Jul 232019

What do you do when your mind understands potential harm caused by an environment, yet when you are physically there you willingly jump inside the hamster-wheel, and even perpetuate the process for others?

I took two months away from my usual academic duties at the end of last year, focussing solely on completing my PhD candidacy document. I worked from home for most of it. During this “break”, where I worked consistently and productively each day, my reflection on my workplace was:

“My goodness we do and expect some things that are completely whack!”

Yerga, D. (2007). La hipoteca / Mortgage [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/heartindustry/875659855/

I returned to work in January with a resolution. This year, decisions I made about my work would consider carefully the mental health of both my colleagues and my students. This post focusses on academic staff mental health. I will write about students in the future.

Being physically away from campus, focussing on just one aspect of my work, allowed my body a break from the constant adrenaline-bath of being involved in teaching, administration and research. The minute-by-minute decision whether to complete a task to the standard and time 1) allocated by the university workload system, or 2) that it needs, or even 3) that is expected and reinforced by the university promotion system and academic culture. An ever-increasing hierarchy of demand, starting with the academic workload system’s impossibly inadequate allocation, moving through to academic culture’s unrealistically impossible demands.

Constantly feeling inadequate because I simply cannot perform work in the time allocated, even to the lowest possible standard. Working extra hours, and completing a large amount of what was expected, but then looking at the standard of my output and feeling like I was letting down my students, the university, the profession students would graduate to, colleagues and myself. A feeling of constantly cutting corners. Feeling like I was not empathising with the very real life impact of my decisions on students because I simply could not take the care and time needed. Like I could not create the most effective learning environment. And as a researcher? Totally avoidant due to my own inability. Merely finding convenient excuses not to do the reading and writing that I should do to maintain currency in what are meant to be my passions.

Then internalising blame for feeling like this. Feeling this way was simply my fault because I am overly-perfectionist, and if I had better time-management skills I could manage my own workload. It was surely my own desire to do things in a way that interested me, or do that little bit extra, that meant I complicated each task. If I only stopped over-thinking and over-doing then I should have plenty of time to achieve what was needed to the standard required. It’s up to me to say “no”, and I should do it. That if I exercised more I would be fresher and more resilient. I was somehow creating a spiral of inadequacy by getting so tired out trying to manage it all. That surely if I could work out how to be more efficient, and somehow caught up on what felt like an ever-growing backlog, I could do it differently in the future, in the way expected.

lauren rushing. (2011). [No title] [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/white_ribbons/6264803246/

Despite how I felt I was doing my job, I was promoted to Senior Lecturer at the end of last year. 

I have an ongoing position, which in Australia is as secure tenure as is possible. This makes me ridiculously and abberantly lucky.

In Australia, one estimate suggests that between 50-80% of all undergraduate teaching is done by casual/short contract staff. All going through similar mental gymnastics about their performance, but with the stakes being not only their self-concept and mental health, but whether they will be re-hired next semester.

Returning to work this year, I can see colleagues caught in the same spiral. Health issues directly related to stress are not uncommon. Collectively we watch each other work ridiculously long hours and achieve some wonderful outcomes. We make plans collectively as though the workload allocation was actually fair and reasonable. If we cannot fit it all in, then we are the ones at fault rather than the system we work in.

Not helping colleagues shoulder their load feels churlish. We very easily see when someone else is working too-long hours. Sometimes I think we feel more protective of them than of ourselves, when we are actually exhibiting exactly the same behaviour. Academics engaging in protective behaviours that limit their own overwork can be characterised as not team players, and “problem people”…and their actions do have real impact on already-overloaded team members. Self-care can mean actively not caring for others. An environment where we need to make this choice is whack.

There is a lot of discouraging “help” offered out there. Like the very sound suggestion that if academics replace “more” with “enough” they would be happier and healthier …with the kicker that …. then we would not have to work the expected 80-hour work week … but could do perfectly fine if we just do 50 hours per week.

I also came across this wonderfully, eloquent outline by Kate Bowles of a system that encourages lack of self-care and reinforces collusion in perpetuating this… . I find it really chilling because earlier this year I sent exactly the series of texts listed to members of my monthly bookclub from work one evening… and then went home to bed with a small cold that knocked me around far more than it should have for three or so weeks.

… throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

Just wait while I send this email. Start without me. I’ll be along in a bit. Do you mind if I don’t come? 

They will do this at all levels of the career, even if you pay them by the hour at a real rate that disintegrates to something approaching casual retail work once you factor in all the things they’ll have to do on their own time to get the job done well. They will do this especially if they’re also trying to run alongside the speeding train that might represent their future career hopes.

