My twitter time line is full of threads about mental health in academia, I am thinking about my own mental health a lot and about the limits of what is and isn’t possible or acceptable, I am running the London Marathon for Mind…., there are mental health initiatives everywhere – about talking to each other, looking out for one another, being more resilient, training, knowing how to cope, reducing stress. It just goes on and on. Everything is, it seems, about mental health. My academic friends are doing their best not to give in to absolute cynicism and to protect their mental and physical health while still meeting the demands of our employers. Often they put on a brave face, in private, over coffee, in emails and social media private messages that face slips. But those are their stories to tell, not mine, so let’s make this about me. I’ve been realising something, it’s not exactly a comfortable realisation but the more I think about it, it is absolutely true: Academia broke my brain and it can never go back to pre 2015.
Ok I’m not making sense. Let’s start at the beginning. Remember 2015? Remember the day I was sat on the sofa with a brain so so poorly that it couldn’t process the words my girlfriend was saying to me? The day I experienced my brain shutting down and refusing do process anything else until it had had a proper rest. Remember that? Why would you. I do though. Since that day and the period of sickness absence that followed and the rebuilding of some sort of academic career that followed that I have heard time and time again that none of it was my fault, that it’s not me and that academia needs people like me. I only ever half believed that it wasn’t about me and that me being ill was not my fault and I really have no idea what ‘academia needs people like you’ really means. So, the uncomfortable realisation: It is about me and it is about academia and it is about academia and me. Academia simultaneously needs people like me and has no place for people like me. And by people like me, I actually just mean me because I know about me, I don’t really know about anyone else.
So to be clear, all bollocks aside, I know I am good at my job. This is not a post about imposter syndrome (though I am very familiar with that too) or looking for some ‘oh but you’re brilliant’ sort of affirmation and ego stroking. I don’t much care whether you think I am good at my job or not because deep down I know that I am good at the things I value and that are important to me. But the things I am good at are not really the things that are valued and/or made possible in academia anymore – and maybe they never were. Maybe I have a romantic notion of what academia should and could be. Maybe and maybe what I feel, think and experience is shaped by the institutions I have worked in and things are different elsewhere. Maybe. What is clear to me though is that what we have now is not good for any of us, staff or students.
I love teaching. But what we do is rarely about teaching these days. It’s about learning outcomes and module specifications and textbooks, it’s about progression statistics and good honours. It’s about pass or fail and it’s about assessment. In an age where information is easily accessed we still have content heavy degrees and lecture theatres full of students who are rarely expected to really think. That makes no sense to me. In a system which thrives on consistency and metrics, what I do doesn’t fit. Taking content out and asking students to read, reflect and think makes things less predictable in the classroom, draws on a different set of skills, takes a risk and sometimes makes my student evaluations drop. I’m supposed to care about that. Instead I care about the student who tells me she felt empowered by being asked to contribute to the discussion in lectures. A third of my students have failed my module. I am supposed to care about that. I do. I care deeply but not because of my module statistics but because it means that there is a third of my students I haven’t managed to reach effectively – and partly that’s my fault, partly that’s the fault of colleagues who don’t ‘get’ what I am trying to do with the module and partly it’s the fault of the system that fails so many of our students by admitting them in the first place and then not supporting them properly. I already have reams of notes on what needs to change for the next iteration of the module – but I won’t have the time to make even half of those changes.
Because you see, time is not something we have in academia. In a job where thinking, reflection, reading, more thinking is key, you’d be surprised at how little of that actually happens. My biggest fear, other than spiders maybe, is my brain packing up on me again like it did. It is impossible to explain – but imagine someone has changed the language that everyone speaks, the script/alphabet everyone uses is different and everyone seems to know but you. People are interacting normally around you and talking to you but you don’t understand. I don’t ever want my brain to go there again. But academia takes it in that direction because everything and I mean EVERYTHING in modern academia seems toxic to it. You see, this is about me. It’s about having a brain that is too broken and tired to keep fighting the battles that academia needs. It’s a brain that refuses to see resilience as a permanent state. I can’t give up. I can’t not work on building better sessions, modules and courses. I can’t not try to encourage colleagues to try new things in the classroom, I can’t not be a mentor, I can’t not try and build a better law school all round, I can’t not be me BUT I also can’t keep having the battles that make it possible to do those things. I’m stuck – unable to do what is required of me because I cannot act like or help produce little worker drones.
