Thursday, 1 August 2019

Finding light switches in the dark

I last wrote something in this blog in November 2018. Beginning to think that an 8 month silence says something. I won’t write about all that’s happened, but I did want to write a short something to get this up and running again. The best way to pick it back up is to go back to where I left it, I think - on PhD and Scotland!

In November I wrote that I should learn next time I have a stressful PhD thing, to pace myself and not think that I can do All The Things right after moving and starting a new job. That was good advice to my future self. I was writing about my APR (Annual Progress Review) stress, without actually writing about what happened.

I also wrote that people who were well-meaning would ask how I was finding living in Scotland, and I genuinely didn’t know how to answer. Moving up here was not the same as my last move when I went to Northampton a few years ago and I felt very much a stranger here. How do you know when you start to feel settled? When you don’t feel like a stranger at home? When you don’t have to use google maps to find your local *whatever shop/place you need to find*? When you stop feeling your way around your own house when you get up in the night and need to find the light switch but can’t feel your way to the switch on the wall because it’s not yet etched into your memory?

Finally someone asked me this week how I was finding Scotland, and I surprised myself by saying that I like it. Most of the time, I am glad I moved. Yes, I know where the light switches are in my flat. No, I don’t need google maps for some places but I do still need it for other places. And no, I really don’t feel like a stranger at home. I know my neighbours and their cats. We even sit in the garden sometimes together and one of them is a joiner and has helped with stuff (and yup this surprises me given how introverted I tend to be). Also, I have found some yoga folk who are lovely. Super lovely actually. They are people who notice when you are away for a week, and who ask how you are and remember when things happen in your life. Having your presence (and absence) noticed is one of those small things that is not a small thing at all. Lastly, there are some people I consider friends and that definitely changes how you feel in a place.

Back to the PhD. Which is the other thing people ask about after they ask how Scotland is.  I submitted my work for the APR (the review you do every year, to determine whether you can officially progress). Did what I thought would be OK, but was asked to make a lot of revisions to my work in order to pass. I re-wrote my literature review, wrote two new methods chapters, changed the theory that underpins my work, and ended up submitting three chapters 8 months later. It passed in the end, but I couldn’t even tell you how many revisions of chapters went through supervisions. My work is much more developed now. And I am absolutely OK with where I’m going with it. But this all makes me reflect.

So when people ask how it's going, I tend to say ‘ah yeah. It’s slow.’ Or ‘it’s getting there’. Or ‘Yeah, it’s moving… slowly’. Which is all true. Huge emphasis on the slow progress. Slow tends to be my code-word for 'I am super tired and I can't believe I've been doing this for three years...' That is not to say that I don't care about my work. I deeply care about my work and my topic. Understanding about domestic abuse - doing feminist domestic abuse research - is important. I think it's important to contribute to knowledge in meaningful ways and do work that might one day contribute to things being different. That women, children and survivors are taken seriously. But there's a PhD process too. I see so much on Twitter and hear others saying that it’s a journey and everybody has a different experience, you have to roll with the unexpected and not compare your process to other people’s. But really, it is true, and I think that’s one of the reasons it is hard. You’re a lone wolf playing a big game yet you haven’t toughened up your skin yet, so each hit feels raw and painful. Of course, you heal, you grow, you toughen up and move on. At least, hopefully with enough support, encouragement and kindness, you can do those things. I am very fortunate I have friends around the country, and supervisors who hold you up and don't knock you down. I am immensely grateful for that. But still, this year has been the hardest PhD-wise. I am accepting it as part of one of the many PhD stories I’ll have to tell at the end.

No one can really prepare you for moving universities, changing half your supervision team, changing disciplines and new jobs. Doing that whilst trying to pull yourself out of an eating disorder relapse, is not something I’d do again. In hindsight I’m not entirely sure how I did that, but we do what we do, and we live to tell the story. This year was the PhD year where I learnt a whole lot about not giving my ‘success’ with work the power to determine who I am. I also have started re-evaluating my relationship with what failure means and how fearing getting things wrong and messing up can be powerful in shaping how you live your life. In and outside of academia. All things considered, this was not the worst thing to happen. Still here, and PhD is still moving, slowly. But moving…

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Seven/Not knowing things

The title of this blog post is pretty unimaginative. I’m writing about not knowing. And it’s the seventh blog post that I’ve written this year here. I have no idea how we’ve reached November. Clocks have gone back. It’s colder. It’s darker (much darker), and I’m spending more time under blankets instead of under the sun. And I am definitely a sun person, so this is something that’s taking some adjusting.

