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

Friends! It’s READING WEEK here in Southern Ontario. I’m overwhelmed with stuff that bears no relation to my courses, so I’m glad I don’t have to teach this week; it frees up time for all the other crap on my plate.

What better time, then, to reblog this popular, collaboratively-sourced post on how to say no and like it, originally published in July 2016.

I’m still broadly very in favour of all the advice shared here, and I also commiserate with the me who wrote this post – I’m sure she would laugh sardonically to know that I’m still having problems, well, saying no.

However, I have one addition to the suggestions below around when and how to say no, and it comes from the fact that I’m now a full professor.

Being an FP means I can pick and choose where to put my labour, a privilege I do not take for granted. Which is why I now choose, above all, to put my labour places that can support the advancement and promotion of junior colleagues, including grad students, with a primary emphasis on supporting junior women and those from not traditionally privileged backgrounds. This is a really easy question for me to ask when any request crosses my desk: will someone whose work and presence in the discipline I value and admire benefit from my yes? If so, the answer is clear.

Whether or not you’re on reading week too, enjoy! And do share any yes/no wisdom, as ever, in the comments.


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.


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.


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).


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,


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!


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!)

Relax Your Head

It was my first visit to my new osteopath. After 18 months of bouncing around in my kitchen to Zoom cross-fit, I’d knackered my left foot. The inflammation was causing pain all up the side of my shin, and connecting to the Known Issue in my left hip. The earliest I could get an MRI was December. So I needed some assistance.

Crystal asked me to lie down on her table, and then she put gentle pressure on the trouble spots. In that way osteopaths do, she began sensing my story.

“Are you under a special amount of stress right now?” she asked me. “Your body is really amped up.”

I have no doubt she was right. But here’s the thing: no special stress at the moment, really. I’m on sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are gifts given by a combination of labour laws and historical workplace privilege to academics. They aren’t free: we’re meant to have projects to do that require concentrated research time; we earn sabbatical periods with accrued teaching time; and we take a pay cut during the sabbatical period. But still, they are gifts.

And I’m terrible at receiving them.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about sabbaticals:

The first definition of “sabbatical” in the OED, as a screen shot. It reads, among other things, “A. adj. 1. a. Pertaining to or appropriate to the Sabbath.”

I was surprised to learn of sabbatical’s religious roots; it had never occurred to me that “sabbatical” is of course derived from the “sabbath”! (I’m most moved by the 1892 reference to “calm … contemplation of his labours”; more on that in a minute.) The link is unexpected, but also instructive.

I’m not a religious person; I have a strong spiritual sense, or at least I believe I do, but I’m agnostic in practice. Which is one reason, I suppose, that I do not rest well; I do not have a sense of rest as something that calls me, the way (perhaps) acts of spiritual devotion linked to rest days might call others. I like to be busy; busy-ness is distracting and I find distractions calming. (I’m working on it in therapy, don’t worry.) Rest, in other words, is hard work for me, and it does not come naturally.

If I worship anything, it’s my bicycle – and the connection to the road, the earth, my community it offers me. Here, rest is essential: you can’t do the kind of riding I do (usually somewhere between 40km and 80km at a go) without resting regularly. There’s a lot of strong evidence about the essential role rest plays in building strength, capacity, and physical endurance – full rest days let cyclists like me go faster, climb stronger, and avoid injuries.

A cat in repose, head on a pillow. CATS JUST KNOW.

Rest is also more than muscular, though – it provides a way for athletes (of all kinds – including writing athletes!) to regroup, adjust their headspace, reduce their cognitive load, and refocus. (I recommend this wonderful piece by the psychotherapist Susan Tarshis on searching for rest in her life, her exercise, and her work.)

Do I rest well off my bike? Nope. I know I should, but somehow on “rest days” I feel like I should be… doing something. So I garden, or I sneak in a lifting workout, or I do a short row on my ergometer, or I try a spot of yoga (complete with headstands).

My partner tells me, wryly, that my Facebook status should permanently say “sore”.

