Well I am no longer on sabbatical. Not that it felt like I ever properly was really. I had a semester without teaching but it didn’t feel like a sabbatical and I pretty much hated it. That’s as much my fault as anyone else’s although there are things the institution could have done better. There was the very late notice that meant there was no time to clear the decks or plan, there was the inability to really cover my work while I was gone resulting in literally hundreds of emails about stuff I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with, there were the unrealistic expectations about what can be done with a sabbatical where there has been almost no notice of it and there was me, totally underestimating just how exhausted I actually was from keeping my head above water in the run up. I could spend time and head space unpicking all of that. Maybe I will but for now I wanted to share how I feel in the sabbatical aftermath.
In spite of having completed a journal article, 3 book chapters and 3 funding applications as well as having planned and delivered a couple of conference presentations and started a project on writing skills, it feels like I did nothing. I know I did loads really but some of the questions and comments I’m getting reinforce the notion already so dominant in my head that I am not good enough, that this was a missed opportunity, that I simply should have done so much more. I had that under control until over the last couple of weeks or so a series of emails and discussions highlighted that there are aspects of work I explicitly said would need to be covered while I was away, that have not in fact been covered. They have just been left. Things I thought were being dealt with and handled have just been put to one side waiting for me to come back to. All of these things are now overdue, some of these things are now urgent (well as urgent as things ever are in a university setting) and, rightly so, people waiting for these things to be done are frustrated particularly as it seems they have been assured that I will in fact do these things.
All of this made me think about how we deal with colleagues being away – away for whatever reason – annual leave, sickness, maternity, sabbatical, whatever. We are really bad at this. I’ve seen countless emails from colleagues supposedly on leave. I have seen even more out of office replies that refer to people being on annual leave and therefore only checking emails intermittently – WTF checking emails intermittently on leave and apologising for it? WTF. I know plenty of people who work through sick leave because they feel they have no choice and I have heard people say maternity leave can be a great way to just get this or that finished (I don’t see how new parents function never mind work – having just spent the weekend with two young children I need about a week to recover and I slept well and just did the fun stuff). In a way my sabbatical shows how we have created a culture where working constantly is easier than taking time out. If work just waits for us while we are gone coming back to work after a period of any sort of leave is daunting, overwhelming and actually impossible. But in HE it’s difficult for other people to do our work. Most of the time I can’t cover for my colleagues any more than they can cover for me. I can’t finish their papers or their research projects, I can’t really deal with their personal tutees where the intervention or contact might be anything other than a routine administrative type query, I often can’t even teach their classes because I don’t have the expertise or because I am quite likely to be teaching at the same time. I can’t pick up their marking because I’m drowning in my own or because then the process supposedly lacks transparency and clarity somehow and I can’t help with their committee work because – well because I’m not on the committee… Being collegiate and throwing colleagues who are going under a lifeline is almost impossible and where it is, taking that lifeline is even harder. Lifelines come with expectations and/or consequences it seems. If I do this for you then I must expect something in return, there’s a price to be paid. Or taking the lifeline is a weakness, something that can be used to show how awesome one person is because they could cope with their work AND did all this stuff for someone else who really just needs to pull their socks up. Taking a lifeline might lead to discussions with management. Best ignore the lifeline and sink just a little bit deeper because – you know, it’s not so bad really.
Well actually, it is. I know not everywhere is like this. And maybe I am exaggerating but I also fear that much of this will sound too too familiar to far too many of us. I have seen so many comments on social media about people dreading their inbox, being overwhelmed coming back off annual leave, not knowing where to start… I am looking at my pile of work to do. I am roughly 3 weeks behind I reckon based on the work I was expecting. That’s pretty good going. That’s within normal range for me and that feels ok and under control. It’s within touching distance. Now add in the work that I thought had been covered and done or covered and progressed. Well that’s the tipping point. That’s what makes all of it an impossible task. If I do that now I won’t meet a couple of research deadlines and I won’t get my teaching materials done in time. If I don’t do them? They won’t go away and clearly no-one else is going to do them either. It’s hard to argue they are not my job because now that I am back, they are. I could be awkward about this but then I spend hours and energy that I don’t have on arguing about not doing something which ultimately does need doing. I could insist someone else does it thus chucking them under the proverbial bus or I can just try my best to get things done. I can try and count on my fairly newly acquired self-preservation skills, I can add in some additional therapy sessions (and at £50 a pop that’s a privilege not everyone can afford!) to help me remember that in our job nobody is ever going to stand next to me bleeding from a major artery and that therefore everything can wait, everything can get done in its own time and I can hope that that’s enough. But really? Is academia really a place where we should get by on self-preservation, therapy and hope? I don’t think so. I think we need to do better.
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.