I have tended to write some lengthy posts this year. This one definitely isn’t long, but I wanted to write about a thing that’s been on my mind for a couple of months. I just haven’t yet made the time to write. I have been making time for other things in fact. For moving, for settling, for new job and Scotland life. For recovering from things and letting some of the new things in. How well I’ve been doing these things is another issue! But I’ve been pretty much going by and somehow it is November and things are different.

What I have been thinking about, is what happens when you move and you have to kind of build things up from scratch. Not just build ‘things’, but build relationships – and I guess in many ways, re-build yourself too. Maybe it is because a couple of years ago I was in a similar boat: new place, new job, new people. I've ended up comparing the experience quite often. Quite a few things about me changed when I moved that time. This move has been interesting. The things that have got me are the things that didn’t get me last time. This time I’ve taken my time with at least parts of it. Admittedly not all of it. Definitely should not have launched fully into a PhD annual review when I had barely unpacked boxes in my house and had acquired a chest infection because I don’t know how to stop. The things you learn and re-learn when you really need to be getting at least something right! Definitely lessons for next time or at least next time I have a thing that might be stressful.

When people ask how it’s going or how I am settling, I literally say ‘I don’t know yet’ or ‘it’s early days’ – and I guess it is early days and also I don’t know. These things are true. But it’s quite novel to me, to move with not knowing. And I’ve been thinking at what point do new people become people who are no longer new? At what point in my last place did the new people become people who I hugged, just because I missed them or wanted to show them that I cared? At what point did we get to know small bits about each other that actually are not small things at all? How does that happen? There’s not really a line or a moment when things change. Just they do. But for now, I'm sticking with not knowing. I think I’m alright with that for now.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Thoughts on healing: everyone has their own style of healing

I am writing again from my sofa. The last time I wrote in this blog it was the end of June and I had written something along the lines of: ‘I love living here on evenings like this’… ‘it kind of feels Mediterranean in my flat because it’s built to keep the heat’ and ‘this is my favourite place out of all the places I’ve lived’. There’s a lot to say about home.

Home currently is in the process of what looks like a spring clean. Apart from it’s not spring, it’s summer. And I am only clearing out because I need to start packing up. I do still love living in my flat. I am also leaving my flat in ten days and moving to Scotland. My new job is there, and this past year has seen quite a chunk of my life begin to transition there too (PhDs aren’t simple – I got a warning before I did my counselling & psychotherapy training that it would change things. But nobody really gave me that warning before starting my PhD). Anyway. I have moved so much that I am quite immune to the practicalities of packing and moving now. But I am not immune to the other parts of moving. The parts where you embrace change and face change and navigate this weird thing of working out how you do endings.

In many ways I am fortunate that I can do this move – that I have had options, that I have the resources I need, that I have people who have supported me and gone way above and beyond what they have needed to do to help make this happen and to help me make decisions. I am fortunate that I have found a house to move to that I like, and that I have experienced most of the process of moving universities as very welcoming so far. I am so aware I am fortunate in all these ways. Academia is a weird thing to move through though – deciding to leave a secure lectureship in one institution for a fairly insecure research post in another, is quite a thing. This has been a lesson in trusting myself to make decisions that feel right. I know and feel it quite profoundly - I’m not immune to the individualising and neoliberal culture that seems to prioritise this relentless way of working and measuring individual success. Ways of working that don’t make it comfortable to take risks, *especially* when you are younger, early career, don’t even have your PhD yet and don’t have an extensive system of external support to fall back on, if you need to. You sort of feel you *have* to keep hold of security if you have it – because change means a lot of newness and who knows if it will settle and who knows if it will be OK?

As I’ve been sharing my plans with friends and others in academia it’s been quite hard to gauge responses – generally I think it is not common to do what I have decided to do. Yet when I tell others outside of academia they are so excited. Particularly my friends who are creatives or my friends who work for themselves (thinking to a photoshoot I did earlier this week). I kind of forget that so many people – so many women – take risks. They work for themselves even – build small empires themselves, set things up their own way, occupy spaces in wonderful ways, and they are more than OK! Maybe this institutionalised way of thinking and working in academia is quite powerful – I am reminded of that when I occupy spaces outside of it. I get it – I totally get it, academia is like a work-home for me. I don’t have to really worry that people won’t get how I work because usually we’re quite a similar bunch. A tendency to over-work, tendency to doubt yourself, doubt your capacity to know things, tendency to want to do things to the point of perfection but knowing that’s a deadly trap because it doesn’t exist. But if you find the good souls, you also find a solidarity about carving out spaces of resistance and care and love. Spaces that are not infiltrated by pressure and measures and targets. Spaces that prioritise relationships - that are not permeated by never celebrating your achievements because that submission or acceptance or conference paper was just another thing ticked off the long to-do list that never ends so you automatically move onto the next thing without stopping and thinking. The thing you did becomes smoothened out - part of the fabric of the rest of the messiness of this very fast-moving wheel and you just keep going. Without reflecting. A lot is lost. I do not want to lose this.

