TBT: An Experiment with Attention Management

Friends of the AC, it is hard to believe the first week(s) of 2022, in and out of the classroom, are nearly over. If you’re like us, you’re thinking it’s Groundhog Day. Here in Canada, we’re largely online again – grammar school kids, undergrads, everyone. Unlike the very first time, though, it’s not a brave new world powered by adrenaline and fear. And unlike the second time, it’s not like vaccines are just around the corner, little needles full of hope. This time, it’s hard to know where to find the hope, tbh, and it’s hard sometimes to get out of bed in the morning.

To help us usher in the 2022 winter term, hot mess express and all, we’ve decided to go back to the future. To January 2020 in fact – and to a pre-pandemic post of Kelsey’s about attention management. While of course the drains on our resources and brain-spans have accelerated acutely since then, looking again at this post reminded me that it contains some really great, basic, sensible advice for tuning out when the soundscape is all JUST. TOO. MUCH.

If you didn’t catch it the first time, we hope it can inspire you now. Enjoy!

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By Kelsey Blair, 29 January 2020

It is hard to believe the first month of 2020 is nearly over!

As many folks do, I had intended to use the turn of the calendar year to intentionally reflect on 2019. Truth be told, however, the fall of 2019 was a swamp of reflection, and I’m a little reflected-out. But, I’m still committed to shifting my working practices towards healthier, more sustainable habits.

So, rather than reflecting, in January 2020, I audited.

More specifically, I tracked my energy and attention expenditure in relation to research, writing, and prep time.

I was motivated to do so by my interest in the recent swell of thinking that attends to “attention management.” This includes Deep Work by Cal Newport and 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. The politics and motivations of the two authors differ considerably; Newport is interested in “hacking” the attention economy to facilitate the conditions of what he calls “deep work” or uninterrupted, focused, thinking and writing, while Crary’s work aims to understand, unsettle, and question the attention economy in relation to the circuits of capitalism.

But, the two books share an underlying argument: the attention of subjects enmeshed in late capital is incredibly scattered.

On the one hand, we have access to a wealth of information and communication. I just googled the weather in Paris (a balmy 8 degrees Celsius) and sent my mother an email, which presumably arrived in her inbox seconds after I sent it.

On the other hand, the communication and information never shuts off. Your family, friends, colleagues, and students are only ever an email away, but the reverse is also true: you are only ever an email away. So, even if you don’t check your email on weekends, you could be, and it takes a certain amount of energy to set and hold that boundary (this is one of the major takeaways from Crary’s book). As if that wasn’t enough, there are the many pits of distraction modern technology (like the web) offers (see: YouTube videos with cute animals or, in my case, Broadway musical theatre show clips).

Alongside other factors (like 24 hour grocery stores), these conditions make it very difficult to be fully focused on a single task, thought, or moment for a significant length of time.

The stream of thinking that attends to what might be called the “attention crisis” often advocates for attention management. This essentially means becoming aware of how and when our attention is divided and then intentionally limiting distractions in order to be more productive.

So, I decided to log my work blocks for the month of January.

My goal was to jot down when I sat down to work, what I did while I sat down to work, and to note when I finished working. I even bought myself a spiffy calendar notebook and a nice pen for the task.

Kelsey’s spiffy calendar

As I often find is the case with these kinds of things, the most interesting part of the exercise wasn’t the data it produced but the process. Attempting to track my attention effectively drew my attention to how often I toggle between tasks while working and how quickly I can slide from a legitimate writing-related search to mindless Internet surfing.

Most interestingly, it made me notice 1) How often I check my email, and 2) How much checking my email affects me emotionally.

The moment an email arrives in my inbox, it becomes part of my mental space. Even if I don’t focus on it, my knowledge of its existence weighs. And, if that email has content that I care about, I get jolted from one feeling state to another. Both of these experiences pull me away from the researching, writing, or prep I’d set out to do.

