On Political Animals, by Sophie Mayer: writing as activism

(An Activist Classroom Book Review)

This blog is called “The Activist Classroom” because I believe that teaching, writing about teaching, and thinking about teaching and learning (especially in relation to performance) are all activating practices. They are things we do to inspire, stimulate, and charge others to engage in public debate, thoughtful reflection, and critically aware acts of citizenship.

I don’t talk overtly about activism a lot on the blog, largely because I see this as a space in which to explore what “activism” means: the different valences of the term, and what acts it can signify beyond its more obvious, old-school, and – it must be said – always courageous and essential roots out on the streets. So, when an exceptional example of non-traditional activism crosses my desk, I’m keen to investigate it, and usually to share my thoughts about it.

Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinemaby Sophie Mayer, is one such example. It offers a comprehensive, enthusiastic, generous, elegant, smart and forceful look at nearly 500 films from 60 countries. It is written for the widest possible audience but pulls no intellectual punches along the way. It opens with a discussion of Frozen telescoped through the reflections of a young female viewer (Mayer’s god-daughter); those reflections become a model for its inclusive, girl-positive ethos. It ends with a formidable call to action for cinema lovers of all ages, backgrounds, sexes and genders – but with girls called first to the front line.

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On the front line: Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012).

Before I go further, full disclosure: Mayer is an old friend of mine. We attended Massey College at the University of Toronto together, and we shared a PhD professor, though not a PhD program (hooray for interdisciplinarity!). She is the reason I own a Wheelock’s Latin primer, and the reason I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television program ever made. (OBVIOUSLY.)

But our personal connection is beside the point in this review – truly. I requested a copy of Political Animals from Mayer’s publisher, I.B. Tauris*, because I knew when I saw the abstract online that it would be essential reading for me. I also knew, given my academic expertise in feminist performance, that I’d be able to provide a balanced and informed reading of it, whatever the weather. Moreover, knowing something of Sophie’s work as a film curator, popular culture critic, and voracious and eclectic film consumer, I strongly suspected it would seriously kick ass.

I was right.

In a nutshell, Political Animals is a book about what Mayer calls “representational justice” (after “reproductive justice” [20]): she looks at but also very far beyond mainstream cinema in order to locate the images, narratives, and techniques that allow the feminist filmmakers she tracks to paint for us a picture of our world that is critical of our patriarchal present but also full of hope, “love, vigour and courage” (8). What’s a feminist filmmaker, for Mayer? Her definition:

A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist. …Drawing on the modes of criticism laid out by Jill Dolan in The Feminist Spectator in Action – argument and advocacy, forming an activist criticism engaged with artistry – I suggest what lies beyond: activist viewers of an activist cinema. Where the active viewer makes connections to and within the film, the activist viewer connects the film and the world. (8, final emphasis added)

Mayer’s book has numerous strengths, but chief among them is this: it shows performance criticism at work, as activism. (Or, to put this another way: it does feminism as criticism, and it does feminist criticism as activism.) Mayer sees herself as an activist, to be sure, but her book positions us – ordinary audience members, film fans everywhere, you and me – as the ultimate activist agents in the public sphere, central players in the debates that shape the making, doing, sharing, and viewing of art in a moment of political precarity. (Or, indeed, in any political moment. I’m not sure we’ll be getting less precarious anytime soon.) This is probably the most inspiring thing about Political Animals, especially for student readers. It fills reading, watching, and thinking with a sense of true agency.

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Sophie Mayer, photo by Ian Mantgani

Beginning from this democratic premise – that VIEWERS become activists when they have (and use) the tools to “connect the film and the world” – Mayer surveys an absolutely staggering amount of cinema, grouped into themed chapters. The first offers an “alt” reading of feminist film history – one in which the typical story of scarcity (“not enough feminist work!”) is replaced with a sense of “plenty” (“look at all this feminist work we’ve not been talking about!” [14-18]). Following on, chapters two and three take on ecological issues, examining films that engage animals, earth, and other forms of “bare” life in political solidarity with women’s concerns. Chapters four (on women making movies about war) and five (on the many faces of modern British feminist cinema) are more traditionaly geopolitical, while chapters six (feminist costume drama! My favourite!**) and seven (on the political power of female fantasy) explore “trad” women’s art and craft practices for those practices’ radical possibilities, when they are coopted effectively for (and by) the feminist imagination.