Clearly, though, my employer isn’t granting me sabbatical leave to ride my bike or to convert to Catholicism or Judaism. I’m meant to be writing a book (which I also did on my last leave, when I taught myself the power of a regular, controlled writing practice). I’m also undertaking two new teaching-research projects, complete with a stable of five (FIVE!) graduate fellows.

Here’s what the OED eventually says about this more familiar kind of sabbatical:

The OED’s second definition of sabbatical, item c.: “designating a period of leave from duty granted to university teachers at certain intervals…”

I note here with interest that this definition of sabbatical indicates the leave is “for the purposes of study and travel“; I think back to the “calm… contemplation of labours” in the first, religious definition. There’s something moving about the “meta” aspect here, the idea that I might use a sabbatical to reflect on how it’s going, on how my working practice is or is not serving me; the idea that I might use this time to learn to be a better, more capacious, kinder (to myself!) version of Professor Kim – not just to do Professor’s Kim’s research projects.

I’m also caught out by the phrase “designating rest or absence…”: sabbaticals, even MY kind of sabbaticals are… about REST?!

The definition I’m quoting here is the origin of meaning for the very thing I’m currently undertaking; in other words, the world’s most historically thorough and reliable wordsmiths are telling me plainly that sabbatical leave MEANS a period of study, travel, and rest.

If you talk to anyone working at a university who is coming up to a sabbatical, they will tell you how desperately they need it.

They are exhausted from the emotional labour of holding up the students in their charge, all of whom are in a liminal transition space between childhood and adulthood and are consequently undergoing constant, often difficult change. The independence of university instructors means so much of what we do is homegrown (no set curriculum), and quality prep is loads of work that has to happen before we even get into the room with those students. And don’t even get me started on university administration.

Like academics everywhere, I’ve always experienced the first month or two of sabbatical as a kind of falling over. I’m drained and I know it and what I really, really, need is to rest. But I’m also an excellent subject of power, and the prevailing wisdom of this culture is GO GO GO; rest is to be regarded with some suspicion. This is the flip side of the world of the bike, the world of the sabbath, where rest is to be cherished and revered; this is the world of publish-or-perish, the world of economic neoliberalism, where only the busy people are regarded as good enough, as fully human.

So I feel like I should fall over… but I can’t let myself. There’s a book to write, right? And ethics protocols to craft and graduate students to hire and … and … and …

This dog. I want to be this dog.

The 24/7 world is a lie, though, and increasingly we get it. The most productive among us are the ones who rest and work in balance, who rest MORE than they work, in fact. All over the globe, corporations large and small are trialling the four-day work week, to massive success. (The link here is to a short BBC article; if you want a deeper dive, I recommend a listen to this podcast episode, from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd at Reasons to be Cheerful.)

Academics have some of the most flexible working lives on the planet, and yet the old joke is that we work all the time. We fetishize work as a badge of honour; then, we pass the fetish on to our graduate students, and we find them in the library on Saturday mornings. Could it be that we fear if we don’t perform our commitment to constant graft, we might be found out as – GASP – privileged? Free to rest whenever we need it?

I wonder what it would mean, for me and for anyone of us who feels somehow bad about themselves when they are resting, to take the OED definitions of “sabbatical” to heart. What if we regarded our leaves as periods of time when our jobs shift deliberately from work to rest – from work to calm contemplation about the many things we need in order to be our full selves? What if our sabbatical “projects” were not books or articles, but the recalibration of our bodies, traveling to see family and friends, a stack of work-unrelated books to read for fun?

What if the whole reason for the sabbatical was, unabashedly, to rest?

I’m still working on this, of course; even as I write this post I feel uneasy imagining myself prioritizing rest over the other things on my to-do list. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn; we live in a world that has naturalized a carelessness of self (principally so that it can sell products related to self-care back to us). It’s a trick of power – and it’s a very effective one.

But then, I find myself thinking back to my last sabbatical. When I wrote more or less a whole book in three months, simply by devoting two hours, or 1000 words, each weekday morning.