This whole change thing - I’ve spent the past few months working on a few things and working out a few things. Well, in fact I think this probably is a life-long project. Anyway, I have been working on things. Making decisions and listening to your instinct generally has a way of getting you to address things and consider things in ways you don’t need to consider quite as directly when life looks consistent and predictable. It’s probably a useful thing. Occupying the spaces that are new and uncertain and staying curious about that is hard work, but apparently that’s where growth happens. And they do say growth is a thing that’s important. One of the things I decided to do yesterday was get a tattoo (yup – and I really like it!). This has actually prompted me to write this blog. There are lots of reasons for the tattoo, but the reason I’m writing is to write about the unexpected thing I’m taking from the tattoo.  

The healing process is something that has taken me by surprise and something that has got me thinking. I hadn’t even considered that this tattoo might take time, patience and care to heal. In fact, I hadn’t considered the healing process any more than ‘hmm I am going on holiday in a few weeks and I’m pretty sure it will be fine by then’, and ‘I’m moving soon, but I’m sure a few boxes, long drive and some heavy lifting won’t harm me’. This speaks volumes about how I tend to live my life! I have A Thing happen – in this case, The Thing is cuts to the skin that need time to heal, and I assume I can go on as normal and that I won’t have to adapt, never-mind actually pay attention to the part that is healing. Look at where it is broken, look at where it needs help to heal, and consider what those parts might need. When I left the tattoo studio, I left with literally *minimal* instructions about after-care. This isn’t a critique of the people at the studio – they were genuinely lovely and took really good care of me. I mean we had a brief chat about after-care and I took away with me six lines on a small card (pretty clear instructions). However, I do have a couple of friends who I consider to be much more experienced with tattoo after-care than I am (I am a total novice afterall). I sent them a quick message – then a later more panicked message (when I realised washing a fresh tattoo makes me feel like passing out). Their advice was basically to do what works for you. (cue the small panic **argh I have no idea what works for me**. Then cue the *ahhh no, yes you do. You’ve got this*).

I’ve been thinking about this. That everyone has their own style of healing. And – perhaps this is the more important bit – that it’s quite a thing to learn to trust yourself and your body to tell you what it needs. OK, perhaps the other important bit is acting on that once you know. But I guess half the battle is won once you know you know. I thought I was doing this as an act of showing myself that I can do the things that scare me, and I can trust myself about what is right. I didn’t think these things would extend post the actual half an hour of sitting in the chair and having the tattoo done. Lessons in time and healing are so important to me this month/this year – probably I will always move through this. But I kind of love that this tattoo is becoming that lesson for me.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Simple is under-rated and it is complicated

I’m writing this from my sofa. It’s evenings like this that I truly love living here and love living in my flat. It’s super light and I can keep the windows open and it’s still warm. Living in an old converted shoe factory (it’s nicer than it sounds!) means I have super high ceilings and a building that really keeps the heat so it’s actually feeling quite Mediterranean at the moment. That summer evening kind of feeling I guess. I like it. I have a small glass of rose gin and generally things *should* be feeling good. Depending on when I’m asked, and who asks, things actually are OK. They are OK and they are not. I’m probably losing this glorious little first floor flat that I have grown to love (landlord is selling my small slice of home), and I’m back to work tomorrow after a truly lovely, challenging, busy yet sort of peaceful few weeks of research leave, where I feel like for the first time in 20 months (yes a year and 8 months…..) I feel like I am actually *doing* a PhD. I’ve known I’m doing it, of course. But it has been a weird process of muddling through something that has felt way beyond me, and that has felt quite like a permanent part of my life (the kind of thing that doesn’t end). I think I see that it will end now and that I have done things. In fact, I have been *doing* all the things, just not feeling the things or connecting to it. I know progress is not a prescribed thing and I know it looks different for every person and for every PhD, but I had no idea it would be like this. And I had no idea PhDs take you on this journey of their own. And also no idea that actually stopping and simplifying things opens up spaces. Anyway, that’s for another post another time. Point being = simplifying things is good. Well, simplifying is never really simple, and that's more the point!

