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!)

2015-16 in review, pt 1: on mental wellness

It’s mid-April, and that means I’m a week and a handful out of the classroom. I’m feeling ok, but not exactly great (let alone euphoric): it’s been one hell of a year. And though prep and term marking are now over, dealing with struggling students and coping with them writing their finals is not.

Also not over: the edited collection of essays I’m due to deliver in 15 days; the conference I’m co-chairing that takes place end of May; and the admin related to the degree program I help to run, which is ramping up again in time for student course selection in June.

In other words: I’m still pretty unbearably busy.

And I’m emotionally as drained as can be.

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That’s why this year’s reflections on the year just past – for last year’s reflections, start here – need to begin with a post on mind-body wellness. Quite apart from the fact that I have honestly had a year from hell, and thus all reflection on it is coloured by struggle, this is also the time of year when many of us both rejoice in the end of classes and face one of the toughest mental tests of the term: the exam period.

During the exam period students come face to face with what they have, and have not, done to accomplish their goals during the academic year. They freak out; they stay up all night studying (or not); they beg for mercy in emails and in office hours. Simultaneously, faculty members struggle to cope with the onslaught of marking and end-of-year admin (aka meetings galore), as well as the sinking feeling that our lives are no longer structured by (and our lack of research output no longer excused by!) the courses that we teach, which by default shape our working lives from September through March. Plus, of course, students’ stress leaks out all over us, as we do our best to support them through their end-of-year challenges both administrative and emotional.

Put it all together, and you have a crucible of volatile emotions flying across campus – and a hell of a lot of work to do just managing them.

This exam period was preceded, for me, by a flurry of interest in the matter of mental health on campus. This may have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it. First, I received a number of emails from University Affairs, a Canadian academic-industry magazine, showcasing a mix of articles on the topic (and including compelling pieces from students on how teachers can help, here; and from the perspective of graduate students, from the always-perceptive Melonie Fullick here). Then, one of my students organised a long table, as part of her final project for my performance studies class, focused on student mental health and what our university can do better to support struggling students. Finally, one of my colleagues circulated information about a terrific new book on wellness for university faculty, The Slow Professor (which I immediately ordered up from the publisher. For your own copy, click here).

We’re getting worked up these days about mental health on campus for good reason: it’s a challenge that has been building since we began to conceive of universities as job-training and job-creation hubs, rather than as the sites of scattered, accidental, incredible intellectual imagination and discovery that they have long, long been. This isn’t the place to rehearse the false consciousness that tries to claim for universities the role of job-prep robot; instead, I want to point specifically to the kinds of emotional breakdown that often follow from this flawed logic – for students, but also for profs and support staff.

Our students feel, increasingly, as though their educations are meant to land them not just jobs but careers. And many of them are only 18, 19 years old! The pressure this need generates for the young people in our charge is overwhelming, and all the while many of them lack the skill sets to cope with it. The result of this pressure, plus this lack, can often be collapse of a significant magnitude: as I learned from some of the students who attended the long table organised by my student Rebecca King, plenty of them are using alcohol as a coping mechanism more than they should do, and plenty are (of course) using a mix of other drugs to numb the anxiety and fear of failure. All of them know someone struggling with mental health issues, and many of them struggle themselves.

mental-health

Sitting at the long table Rebecca organised, this information resonated with me, but not just because I care about my students and how they are faring. It resonated in large part because I saw myself in the conversation, too: as a front-line student support worker (all teachers are!), the emotional labour of supporting increasingly anxious, depressed, self- or doctor-medicated students has become one of the hardest, and most constant, parts of my job. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it seems to me the numbers of these students moving through my office is increasing every year (certainly I have statistical evidence from my own classes that more and more students are not handing work in at all). And as the emotion-management part of my job increases, my own emotional wellbeing becomes increasingly fragile.

We make a lot of noise now, for very good reason, about student mental wellness at university, but we still do not talk nearly enough about faculty and staff mental health. Profs are the authority figures and the power-brokers on campus, and so our struggles to cope with anxiety, depression, and related issues can often go unseen. But many of us are medicated, and many of us are struggling every bit as much as our students. I know very few colleagues not taking prescription drugs just to cope. And I don’t believe that’s because high-functioning troubled folks self-select into the academy; I believe the academy does to us as good as we can get, and then some.

Student mental health is rightly near the top of our radar; after all, the young people we teach don’t have the same experience managing complicated working lives as we do, and for many the culture shock of entering the university system, with its neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and bootstrap-pulling, can be overwhelming after a childhood of helicopter parenting. But truth be told, the unwatched movie of campus life is the one that reveals the number of faculty drinking too much wine each night, needing Ativan or Zopiclone just to sleep, and crying in their offices before and after class – trying their hardest, of course, to show none of this to their students.

Universities across Canada (and far beyond) have long since taken steps to support both students and faculty (as well as non-academic staff) who struggle with mental health issues; if Rebecca’s long table provides any evidence, however, those steps are often (perceived as) inadequate. Students are promised support, but the wait for genuine counselling is long. Students need accommodation for mental health issues, but doctors’ notes are expensive, and can be harder to acquire for problems without physical symptoms. Meanwhile, faculty (like many students) often suffer in silence, whispering quietly to one another what they take, or how much they drink, or both. It’s all shameful, until we share the story, and realise we’re not alone.

Sure there are supports on campus for faculty too, and I know from personal experience who in my department I can go to if things get really bad for me. I’m fortunate to have a chair with tonnes of sympathetic HR experience who knows how to advocate for staff, and I have a handful of colleagues I count as family who are there for me. But I also know that sharing mental health issues openly, especially for women faculty who still battle gendered perceptions about being “too emotional”, can be incredibly difficult, and even genuinely risky. A lot is at stake in opening up.

By strange and perfect coincidence (OK, once again, prob not actually a coincidence), the day after I wrote this post I had dinner with close friends who work at nearby universities, and we spent a large part of our shared meal talking about our shared struggle with labour overload, work boundaries, and the mental health fallout from it all. We were brutally honest together because we could be – but we also reminded one another that such honesty can’t always obtain at work. Because even though we’ve become better and better at talking with and to students about their challenges, and increasingly students are accommodated for their mental health problems (as it should be), it’s still pretty rare for faculty to share their issues and experiences with one another, or with those (chairs and deans) who can – and should – support and accommodate us.

I have, for a while now, made a point of sharing with my students my own struggles with mental wellness: my mom’s dementia, as well as the fact that I take doctor-prescribed meds in order to remain functional. And I encourage students to visit me in office hours if they have anything related to mental wellness they want to talk about. But that, I know, is a privilege: I’m still high functioning and productive, my students respect me, and my boss both supports me and knows he can rely on me. So my risk, in talking mental health matters, is minimal. In fact, the people I’d really like to hear from, and share health and wellness stories with, are my colleagues. That conversation feels urgent, yet also unlikely.

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I’m thinking of taking a page out of Rebecca’s book and organising a faculty mental health long table in September on my campus. And I’m going to create another post about women’s particular struggles with this stuff, because my chat with my friends reminded me how much more there is to say on that score.

Meanwhile, though, I would love to hear others’ experiences and perspectives on this one: what supports on your campus exist to help faculty struggling with emotion management and mental health and wellness? Do you feel you can share your stories openly? Where and with whom?

Sending good vibes out to y’all,

Kim