Research is the same. My brain is and always has been, even before it broke, slow. It needs time to let things whiz around a bit. I do actually think that every now and again my brain can be quite brilliant, that it can see connections and make sense of things in a new way that is valuable to others and worth sharing. It can produce insights and it understands stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to others. I think I can write and write well. I think sometimes I have something to say. Do I say it in a way that hits the metrics I need to hit as a modern academic? Probably not. Am I interested in things a modern academic in a modern university needs to be interested in? No, probably not. Do I bring in money? No. Do I do research that could bring in money? Not really. Is my research impactful (is that even a word)? Who knows!?! Is it valuable – well I think it can be. But there’s no time. No time to spend thinking about things deeply. No time or inclination to allow me to think deeply about something esoteric and a bit odd which might turn out to be really important. No time to read, think and reflect. Demands are such that research gets squeezed into the odd day, an evening here and there, a weekend. But my brain can’t do evenings and it can’t do weekends. It broke doing that. It won’t, can’t, do that again. My brain is not good at being squeezed into tight time scales, it makes it work too fast and then it panics and then what could have been isn’t.
I’m reasonable at admin and management stuff. I can do it and do it well if I see the point but I am not very good at doing things that I see as pointless or idiotic. And there is lots of pointless and idiotic admin in academia. It’s increasingly bureaucratic and a fabulous example of work and task creation and the glorification of busy-ness. This is not what I want to spend what little brain power I can muster each day on.
So I am and have always been a good enough academic. Not excellent, not amazingly brilliant but an academic who can teach, research and stay on top of admin duties. Good enough. But good enough is no longer good enough in academia. We all have to be world leading, in everything we do, all of the time. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’d like to help others be world leading, shine, reach their potential and step out into the limelight. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of girl but academia is not about behind the scenes…
So where does that leave me? Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I just want to leave, walk out of the university doors and never look back. Sometimes I think things aren’t so bad and I am just having a crappy day. I’ve sat on this blog for weeks trying to work out if I am just having a bad day…, sometimes I really really want a management position like Head of School or Dean or something because part of me still believes that all of this can be done differently – but maybe my brain is too broken for that. So for now I just want to keep doing good enough. I want to keep teaching and I want to keep researching and I want to keep doing it my way. I’m not striving for excellence or brilliance. I’m striving for good enough with a sprinkling of disaster and pinch of brilliance and I am aiming for survival in a sector which is fraught with difficulties. I think I am aiming for riding out the storm and contributing, in what little ways I can, to turning academia (back) into calmer waters.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. Something has to change I think because too many of us are breaking. Once broken a little bit of our sparkle is lost forever because we have given just a little too much. We’ll always hold back because if we don’t we risk going back to that dark place that does not guarantee a way out, that doesn’t guarantee a tomorrow. Academia should not be about holding back. It should be about going all in with an idea and seeing where it takes us collectively and supportively, working in collaboration or on our own, with our students or with each other. That’s the academia I want and we all need – we’ve got a long way to go and for now I’m coming along, walking the line between trying to make it better and breaking and hoping that that line holds!
Today is a pretty big day. No, it’s not a special occasion, I have in fact done very little and nothing has happened – but it is still a big day. I started working in the HE sector some time in August 2004. Ever since that day I have not taken all of my annual leave. Every year it would get to the end of the leave year and I’d have loads left – like double figure days left.
Not this year. My leave year ends at the end of August and today I took my final day’s entitlement. I have used up all of my leave. All of it. Every single day. And I plan to do the same again next year and the year after that and the year after that and every year until I stop working. I love my job. I have been tempted today to read some work related things. It is hard to separate out academic me from me me and there is considerable overlap but I drew the line at a Public Law textbook today – even though I was genuinely interested in how that particular book deals with the rule of law. Anyway, I digress.
