Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

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Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Isolating and Blogging: Interwoven Lessons

As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.

Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.

So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.

Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?

I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.

My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.


I definitely jumped on the Pandemic Baking Bandwagon! (image of my baking products)

I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.

Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought

I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.   

Embracing Slowness

More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.

Meow! (me as a cat)

With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.

I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference

I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!

This has taught me two things:

First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!

Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.

Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me

I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.

GIF of writer’s hand tapping a pencil, unsure what to write.

The Draw of Liveness

I am more certain than ever about the importance, the draw, the communal experience of liveness. I have been watching a fair amount of theatre online ( Canada’s National Arts Centre and Facebook Live, The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Online theatre can supplement but, for me, it just does not replace live, in-person performance. Even live-streamed online theatre, in my experience, lacks the feeling of communitas or the moments of utopian performativity that live performance offers.

And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.

7pm Applause for Frontliners – View and Soundscape on my Porch

Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.

These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!

My ducklings hatched!!! (image of 3 black duckings snuggled together)

 

An Experiment with Attention Management

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Amanda Leduc

Building off last week’s conversation between Kim and Colleen Kim Daniher, this week we’ve got another conversation in the form of interview between Kelsey and author Amanda Leduc. In it, Amanda and I chat about the pedagogy of fairytales, disability representation, writing tips, and responsible social media use for public figures.

KB: Let’s start by having you introduce yourself.

AL: My name is Amanda Leduc. I’m a writer based in Hamilton. In my day job, I work as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, based in Brampton, Ontario.

I’m also an author. I published a novel in 2013 called The Miracles of Ordinary Men and have a new non-fiction book, coming out in February 2020, called Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. It’s about how the representation of disability in fairy tales has been historically less than positive but has also influenced how disability is portrayed in the media today. I weave that in with my own narrative as a disabled woman with cerebral palsy. Then, I have another novel coming out hopefully in the Spring of 2021.

Amanda Leduc

KB: As the curator for a pedagogy and performance blog, I’m interested in the teaching element of fairy tales. Do you think fairy tales have changed in terms of their teaching ability?

AL: Fairy tales have always had that didactic purpose. They exist to teach us morals about how to live in the world. In fact, one of the things that’s powerful about fairy tales is that they have a social purpose in terms of reaching for a world that’s better. The hero at the beginning of the fairy tale has a particular kind of life that they want to escape in some shape or form. And in the fairy tales that end happily, they manage to escape that life.

The interesting thing for me is that that model doesn’t really apply to the disabled body. You don’t have stories about how society needs to change. You have stories about personal transformation: the ugly beast is made beautiful at the end of the tale and marries the beautiful princess.

I was really transfixed by this idea that the disabled, othered, body has to change in a fairy tale in order for some sort of happy ending or conclusion to come about. It’s never society that changes. Disability is almost a character flaw or some sort of physical flaw that can be overcome if someone just wants to do it badly enough. When you, then, apply that fairy tale framework to the stories that we tell in modern day, a lot of those same threads continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes of disability.

This is the kind of conversation that’s been going on in disability activism and disability studies for decades but in the mainstream world, it hasn’t been talked about as much.

The cover from Amanda’s upcoming book

KB: How do you see yourself intervening in that?

AL: I hope that my new book will get people thinking differently about the way the disabled body is portrayed in fairy tales.

Fairy hit us at such a young age that they really have a lasting impact on the way we move through the world. And the way that we approach certain kinds of stories. Their stories offer very pervasive, insidious, ways of teaching young children especially about disability. And very specific, hard, ideas, about what it means to be different in the world.

I think that’s changing, but it’s still there.

I also think we need to be increasing disability representation. There’s a real thing that happens where people like myself, who have a disability that is maybe milder than others, work to minimize their disability. I worked for a large portion of my life to pretend that my disability wasn’t there because I didn’t feel I could be accepted in the world as a person with a disability.

If we normalize disability and normalize the idea that the world is full of people who are all different shapes and sizes and have different abilities and do different things, it doesn’t become this othering. We all have different needs, and we can build a world that can accommodate those different needs but we have to do it together.

KB: Switching gears, many of our readers do a lot of writing. What are your top three tips for getting writing done?

AL:

      Step One: Put your bum in the chair. That has to happen.

The most dreaded piece of furniture for any writer.

             Step Two: Try to minimize distractions. I need to put my phone far away and turn off social media notifications on my computer. Disconnect the Internet if possible.

