My last post was a little depressing really and the reaction to it showed how necessary it was to acknowledge that academia has a problem here – or maybe all sectors do, maybe our time in history is one characterised by poor mental health…. My next posts are likely to be conference related with the Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual conference coming up next week and the Association of Law Teachers following the week after. So this post is something completely different: Meet Kilian.
If you are on Twitter you might be familiar with #academicswithcats and obviously you will understand that cats and academics go together. It feels like I have always had cats and that those cats have always supported my academic life in some way. It’s odd that I feel that way because actually I didn’t have a cat while I was a student at UG or M level. We got Ernest and Shackleton when I was a chunk into my PhD. Ernie was my PhD cat. He curled up with me, he ‘helped’ organise my literature, he listened to my ideas and thoughts and walked away in disgust on more than one occasion. Ernie-cat died recently and I miss him and our chats – one sided though they generally were. Shackleton is too busy manipulating the universe and being grumpy to be much of an academic cat. He also thinks I’m stupid (he thinks everyone is stupid!) so trying to talk to him about work really doesn’t help.
Einstein – though I rescued him from a university campus 4 years ago, isn’t much interested in me. He’s very much Kath’s cat and he’s also not one for cuddles or curling up with us other than on very rare occasions. He likes sleeping in the sun relatively close to but not too close to us or Shackleton and chasing things outside. All. The. Time. And dreamies, he likes dreamies. He thinks I’m dull if I don’t have a piece of string in my hand. So our two older cats are not really academic companions. Imagine my delight then that Kilian, just over ten weeks old and with us since Saturday, appears to have already started his desk cat training!
I have always wanted a desk cat. Kilian started by locating my notes for my latest writing project and kicking the hell out of them, tearing them and chasing them across the living room floor. Then he perfected the ‘curl up under legs’ pose which allows contact as well as a laptop on knee when humans are not at their desk. Then he sent an email, turned the screen upside down and added 45 words to my chapter while shouting about the inadequacy of that particular paragraph. That seemed like a good start for an academic cat. This morning he tried the ‘curl up on knee while human sat at desk’ – a more tricky balancing act than anything that had come before and seemingly not really suitable. He quickly moved to ‘locate sunny patch on desk’ and is now perfecting ‘distract human while she’s on the phone’ with Kath. He is learning fast!
He has other qualities that I think will make him a lovely academic cat. He is very talkative and likes a conversation. I think maybe our chats will be less one-sided than the ones I had with Ernie. He is very good at pouncing on important pieces of paper thus indicating what I should be thinking about next and he’s not worried about deleting my rubbish by marching confidently across the keyboard. And for those moments where I get anxious and worried, he has the most amazing deep, loud purr which makes the world stop spinning for a split second and everything seem right. He also has a fairly distinctive ‘feed me’ meow which comes in handy when lost in work for hours as it will also serve as a reminder to feed myself!
Here’s to our little academic cat in training (which is quite tiring really)!
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!
Ah yes conferences, the playgrounds of academics. You laugh but actually conferences have in my experience at least been exactly that. They have been spaces where academics work hard and play hard. Good conferences offer great papers and discussions, too much coffee and sugar and then too much rich food and alcohol to top it all off. Late nights, early mornings, not enough exercise… it is of course a recipe for disaster. Increasingly I am distancing myself from the work hard play hard thing. Don’t do anything hard! Conferences are fabulous. They offer opportunities for catching up with colleagues and friends, for lively and sometimes heated discussions, for quiet reflection on new ideas or new thoughts on old ideas. They’re an escape from the daily grind of the office. The coffee and lunch breaks as well as the evening social activities are often as much part of that, if not in some ways more important in renewing connections and helping ideas form. So yes it’s work and yes it’s play and I am not by any stretch of the imagination advocating being a saint.
However, there is also a darker side to conferences and conferencing. The crippling anxiety some academic feel before and during their paper presentations, the pure horror at having to be with other people for a significant amount of time, the pressure of being on the ball and on your game all the time, the pretense of hyper performance and the glorification of busy. Saying ‘actually I achieved everything I wanted to this summer because I decided I wanted to do fuck all and just have a proper rest’ somehow sounds and feels less acceptable than the frantic, but oh so familiar ‘oh my god I can’t believe the summer’s over, I haven’t even really started on my to do list yet’. This is bonkers.
I used to attend pretty much every session and all socials at all conferences I went to. I was often last woman standing and first woman up. I used to be able to function feeling pretty crap and hungover and usually didn’t even really notice until I got home. I don’t actually know if I can still do that but the reality is that I don’t want to. There are better ways to do the conferencing thing and get a lot out of it but also preserve sanity and health. I started editing this post yesterday. I’d actually started writing it at the conference in Mexico last year (June 2017 archive for the posts from the conference if anyone wants to have a look) but I think I have always tried to be too generic – to give advice that works for everyone and it just sounds vague and unhelpful. So I have re-written the thoughts below to focus on what it is I do, don’t do, should do, wish I did…
- We all have different conference tolerance levels that probably also change over time. Very few people can take in every session – particularly if they are packed in. Tuesday I went to one session and then had a power nap. I was sad to miss the session I missed but that’s life. It is always possible to ask for the paper or have a conversation with the presenter at a later date. Yesterday I felt pretty good so I went to all sessions – however…
- … I had too much coffee. This is a real thing at conferences for me. It is so easy to just keep drinking the stuff at every break and before you know it you had some at breakfast, before the session, after the sessions, at lunch, after the afternoon session… and I didn’t drink anywhere near enough water because I forgot my water bottle in my room. I need t carry a water bottle or I just don’t drink – possibly because I’m an idiot.
