Hello again! Long time no see.
Actually… this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts in the five years since I began this blog. Holy crap.
What happened? Well, I started teaching again after a sabbatical, which followed a house move, and which accompanied the writing of a book (which I’m happy to report I finished on 1 March, right on schedule). When the book wrapped, everything that had been on the back burner slid forward – and gosh, what a lot there was to slide. Exhaustion crept up on me quietly from behind… and before I knew it I was the one who was cooked. I spent most the second half of March forgetting to turn off the burners on my gas stove.
But something else also happened in March. After I completed the book, I found myself taking stock of the process I’d undergone. Of what I’d learned about my writing practice; of how I’d changed my writing practice.
Of what I was liking about my job and what I was hating about my job.
Of what I wanted to write next; of where I wanted my writing to take me next.
As I noted in my unschedule follow-up post in January, the writing experiment I undertook in order to start and finish my book project in five flat months was a huge success: I learned that I am exactly the kind of person who responds really well to the write-two-hours-each-day rule. I am deadline driven and I like a nice routine; I take pleasure in writing and I find that writing really is thinking for me. (For more on thinking-as-writing-as-thinking, click here.) I also tend to free-write in a way that comes out generally comprehensible and useable in a finished product, making free-write time productive for me in more than one way.
My revised unschedule for winter term provided a lot of slack, with large blocks of time only lightly scheduled, and only three writing hours marked off per week; I reasoned I would not be able to fit in much more. And was I ever right: in fact, since finishing the book, I have not written a single word in any of those scheduled writing hours. In a hilarious hairpin turn from my unschedule experience in the autumn, everything else about the unschedule has held – just not the writing.
When I realized this I found myself wondering why; of course the answer is obvious. My 40:40:20 workload* suggests I should spend two days per week on research and writing, all year round – but that’s utterly unreasonable in term, with its huge teaching and administrative commitments that typically spill far over their allocated three days per week. After dealing with students’ (increasingly harried) affect, the performance anxiety and adrenaline and exhaustion that comes with teaching a group of (young, increasingly harried, themselves exhausted) people for a sustained period of time, and the administrative palaver that managing courses with minimal secretarial support brings, one is not just tired; one is UTTERLY DRAINED. Add into that my personal commitment to sports (so that I can really enjoy my summer, I need to keep up my training in winter), and my new commute to and from campus by car (75 minutes; about 120km – each way), and, well, the truth is I had literally NO energy, physical or spiritual or intellectual, left in my body to write.
This taking-stock has provoked deeper questions for me. Like: am I doing what I actually want to be doing?
I loved writing – and writing a book for students! – so much that it literally changed me last autumn; I became a person with a regular writing practice and a smile plastered on her face. But working at a university – and at a university with at best a very ambivalent relationship to the arts – is also killing my writing spirit.
(I noted to a friend that my commute is new and I’ll get used to it; she noted in turn that the commute, in its newness, is also clarifying, foregrounding for me things I had not realized before. I now have the impetus to ask myself: is what I do on campus worth the 75-minute drive to get there?)
Further, the pleasure I took in writing the book was in large part pleasure taken as I dialogued in my head with the audience I was writing for. Not only does this contradict the things I’m feeling about teaching right now (aka tired; super over it), but it also calls into question what I want to write in future, as I recover the wonderful writing practice currently lying dormant while spring straggles into view.
I wrote a monograph but not a “monograph”; I wrote an academic book for students, which (as anyone who has undergone a REF cycle knows very well) is often perceived to be not a “real” academic book at all. Do I want to write another “academic monograph”? I’m not sure.
Who do I want to write for? – this is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. As I noted in my post for Gary and Lena in February, I love collaboration; how do I want to write, and with whom? If the answer is – as I suspect it will be – not academic audiences, and not alone – how do I do that in a way compatible with my job?
I had a freakout on facebook about this a while back. In a particular fit of pique I wrote:
“what does it say about me that I have literally no desire to write another academic monograph?”
The reaction was significant, and surprising. Lots of people were on board with my urge to ditch the monograph form and write something else, or maybe just make some art for a change. But a number of people I care about and respect also took offence, suggesting that I was disrespecting an incredibly important form of knowledge transfer in our field.
Talking to one another as academics is hugely valuable, of course, and we need specialist forms and languages to do that. But somehow, I thought, I don’t want to do that myself, anymore.
Or do I? I suspect, looking back, that what I was reacting to on facebook wasn’t a particular writing mode or output, but actually the structures that shape our writing lives as academics.
Academic monographs come with a mental image: they imply a certain amount of solitary reading, research, writing. (See above…) We sequester ourselves or steal time from our teaching or seek leaves to carve out space for this work. We emerge with a product that, if we are lucky, a handful of people read; it lives out its life on library shelves, perhaps inspiring dedicated senior students as time goes on. As for us, we head back into the classroom, back onto the treadmill; we teach and graft and struggle until we can steal some more time, apply for more leave, disappear from campus into our studies, and do it again.
Despite my anti-monograph facebook screed, this is apparently exactly what I’m craving right now: to disappear again into a space with my writing and find the joy my work brought me in autumn, a joy I have not felt in my work in a good while. But why, why, must I disappear? Why can’t teaching and writing co-exist for me in a way that allows one to feed the other simultaneously, that leaves me with more and not less energy?
How can I claw away some of the stress that attends my teaching practice and thereby make more breathing room for in-term writing, year-round writing, happy and maybe – but not necessarily – productive writing?
The truth is that I don’t know what I want to write next. I’d like time to find out, and to find out, I’m going to need to write for a while and just see what happens. In order to permit myself that freedom to write, I’m going to have to reinvent the entire work structure (that is, 40:40:20, research:teaching:admin) that bolsters my new writing practice.
This doesn’t mean making another un-schedule, I’ve realized; as I proved this past month, it’s entirely possible for me to keep to the unschedule perfectly – except for the writing part.
Rather, it means refocusing the emotional attention I pay to teaching prep and teaching stress, admin graft and stress; perhaps it means compartmentalizing carefully some of that stress so that I can really leave it behind when I leave my campus office.
I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’m hoping to spend some time this summer figuring out a plan. Part of my summer will be spent reinventing (in fact: decolonizing) two of my regular courses (more on that in an upcoming post), and also in planning a brand new one. I hope that, as part of that teaching-side labour, I can find ways to weave my writing practice into my teaching practice, bringing these work things often thought to be disparate into a healthier alignment.
I imagine already that this might involve me experimenting with free-writing as prep; it might involve me building more free-writing into class time proper (and including myself in that free-writing, in class!). It may also involve me purchasing a folding bicycle, and writing on the train.
Like I said: not yet sure. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Happy end of semester!
*40:40:20 = 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Ya, right. ;-/