So, annual leave. Over the years I never felt like I needed to take it all. I felt like I had plenty of downtime and plenty of time away at conferences and work related stuff. I was young and stupid. Conferences are work and exhausting. Meetings away are not like going on holiday even when they can be combined with an couple of hours getting lost in the Natural History Museum. Not only did I not take all my annual leave, the leave that I did take was often not actually really holiday and switching off. I’ve finished papers from sun loungers (and hospital beds for that matter – fucking idiot); I’ve written teaching materials in hotel rooms and exam questions on flights. I’ve read research papers while sipping a frozen margarita and my holiday reading was always always work related. The downtime I imagined I was having was just that – imagined.
But the thing is, I don’t think that’s sustainable. Well actually I know it is not. It leads to complete exhaustion over time and it makes it so so hard to recover because you unlearn how to relax and have to learn all over again. I have taken all my annual leave and I have felt pretty good all academic year. I have not been ill (I think I might have had a day with a slight tummy issue), anxiety and depression have been mostly fairly low and certainly manageable and my work is, I think, better.
I was away for all of July and most of that was holiday with a short conference stint in the middle. I took my work email off my phone and I didn’t look at it. I took my conference paper and a chapter I was working on with me to look at during the conference period. I didn’t read. Yes that’s right. I did not read. I spent time listening to the sea and the rainforest; I spent time just being; I spent time letting my mind toddle off to wherever it wanted to go; I spent time with Kath and I spent time with me. Less doing, more being. It brings perspective.
I know so many academics who use their annual leave to get stuff done – work stuff I mean. People who actually take a week off to write their teaching materials because they can’t make the time during the day job. That’s wrong. Something is very wrong there. Others who do all of their research during their annual leave. Also wrong. I get cross when I see people in the office on their annual leave and they’ve come in because ‘I just need to do this’. I’m not cross with them. I’m cross with a sector that has normalised overworking to such an extent that the sentence ‘I’m on annual leave but I’m here because I just need to finish x’ doesn’t sound wrong, it sounds normal.
So what did I do with my last day of annual leave in this leave year? Well I didn’t jump out of bed when I woke up but lazily and luxuriously stayed in bed with the cats. When I did get up I went for a long run which felt naughty because long runs are not a Monday thing. I had coffee and watched a TV programme I had recorded in the middle of the day. Then I went to a yoga class and then I watched Snow white and the 7 dwarves – just because. I’ve never really seen it all in one and I’m running the Dopey Challenge in January so I wanted a reminder as to why I like Dopey. I drank more tea and sat with the cats, I pottered about putting bedding and clothes away and books on shelves. I spent time doing nothing at all stroking a cat until I realised that I must have stopped and the cat had long gone.
I have loved today precisely because it wasn’t anything spectacular. It was more being than doing and the doing bits of the day were a being sort of doing. Mostly I loved it because I just left my brain alone. I didn’t ask anything of it and it rested, ready for me to call on it again tomorrow.
Footnotes is a remarkable book. Let’s start with that. As I plodded along at my slower than ‘politicians run marathons’ pace (see later in the post) last night I was thinking about the review I wanted to write. I didn’t really know whether it should go on my running blog or my academic blog so I’m putting it on both. As I turned left to avoid yet another uphill (and because it felt like a lovely random thing to do in the rain – getting lost on an estate just down the road from me) it struck me that the book has made such an impression on me because it’s about everything that makes me who I am. It’s about nature and running and literature and it’s about being an academic. Maybe not explicitly so but I think many academics, maybe particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will recognise so much of the emotion of this book. I now understand why Kath has been urging me to read the book ever since she picked it up some time ago.