I actually wanted to write about what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. I don’t know if it’s that the academic year is quite full on when you have a loaded teaching schedule across different programmes. I don’t know if it’s that it’s full on when you also work as a therapist and keep a client load going throughout that time too. I don’t know if it’s that winter is actually quite cold and dark and that can make you feel quite cold and dark too. I don’t know if it’s having your PhD move to Scotland and having a big part of you want to move there too. I don’t know if it’s just everything (probably it is everything – it’s never just one thing). But I needed to do something to pull back a bit of time and space. So, I did. I booked all my research and annual leave and I even remembered that travelling is good for me, so I booked some trips. I really don’t overlook the fact that I’m in a fortunate position where I can do this. I’ve never been in a position where I (a) can take leave and not worry that I won’t be paid, and (b) go on a trip that isn’t for work and know that it doesn’t have a massive financial impact on me. I know I have travelled a fair bit over the past 10 years – but 90% of the time it has been work. I really don’t take this kind of freedom for granted. This year I’ve been generally travelling quite a lot but usually this is to Scotland, to see family in Yorkshire, or to conferences. I decided to go on a solo trip to Budapest a couple of weeks ago and I reminded myself of a few things that I wanted to write about. They are not massive things – really they are quite simple, but I wanted to write about them.

1. Give me a good square, bench, coffee shop, park or café and a good book, and I will be happily there for hours. Even more of a bonus if outside and it’s warm and sunny. Better if I remember sunscreen. 

2. The sun truly is great – I know it isn’t for everyone. I know some people really struggle with the warmth and exposure, but for me, it can really transform how I feel. 

3. Losing track of time is good. I had a funny moment of realising I had indeed lost track of time. I woke up on a Friday morning in the AirBnB. I decided that whilst I was away I would still be ‘on emails’ per se – not for all the things, but I would be intentional about it. I would be ‘on’ for my masters dissertation supervisees. If I were them I wouldn’t want my supervisor leaving for that long, and I felt it was important to be there. Probably says more about what I need, rather than them. But hey. I generally try (most people will confirm that I rubbish at this though) to not respond to most emails over the weekend. I’d told myself especially not whilst I was on research leave. So I woke up on the Friday and thought that it was Saturday and questioned why I was replying to emails – then realised it was, in fact, Friday. Not that it actually made a profound difference, but I realised that losing track of time is possible and it is good.

4. To carry on from that, disabling email from the phone was good, for a week. A whole week and I didn’t have my work email on my phone. OK, I checked it fairly regularly using the web browser instead but it’s not the same as having that constant ping from your mobile phone. I think I’ll continue to do this when I’m actually away and out of the country and have some protected time.

5. I love two things: sunsets and the water. The Danube in Budapest is pretty lovely, especially when the sun is setting. It’s quite obvious if you see the stream of pictures that I take on my phone, but I love these two things. I will walk for miles to find a lovely view and just stay there. I’m pretty sure that I actually live in one of the most central places in England (i.e. the furthest away from the coast…. Makes me quite sad really because I miss the sea) 

6. Bodies are pretty wise and they communicate things very well. It’s important to listen. I walked whilst I was away. In fact, I didn’t use public transport apart from to get to and from the airport. I easily topped 15 miles per day. If you look at me, I think I look like I can do this. I run a fair bit, so I’m not unfit. But I generally don’t walk so much. So I temporarily did some pretty painful damage to parts of my legs and hips that I didn’t realise would take such a hit. It turns out when you need to rest, your body tells you loud and clear. It also turns out that not planning ahead actually enables the flexibility needed to listen to that. Bodies are useful if we listen to them.

7. To take that point and build on it – it is OK to break routine. I’m not really a routine-type of person. But with some things, I really am and it can be quite unhelpful. Being in a new place with different things can be quite challenging but it can also be OK

8. I have good people in my life. It is important to remember this.

9. I don’t speak a single word of Hungarian – usually I try when I go to a new country. I surprise myself especially with my weird English-Spanish combo when I am in Barcelona. I think it’s quite cliché but kindness transcends boundaries of spoken language and I really realised this. 

10. The world doesn’t crumble if you put the breaks on for a few days.

OK I reminded myself of quite a few things. Mainly about space, time and connection. Also that simple is actually OK and it is really under-rated but it is also complicated. Deciding to book some leave was quite simple. Deciding to go away was simple. Making decisions about my PhD is simple. Deciding to simplify the practical things has actually enabled the space needed to *not* over-simplify what would otherwise be seen as simple. But all those things are also complicated – not everything is simple. Even simple isn’t actually simple. It’s complicated and messy but only because life can be complicated and messy. Maybe that’s OK.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