These aren’t major revelations, but the tracking really helped emphasize the significance of little habits, and has led me to make series of small changes to how I organize my working time. In no particular order, these include:

  1. Leaving my phone in another room while working.
  2. Selecting a playlist I’m going to listen to in advance, so I don’t  toggle to my music player once every three minutes.
  3. Using two Internet browsers: one for research and/or prep related searches and one for emails and surfing the web.
  4. Setting aside time to check my emails and not checking my email outside of these times. (I support this by closing the email tab on my browser, which is so small, but really helps).
  5. Setting time parameters for writing or prep time (“I’m going to sit and do this one thing from 9am to 11am”), setting an alarm to mark the end of that time, and then actually stopping when the alarm goes off.
  6. Paying attention to my energy midway and toward the end of a work session: if I find myself uncontrollably drawn to surfing the web, it’s time to get up and give myself a break.

To be honest, it’s a work in progress. Even though I’m noticing it more, I’m still amazed at how quickly and easily I start “multitasking.”

That said, the little changes I’ve made have resulted in a subtle but noticeable sense of relief when I sit down to do work.

Because, as it turns out, sustained focus is not only an “attention hack,” it actually feels good in my body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if we just… stopped?

Let’s take a moment to go back in time. To October, when I wrote this post, about sabbaticals. I used the OED to make the argument that sabbaticals historically are, and therefore ought still to be, as much about rest as research, more slowing down than amping up. This has been my mantra this sabbatical (which ends in two weeks – DO NOT MENTION THIS), one I’ve been reminded of again and again as I try, fail, and try and fail again, to prioritize resting, living, being.

Many trials make a habit, I can hope.

Reminder number one.

I’m in the UK, in late October, for the first time in two years. Everything looks the same, yet everything is different. Nobody here is wearing masks. (Current mileage may vary – though I’m glad not to be in London now.) It’s like there’s an apocalypse but nobody got the message. Like visiting 2019, but in Bizarro-land.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan was, as far as I could tell, more or less the only person on the Tube wearing a mask (and a fetching London Underground one at that).

This temporal weirdness produces stress just when I don’t need it. On the way in from Heathrow on the Tube, spooked by the non-masky-ness and woozy from jet lag, I get off the train with all my stuff at Hounslow Central, sure that eventually a train will arrive carrying only the mask-compliant. Forced into realpolitik, I finally arrive at my family’s home, only to feel simultaneously trapped and at ease. Maybe I’ll spend the whole three weeks in here, just lying around on the sofa?… Though that would not allow me to get done the interviews I’ve come here to accomplish, in order to qualify this trip as a “work trip”. Never mind that these interviews, as we all now know, could just as easily take place on Zoom. (DO NOT MENTION THIS.)

But I am here to conduct interviews, and, just to be sure of my graft cred, I accept an invitation to give an in-person talk at my former school, Queen Mary University of London. A talk I have yet to write, of course.

After some coffee to wake me up, I wander into the bedroom and discover that the books I ordered from the Guardian bookshop the last time I was here have long since arrived, and are gathering dust. Among them? The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber.

The SP was published almost 5 years ago now, and it feels simultaneously dated and never, ever so true. As Julien Lefort-Favreau wrote in his 2019 review, “The book poses a difficult question: To what extent do professors themselves bend to the ideology of growth without their knowledge?”

I’m well aware of the extent to which I “bend” to the ideology of growth, speed, and productivity in my academic job. Confession: I get a frisson of pleasure every time I have to complete my supposedly-dreaded Annual Performance Evaluation, because I perform really well. I look forward to getting my “A”! In other words: the problem is less about awareness with me than it is – like it is for so many of us – about what Lefort-Favreau accurately calls hegemony:

“To what extent are the teachers themselves accomplices in this imprisonment, as if they are afraid of being accused of being lazy, under the pressure of implied adversarial criticisms they have integrated? This is a classic case of hegemony, where adherence to dominant values becomes so powerful that it is indistinguishable, like the (stale) air we breathe.”