My left turn was a mistake, or rather the almost immediate right turn I took after it was because I zigzagged down the hill and cut off the opportunity to zigzag back up without running the same road twice (Vybarr Cregan-Reid doesn’t like retracing steps either! I’m going with first name only for the rest of this post – hope he doesn’t mind – but surname just felt so academic and formal) so my legs stopped working and I had to walk. As I puffed up the hill I thought back to the beginning of the book. I am cautious about running books. I am sensitive about my running. I am so keenly aware that I am a rubbish runner and only slowly getting my head around the idea that it doesn’t matter. ‘I am lost on Peckham Rye’ is the opening sentence and from there I’m in. It’s a book about running and it starts with being lost. That means it can’t be a book about road running and races and going as fast as you can from A to B because people who do that sort of thing don’t get lost (maybe they do but I don’t think of them as the sort of people that go anywhere one could get lost). The book is full of the sort or running that instinctively makes sense to me – outdoors, connecting with nature, evoking landscape and literature, tapping into something that isn’t quite explainable.
There is a fair amount of explaining though and Vybarr explores the science of running in the book and I like that. I like to understand what is going on as I run, what individual bits of my body are doing and how that fits together, what I could (should?) be doing to help, how and why some runs are awesome but many just are. Why the first couple of miles often feel so hard, and why taking my shoes off on the beach and running barefoot was one of the hardest runs ever physically yet one of the best. Some of the answers are in the book but it’s not sports science book. It doesn’t spoil the magic of running by over- analysing or over explaining. Vybarr, I think, accepts and knows that running is more than science, it’s also magic.
The sections on runners’ highs are fascinating and I agree that all the science on this still doesn’t really capture it. I’m also slightly envious that Vybarr seems to get to that runner’s high far more often than I do – mostly I don’t go far enough to get the full hit but I do think I sort of get a mini version of a runner’s high that kicks in immediately after running. Kath calls it my ‘she won’t stop talking’ phase when we run together. I don’t think I talk out loud when she’s not there but I wouldn’t bet on it. I do know that it is often the only time I really feel positive about my running, it’s where I feel strong and capable.
I’ve got up the hill and my legs don’t really want to get going again but on I go. I’m on an odd run for me. I didn’t really want to go and realised it was because Kath had been out at Bolton Abbey earlier in the day and I think I was envious of her running there and grumpy about having to run at home. So instead of going a usual route towards track, wood and eventually canal, I stayed on the roads and had a nosey round the local area. It was quite fun looking at gardens and little streets and alleys I don’t normally see but as I started a stretch of long straight road I thought about the importance of running in nature and how Vybarr captures the difference between running indoors or even in cities and running in green spaces so perfectly. I ran on the road and kept having to hop back onto the pavement to avoid cars. That’s what it felt like. How can a little residential estate be so busy? (Ok so there were maybe 6 cars in that 20 minute stretch but it felt like an assault on my running calm). Footnotes captures how important outside is and how treadmills have very little to do with real running! I may have got a little over excited at the mention of Foucault in the book – as I did with Bleak House and the other surprising number of law related references. I shall leave you to find the connections between treadmills and Foucault for yourself but I smiled as I thought about that on my run, quickened my step and turned off to cross the canal bridge and run at least a short section along the canal. I could feel the stress leaving me as I turned to run alongside ducks, one with what might be a third brood of tiny little ducklings, further along there were a couple of swans and I desperately looked around for a heron but couldn’t see one. I crossed at the next bridge still thinking about how wildlife and what I see or don’t see can sometimes have a huge impact on my run and am reminded of one of one of my favourite sections in the book – the razorbill on Lundy. I won’t spoil it for you – read it in the context of the chapter it’s in but think about this:
‘Sometimes they fly because they need to hunt, or migrate; sometimes it is only to enjoy the sensual excitement of flight. This is where the joy is to be found: in using ones’s body and its expressive impulse for its own sake, for no other outcome but itself.’