          Step Three: Create a ritual around the writing. I make sure I have nice cup of tea. I make sure the chair is comfortable and that the desk is clean. I put some nice music on. That helps it feel like an enjoyable experience. Because, you know, sometimes writing is not. So, at least if I have the trappings of things that I like around me, I can delve into the work. That might be frustrating but it’s still enjoyable on some level because I’m surrounded by things that I love.

KB: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an active social media user. Kim and I have chatted a lot about the quagmire of using social media as an information dissemination and pedagogical tool. What’s your experience of social media been like?

AL: Twitter has undergone a really interesting evolution over the last ten years. It used to be this optimistic and lovely place for people to come together with like-minded groups of people. Now, it has transmorphed into to a place that is better in some ways because it’s really offered a platform for communities that might not get the opportunity to speak otherwise, like the disability community, which is very active on Twitter. But, also just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Screenshot from a video embedded in a super interesting article on twitter and violence against women from Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-1/

KB: What would your three social media tips be for educators and researchers?

AL: As someone who is specifically as an educator, you really have a difficult line to walk in terms of allowing some of your personality in your public profile. This is what endears people to you. It’s what helps build a community. But, also, you can’t reveal too much or be too “real” if you will. That’s hard.

          First, be sure to inject some personality into your social media but then also be very careful and strategic about the boundaries you put in place to protect yourself and others.

          Second, set out very clear boundaries for yourself: these are the kinds of interactions that I will not engage in.

          Third, one of the things that’s been most helpful for me is thinking of social media as a conversation. It has been just as fascinating to listen to Twitter conversations as it has been to participate in them. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It’s important always to be listening as much, if not more, than speaking. Because it’s a learning process for all of us. Students and teachers alike.

Thanks, Amanda!

For more on Amanda’s upcoming book, Disfigured On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, go here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happened when I sat down to plan my winter semester

This time last year I was a-giddy and a-gog with the achievement of my sabbatical just passed: 40,000 words toward the monograph for students, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space, that I completed in spring 2018. (It’s published next month, from the Bloomsbury imprint Methuen; pre-order a copy here!)

Theory for TS Space cover proof

That stellar word count was the result of me establishing, for the first time really in my academic life, a regular, sustainable writing practice: two hours or 1000 words per day, four days per week, throughout my leave. I was thrilled at how well it had worked for me, and I was sure I could sustain even a bit of that momentum going into the spring, summer, and fall terms of 2019.

Uh-huh.

Sure I could have – I am sure indeed I could have – except I didn’t exactly plan to, not properly. I created an “un-schedule” for myself for spring term, and another for summer, but didn’t stick to it; it sat on my desktop, glaring at me, but I never checked in with it. (Eventually, I became afraid to. Then I just sort of started ignoring it.)

Summer you’d think would be a great time to manage a writing practice in an easy-breezy way; after all, it’s when most academics do the majority of their writing. But how do we write, in summer? We write in a panic because deadlines are approaching. We write towards deadlines further down the line as they come into view, but probably we don’t get “enough” writing on those projects done for our liking, and then we start to panic come August and September. If you’re like me (and I assume you’re a bit like me, since I’m not that special, though I realize YMMV), and between big projects, you may just sort of unconsciously decide to eff the writing off a bit and concentrate on other things, like summer conference travel (WHAT A TIME SINK, YES?), “catching up” on admin, spending too much time on email, sort-of-but-not-really planning winter teaching, etc.

That was me over the summer: away for something like 5 weeks, including two full conference weeks, plus goodness knows where the rest of the time went. I know I did some copyediting and proofing and web-resource-gathering for the book (all valuable tasks, and ALL WRITING TASKS, I’ll add in case any of us doubt this). I know I thought about teaching at least some of the time. I know I answered a lot of email, much of it pertaining to the academic journal I edit (and which is valuable work, and sort of writing work, but also an incredibly time consuming service slog, and to be honest I’m not going to miss it when it’s over).

Then fall hit, and my dad got sick. Train. Off. Rails.

Now, dad is recovering and I had a good long winter sleep over Christmas and I feel better and brighter. And like writing again.

https---cdn.evbuc.com-images-48697079-129004742909-1-original

(Thank heavens for the winter break. TIME TO HIBERNATE.)

So I asked myself: how exactly am I going to do that writing again? If I could, for sure, hold down a regular writing practice, how could I also ensure that I really did it?

Enter Jo Van Every.