- That links nicely to food – you don’t move much if you are attending several sessions. I have liked walking from building to building at the SLS conference this week. There is something nice about those few minutes of fresh air but often you have to work much harder to achieve that. In Mexico for example everything was in the hotel and I had to make a conscious effort to go outside, breathe, make sure I actually saw some natural light. Oh hang on I was going to talk about food – yes well even though you might not move much, your brain is working bloody hard, or at least mine finds it hard! So you need fuel but you don’t need a full English breakfast, pastries, cookies, a huge plate full of sandwiches, wraps, cake, a 4 course meal….. I love a little conference indulgence and I am currently sitting in my room with a Cafe Mocha which I almost never have at home but which just feels lush on this sunny but cool morning. A little indulgence isn’t a bad thing. I now usually have whatever sweet thing is offered with morning coffee because the afternoon version is usually bigger, heavier and more likely for me to induce a complete afternoon sugar crash. Yesterday I had both and had the most awful sugar headache through the final plenary session.
- Social events – I’m not a fan of people so these used to be pretty awful unless I already knew people in which case they were marginally less awful. Now I just don’t go unless there is a specific reason to. So Tuesday night there was a dinner which I hadn’t booked for but then last minute I had the chance to catch up with a wonderful academic and friend so I got a ticket and we spent the evening hovering at the edge of the drinks reception and at dinner creating our bubble around our conversation and then I left early. I did not go to the conference dinner last night. I have a low people tolerance level. People exhaust me so conferencing all day and then playing in the evening is a huge ask and I need time out, serious time out, half an hour isn’t going to do it. There are some conferences where social events are really part of the deal or where my role requires me to be there. I adjust accordingly during the day and I make sure I know who is going
- Sleep – well I stopped writing at about 10pm last night and went to bed. That is a late night for me in general terms. I am usually ready for bed, tucked up and probably asleep by 10pm. For a conference it’s an exceptionally early night. Sleep is important but I often don’t get enough. I was wide awake at 5.30am this morning and yesterday. If I need a powernap I’ll have one
- Exercise. Like I said, its easy to hardly move at all. I like exploring places with a little run and recently I have run regularly at conferences. In Mexico I even joined the organised fun run. Not the greatest experience so today I have not joined the SLS conference fun run. I did my own thing yesterday and quite honestly, this morning I just could not be bothered. Instead I got up and played with some ideas on my paper. I may go at lunch time though but I have also learned not to see this as another thing I have to somehow squeeze in while I’m at a conference. I will do it if, and only if, I really want to
- That brings me to the last and possibly most important point – conferences can be really anxiety inducing. They can push all my buttons – the ‘am I good enough’ buttons, the lack of sleep buttons, the too much caffeine buttons, the I don’t belong here buttons, the alcohol buttons, the sugar buttons, the ‘oh my good people are hideous’ buttons, the noise buttons, the ‘here’s another bloke in a suit explaining the world to me’ buttons, the ‘I feel really stupid’ buttons and the ‘there’s all this other work I should be doing’ buttons… there are more I’m sure, I have a lot of buttons. So more and more I am learning to listen to myself and take note of rather than dismiss the early warning signs. Yep, I can function perfectly well through high levels of anxiety and even minor panic attacks. Unless you know me very well you would never know but it’s not actually much fun, or healthy. Sometimes that means doing less at a conference and missing sessions, sometimes it means being very selective about the people I spend time with and sometimes being borderline rude (sorry) and walking away. It means choosing sessions as much by who else will be in the room as by topic, it means being ok about not asking questions or making a contribution. Perhaps counter intuitively I have become quieter and am less likely to ask questions as I have become more confident in what I know and don’t know. I am ok with giving my brain more time to process and I am ok with emailing someone later if something does occur to me that I really want to talk about.
So in short, my conference self care for me is about drinking less caffeine (rubbish at it) and alcohol (pretty good at this lately and this time not drinking at all given the Great North Run at the weekend), getting enough sleep (not great at it), eating well including some conference indulgences but as with running – eat to fuel (mostly good), drinking enough water (ok as long as I remember my bottle), being aware of when I am getting to capacity and dipping in and out of things (good) and allowing time, space and activity for the adrenaline that will inevitably build up when I have to spend time with people in a work environment like this to dissipate or be burned off (pretty good).
I should also say though that actually going to conferences is a form of academic self care for me. It allows me to connect with people across the discipline(s) I work in. It gives me a check on where I am with my research and what else is going on and how what I do fits into the bigger picture. The discussions, whether formal or informal, are good for the soul and for perspective. I often find them challenging from a sanity perspective but not attending and sharing my work and listening to others would be far far worse.