In a draft post from the end of February that I have just discarded because it wasn’t going anywhere I wrote: ‘I have also had flu and have been ill or not quite right for 3 weeks now. That means that work has slowed down dramatically adding to the perpetual feeling of being behind with everything…’ Well very soon after that everything changed, campus closed and university life moved online. I was as behind as I always am but not really any more so. I was making progress even if that progress was slow.
In lockdown the perception of time, of productivity and of what is important shifted. In one sense it just put into sharp focus that so much of what we do as academics is utter nonsense. For the first part of lockdown I struggled doing anything. I wrote about some of that in the two previous posts. For me it wasn’t a time thing, I don’t have kids to home school for a start, and it wasn’t that I don’t have the right set-up at home to work effectively – we’d just re-done our study so we can both work in it at the same time and it is really quite lush. No, it was about headspace and focus. Things improved a little bit as time went on but I was still struggling to get anything done really.
Then I started going to really detailed to do lists. I broke up everything into much smaller sub-tasks and wrote each of those down as a thing to do. It meant ticking things off more often, seeing the list get shorter and then longer again and generally created a sense of things moving along. With that system alongside a weekly planner on which I recorded roughly the plan for the week with times of ‘meetings’ blocked out and the time around them allocated to overall tasks like REF output reading, marking or edit joint paper, I had a couple of weeks of getting shit done.
But at the start of the third week I was anxious as hell, exhausted before I had even started the Monday, running on caffeine and really struggling to concentrate. I went through Monday and Tuesday like that – a completely heightened state of alertness (and not in the idiotic government message sense) and hyperactivity that had me racing from one job to the next. It felt like a race to tick things off the list. I stopped writing things on the list but then I promptly forgot them adding to stress levels as I wondered what I’d forgotten or got reminders down the line. I got to the end of that week feeling absolutely knackered.
So yes, I had spent 3 weeks getting shit done and was probably more on top of work than I have been in years but I felt wired, and not in a good way. Last week then I tried to start more slowly, to be more considered and to take more breaks and reflect more. Some of the work I got done was nice work. There’s a paper nearly finished, a new project nearly ready to go and they have been fun to think about. It is nice to have the marking done, some institutional level paperwork pretty much ready to submit by the deadline… so why did the working at home over those 3 weeks feel so relentless?
Well I didn’t work more hours overall. And I didn’t stretch the working over a longer day. What I didn’t do was allow myself time to come round and get into work mode. I basically got out of bed, threw clothes on and started work. It felt useful to get a head start. I stopped to have lunch but only to quickly make lunch and then eat it. I had my drinks at my desk and didn’t stop between tasks. The tasks on my list seemed so little that stopping between them to acknowledge having completed them seemed silly. The result: the feeling of rushing even when not, the feeling of urgency even when there wasn’t any, a slight sense of panic at the length of the list in spite of it shrinking quickly through the day. The tiredness came from the hamster wheel of work that needed to be kept going and therefore felt relentless. A three hour meeting on the Friday of that 3rd week nearly broke me. I needed a brain time out.
Last week was better. I was more aware of the risks of the list. I still want the list because I am forgetting stuff and flit around too much forgetting what I am doing, the list helps with that. But I am back to mornings being more deliberately slow, drinks also functioning as breaks, lunch being about more than quickly making it and eating it to get back to work, and the list as something to help remember things not as something to be rushed through. So last week was better. And next week, well next week will be better again because yesterday Odin, killer of feet, joined our family and he is the perfect play break enforcer!
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.