The growth/speed/productivity thing is naturalized for us – when we don’t comply, we feel weird. Resistance makes me queazy. This is how norms work: they hit you in your belly.

Reminder number two.

By Monday morning, three days after my UK arrival and with a weekend of friends and catch-ups behind me, I start to panic about Getting Down To Work. I send slurries of interview-related emails, open the file of conference talks that holds what I hope will be the seed of my QM paper, and even do some Zoom yoga over the lunch hour. Productivity 101. By evening, I’m knackered (still jet lagged!) and ready for a drink. (Even though I don’t drink on Mondays… DO NOT MENTION THIS.)

One of my friend and colleague Erin Julian’s cats takes in my talk as part of the Zoom virtual audience. She looks like she might have a question…

By week’s end, though, I’m in Brighton, by the sea. I’m sitting on the pebbled beach, holding a heart-shaped stone in my palm, looking into the late afternoon sun. My pal and colleague Ben is going to meet me shortly for a work party, but the truth is we’ll mostly just gossip. After all, we haven’t seen each other properly – screens do not count – in ages!

I start to wonder if, perhaps, this – THIS, here and now – is actually a perfectly valid reason for me to be here, right now. The OED, after all, reminds me that sabbatical is time for rest and travel. Not for travel for work. The latter may happen. The former should take precedence.

Me by the sea.

Over the following two weeks I grow less and less attached to my interview schedule. The ones that happen, happen. The ones I can’t seem to nail down? Forget it, for now at least. That’s what Zoom is for. I lean into the sea air (back in Brighton!), walk the darkening, late autumn streets of London. This is me challenging, as much as I can, the hegemony that governs my days, shapes my sense of self. If I am not rush-rush productive, am I still me? If I JUST STOP, if I decide DUCK IT, will I wake up in the morning rested, or feeling mildly ill, a changeling, or – a fraud?

Hegemonies may be naturalized phenomena, but Berg and Seeber also remind us that the culture of speed and productivity that shapes late capitalism is destroying our planet – and in 2021 that is happening right in front of our eyes. Our naturalized slavishness will one day, probably not long from now, literally destroy nature, destroy us. The natural becomes a contradiction.

Reminder number three.

Everyone always wants to catch up on their reading during their sabbaticals, yes? I’m no different. Toward the end of my time in London I forego The Slow Professor for another book about living well: Motherwell: A Girlhood, by the late Guardian journalist Deborah Orr. Motherwell is a memoir of growing up under patriarchy, with a mom who is the staunchest patriarch of all. Orr writes with clarity, wit, ferocity, and tenderness about loving her mom and so much about her, and also hating her mom and being unable to live beside her. The contradiction that is her childhood burns her prose into my brain. I finish the book on the plane.

Back home, I try leaning into contradiction – I figure this might actually help. I am Push-Push Kim, and there’s no way around that. Perhaps I could be Stop-Stop Kim as well, and just live in the tension, noting it, trying to understand it? I put Motherwell on the bookshelf I reserve for women’s memoirs, and I put The Slow Professor – still not completed – by my bed, in the pile where academic books usually go to die.

I operate on the one-in-one-out rule with this pile, so I shuffle through and see what’s cooking. I pull some non-starters that bored me stupid right out, and I read a couple of dust jackets to remind myself WTF I bought other ones in the first place. I settle on a newly curated pile. Several of these, I realize, are books by academics about living: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The Right To Sex, by Amit Srinivasan.

Kimmerer on the left, her book cover on the right. There’s an audio book, friends! And shout-out to Cat Lady Erin (image of cat above) for the recommendation!

