood: Notes on Thoughtful Parenting. There were aspects of this book I really enjoyed. Its vision of unhurried parenting was  tantalising in what has been, frankly, a bit of a shouty week. Here’s an extract:

I wanted [my children] to build towers from wooden blocks, fly kites, make cubby houses, play tricks, have adventures, tease each other, roll down hills, be tickled, make cakes, get bored, read picture books, ride scooters, climb trees and make sandcastles … Before this comes over as a rosy, have-it-all, guilt-inducing story of family life to make the most relaxed working mother seethe, there was always one hitch … I never found work-life balance. I’ve never reconciled my personal ambitions with love for family. They were always chalk and cheese. Thankfully what I have found is a small still voice that guides me through family life.

I struggled with parts of the book, and the author’s unacknowledged privilege was a factor. (This book review by Nicole Avery captures the mixed feelings thoughtfully). At one point, the author refers to her time as a student observing psychiatric patients:

Most of the patients had been damaged—by themselves, by life, and too often by both. Many of them were disadvantaged both materially and emotionally. Yet none of them were wholly damaged. The light still shone through.

But the vast gulf between her ideas about childhood, and the experiences of others, is only alluded to in passing: “I don’t think that I’d have been as loving and responsive with them, if the world hadn’t been loving and responsive to me.” She also talks of feeling overwhelmed with family life, but was able “to climb out of the Heffalump trap all by myself”.  And two other comments gave me pause, for the distance I felt from my own ideas and experience:

I didn’t just welcome my children into my life. I invited them into my mind as well. From their earliest days they’ve inhabited my deepest self, taking up residence there.

Being sick was a sanctuary away from the hurly burly of daily life. It was a chance [for my children] to let go of what they were supposed to be doing—an island they stepped off the moment their temperature came down or sore throat vanished … Spending time in bed sick is good for the soul—children grow strong from the experience of getting better slowly. The world really can wait.

Writing about slow academia risks similarly alienating readers. I have previously posted on the privilege and slow academia—how it can shut down dialogue, the difficulties of  casual or sessional employment, and the imperative to act. A couple of years ago I had a (white middle-aged male) professor tell me that the university was not hierarchical because he could call the Vice-Chancellor by his first name. First names aside, I think universities are among the most hierarchical of institutions.

(This image is the ceremonial mace at my university, a symbol of formal authority at graduation ceremonies.)

And that’s the thing about privilege: it’s far easier to see other people’s than be aware of your own. (An example:  I was talking about reading with a friend, and mentioned my love of dystopian fiction. She said: ‘I can tell you had a happy childhood.’ She doesn’t need to read dystopian fiction; she’s already lived it).

This checklist on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh is a helpful tool for reflection. It focuses on race, but can be adapted for class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, age, employment, indeed any social, cultural or symbolic capital. Here are some of those statements applied to privilege in the academy:

  • I feel welcome in this institution/ discipline/ department/ classroom
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps professionally
  • My chief worries at work do not concern others’ attitude towards me
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations/ groups/ teams I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

I want to keep thinking about this and have recently signed up for this Cultural Competence – Aboriginal Sydney MOOC, which aims to “bring to light marginalised narratives of Aboriginal presence in Sydney”.