On being and doing

Today, we (Charlotte and I) have been at a conference where we presented some of our work on diversity in the psychology curriculum. Like all projects, I never really realise how I’m connected to them until somewhere after the point of starting it! I’m going to try to reflect a bit on that here. The conference today was one which aimed to explore inclusion and barriers to inclusion in Higher Education. Of course HE is an institution built on privilege (multiple layers of privilege) and therefore, oppression and multiple disadvantages. I won’t mention the subtle comments about VC salaries throughout the day. These kinds of power structures and struggles at play, means that ‘doing’ diversity work in this context is really interesting, difficult, problematic, wonderful, hopeful and, hopeless, at times. For context, I’m writing this from what feels like a privileged space. I have the time, space and access to what I need to write and think. Not always - really, not always. But today, I do. I'm sat outside the university restaurant in the sun. Campus feels quite empty – students are either taking exams, or somewhere revising for their exams, or maybe doing other things – I’m not sure, but they are not here in the way they usually are during term time. It’s quiet. It’s pretty peaceful. It’s also really warm and sunny and I’m pretty sure I should be wearing sunscreen. Anyway, the perils (and joys) of being a redhead in the sunshine whilst also being a sun-lover, is not for this post. I wanted to spend a bit of time writing about, and reflecting on what we mean when we say ‘diversity’, especially in the context of institutional power structures which are inescapable, and in the context of relationships that are sometimes wonderful, sometimes messy, and mostly, everywhere inbetween (*note: it’s now gone 11pm and definitely not 4pm when I was sat outside the restaurant in the sun. Ironically, as I was writing about how quite campus was, one of my third year students walked by and sat down with me. We sat for quite a while and chatted in the sun. It was really lovely – and I guess the ‘doing’ of these kinds of relationships, and the space in which they are created, is a bit of what I’m writing about here).

Today has been all about inclusion and barriers. This kind of language is really geographical and spatial, which has got me thinking. It’s got me thinking about the space I take up myself and the multiple spaces I occupy with students (and clients and research participants and friends, family, etc). It’s got me thinking about how I occupy spaces, and how spaces are occupied by others, and shared with others. How relationships are made and lived in/through in spaces. How I used the space today – how I moved in and out (I mean, I was able to choose when I was there and when I was not. When I sat out in the sun, which sessions I attended, who I sat with, and so on). Some of the discussions I’ve been part of today (and really over the past few weeks especially) have made me reflect back on myself. Perhaps it’s also because I’m on research leave and I’m trying to stop a little and take stock. But my discussions today have included reflecting with Charlie on our work and our research and teaching. This kind of thinking, especially at a conference like today’s, has led me back to thinking of Sara Ahmed’s leaky pipes analogy. She talks, and writes, about letting the pipes leak until they leak everywhere and no amount of plumbing can fix them, despite the several efforts to do so. Because that’s what people do – they fix the broken things. They fix the pipes when they leak with stuff that doesn’t fit/stuff that disrupts the norm. So you can think of the pipes as the structures, and the leaks as the stuff that disrupts the structures that we bump up against. The structures that leave us a little uncomfortable or bruised. But the stuff that leaks is important – it is necessary. I probably mean that in more ways than only institutional structures. The personal *and* institutional – the two aren’t as separate as we think. It’s as important to let the personal leak as well as the rest. Taking up space is important. But it's not all on one person to do that. The space needs to be built to accommodate.

I’m also thinking of Sara Ahmed’s rolling eyes feminist pedagogy; the feminist killjoy. How when the white man speaks out and says race is not a thing, that he *is* part of the problem (cue eyerolls). I’m also thinking about myself in relation to all of this. My teaching over the past couple of years has largely been about ‘diverse’ subjects (mental health, children's development, non-normative development, different experiences of childhoods, etc). OK, Psychology as a discipline, from a mainstream lens, is about as non-diverse as you can get. It aims to study human minds and behaviour but usually mainly from white, masculine, adult perspectives.  You don’t need to do rocket science and to have ten degrees to see that there are fundamental problems with that. This kind of knowledge is built based on a narrow (and privileged) position. I’ve been trying to work to challenge some of this through my research – mainly by working on research that’s involved children’s participation, and in some senses going against the grain. I guess trying to let pipes leak. And now, after two years teaching (yes, I am still learning and feel like a newbie), I’m coming to a place where I’m positioning myself in that too. I’ve spent the day having some really interesting discussions about *how* we do diversity work in teaching contexts. How we let the pipes leak and let the messy challenging stuff take up space. How we disrupt norms and do things differently. How we put it into what we already do. How it fits. But I think it’s not so much a question of making it fit… it doesn’t actually fit, because the structures we live/work within aren’t built for difference. I think it’s more a point of doing things differently – reframing what doing ‘diversity’ is – letting the pipes leak and letting spaces take new shapes.