The final three chapters look to topics at once “done” and not nearly done (well) enough: girls (taking up space), homes and family life, and love. Mayer concludes with a vibrant, inspiring “open letter” (modelled after the open letters of some of her filmmaking heroes) to viewers, artists, critics, and curators as she peers into a future that is in the shaping, right now. That future is being imagined, created, filmed and talked about by the girl(s) she and I once were (the Riot GRRRL generation); the young female-identified artists watching, thinking, and making today, at home and at school and on their smart phones; and the thoughtful pioneers still all around us, in no way done with their essential work. Mayer invites us every one into the tent of her activist writing and viewing practice: channeling Kathleen Hanna, she cries out: “Girls to the front: let’s go” (203).

There is so much material to admire in Political Animals, and if you are a cinema-hound or a film scholar (or aspiring to either, or both!), I urge you to grab a copy and dive in. What I want to emphasise in the rest of this review, though, isn’t content but form. I want to highlight the para-textual dimensions of Mayer’s work that make it a model for the kind of scholarship I know I want (and want more of us all) to write more often.

1. Political Animals risks accessibility, gorgeously. 

Mayer’s writing is intellectually rigorous but also fluid and lucid and full of heart. It takes seriously the notion that writing about art is a creative thing, not less than (or better than) the art it discusses, but a parallel document that exists in an intellectual and social relationship to its subject and forms a crucial part of our public engagement with that subject and the potential it holds to “remak[e] the world” (8). Mayer is a proper scholar-artist in her working life (that is: she makes art, curates art, and writes about art, moving seamlessly between these labours every day); here, she turns her phrases with the talent of a sculptor, reminding us that scholarship cannot be dry because it is creative, and as creative material it needs to inspire. As she writes at the end of her galvanising introduction:

Political Animals is written in homage and gratitude to the feminist scholars, curators, critics and bloggers whose work opened, and opens, up a world of film to me, and preserves it for us all. Above all, B. Ruby Rich’s feminist film history Chick Flicks brought news of films I couldn’t yet see (and had never dreamed possible). Her search, delivered in effervescent style, for ‘the kind of riveting, soul-replenishing work that can give girls and women the confidence and spirit to change the world’, is the shoulder upon which my book stands. (11)

2. Political Animals is rigorously inclusive.

In its inclusivity, this book reminds us that we must make our futures together, respectful of our differences yet committed to solidarity across difference, or we have nothing at all. The quotation above is an apt example of how Mayer’s critical generosity extends outward to those who have inspired and supported her; she pays that generosity forward in the exposure she grants the hundreds of filmmakers whose work she discusses – in many cases exposure long overdue.

Mayer’s scope is broad, always international and intercultural, and her language choices carry with them her deep understanding of the responsibility writing across cultural difference brings. She consistently chooses the terminology used by minority communities (trans, LGBTQIA, Indigenous – for example) as she addresses work from those communities, and she pays constant attention to the ways in which labels carry unconscious privilege, the privilege to decide who is “us” and who “them”. This might seems like a small thing, but I assure you it’s not: the research required to ensure naming and pronoun preferences are correct on a subject-to-subject basis, and the additional care needed in writing and copyediting in order to make sure casual errors are not left in the manuscript, is painstaking. Taking these pains indicates a willingness not to settle for “normative” language as normal, a desire to use words literally to speak a different and more inclusive world, page by page, into being.

3. Political Animals is evidence that reviewing film, theatre, performance – art, period – is essential cultural labour, labour we need to support and maintain in these rough political times.

