Roundup Post: October Edition

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

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

Editing as Mentorship

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

Mental Health in Canadian Universities

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

A Letter to a Colleague: Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant

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

Experiencing the academy as a trans person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a whole week.

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

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

Word up, people: they did!

Here’s how I managed the tune-out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim

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

 

On academic work and mental health (for professors and students alike)

It’s May! Back in Canada, my colleagues are throwing off the shackles of two chilly winter terms, getting out the shorts and sandals, and finishing the year’s marking and meetings en route to four months of welcome research labour. Here in the UK it’s exam term; we’ve had a lovely Easter break over April, and now must complete our own marking, meeting, and finalizing before taking off for the summer. In short, we’ve hit a cherished time of year.

Normally this is when I start to breathe a bit more easily, feel a bit stronger and lighter; the weather lifts, the intensity of the work tapers off, and time can be made in the day for taking things slowly (…and going to the gym, or out for a ride on my beloved road bike*). And so I have. But this spring is also filled with challenges for me: my family is struggling through a time of illness, and soon I’ll be packing up a portion of my house and heading back to Canada. My husband, dog and I will be living a trans-Atlantic life for a while, and I’m fretful and anxious about the emotional challenges ahead.

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*Photo of me and bike, feeling not sad at all.

I’ve pretty much always been an anxious person, though – and my anxiety pushes beyond the bounds of normal levels. I’ve been treated for it, and for other mental health difficulties, for well over a decade; I owe a great deal of my current wellbeing to the work I have done since 2001 with my superb psychotherapist, Andrew, who is based in Toronto. I also take medication to help me cope with anxiety and its fallout (which manifests for me as a sometimes-debilitating hypochondria). My anxiety has at times made it difficult for me to work, and sometimes I need to make allowances because I’m just not feeling quite OK. I’m not very good at this part, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been prompted to share this personal information by a spate of recent chatter on the Guardian Higher Education network: a recent article and a recent blog post generated lots of commentary and spurred the Guardian to conduct a survey on academic labour and mental health. I took it, and I was surprised to find that much of the stress and anxiety I feel is not directly attributable to my job; I suspect this is partly because of the history of mental health difficulties I’ve had over the course of my lifetime. I often wonder if I didn’t seek out my career in university teaching and learning because of a perverse attachment to the stresses of being a student; knowing that anxiety is part of what drives me (as my mother once memorably said to me, about herself), I suspect I sought out the worries I knew, rather than opting for unfamiliar psychic burdens. Anyway, obviously my job is full of stresses, but I don’t consider that abnormal in any particular way. Which means two things, I think: first, that I’m pretty self-aware, and manage my anxieties fairly effectively (I’ve had lots of help and training, fortunately); and second – and this is the argument that the above-linked blog post very succinctly and helpfully makes about academics in general – that I’m perhaps too cavalier about the psycho-physical toll university life has on me, my students, and my colleagues. And that’s a serious problem.

Anecdotally, many of my fellow uni teachers report a sharp, recent increase in the number of students who come to us during office hours or advising meetings with serious mental health challenges. Just this past year I’ve encountered a student who was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a student whose roommate was presenting with clinical OCD, a student from outside the UK struggling with loneliness and feelings of depression, a student diagnosed with a learning disability who was initially unable to cope with the diagnosis, and handfuls of other students not sure how to deal with what we might call the mundane stresses of academic life. I have no idea if this marks a true “increase” in student mental health problems in the UK or elsewhere – if anyone has statistics to hand on this, please post them in the comments section below – or if this is a matter of more students willing to report on their challenges to advisors; I do sense, though, that for the students who come to see me, speaking about these issues remains extremely taboo. It still takes a great deal of effort to work up the courage to knock on the door, or to email for an appointment. I’m open with students about my own mental health struggles, which may be one reason they feel they can take a chance and come talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, for either of us.

