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.

That holiday feeling

I’ve been back at work for a couple of weeks and school starts this week, which offers a welcome return to routines. In Australia, children have a six week (or longer, depending on the school) break over Christmas and January. It was a challenging time for many this year—bushfires across Eastern Australia constrained travel (at best), ruined air quality, put emergency services under pressure, devastated country, took properties and lives (at worst). That holiday feeling—certain smells that signal summer, blue skies, a loosening of the shoulders and release from responsibilities—remained elusive. It was not a time for “enjoying the flourishing of who you are” as Dessaix writes in The Pleasures of Leisure.

Returning to work and school can be difficult at the best of times (from the existential ‘Is this my life?’ to the mundane ‘I hate this uniform!’).  At my university, a new curriculum has increased workloads, especially for administrative staff. Organisational restructures are well underway, with redundancies and new roles to be navigated.

In a vain attempt to hold onto a holiday feeling, I am making time to ruminate, to follow idle trains of thought. This is an emotional time, so I have been thinking about how we recognise what we are feeling.

This emotion wheel from Geoffrey Roberts has prompted interesting conversations:

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The emotions that describe the holiday feeling for me: eager, sleepy, free, joyful, and thankful. The return to work and school: pressured, overwhelmed, worried and hopeful.

How do we read the emotions of others? A pop culture example is  ‘resting bitch face’ (you know, when someone’s neutral expression is read by others as mean or critical). According to researchers who have developed a computer program to read faces, those with ‘RBF’ have a subtle contempt expression. I was able to load my own face into the reader. Turns out my neutral face is slightly angry, at least in this moment in time.

So how can I hold on to that holiday feeling? Today it is having breakfast at a cafe before I re-apply my lippy and head to a meeting. And deliberating over which book to start reading tonight:

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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.

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.