We ran a session of our own, and we took part in some sessions this afternoon, exploring some ‘different’ teaching practices. One of the sessions involved some creative work with soft systems methodology. I’d never done this before – I think it’s based on a business model but I think it is quite applicable to other disciplines too. I don’t want to criticise this model at all – I actually really liked it. But I do want to unpack what ‘doing’ it was like. Those of us at the session did an activity around food poverty. We explored what it meant to each of us, and then we collectively discussed what we’d produced. Following discussion, we went back to our drawings and developed them to produce a more nuanced picture, in response to sharing our thoughts and the meanings we applied to food poverty. I think the overall finished piece would be something which represented multi-layered systems and the complexity of food poverty experiences. Aside from the fact that this was actually really enjoyable, the first thing I noticed was that although food poverty is an important social issue, we were sat around a round table, mostly consisting of academics, with crackers, cheese and grapes (after a free lunch), discussing issues of social justice – usually from quite a distance (i.e. able to position the self as not the ‘other’). Whilst we all have experiences of ‘stuff’, we were still sat on comfy chairs, able to access a space, with an abundance of food freely available, discussing what food poverty means, using a methodology which would be used as part of a social justice movement to taking action and facilitating change. Whilst that’s great, and I don’t think our positions are avoidable, what is also useful, is stepping back and looking at how we do what we do. Looking at the ‘I’. I think the values that inform the ‘doing’, are just as important as the aim of what we do.

Charlotte and I also held a session about how we’ve been working with students on the ‘I’ position – i.e. positioning themselves, and ourselves (first person writing, but also first person thinking). And it’s got me thinking some more about how I position myself, and how I am positioned. It’s got me thinking that quite often I’ll say ‘oh but it’s not about what you *do*, it’s about how you feel’. But I actually I think that whilst this kind of work is about relationality, feeling and connecting, it is also about doing (and not doing!) – it is as much about action, as it is about everything else. What we do speaks sometimes in ways that words can’t. What we do, matters. I guess I’m working on being, but also on doing. Some of this feels quite intuitive, but it also requires intentionality. For example, we’ve been talking today about how we ‘do’ diversity work. How it’s not a thing on the side, or an add-on – it’s a way of being but it’s also done by doing. You can’t do a week’s awareness week and tick the box. That sort of defeats the point. That doesn’t let the pipes leak in the way they need to. The stuff doesn’t leak and settle. It leaks for a week and gets mopped up, and the pipe is fixed. You also can’t shift responsibility and let others do the doing – but I think it’s also OK to step back and LET others do the doing if you need to. Being, and doing, is work, especially when it’s intentional. Guess that’s the self-care stuff, or collective self-care at least.

Here’s to intentional being and doing. And letting pipes leak.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Academia, messiness and doing things differently

I’m, writing from Edinburgh before I get the train back home. OK, not back home, but to my sister’s place in Durham. I am currently sat in a café by the university in Edinburgh, with my laptop and all the work options I could possibly have. Do I mark the *huge* list of essays sitting in the turnitin folder, still unmarked? Do I work on my PhD? Do I do emails? Do I prep for my conference presentation in two days? (no – I told myself no tweaking my slides) Do I prep for my teaching next week? I don’t know. Well, I do know. I’ve done none of those things, and I decided to write a short post on here instead. Though I have a feeling it’s not going to be so short. I’ve been working on writing in various forms for long enough now, to know that nothing I write can be considered ‘short’.

One of my favourite things is being able to stop and think/process things. I don’t normally find the space to do that at home, but I can usually carve out a space to do that when I’m away, or doing something different. I guess it makes sense I need to not be in a familiar place – doing things differently is more challenging when you're doing what you’ve always done. It’s paradoxical because looking at my life, you’d be reasonable to assume that I’m a person who doesn’t stop and think/process. Not because I don’t think deeply about most things (some would say over-think). I definitely *do* think deeply a lot. But you’d be reasonable to think that I don’t, because I literally don’t stop. Not for lunch, not in the evenings, very rarely at the weekends… It can become problematic if I don’t keep myself in check. Even if I do watch myself, it can still be problematic. Again, the wonderful question of how do you stop to chill, when you don’t actually know what it is that you do to ‘chill’ anymore? I run… Or I travel and see friends/family. But it’s always doing, and 99% of the time I always over-estimate my energy and under-estimate the time and emotional work it takes to do the things that I love. And I inevitably burn out - energy runs out. In the past week I’ve come up and down to Scotland twice, I’ve lost track of everything in-between, but I do know that I’ve done a lot of marking and supervising my masters students, and seeing my therapy clients, and I also know that I went to Birmingham on Friday to another conference.

I’ve only been teaching for two years, and never thought I would love what I do as much as I do. I also never thought that what you care very much about can also be draining and exhausting. There’s something relentless about the culture of academia. The concept of stopping, or ‘slow working’ (slow working being something you do intentionally), doesn’t match up to the type of pressure you can find yourself working in, and the type of culture that’s so normalised and rarely questioned (questioning it would be admitting you find it tough – and better not admit to that, because your career depends on your capacity to keep up!). Perhaps it’s because teaching is slowing down now, or that we're moving into conference season. Or maybe it’s that I’ve transferred my PhD to a different university and navigating new spaces and new relationships is ridiculously complex, especially when you still live and work (and feel a sort of belonging) at your old PhD home and current work home. Even though that will be knocked down in the imminent future and the new space will look different. Perhaps the work isn’t finding some sense of stability or normality, but perhaps the work is in just being OK with the messiness and the unknowns.