By choosing to go long rather than deep in her engagement with most of her cinematic subjects, Mayer models film scholarship’s relationship to popular-culture reviewing, helping to break down the barriers between “criticism” and “reviews” – artificial and unhelpful as they are. In a moment when I often despair of the quality of performance reviews in the media outlets I rely on for information about the cultural zeitgeist (500 words, maybe; maybe written within an hour or two of the show, on the hoof, maybe on the phone!), this book represents film reviewing at its highest calibre. It takes the measure of trends, makes political connections, and articulates a vision for what yet may come. This is reviewing that takes time. It is reviewing that recognises its responsibility to support, engage, critique, and also adore that which it speaks of. It is reviewing as political activism.

Mayer’s kind of sustained, cultivated, invested engagement is essential for artists, and through them for the societies they both reflect and shape. Work like this forms part of a conversation artists need to have, in public, in order to move their practices forward. It forms part of a conversation spectators need to have in order to learn what it means to go to the cinema or the theatre with a world-making eye. And it forms part of a conversation we need to promote, urgently, online, louder and stronger every day, so that one day we might drown out the trolls – or, even better, render them hopelessly irrelevant. Perhaps we might even teach a few of them something about art, feminism, and inclusivity along the way.

Thanks, Sophie!

Kim

*If you’re concerned about where you send your money when you click to buy online, consider purchasing Political Animals direct from the publisher here.

**I have talked before about costume drama on the blog. I will again – very soon. Look forward to more from Mayer’s book in that upcoming post, as well as thoughts on season 2 of OutlanderOrange is the New Black, and the crazy-cool feminist western Strange Empire.

 

 

 

Who are you calling superhuman?

Happy bank holiday, Scottish readers, and happy August long weekend, Canadians! To celebrate, I look ahead to the Rio Olympics, opening on Friday, and which will, no doubt, include plenty of political performances in amongst the sport. (Let’s just hope nothing else collapses!)

Last week, I began my new regular, monthly blogging gig at Fit is a Feminist Issue with a post about how Team GB (Great Britain) is supporting its Paralympians with a campaign called “We’re the Superhumans”. The campaign is a terrific example of how popular representations of minority groups can be both intentionally supportive, and yet fall short of the mark in terms of the messages they send to those in the majority.

In other words: visibility is complicated, and incredibly political, making this campaign a teachable moment.

I’m reblogging the post here; it includes both the trailer for the campaign as well as my reading of it (the good and the not-quite-there-yet). Feel free to add your two cents in the comments, either here or on FFI; we would love to hear your thoughts.

Enjoy the summer sunshine!
Kim

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve beenguesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weeklyat The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses tothe question of whether or not thisblog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional…

View original post 1,135 more words

Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience [Guest post]

Blog friends: at the end of June I spent a week in residence at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, where I am a Senior Visiting Fellow. I had the chance to run two seminars for graduate students and faculty, one of which focused on teaching, activism, and writing about teaching. I invited participants to become guest posters here on the blog, and today I am thrilled to share reflections on her practice by Nicola Abraham, who teaches in the DATE (Drama in Applied Theatre and Education) stream at Central. Enjoy!

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Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience 

By Dr Nicola Abraham

Introduction

For the past two years I have run a unit called “Theatre for Change” on a drama degree programme in London, England. Theatre for Change examines performances and protest approaches that intend(ed) to provoke audiences into making social change, i.e. by advocating for a change in the law, for equal rights, or further protesting for or against a particular political ideal. Theatre for Change also encapsulates drama based workshops that may be conducted several times a week over a longer period of time within a community setting. Often these community settings are formed of hard-to-reach groups within society, for example, refugees, elders, at-risk youth and caregivers. The intention behind working with marginalised groups is to enable the often suppressed voices of that community to be heard publically.

