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.

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(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

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