As a way of being OK with this kind of messiness and ambiguity, I’ve been doing what I call ‘Radical Things’. One of those radical things was deciding that my work will be enough. I am going to a conference in a couple of days (one that I actually left half way through last year, because I felt that looming imposter syndrome that most women in academia feel at some point – sometimes at many points – and it’s probably something that doesn’t go away). You know that feeling that you have absolutely NO idea what you’re doing, that you’ve been fooling everyone, and this is the moment that you’re going to finally be exposed. That in fact, you do not belong and you do not know stuff. You’re doing a PhD because it’s some mistake, and inevitably you’ll just fall flat on your face and everything will crumble. OK, well it’s not like that all the time, but I guess that’s a description of what imposter feelings can feel like. It feels real. What I’m finding interesting is this way that academia works, and the way people work within it. I think it can produce a person/people who literally don’t stop (as above!) and for me, especially as I’m spending time in-between places, I’m noticing the spaces of belonging and the spaces of not belonging. It’s different being a PhD student in one university and a lecturer in another. I guess I am doing things differently – or at least, noticing things, is making me try to do things differently. I’m noticing how people treat one another and I’m noticing that I learn a lot from this. Mainly how I want to be with my own students (and also how I don’t want to be). But what I’m also noticing is what works for me and what doesn’t. I think I’m fortunate in a lot of ways - I don't come up against people that really push me down or block me out. Partly because I have chosen supervisors who are the opposite to that, and because make friends and try to work with colleagues who sit with you, rather than push you out. But still, being and belonging are really complicated things. And that's all coming up now I have moved universities.

Anyway, back to where I am. Which is now on the train! For years I’ve had this thing where what I want more than anything is to find a little bit of stability and certainty, yet what I actually do, tells a different story. So here I am on a train in-between Edinburgh and Durham on my fourth coffee of the day, wondering what’s next. Wondering how you strike the balance between living ever so slightly on the edge of what feels comfortable, and just plain old throwing yourself off the cliff-edge, hoping that when you land, it’ll be OK. And yes, even if I do throw myself off the edge it’ll probably still be OK, but perhaps a little more messy than I’d like! I’m not an expert at ‘risk’, but I think that seems pretty risky to me. I had a different kind of weekend where I decided to do some radical things. Maybe some risky things. Not adventuring up cliff-edges, but radical in the sense of self-care when you think you might be close to the edge. Self-care takes on different meanings at different times for me. Historically I have moved in and out of either centralising it in my life, or not caring too much at all because I've been in a resistant and critical place thinking it is not *my* responsibility to fix an environment that doesn't seem to care for me. I think partly it’s because some discourses around self-care generally assume it’s about bubble baths cups of tea - metaphorical sticking plasters which eventually fall off and the wound is still there. I don’t buy into those ideas - the bubble baths and sticking plasters. But I do buy into something in relation to self-care. I think it’s the idea that we don’t live in a culture (and certainly I don’t work in a culture) that really centralises resisting structures and practices that aren’t useful to us.

I’ve had some useful conversations over the past week or so, which have made me think and helped me to find some kind of connection to what self-care means again. And I mean being radical in what it looks like. I think now, it really does mean doing things that work, in whatever way. Really leaning in and looking inwards (and outwards) towards the things that matter, regardless of the shame or the guilt that comes with it. Being in touch with what you need. Taking a risk to consider the possibility that you are enough just as you are, and you don't need to work the extra weekend or until 2am just to get that thing done for evidence that you are 'enough'. You can not get your to do list done and you can still be enough. You can turn to other people, create time for conversations and relationships that aren't based on competition but based on care. So, in the spirit of being radical about what self care looks like, I booked a short solo-travelling trip away for next month, because I know that will be good. I know I will need that. I also prepared a conference presentation and didn’t obsess over the slides, the words or proofing it 200+ times – because it’ll just be enough as it is. And yes that really is an exercise in vulnerability. I totally fear if I don't proof something 200+ times my mistakes will show and I'll be found out for being a fraud (hello imposter syndrome).

Now I’m no longer on the train – I’ve arrived at my sister’s – she’s made me the  most delicious coffee (number 5 of the day) and I’m pretty sure now this post has travelled from Scotland to England with me, it’s ready to post!

