So tired I cannot even manage to edit the posts that are already in draft state. Come to think of it a writing challenge during a time when after a full day of work another 4-5 hours are spend with physical labour in the garden, plus every single weekend 10-12 hours, might not have been the best idea … oh and don’t forget boot-camp. Anyhow, almost half-way through now. The reflections are short and snappy.
In my previous role the projects I undertook were as much centered around student well-being as much as they were around their academic development. Such as developing two different approaches to support under-performing and at risk students and in collaboration with colleagues we created a safe space for failure.
There are always two tiers to my projects:
1: What colleagues tease about as pink-fluffy unicorness
2: Strategic directive and an eye on KPIs
And no these are not mutually exclusive. When developing a programme that improves retention and progression of under-performing students. The approach was to create a safe space for failure. Working with students to develop their self-efficacy and learn reflective practice to take more ownership of their learning process.
That this was highly successful and had an impact on retention and progression was part of the story of the project and the institutional aim. However, the personal aim, the part that fits my value driven work ethic was to support students in their personal development and growth.
So pink fluffy unicorns can still meet KPIs … they just do it holistically.
Anyhow this whole contemplation, and a couple of other projects with more institution-wide impact I have been and still are working on made me wonder if it is possible to heal a system—an institution. If so how would one go about it?
We (office roomie and I) have been pretty good at taking our lunch-breaks (most days, most weeks) and going for lunchtime walks. It’s been really good. Sometimes these walks turned into walking meetings, planning work, activities, research. Sometimes they were about everything and nothing, and looking at squirrels. So today, because it’s Friday and after a double brain-wave yesterday. The text today are photos.
From said lunchtime walks.
When the sun shines in Glasgow, you have to leave your office and go for walking meetings or lunchtime-walks. Last week we had a mixture of both, catching up with a colleague we hadn’t seen in ages. For some reason the conversation meandered towards ideas of happiness. The colleague’s contention was that due to social media, streaming shows, etc we have unrealistic expectations of what we need and who we ought to be to be happy. If I recall right there actually have been studies about this. Now this made me think.
1: Do we have an obligation to our accumulated collective mental health to be more authentic on social media? Has authenticity become part of our duty of care to one another? Anyway, what happened to duty of care? How much are we beholden to one another? How much ignorance is acceptable? How much caring is too much?
2: What is happiness anyway? What do you think? What is happiness to you? Is it one thing? Is it THE happiness? Is it snapshots of junctions in time? Is it a state of enlightenment?
Today happiness was coming home, being hugged, bringing special food from the deli, watching the garden bloom.
Today happiness was being in flow with my colleague, sharing my brain-child, and then developing from there an entirely new paradigm.
Today happiness was passing it on to someone who really needed a piece of it.
Today happiness was meeting a friend for lunch.
Today happiness was banter with our colleague at reception.
Today happiness was being able to have a chat behind a closed door.
Today happiness was bouts of sunshine.
Today happiness was watching the birds in our garden.
Today happiness was getting the seal of approval from dad (German engineer) on our deck-construction.
Today happiness was morning coffee in bed.
Today happiness was a colleague roasting my office-mate and me in a spot-on hilarious impression.
Today happiness was neon pink socks laid out for boot-camp tomorrow morning.
Today happiness was the little orange tree opening its flowers.
Today happiness was a breakfast meeting with fruit-scone, cream, and a lovely colleague.
Today happiness was a chat with a mom and dad and a two year old who like me that age ate a piece of butter pure without anything else.
Today happiness was flowers in a vase.
Today happiness was singing loud in my car.
Today happiness was a fat bumblebee.
I tried to just list a couple of things and then could not stop writing. Now I feel very grateful.
These last couple of weeks, a term made the rounds in our department which I had never heard before and which finally gave me a picture to an issue I had for a while. There seems to be some struggle with context switching at the moment. Which made me realise that this is the fundamental problem I am having when I get stuck with things at work.
Mind you we all wear a multitude of hats, teaching on four entirely different programmes, in some of which we coordinate several courses, and then each of us manages various projects at the side, and we are completely redesigning our courses. On top of all of this there is a ton of admin, communication with students, peer observations, marking, feedback, managing interns, engaging in scholarship. So all in all the completely normal academic life.
However, our deadlines for things seem all to accumulate around the same time between the next three to five months. This means switching contexts between tasks has increased in speed and density, additionally most of the contexts are new, and come with a litany of new rules, regulations and processes, so one cannot simply switch between things one knows. The effort that has to be put in also increased. I am sure once we have a business as usual situation this will become easier.
Now my ADHD related learning from this new phrase, is that certain contexts work better in certain environments. Thinking work, scholarship, teaching planning, conceptualizing, writing content—no chance in the office. At home however, I am productivity ninja. Now admin stuff, particularly anything that needs sorted and is related to regulations and processes I am not familiar with and want to double check with someone—office. No chance at home.
The weirdest of them all are emails and filling in forms. I am getting better with emails: although sometimes they still cause so much anxiety that I do not answer. But give me a funding application or ethics form to fill in, or did I tell you I applied for promotion and the forms for that have caused me so much stress. I have cried, I have yelled at the computer, I have cursed like a sailor, a lady, and a pirate who met in a bar. At one point during the promotion application it got so bad the S.O. sat me down and gave me coaching session. I didn’t even know he knew Socratic inquiry technique!