The Theatre for Change unit is based on my practice and research, and it provides an opportunity for me to introduce students to similar work in this area of Applied Theatre. (Applied Theatre is an umbrella term for theatre that takes place with, for, or by communities.) Part of the challenge I set myself for this unit is to ensure that sessions perform the core pedagogical values of Applied Theatre practice. I would describe these values as follows:

  • Valuing equality of voice
  • Ensuring inclusion of diverse voices in discussion
  • Playing with ideas through practice

Context

We are fortunate to have a growing diversity within our cohort of students. This provides a rich set of voices from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, though predominantly students are left-wing liberal in their thinking. Whilst this diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for students to encounter and embrace different ideas, it does create challenges, especially during whole-class discussions.

Students have a tendency to search for consensus as a means of validating their perspective. For example, one of the students in a recent class raised the point that Theatre for Change leads definitively to social change, that once an audience see a provocative performance, they leave the theatre thinking differently to when they arrived. The unit challenges this point, asking the students to think critically about the possible barriers to change transitioning beyond an audience’s experiences of a performance into their attitudes and actions in their daily lives. Instead of engaging in a debate to examine this potential problem, students responded generally, noting their agreement with their peer. This kind of reaction could be read as a supportive approach towards the dominant views held by the cohort.

Part of this tension may be related to attempts to provide the ‘correct’ answer so that the discussion might move on, which students seemed to think involved a change of topics as opposed to the exploration of more challenging facets within the idea already on the table. For instance, when discussing the ethics of using Forum Theatre to find ways of tackling domestic violence, I raised a question about the ethics of using this approach to tackle such a complex topic. (Forum Theatre, an interactive, problem-solving method derived from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, seeks solutions to problems depicted on stage from amongst audience members, who actively intervene in the action.) But as soon as I mentioned ‘ethics’, students gave responses mirroring the language I had used to form the question I initially posed to them, rather than taking up the baton of debate the question sought to pose. Here are a sample of replies:

‘I think that, ethically, Forum Theatre shouldn’t explore domestic violence’.

‘For me, it’s really unsafe and unethical to suggest Forum Theatre can work for women in violent relationships’.

One student, however, gave an example of a piece of Forum Theatre she had read about which challenged domestic violence. In this instance, a women in the audience had implemented a solution on stage to change the power dynamic in her relationship with her abusive husband, but had ended up in hospital as a result. Following this incident, her husband was arrested. The student argued this was a successful outcome, representing one possible way out of a violent relationship. A majority of the class disagreed with this suggestion, but the student who had suggested the idea stood her ground. The moment produced an interesting dilemma for the group to consider.

Learning Styles

I should mention that most of my students on “Theatre for Change” are kinaesthetic learners who find understanding new theoretical ideas, through didactic lecturing, challenging. They tend to thrive when they can draw from their own experiences to pin down a new concept. However, this can lead to further tensions, which arise when students appear to give more weight to shared experiences that build consensus, rather than exceptional experiences that break the ‘rules’ of their consensus-seeking approach to discussion. Honouring diverse views is a priority for my classroom, and working through tensions to seek a place of dissensus is important. It is not only necessary for the group to learn the skills to engage in a complex debate, but also to learn a core facilitation skill to help them navigate similar situations in community settings later on.

I would like to share with you an approach I used to enable the group to unpack a complex set of ideas and approach dissensus. I provided them with a ‘shared’ experience of an experiment looking at the concept of disobedience as a tool for civil activism. This formed part of a session entitled ‘Neoliberalism, Austerity and Art for Disobedience’. Before we began the experiment, students had offered their understandings of the potential of Theatre for Change, noting that they generally felt that incremental changes lead to fundamental social change. This session was designed to provide a ‘felt’ response to the barriers that hegemony places in front of a radical practice aiming for fundamental change.

It was also a trick…

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The Experiment: How do we play it right?