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

February, imposter feelings and double edged swords

I decided to log in and make some updates to this blog. It’s been going for about 7.5 years now, and I want to start using it for more intentional things, but it seems like it’s just hanging out here taking up space not really doing a great deal. I would say that’s a semi-metaphor for how I feel. But I don’t usually hang around anywhere long enough to take up that much space. Certainly not for 7.5 years anyway! Even if the other half of the metaphor works – it’s true that I might sometimes be plagued with imposter syndrome or that impending sense that you have no real purpose and should really start to be more intentional, despite the fact that most things you spend each day doing are pretty bloody intentional and have a purpose.

Anyway, I decided not to make any updates to the actual blog because it is what it is, and that’s actually OK for now. I want to start writing about more work/research/academic related things – and I suppose I will. I don’t need to make it look any different in order to start doing that. I decided to write something this evening because otherwise we’ll reach March tomorrow and February will disappear into an abyss of nothingness and it won’t be captured anywhere here. I didn’t want to lose it. Lots has happened. I especially wanted to capture the ‘Let’s do a Harry Potter seminar’ coffee chat we had, that actually turned into an awesome reality (more of this to come, but for now, check out Charlie’s blog on her talk on representations of women in Harry Potter). So, the last evening of Feb. Sat in my flat totally flat out exhausted and it’s about -7 degrees outside. It's quite tame compared to more Northern parts of the UK, judging by my social media feeds and the news. I mean, we’re not on a red weather warning alert-type-thing (i.e. we’re pretty safe). There was a small, reserved scattering of snow across campus this morning that gradually became a little denser throughout the day, leading to the point of when I’d finished my 2-4pm lecture in a room on the second floor of a building, the snow was flying through the sky quite horizontally, and my students (bless them all) were semi-planning a sleep-in overnight. I trust they all actually got home…

February has been one of those months where you reach the end and you are thankful you’re still breathing. OK, it hasn’t been that bad. It’s been busy. I had an intense week where I travelled *a lot* - Leeds, Manchester, Bristol (no, not Bristol – Bath), back to Rushden where I live, full days teaching and I don’t know how, but then up to Scotland for a few days. Conferences, PhD stuff, other work, and also coming out of semi-modelling retirement (only for shooting in abandoned spaces with very cool people though). I haven’t got back in my car for a long drive since, because I can’t face driving. I love travelling – I even like driving. But all of that kind of killed it for a while. I guess it’s a double edged sword. My job enables me to do all of this – be anywhere (obviously not for months on end), but in general, I can be flexible with where and how I work, as long as I *do* the work. I’m also really at the start of my process in academia only a year and a half into my PhD and teaching, and I think that enables me to think about what I want, where that’s going and how it is working out. On the one hand, I am so fortunate with my job(s). I am fortunate to be in a position where I work with some wonderful students and can be creative and flexible with things (really, sometimes I’ll have an off-guard conversation, or they’ll pop into my office for 10 mins, or we will chat in the break in the lecture, pass on book recommendations, talk about life and plans – I guess I am fortunate and sometimes those small conversations really make my week). I’m also fortunate that I can work on research that genuinely matters and I can keep a small counselling caseload and work with fantastic young people who remind me week by week, again, of what matters. It’s out of the academia bubble and away from things that in the grand scheme of things, aren’t so important at all. The email can wait. The box ticking thing can wait and my presence at the meeting where I may (or may not) be heard, is also probably not as important as I’ll be worried it might be.

There’s also another side to all of this, and I think that’s the side that isn’t spoken about very much. The side that fights to keep up with it all and that very invisible but sometimes deafening perfectionist thing (I don’t like that term, but I’m yet to find another word that’s got a relatively universal meaning). I say this as in the past 24 hours I submitted a book review and an abstract for a conference (a conference I went to last year and actually left half way through because I genuinely felt out of my depth, so much so that it was easier to leave than it was to stay and be OK with feeling like a bit of an imposter. Now I realise it’s more than likely that I definitely wouldn’t have been the only one at that conference feeling that way). Anyway, this is quite a regular thing for me, yet I go to the things and do them anyway – I write short things, I submit things, I put myself forward for doing things, I book myself onto things (whether that’s writing an abstract for a conference or special edition, or drafting an article or booking a place at a workshop) – I put myself forward to do the very things that I know I won’t do unless I have to, because it’s pretty terrifying. And I know myself enough to know that if my application/paper/presentation is accepted, there’s no way I’m pulling out, so I then have no other option but to process and do the very work that I was afraid of doing. Hello pressure. Goodness knows how people do this with full time jobs – I suppose this is back to the double edged sword thing. So many really wonderful aspects of so much of this work. But it also comes with the additional stuff that we don’t always talk about. Maybe here’s me talking (writing) about a bit of it.

I’m not entirely sure if that sums up February, but it does do something to sum up this evening!