Kimmerer is my current bedtime inspiration. She is a citizen of the Potawatomi nation, a proud Anishinaabe woman, a home gardener, and a botanist trained in the Western academy, which tried to tell her from word go that her ways were not botany’s ways, that she couldn’t do ecology like that here. A scholar who called bullshit on that, then decided to reframe her college knowledge by learning her community’s language, and with it the lifeways it holds as knowledge. A teacher who roped her students into helping ready an old, off-grid farmhouse for a final Christmas celebration for an elder, a woman who could have easily been no more than a backwoods Kentucky neighbour. Someone for whom living is research practice, knowledge gathering as well as knowledge dissemination – as it is for so many Indigenous scholars.

Kimmerer doesn’t seem to experience her two interwoven worlds as contradiction; it’s just living. Living well and in balance, a key Indigenous principle, is something we all need to work at, something we need to remain consistently aware of. That’s because it’s something that affects others around us, our communities, our families, as well as our own bodies, and therefore deserves our considered attention and care. It’s not actually about stopping, nor is it about not giving a fuck. It’s about practice. And if we keep on it, eventually, I suspect, we’ll feel its goodness in our bodies.

(Speaking of not giving a …: this one is for fun. Happy holidays!)

Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?)

Activist Classroom Reader, we have made it to December 2021 … which feels even more surreal than usual.

In writing my last post, I reflected on self doubt in my teaching this semester. As part of my writing, I did a search through the AC archives to see what Kim had written. And, behold! She had some really helpful musings on “failure,” prep, and self doubt from 2015 (!).

I found the post really helpful — both emotionally (teaching solidarity across time!) and practically. It also has the wonderful line “prep is the thief of time.”

In hopes that you, too, might find the post helpful, I’ve re-posted it below.

Enjoy!

So it finally happened: I had my first epic fail of the term. Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on the roster in Performance Theory this week, and on Tuesday our job was to get some preliminary definitions of their main stuff (“Epic Theatre” and “Theatre of Cruelty”, for those of you who are not already theatre geeks) on the table. We did a brainstorming exercise at the white board, which went fairly well. Then, according to my prep, we were supposed to do this:

Debrief.

Usually, I like a nice debrief. We talk about what we’ve been discussing/writing/sharing on our own/in groups/in pairs, and exciting new insights emerge. I jump around and get exercised about the groovy things the students have discovered; we laugh at my shenanigans, and then we learn.

This week, however, when I looked toward the white board the temperature inside my body suddenly rose a couple of degrees. It may have been that southwestern Ontario is unseasonably warm this week, and the building in which I work is ill equipped to handle autumnal climate fluctuations; or perhaps I had finally succumbed to a combination of Prof Flu and Plane Flu (I was in the UK last week; more on that in my next post). Anyway, the result was the same: blank of blanks.

Somehow, we got through Artaud. But I left Brecht – Brecht! My hero! – on the floor. A big, flat, dialectical dud in the middle of the sweaty room.

Class ended with me asking the students (all of whom are always so game to just go with what comes out of my mouth at any given moment – bless!) to free-write for two minutes in response to the Brecht reading they’d completed. I then ran away to my office and cowered behind the recycling bin for a bit, weeping. The pressure immediately to dive into my prep for Thursday and re-write ALL OF IT was overwhelming. But I resisted.

I’ve written before on the blog about epic classroom fails, and about the power of just throwing the damn prep away in order to improvise in the moment. I’ve also been concerned recently with “prep creep,” and with it my looming anxiety that I’m spending too much of my (increasingly precious) work time on prep. All of this occurred to me as I cringed at the memory of Tuesday afternoon.

There was a time when I would absolutely, without question, have gone home and rewritten the heck out of Thursday’s prep – anything to give myself the impression that I was “ready” to “fix” the problems that had arisen on Tuesday. Instead, this week – mindful of my crazy workload, of the power of prep creep, and of the fact that much of what went wrong on Tuesday had exactly nothing to do with my preparedness, and everything to do with what I was feeling (exhausted; a bit sick) – I simply said: fuck it.

I reminded myself: Thursday’s class is already pretty well planned. I’m going to forget about this one, bad day; I’m going to go back on Thursday and regroup; I’m going to do a version of what I’ve already planned, and it’s going to be Just Fine.