Ever since I read the material on the Guardian network I’ve been thinking about how we can better support one another – colleagues and students – in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, and I think this challenge applies equally to university and grammar school settings, although I fully admit to knowing nothing about mental health provisions for the latter in the UK or in North America today. (I remember having two psychological breaks as a student, one in year 4 and one in year 8, but I got almost no support from teachers and felt profoundly ashamed of myself as part of the experience. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago now; I hope and pray times have changed.) One thing we can, and should, do – as I’ve argued in this space a couple of times before, complete with holiday snaps! – is to remind students and peers alike that working all the time is not a good idea, will not make your output better, and will not contribute to a long and successful career; every body needs rest in order to assimilate learning, nourish itself, and grow. (I don’t care if you work in a lab, in a library, or in front of a computer most of the time – we are not ourselves machines.) But surely we can also do more.

One of the strengths of my current academic home in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London is the openness with which we talk about mental health issues; in fact, we maintain an academic focus on the links between performing arts and emotional wellbeing through the work of scholar/practitioners Caoimhe McAvinchey, Ali Campbell, Lois Weaver, and others, as well as through our affiliation with visual artist, performance maker, and lay medical expert Dr Bobby Baker. Next year, we’ll also be inaugurating a Master of Science pathway in Creative Arts and Mental Health, shared with QM’s Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine. We’re really good, in other words, at talking openly and without judgement about the kinds of wobblies that our society still, in 2014, rarely lets us admit to. Which makes us darn lucky, and sadly rare.

What have I learned from QM Drama’s focus on performance and wellbeing that might offer us a model for talking about and engaging with mental health challenges in our classrooms and staff rooms elsewhere? Here are three tips, off the top.

  • Talk about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom. More than once. And early on. Perhaps put something about it – and about the resources available to students – on the syllabus/module outline, along with some friendly, supportive language about how all of us need such help from time to time. Then make time to talk about it regularly; check in with students about how they are feeling throughout the term. As part of this process, take a risk and be honest with students: are you feeling a bit crap yourself? Why not share that information? Sure, of course, we need to retain some professional distance: a classroom is not group therapy, and many of us are not qualified psychologists. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be honest, as human beings, about how things are going and how we’re feeling. In my experience, when students clock that their teachers are imperfect human beings too they feel instantly more at ease. They feel better.
  • Share coping strategies with students, both in the classroom and in office hours. I am very willing to tell my students that I struggle with clinical anxiety and that I take medication to help me manage that condition; I am also very willing to share my experiences of talk therapy with them. Some of you (and some of them), I know, will think this is over-sharing, but I consider it a normalizing gesture – making what might seem shameful sound actually pretty OK. I have these conditions but I’m doing fine and feeling well; you can also feel better and do well. There are a lot of services on a modern university campus designed to help students manage mental health problems, and of course it’s essential that we direct students in need to those services; sometimes, though, before sending a student away to be pathologized by a campus counselor, it can help for us to let that student know that we are all, in many ways, in this together.
  • Make some noise in your department, school or centre about mental health issues for students and staff. At QM Drama talking about mental and emotional wellness is part of what we do, both professionally and as colleagues and friends; I know full well that this is not the case in every department. (A dear friend and colleague in Canada once admitted to me that he takes medication for depression, and that by his estimate half of our department may have done; I had no idea, but when he said that to me, strict truth or not, a weight lifted.) Perhaps each department on every university campus should have a strategy – maybe ad hoc or informal, if not necessarily fixed on paper – for supporting its staff and students in times of emotional need. This strategy might be as simple as all staff being encouraged to talk about mental wellness issues whenever necessary, with students or peers; it might extend to encouragement to check in with students in the classroom, when teachers feel comfortable or able to do, so that such check-ins are considered normal and not strange for students going through the department’s courses. Or, maybe it’s as simple as fostering an atmosphere of openness and non-shamefulness in relation to mental health issues, so that everyone feels like, if they need to speak up for their own good, they can do that safely in the office or the photocopy room.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been wondering to myself if I’m stating the obvious; surely we all know by now that struggling with anxiety, depression, or even compulsive behaviours is not abnormal. But I have a feeling I’m not, and that we really don’t; stigmas remain, and they are tenacious. Big Pharma and its many colourful pills may be ubiquitous, but the rise of medicating mental difficulty has not necessarily opened our eyes, hearts, ears or mouths to the complex and debilitating realities of coping with it. Surely one of our jobs, as teachers and teaching colleagues, is to break such remaining barriers down – or at least to make life and work more manageable for those trapped behind them.

Be well,

Kim