I plodded on still smiling from the memory of that passage mixed with my own memories of puffins on the Farne Islands and the graceful flight of gannets at Bempton Cliffs and pushed up a little slope and turned right – again unusual. Normally I’d walk up the big hill towards home now but I wasn’t quite done running yet. I glanced at my watch and chuckled at my pace. And as the pace sort of registered in my brain my stomach plummeted. There are two tiny little sections in the book that nearly ruined the entire thing for me. This is not really about the book, it says far more about me than anything else. On page 220 (obviously I don’t remember this while running!) there is one sentence that floored me. Vybarr describes what sounds like a stunning run from St Juliots in North Cornwall. I loved reading the description of the run, the links to literature (Hardy), the fact that it was a tough run and he needed a lift back to his car (this would happen to me all the time except that usually I just have to walk back because there’s nobody to come get me, or I have to get a bus or whatever) – all this resonates. Then the following line stopped me in my tracks ‘I later work out that I have been running 12-minute-miles – these are the sorts of times politicians manage in marathons’. I stared at the page for a bit. And then I stared a bit longer. Then I carefully put the postcard I’d been using as a bookmark into the book, closed it, put the book down and walked away. ‘Right, ok then’ I remember thinking ‘so this isn’t a book for me after all’. In my mind I have put it on the ‘books for proper runners and not me’ shelf, right alongside Run Fat Bitch Run (which you might recall I hated). Everything in the book had been speaking directly to me – almost as if the book had been written for me to remind me that how I think and feel about running is ok, it’s better than ok. That line shattered that. I nearly put it back on the shelf and didn’t finish it. I didn’t really quite understand how someone who could articulate so much of how I feel about running could be so utterly dismissive of 12-minute-miles. I tried to explain this through tears to Kath who simply said ‘yes I wondered when you’d get to that bit. I knew you wouldn’t like that’.
As I turn left to make myself run up a hill rather than avoid it I’m angry. 12-minute-miles are fast miles for me. Mostly I run slower than politicians manage in marathons. Sometimes I wish I didn’t but there it is, I do. Part of me wants to challenge Vybarr to run some of these West Yorkshire hills with me, that’ll teach him – no hills like these bastards in London. And then I remember that I can’t run them either and even if I could, I’d still be slower! And as I push the last few steps up the hill and force myself to keep running on the flat I also force myself to accept that the comment about 12-minute-miles is a comment situated in the context of Vybarr’s running, not mine. That pace may well be utterly awful for him, it may well be a sign that the route got the better of his legs, that’s what that’s about really – not me being someone who runs slower than politicians do in marathons.
The second comment is about marathons. Vybarr recalls his 2012 London Marathon (lovely and funny read this) and notes that his official time was a ‘horrific’ 5 hours. Really? Horrific? I’d love to have a marathon time that started with a 5. I have run two. Nearly 7 hours and nearly 6 and a half hours. I rolled my eyes and read on.
So there’s a sentence and a word I don’t like in the book. Everything else is, I think, pretty perfect. The book has had an influence on my running. I took my shoes off on the beach and ran when we were at Seahouses a few weeks ago. I was tempted to take them off yesterday and feel the warm rain on my feet but I haven’t run barefoot. I need to try it on softer surfaces first. It has helped me connect more with the environment I am running in – or do so more consciously which then bizarrely leads to less thinking. It’s made me determined to increase fitness so that I can do those 7 or 8 miles runs more comfortably. I think I agree that they are a really nice distance – no major concerns about fueling and far enough to achieve the almost meditative state you get when you finally find your rhythm. The book has also made me think about literature and whether maybe I should revisit some classic authors. Should I maybe go back to Dickens and Hardy and others with a focus on nature and movement and place? Could I read Bleak House, for example, not as a lawyer but as a runner? How different would it be? And finally the book has taught me something really important about academia. If academics can follow their passion and write about something that truly brings them alive, they can create magic. I love this book for that alone and as I continue to run (at my pace!) I am getting closer and closer to figuring out what I want my magic to be. On this run though I reach my driveway before I can grab hold of ‘it’ so for now, thank you to Vybarr for sharing his magic and if you haven’t read the book yet; what are you waiting for?