And here’s the shocker: it WAS fine!

I arrived to class Thursday afternoon and asked the students to share what they’d written at the end of Tuesday’s class. There was some really good material on offer, and we chatted for a bit about the ins and outs of Brecht’s theory. Then, I turned back to my prep, which called for us to watch two very different performances…

(Buffy is SO BRECHT. No, really.)

(Societas Raffaello Sanzio… freaking everybody out, but in a good way)

… and then to connect them to Brecht and Artaud, respectively. The students responded to the performances with enthusiasm, disquiet, and real verve. I trusted myself in the moment to make the connections I already knew were there, and to speak with passion about two theatre practitioners with whose work I’m well familiar. In short, I trusted the students, and I trusted me too. I glanced a few times at my prep document (of course I did!) but mostly I went off-piste, letting the students’ reactions guide our discussion. And it was absolutely fine. It was more than fine, in fact: we had a terrific class.

Prep is the thief of time: it is necessary, of course – but it’s also so, so easy to delude ourselves, on really bad days, into thinking that more and more prep will make a better and better class next time out. But will it? Is that “better” class really better for the students in the room, or does it just appear to be better from the perspective of the struggling teacher who strives to regain control over his or her feelings about the class, about how things are going?

This week I decided to wing it: partly out of desperation, and partly out of a small confidence that I knew my stuff well enough to get away with winging it. In the process, I realised that I need to trust myself more, full stop. The prep is there as a fail-safe, a backup, but let’s face it: I’m well trained in this work, and I need to be confident that I can communicate it to students – and have compelling conversations with them about it! – without a whole bunch of paperwork, and anxiety, getting in the way.

Why it’s taken so long for me to absorb this fundamental truth I have no idea; I chalk it up to the power of imposter syndrome. But truly, it’s been such a relief to realise, this week, that I did NOT need to do more work to salvage the class; all I needed to do was show up, be present and committed, and bring what I already had on hand to the table.

Gratefully!

Kim

Self-Doubt Sneaks Into the Classroom

As I was teaching yesterday, I glanced out the window and noticed snow falling from the sky.

“Something winter this way comes,” I announced to my class. They looked out the window with end-of-term-tired eyes and nodded.

The first snow of winter fell while Kelsey was teaching, which was surely some kind of metaphor.

I took the pause to check the little clock on the corner of my computer screen: still over an hour left. Would my plan for the rest of the class be enough to fill the time? I flicked through my lecture notes and performed imaginary math in my head: short lecture plus group activity plus class-wide conversation equals ….

Then, I noticed the students looking at me expectantly: the burst of wonder of the first snowfall had worn off. I dropped the math and picked up the lecture.

Time: ever the menace.

This is not the only time that I’ve got myself calculating time this semester. This fall, more than any other, I’ve found myself haunted by the ghost of teaching near-future. “Are you ready for class?” she whispers nervously. “Are you sure you have enough material?”

I’m not a teaching veteran like Kim. But, I’m not new anymore either. Why am I pestered by these thoughts now?

“It’s because you’re a little out of field,” I’ve told myself. Which is true. Even though I’m very qualified for my current course load, I haven’t taught in some of these subject areas in years. And, sure, I taught all of my current courses on zoom last year. But, this year is different: I’m in person; the time slots are longer, and there are LIVE HUMANS in front of me.

For most of the fall, this was my answer. But, as I asked myself this question after the first snow of winter, another thought crossed my mind: it’s because you’re scared of being found out.

Oh.

Even in scrabble, it feels like doubt should have a higher word score.

I have been around long enough to know: that’s the voice of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome—the nagging feeling of doubting capacity and feeling like a fraud at work—has become something of a buzz word in the last ten years. And, its worthwhile to think critically about the term.

As Ruchika Tulshy and Jodi-Ann Burey argue, “imposter syndrome” is often used in relation to women and people of colour. The reasons for this, the authors suggest, are largely systemic and the solutions, therefore, should also target systems and structures.