The session involved working in teams (chosen by students) to play a game. Each team was given a brown envelope containing instructions for their first task, a pen, note paper, and contact phone numbers for the ‘game master’ (me). The groups were given 40 minutes to complete the game and told that they must provide evidence of the completion of each task in any way they wished. There were no other rules apart from one: The aim of the game was to be disobedient, and the best team would win. Time began at 3:30pm.

The tasks for each group were as follows:

  1. Task one: Prank call one of the numbers provided and tell a funny story. More points are awarded for longer phone calls.
  2. Task two: Steal a book from the library.
  3. Task three: Propose something to a member of staff in the café, and ensure your proposal is accepted.
  4. Task four: Fall asleep and get someone to wake you up; you may not speak.

Each task, unbeknownst to the students, had been set up to avoid any negative repercussions. Books had already been signed out of the library – but they hadn’t been deactivated. Prank calls would be made to other members of staff and to my answer phone. The café staff had been briefed to only say “yes” if a student’s proposal was sincere, and students were informed that their final task had to take place within the safety of the university campus.

Most groups eagerly sought to obey the task instructions to the letter, and sent screen shots of their phone call timings via e-mail or photo message. Others found some tasks too challenging and opted out, after apologising.

A Dilemma: I don’t get it? How to do disobedience properly

The timer stopped at 4:10pm. In a classroom full of excitement teams boasted about their ‘challenge’ stories to one another before we began our debate to reflect upon the game. I informed the group that we had a winning team, but that all the scoring was completely random and disconnected to the achievements of the groups. (However, there was still a prize – a very small bag of chocolates.)

A debate ensued about the tasks, with some groups noting that they completed every activity and should thereby be declared winners. I, however, noted that the instructions were to disobey, so by completing all the tasks, had they really won? Another group at the back of the room noted that they had refused to do the activities and had therefore disobeyed. I asked them what they had chosen to do instead, and they said that they were bored and had sat in the classroom waiting for us to return. I asked why they had chosen boredom as an alternative to the game: was this a way of punishing themselves for disobeying? There were plenty of things they could have done instead to reward their choice to ‘disobey’: for example, visited a local ice cream shop, watched a film, or had a nap. This led to much debate, with groups unpacking their experiences; some noted that no matter what they did they couldn’t win because they felt morally obliged not to undertake certain tasks or were embarrassed to try others.

We then talked about the links between their responses in relation to the invisible work of hegemony, noting how easy it is in our culture to feel morally trapped, compelled into particular behaviours and compelled to avoid other, ‘wrong’ ones. Where does this come from? The group that had felt emotionally torn when asked to steal a book talked about why they felt this way, noting that they felt a moral obligation not to disobey their parents (who teach: you shouldn’t steal). The groups also talked about previous experiences of disobeying authority at school, suggesting that if they didn’t do what they were told they might be put in ‘isolation’ (a strategy used by some secondary schools to punish bad behaviour by making a student work alone in a supervised room). The way hegemonic behaviours had been enacted by the group during the game formed a strong shared connection within the class, and students slowly started to make links between their chosen responses to the tasks and the reasons why they had reacted in that way. Despite holding, individually, vastly different moral and political views of the situation, this time the group didn’t seek consensus but made reasoned responses to the game, connecting theories from previous sessions to justify their actions within the game.

disobedience files

To end the session, I picked up a previous thread of debate among us, about student concern with grades as a quantifiable measure of success and how this might contribute to neoliberal thinking by fostering a sense of competition within the education system. The students were adamant that they weren’t concerned with success in this way, so I asked them: ‘If this isn’t important to you, then you won’t mind me not revealing the name of the winning group, will you?’

The room erupted. I asked why they needed to know who had won, when I had already told them the scoring was totally nonsensical and they had just claimed not to be interested in competition or grades. They responded that they ‘Just did!’, that ‘they had earned it’, and that I was being unfair: they had done this exercise well for me and deserved to know. I told the group I would make a compromise:

‘I will give you a choice: if you are okay with not knowing the result, you can leave now. I will give you two minutes to decide; after this point I will announce the winner and give away the prize’.