And I wonder: what could two hours of solid, devoted rest each weekday morning achieve for my aching foot? My sore hip?

I might even be able to wear my favourite shoes when I head back into the classroom in January.

This is Freddie, my road bike, enjoying a view of the Yorkshire moors above Hebden Bridge. This was taken in the first week of my last sabbatical, in 2017.

What We’re Taking With Us Part III: Concession and Absorbing Crisis (#ACsurvivalguide)

Dear Kim,

In your last post you wrote about resource sharing as one of the things you wanted to take with you into the post-COVID world.

That world that seems ominously far away as we dive into the third wave in Canada, but I am, nevertheless, picking up on the “carrying with us” thread. This is because I am both optimistic that the pandemic still has a horizon and also because the topic I want to explore here has been on my mind all week: concession.

In academia, “concession” is one of the many formal words (like “accommodation”) used to describe policies and practices that allow students to postpone and/or make-up, redo, or otherwise account for missed classes, assignments, or exams. While concession can apply to predictable absences or missed work (as a result of ordinary things like religious observances or work obligations), it often comes up in relation to crisis.

Thanks to the pandemic, the last year has been an extended exercise in crisis.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed two important things about our year in crisis:

1. All students (and teachers and administrators), even those who are excelling, are living in the middle of widespread societal crisis, whether we realize this moment-to-moment or not; and

2. As a result of #1, I’ve had ample opportunity to engage with concession policies at my university.

This engagement has helped me reframe my conceptualization of concession.

A new approach to an old problem.

In the spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the shutdown of in-person learning at many colleges and universities. A few students had the capacity and means to adjust to the changes: low care responsibilities, stable income and shelter, access to private work space, up-to-date technology, a sturdy WiFi connection. Most students did not, and barriers ranged from childcare and interpersonal responsibilities to technological issues to health and wellness challenges.

As a result of the sudden change, most institutions agreed that online learning in Spring 2021 was a crisis and enacted institution-wide policies such as pass fail options.

Then, in fall 2020, the state of crisis got a bit fuzzy. Colleges and universities acknowledged that virtual and hybrid learning models were not “business as usual” but most reverted to “normal” or near normal evaluation policies. Pass fail options were limited or restricted.

The institutional buffer was gone, but the barriers and challenges remained. By October, 2020 my inbox was filled with concession requests. There were so many, in fact, that they were hard to organize.

I didn’t feel good about only granting concession to the students asking. Certainly, students rarely turn down deadline extensions. But, when over half the class is sending panicked emails requesting them, that signals a larger problem.

So, I took a more global approach: I extended deadlines, shortened assignments, and created alternate options for all the students in a class. I won’t lie, however. I hesitated before each change, because every single adjustment involved additional labour for me. I forged forward anyway, however, because while my fall semester was busy, I was low on care responsibilities and feeling healthy and well. I knew I could take on the work.

This was not true for all of my colleagues and friends. They had to make different decisions.

This helped me identify one of the core facets of concession: the capacity to absorb labour.

Like a sponge, concession is all about absorbing the effects of a mess.

Beyond questions of definition (what constitutes a crisis), concession creates work for people. Sometimes, it creates work for a lot of people: the student who has to send emails and arrange meetings; the instructor who has to decide next steps; the administrator who has to communicate with both the student and the professor.

Who is willing and able to absorb the work of crisis?

Asking this question encouraged me to create concession policies that were both fair and low-labour for everyone. One of my proudest moments of the fall was going to the chair of my department to discuss a course-wide concession, wherein students could opt out of the final assignment and still do well in the course (within limits).

My idea was approved. And you know what? No one “worked the system.” Everyone who used the “off-ramp” needed it, and it was significantly less work for both me and the students as compared to my usual concession processes.

I wouldn’t necessarily use this precise concession again, but I will absolutely carry the principle with me. Concession is not only a question of fairness and evaluation; it is also a question of absorbing the work that crisis creates.

What about you, Kim? Has the pandemic helped you reframe any parts of your thinking?