My dear friend and colleague Jenn had recommended Jo to me before; Jo runs the Academic Writing Studio online, and supports scholars just like us in pickles just like mine. In October, Jenn alerted me to a workshop Jo was running in Ottawa in December; I eagerly signed up and started recruiting friends to come along so that Jo would have the critical mass she needed in order to make the thing a go. I was really excited to spend a day just thinking about what it was I wanted to be thinking and writing about at this stage in my career – one of the promises of the event. But then my dad’s surgery was scheduled at the exact same time as the workshop, in a city 600km away. So I had to pull out.

(Side note, because I’m pretty sure my dad is reading this. I don’t regret that choice! In fact, it had very positive consequences. Read on.)

Jo understood my difficulty completely, and very kindly gifted me, in lieu of my attendance, a basic membership to her online writing studio. I then received a number of resources from her via email, including a link to a recorded class called “Planning Your Winter Semester.” On New Year’s day, I sat down at my desk with my calendar to hand and all other distractions shut away, to listen to the class and make notes as needed.

Here’s what happened when I did that.

Plan, Wooden peg  and colorful words

Jo began by asking us what we had focused on in the fall semester; she suggested we make a quick list. Then, she asked us what went well in the fall, what we had read (if anything) new, and what the highlights of our personal life had been.

I really appreciated these early prompts; they allowed to me to make early realizations that were generative for the rest of the session. My notes for these prompts include a mix of things, but a few trends stand out.

I discovered not only that my focus in fall term had been on a lot of personal things – my dad’s treatment, and my boyfriend, whose schedule conflicts with mine so making time for one another is an active thing we both have to do – but also that I highlighted those as things I would focus on again in a minute.

I also highlighted some teaching things that were important to me, including my ongoing personal challenge to decolonize my class content and teaching practice. I noted, in fact, that one of the wins of the semester was learning that such decolonization isn’t always, or doesn’t always primarily need to be, about content; it can also, very importantly, be about the way a classroom is organized, and the ways in which students are encouraged to think about their labour as learners in a shared environment of discovery. (For more on this, see Anna Griffith’s brilliant December guest post.)

I also noted, in bold-faced all-caps type, that the highlight of my personal life in fall 2018 was taking a very short, entirely personal, and much-needed break to visit friends and family in England, between my dad’s surgery and an immovable exam commitment just before the Christmas break. The fact that I needed that break, and took it, even though the timing was awkward and the lead-up terribly stressful, was absolutely the best thing I did for myself last term.

(During my long weekend in London I visited the Christmas Slugs at Tate Britain. Hands down the best holiday deco EVER.)

We then moved on to reflect on what balls we had dropped in the fall term, acknowledging from the start that we all drop balls and that’s really ok. I noted a few, including the fact that I did not write AT ALL (caps in original!) last semester. Now, strictly speaking, this is a lie; I actually drafted and sent off a chapter on space, theatre, and gender, which was overdue but for which I negotiated a new deadline (and then met that deadline). A large part of that drafting happened during a one-day writing retreat I committed to in October, thanks to two of my brilliant colleagues in Arts and Humanities at Western.

(So: make a commitment to spend time with your writing (as in: put it in the calendar), meet the commitment (maybe because others are expecting you to? Maybe it’s just you doing the expecting? Maybe the calendar has a sharp stink eye?), and voila. Some words that will sometime not long from now be published. How’s that for a party trick?)

As we worked through our dropped balls, Jo encouraged us to think about how we would like to feel in winter semester – how it would feel to pick one of those balls up and start juggling it successfully again. (Jo works with the juggling metaphor a lot – I find it effective. She tells me juggling just one ball is A Thing, and I feel immense relief at that thought!)

This is what I wrote:

If I was a smooth juggler, how would that feel?

  • It would feel like a slower heart rate
  • It would feel like a good night’s sleep and a restful morning
  • It would feel like sunshine and walkies
  • It would feel like a fast ride on my bike

…during the winter semester I choose to feel slowed down, rested, like a smooth rider with sun on her face and warm wind in her hair.

Sure, that reads a bit corny. But I assure you in the moment it was revelatory. (I wrote in the margins, “I feel a bit teary right now!”)

I realized, during this exercise, that I COULD write in-term, and that I want to – that it would feel good to write again!

I ALSO realized that I desperately want and need to rest more, and better, and to focus on the pleasure I feel when I’m not working.