Only 1 person out of 41 students left the room… more work to be done.

About Nicola Abraham: I am a Lecturer in Applied Theatre Practices at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, England. Over the past 10 years I have worked in a range of community settings within the UK and abroad. As an Applied Theatre Practitioner I have had the privilege of working with many people in society from Camden Carers, Arts for Dementia, KAYAK youth club, an Orphanage in Zmiaca Poland, Pupil Referral Units, Schools, Psychiatric units, Women’s Advocacy Groups, Children’s Charity contexts for vulnerable youth, Crossroads bi-communal project in Cyprus, Drama in Education in Germany (2016), IDEA conference in Austria (2015) on intercultural practice and Hellenic Drama in Education in Greece (2013). I have also undertaken a research project with women’s prison theatre company Clean Break. I am currently conducting research into the potential of theatre to affect change in the lives of vulnerable youth in inner city contexts.

 

On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.

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I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.

imposter-syndrome

I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).

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One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,

Kim

My Summer Email Vacation: what happened when I just stopped checking the post

If you read the blog regularly you know I’ve been focused a good deal lately on work/life balance issues, mental health and wellness for university staff and faculty, and the intensification of administrative downloading – which on its own is leading to a hell of a lot more email, make-work tasks, and generally unnecessary panic for me and my colleagues (and not just in the UK, where admin downloading has been the exhausting norm for a while now).

Which is a nice way of saying: I’ve been doing far too much fecking complaining lately about how tired I always am as a result of coping with work emergencies that are ABSOLUTELY NOT EMERGENCIES in the normal human sense of that term. (They aren’t even really that urgent. In fact, nobody is going to die, so who the hell cares?)

Certainly plenty of my complaints have been legit, and need to be laid at the feet of an increasingly teetering system in which academic professionals are invited, should they be Type-A like me, to take on responsibility for a whole bunch of stuff (like, oh, say, building and running a new academic program) for which universities no longer have enough staff, and then work ourselves into the ground. But let’s be honest: I am a tenured middle-aged woman with no kids. I have choices about which work I do, how much, and when. I have the choice to stop and give myself a break.

And yet, as I tried to explain to my therapist the other day, we work in a world chock-full of superficial choices that, at depth, amount to very little choice at all a lot of the time. This is a world of “flexible” labour that shames the break-takers and rewards those who are accessible and eager to help, 24/7. And the rewards are rarely just monetary (if they even are that! As a salaried prof I am one of the luckiest “flex” workers on earth, and I do know it). Working yourself to death also comes with an affective prize, the seductive Feeling Of Always Being Totally Checked In. (Don’t believe me? Click here to read a review of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.)

So sometime in the spring I decided this was it: I was making myself sick with overwork, and in the absence of a rescue helicopter from the fantasy world of Neoliberalism Is Over, I was going to have to take personal responsibility for my own wellbeing. Fuck the stuff that wasn’t going to get done on campus as a result; time to shift the priorities.

Step one in this gambit, I figured, needed to be to tune out. As in, to make all of the voices asking for things go away – if only for a little while.

I had to take a holiday, circa 2016, in which I DID NOT CHECK EMAIL.

For a whole week.

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Some of you might be rolling your eyes at me right now, but I suspect far more of you have just recoiled in horror. After all, we know what happens when busy professionals turn off the email for a week: hundreds of messages pile up. Coming back to that tsunami is worse than living with the daily, dull ache that comes with seeing the messages drip, drip, drip in.

I have long succumbed to the fear of turning off the email. Hell, at the ashram in Kerala I visited last summer I even checked messages once a day! But this time around I figured I’d hit the tipping point. Time to give email cold-turkey a try and see if the benefits outweighed the consequences.

Word up, people: they did!