When I open a form—mind you my heart rate increases already trying to find it and download it—all I get is noise. It is so loud it feels as if someone stands next to me and screams on top of their lungs into my ears. This is how loud forms are. Trying to make sense out of them is utterly exhausting. Going into the office when I know I could get three times the amount of work done at home causes me anxiety, stomach cramps, and also guilt because of the work I know will not be done. So I have noticed that if I very strictly compartmentalize the ADHD side effects become easier, less, better. And it gets even better if I align the context with the appropriate environment.
Have you ever heard the expression ‘managing academics is like trying to herd cats’? Now every time I hear this I nod knowingly and laugh. Now actually why is this? I mean it’s not as if I ever spoke to a professional cat herder. Have you?
Apparently, the guys from EDS and Fallon have made a documentary:
I was wondering where this reputation comes from.
We are very good in finding answers and solving problems. We are even better in finding problems, and more problems, and then some. Problems you didn’t even know could be problems—we are very creative when it comes to problem finding. I would even go as far as to say we do love problems—and therein squats the toad. We are on a perpetual quest for cognitive dissonance.
We have honed our critical thinking skills and reasoning for years, and years, and decades. We are very good in providing valid arguments to make a point. We will have shiny data, sparkling spreadsheets, pretty figures to support our argument and we will have found other academics who think like us and support our shiny data and valid arguments. We will also have found colleagues who contradict us with equally pretty data, whom we conveniently ignore. So we become very excited when we are convinced we are making a valid argument—a proper one, not like politicians during election year, using tautologies, hyperbole, and thinly veiled fallacies to make an argument. Oh no we do have the real deal!
We are therefore also really confident and enthusiastic when we share our shiny arguments. Not to say our enthusiasm could be frightening—or off-putting as some postgrads may or may not have said. The enthusiasm could potentially be compared to a tornado set on its way. We only mean well because we love our data so much, it’s so cool, look at what it does! We just want you to be as happy as we are.
Now to all of the above add the funny stuff The Brain does (emotional dis-regulation, impaired executive function etc) and you have the perfect storm. My strategy for preventing the enthusiasm-tornado is to build in checks and balances that force The Brain to be grounded and slow down.
Context dependent I identify colleagues who are usually more experienced, and have a much more senior perspective. To The Brain these colleagues look as if they have build-in scales. It’s difficult to describe but from their perspective very often comes a much more measured and balanced view of the enthusiasm tornado. A stronger awareness of institutional and/or structural inhibitors, and the most feared question of them all:
How does this contribute to the project’s aim?
Some years back, I had a chat with an Alchemist at a medieval fair, and he showed us all of his astounding experiments. When I asked him why he was doing these things (because there was a lot of ‘look at what that does’ and to my academically institutionalized brain not enough of ‘why does it do that’) he gave me a genuinely confused look and said:
Well, because I can.
So you can see where this story leads: we are living dangerously on the brink of a never ending story when we engage in research. There is always one more white rabbit to follow, there is always one more problem coming out of the woodwork, it’s never over. And all of these new problems are so darn interesting. Hence, the fear of, and the dire need for said question.
Another, check to my balance is to involve colleagues who think diametrically opposite of The Brain. Because they ask all these questions The Brain would never consciously consider. And all these questions slow down the tornado very often so much so that it becomes a nourishing summer rain.
Yes, I am still doing the 30 posts in 30 days, but—not during the weekend. Ha! This is my professional(ish) blog so I am taking weekends off. After all there was a living wall to be planted, and a garden-hut to be painted, and the foundation for a deck to be leveled.
Anyhow, so we are entering the time of the year, where most of our work-focus leads us away from our students and towards, scholarship, planning teaching—in our case a ton of it, considering we have completely revamped a four year PT degree (yes, every single course)—research, projects that need to be completed, data to be analyzed, exams and assignments to be marked, dissertations to be read, publications to be written, and the ‘new years resolutions for academics’ will be planned.
At every end of the spring semester, the common academic makes a list, mind-map or other suitable plan of all the things they want to do over the summer. This is like new years resolution, and come September the most often uttered sentences are:
Now I am not going to use Gantt charts (you may have read me ranting about the damn things at several occasions) but after a conversation with The Boss, who suggested to redirect my itchy feet (you know mid-life crisis-ish, being in the same place for the longest I have ever been, getting the long-boat ready to cross the ocean etc) into considering approaching the various aspects of my role as independent projects. So basically project-manage my day to day work.
You sometimes just need a change of perspective or adjustment of operating parameters to make something work.
So today was working from home day, because I need my peace and quiet to do proper work. I have colleagues who when working from home are not as effective as working from the office. To be honest this is something I cannot understand at all. Today I made more progress than most of last week combined.
I mapped out all the things that have to be done over the next five months, and none of these can become ‘I meant to dos’. So I have begun to map out the different ‘projects’ that need to happen over the summer. Oh and then there are still holidays and big birthdays, too.
But the aim is not to have anything become one of these failed academic new year’s resolutions, come September.