You’ll notice the phrasing in the quote above: I write that I “choose” to feel, not that I want or need to feel. This phrasing is also the result of Jo’s prompting, and I found it really helpful. Framing my wants and needs as choice – as me choosing to feel slowed down and rested, and making that commitment to myself on paper – moved me emotionally in a way that the slightly-panicked “WANT” and “NEED” phrasing did not. The latter phrasing feels reactionary, a burden; it feels affectively gluey. The choice phrasing feels more controlled, obviously, but also lighter: like the burden is not inevitable; the achievement of my goals need not be arduous.

Obviously choosing is one thing, and executing is another, especially when so much of our choices are delimited by work and family constraints. So, the rest of our session focused on turning these hopeful choices into some kind of plan for an achievable reality.

First, we listed all the things that we might need to do in the term – work, writing, teaching, family, you name it. The resulting list was long and scary, and Jo acknowledged that. She then reminded us that it was not fixed: we could add to it whenever we saw fit and we could reprioritize it whenever we saw fit.

She also said, to my mind really valuably: you also do not need to LOOK at this list all the time.

As we moved into the calendar-focused portion of the class, Jo asked us to put that list away, and make instead a new list, of things we might want to devote time and energy to in the term ahead. She asked us to highlight one thing that we’d want to prioritize above all else.

I chose two things: resting more and better, and writing regularly.

We went on to work through separate sections on writing, teaching, and service, starting with writing; we’d list what we had on our plates at the moment, where we’d want our priorities to be this term, and then we’d fill in our calendars accordingly. Jo encouraged us to block off our teaching time – office hours, prep time, AND class time – in our calendars so that we could actually see that time represented visually in our schedules. (I’m really bad at this – I never put class time or prep time into my iCal because it’s a “given”. Ditto office hours. Post-class, my calendar looks CRAZY FULL. Huh.)

She also encouraged us to think about what a reasonable commitment to our writing might be this term, and we spent time here.

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I decided I could block off one hour on a Wednesday morning (right now, in fact!), and one hour on a Friday morning, for writing and writing-related tasks.

Then I put it in the calendar, until Reading Week; during that week I blocked off a time to check in with my writing practice, make adjustments, and schedule writing time for the rest of the term.

Importantly, here, Jo reminded us that “writing” isn’t just sitting down to write a chunk of a chapter that will shortly be published. It’s about everything from planning to reading to abstract-writing to writing-for-teaching.

That built-in flexibility means not only does the blocked-off time in my calendar seem more adaptable to my weekly or monthly needs, but it seems less intimidating. I need to write for my Friday morning hour; this week, though, I’m feeling a bit brain-drained, so I’ll focus on reading the thing I’ve been putting off, for the project I’m in the beginning stages of planning. THAT COUNTS as a “meeting with my writing” (again, Jo’s helpful phrase).

Before the class ended, Jo devoted much-needed time to a section on self-care. She asked us all to think about what we already did, and what we needed to do, to feel as good as possible, even at the rough times of the semester. She asked us to reflect on sleep: how much are we getting? How much do we need? And she asked us to make some self-care goals.

Mine? To wake up every weekday morning feeling properly rested. And to take an actual break before, and after, each class I teach, so that I can “gear up” and “come down” in ways that respect the sheer exertion of teaching labour.

Finally, Jo asked a question that really resonated with me: How can I make the term easy on myself?

As I thought about this question I realized properly, for the first time, that I’m teaching two repeat preps this winter. Sure, as part of my project to decolonize my teaching, I’m adjusting one of them a fair bit. But the other – my graduate class – went very well the last time around; why should I change it? My instinct is always to over-tinker with teaching and re-write preps extensively. But honestly, why? The students are new and the stuff is new to them. They will learn! And, truly, they’ll learn better from me if I’m teaching from a place of ease and rest, rather than panic and exhaustion.

So I resolved, then and there, not to shake up the grad class beyond switching out a couple of readings, and adjusting the schedule according to the new term’s dates. I also resolved that the work of “decolonizing” my undergraduate theory class would have to happen in stages (really, that’s probably better anyway, right?), and that we would begin by introducing a handful of new readings at strategic points in the term, alongside readings I’ve taught before. I’m also returning to a past model of this class, where students help to select a number of the readings in week one, and we build a trajectory through the theory together. (More on this in my next post.)

These “resolutions” made, I felt lighter. I felt more in control of my schedule. I felt free to get up from my desk and harness Emma the Dog up for some long New Year’s walkies. And as we walked, I started to think about all the things I might do in those new slots in my calendar, marked “WRITING.”

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(Emma and I on a warm and no-white New Year’s walk along Lake Ontario.)

Best for the beginning of the term!

Kim