Here’s how I managed the tune-out:

  1. I created a “rule” on my laptop mail program (Mac Mail) to send all incoming email from my work account into a folder I titled “holiday post”. (Mail users: go to “preferences”, click on the button in the pop-up window called “rules”, and add away.) That folder lived locally on my hard drive, and I moved it to the bottom of my folder roster in Mail so that if I happened to have my laptop open I would not see it. (And I didn’t: I was surprised how, after a day of being tuned out, I was not even tempted to look and see how many messages had come in.)
  2. I turned off access to work email on my phone and on my iPad. (Easy to do, apple users: go to “settings”, “mail, contacts, and calendars”, and click on the offending account. Turn mail to “off” just like you’d set, say, airplane mode when boarding a flight. Nothing is lost or disappears; the device just doesn’t look for post from that account again until you ask it to.)
  3. I checked my personal email account as normal, relishing the freedom that comes from being able to look at an empty inbox in the process. (SO FREEING!)

What happened when I came back to the land of typing and sending?

  1. The morning after my break ended, I checked the holiday post box and found 203 messages in it.
  2. After 45 minutes of gentle triage, over coffee, that number was down to 16 messages.
  3. Of those, roughly 8 needed answering. I chose to take an afternoon to deal with those, leaving all other work for after the email was up to date.
  4. I turned off the “rule” in my Mac Mail and reinstated my work email on my phone only after the triage was complete on my laptop.
  5. I chose not to reinstate work email on my iPad. After all, it’s mostly for reading the Guardian, watching Netflix and videos downloaded from the web, and looking at Facebook. There’s no need for it to be a work device! (That it took the email holiday to teach me how I use the iPad day-to-day is telling, I think.)
  6. I resumed working as normal, though at a slightly reduced pace. This week, only the one genuinely urgent (IE: overdue) thing got prioritised, and a couple of other tasks are on the roster for when that’s done, as a bonus, if I get there.

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How’d I fill all those free holiday hours? I used my away time to do some stuff in the garden I’d been meaning to do but never got to; I sat in my favourite cafe and did NOT do work; I walked the dog enough to satisfy her (not easy – trust me!). I was hoping to spend part of every (hot, crazy-sunny) day at my awesome local pool, but a bike accident involving a lot of road rash on my first email-free weekday (PAINFUL IRONY) scuppered that. Instead, I rode my bike a bunch, rowed, and chilled out in the back yard, not checking email. Revelatory!

Best of all, though, I was genuinely surprised (and pleased) at how easy it turned out to be to ignore my work email all week. I know those of you with strictly separated work and home devices (IE: work phone, home phone; work computer, home computer) might be a bit perplexed at this. But for those of us who work at least partly at home (and all academics do, some like me much more than others) it’s not practical to maintain separate devices. Which means we get in the habit of feeling the urge to check work email during leisure/non-work hours, and feeling it strongly.

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I found over the week I took off, though, that being tuned out felt way, way good. Much better than I could have guessed! And having given myself permission to feel free of work messages, free to use my time for my own pleasure and benefit, I became much more attached to that feeling than I could have predicted. The urge to look at work stuff literally melted away in the heat of high Ontario summer – so much so that, when I opened a work message that had been accidentally posted to my personal account, the light nausea in my stomach helped me realise, in my body, just how important the alternative feeling of freedom had become to my wellbeing. (And yes, I deleted it!)

Now, the challenge for me is figuring out how to carry the lessons from my week free of email into my regular work routine, and especially into the chaos of life during the teaching term. For one thing, I’ve already decided I’m going to do another email-free week in August, before things ramp up ahead of the start of term. Then, once we get into the term, I’m going to do something a bit wacky: I’m going to commit to not checking work email on weekends, ever. I’ll let the students know; I’ll set the email bounce. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you do to maintain work email boundaries; I know anecdotally from friends that there are some excellent strategies out there. Please leave yours in a comment!

Kim

PS: next up, the promised post on how the heck to say NO – crowd sourced from Women Who Know.