Nevertheless, the concept helped me identify a specific kind of doubt, one that crept unnoticed into my pscyhe. And, it’s the unnoticed part that I find the most discomforting. Because, as a rule, my inner narrator is positive or neutral. Sure, I can lapse when I’m stressed but generally my conscious thoughts are constructive.

So, rather than thinking “I’m not capable of doing this” or “I’m a fraud,” I’ve been casually organizing a chunk of my teaching life – extra prep time, constant in-class stress – around feelings of fear and doubt.

My self-doubt, it turns out, is sneaky. She has burrowed beneath my conscious thoughts, where she can influence my actions

Self-doubt tip tip toeing into my body.

Which: of course! I KNOW that one of the most impactful manifestations of power is when it hides itself within bodies so that thoughts and actions appear naturalized. And even though I think and talk and teach about power and bodies all the time, I forgot that systems of power don’t only effect abstract bodies, they impact MY BODY.

The good news is, that, precisely because I teach and talk and think about power so frequently, I have a toolkit for counteracting power structures.

I’m currently working on re-orienting my actions and habits by resisting the urge to do more prep, by being okay with “not perfect” classes, by encouraging more participating from students. And, in doing a bit of digging, I found some of Kim’s old posts, which offer great insights (and some cross-temporal emotional companionship) on these subjects.

For our next post, we’ll feature one of these older posts.

In the meantime, I’m going to do a little searching, to see other not-so-helpful-feeling have burrowed their way into my actions so that I can do the work of promptly exhuming them.

Roundup Post: October Edition

It has happened: we’ve cleared into beyond the mid-semester mark of the Fall 2021 semester.

Kim is on the move during her sabbatical. Kelsey is clicking away with in-person teaching in Montreal. And, below, is a round-up of some our favourite pedagogical, performance, and activism articles from around the web.

Editing as Mentorship

Our very own Kim Solga has written a piece for University Affairs on editing as mentorship. As ever, Kim offers a unique, and activist-informed, perspective on how editing can be a collaborative, pedagogical, and yes activist approach for thinking about editing.

Mental Health in Canadian Universities

This week, the Walrus published an in-depth examination of mental health amongst students in Canadian colleges and universities. Written by Simon Lewsen, the piece offers an extended examination of mental and emotional health – and the challenges students face in accessing support – in the academy.

A Letter to a Colleague: Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant

Independent feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has long posted to her feminist killjoys blog. In late summer, she wrote a letter and tribute to fellow feminist and theorist Lauren Berlant, who passed away in late June. The letter offers a candid telling of the meaningful, if sometimes complex, nature of relationships forged in and through academia as well as a poignant letter to a colleague.

Experiencing the academy as a trans person

Kim is in the UK right now and was visiting colleagues from the University of Sussex on Thursday when philosopher Kathleen Stock resigned from that school after several weeks of controversy. Stock is a feminist philosopher who argues that allowing trans persons to self-identify their sexual identity will cause irrevocable harm to those born biologically female.

The row (transphobia? academic freedom?) at Sussex that was sparked by Stock’s work is a complex story that has been oversimplified in the media in unhelpful ways, so I won’t link to it here. But wherever you stand in relation to the issues at hand, I was reminded this morning that we all need to continue to pay attention to the material realities of what it means to be trans, as a student but also as staff and faculty, on academic campuses.

I found this great research, undertaken by Stephanie Mckendry and Matson Lawrence of the University of Strathclyde circa 2017: “Improving the experiences of trans and gender diverse staff in higher education” keeps our eyes on the key issue, even while Twitter catches fire with yet another zero-sum argument. Our trans colleagues, after all, aren’t memes or tweets; they are human beings with complex needs that we can all support with just a few simple adjustments to our daily practices.

Top tip: click on the “website” link in last paragraph of Mckendry and Lawrence’s article for many more easy to digest and share resources (like the excellent video embedded above). Great for sending out to colleagues!