Some days they will also drive each other for you. They will whisper about each other, and turn a blind eye to each other,  and not quite find the time to act on their own secret critical thinking about any of it. They will also surreptitiously maintain each other through care and coping practices and shrugs in the corridor and exchanged glances and raised eyebrows in meetings and Friday drinks that become chronic, secretive drinking problems so that they can get some rest without writing emails in their heads at 3am.

In fact, if you get the scarcity, intermittency and celebratory settings for occasional reward just right, then the toxic alchemy of hope and shame will diminish their capacity for solidarity, and they will keep the whole thing going for you, in the name of commitment, professional standards, the value of scholarship, academic freedom, the public good of educational equity.

But I love teachingI love my students. I love my research. I love that I get to work from home on Fridays. And Saturdays. And Sundays.

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

Jun 302019

This is the most unlikely corner of the garden. The little courtyard is just one metre from the fence, and then the back of the house is a metre from the other fence.

For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to plant a full-sized lemon in the corner. For some other, equally bonkers, reason the lemon loved the spot and would grow to enormous proportions if allowed.

Unfortunately, the lemons on the rooftop clog the gutters in winter if allowed, so I am constantly apologising the to the poor thing and cutting it back. It seems pretty happy about it all, considering.

The passionfruit is actually growing on the neighbour’s property. I have gone through at least 10 passionfruit vines trying to grow them in our yard, but THIS one has decided that the spot-with-no-sun is where it will fruit. If we beat the rats, and we usually do, we manage to nab the fruit for ourselves.

Jun 292019

The Carnegie UK Trust is forefront of research into kindness and how it strengthens community. It is worth spending a couple of hours reading their research reports from the last two years that are themed around kindness.

Their output has developed from not even knowing what to call this “everyday help” phenomena , through quantitive studies about where people in the UK find kindness (**spoiler – public libraries came out top**), to asking some hairy questions about how transparency and good governance in public policy may work against kindness.

Table from p.21 of Wallace, J., & Thurman, B. (2018). Quantifying kindness, public engagement and place: Retrieved from Carnegie Trust UK website: https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2018/11/09144230/Quantifying-Kindness-Data-Booklet1.pdf

It is this last idea, of kindness vs. transparency and fairness, that fascinates me as I read yet another news report about a political grub who arbitrarily used his ministerial position to not follow due process, enriching a particular set of people.

From my reading in the last year, I have drawn a few conclusions about kindness. Kindness must be voluntary and discretionary. It involves an act of help of some sort. There needs to be a beneficiary and (my contention is) when the benefactor performs the act, they must aim for a positive outcome and more benefit to the beneficiary than to themselves.

At the core, though, along with all those features there needs to be a simple test, which is “is this a good thing?” If it is not good, then it is not kindness, it is something else. The test may be simple, but actually knowing what “good” is, and how one tells if this act is good, working out “good for whom?” seems ridiculously complex to the point of impossibility.

Now, if we look at the case of Barnaby Grub and the Lucrative Concessions, many of these elements are there. Yes, he voluntarily used his discretion to benefit a set of beneficiaries. It is possible that with political motivation and back scratching involved, there was ultimately greater benefit to Minister Grub than to the individuals helped….but it quacks a lot like the kindness duck.

Researchers have used the term “service nepotism” to describe how some ethnic groups in a market (in this case a group less well-off than others) favour people socially similar to them, challenging ideas of egalitarianism and competition in the marketplace.

In the latest Carnegie publication on kindness, which was released along with the movie embedded below, they discuss the idea of “radical kindness”. Within organisations, there may be people who choose to bend or break rules in order to do good, increase social cohesion and help others. It’s key to remember that kindness is something done by individuals, unobliged. Radical kindness comes in when there is systematic acknowledgement across the organisation that some people’s needs are greater due to structural disadvantage… and there is a social environment and norms where unobligated acts of doing good by individuals are more frequent, to try to level out this inequity. This goes a little way to guiding my “is this a good thing?” test.

The idea is still nascent, but I think all of the examples described above rely on there being a background social environment of unfairness. Of inequity. Of some having more than others. With “radical kindness”, the outcome of the act would be fairer redistribution. With political trough-feeding, inequity would increase.

This links kindness very much to power. Anyone who has opportunity to be kind will have more power in that situation than the potential beneficiary. A key element of kindness, discretion, means there always needs to be a choice by the benefactor to act or not act.

Does this mean that the largest acts of kindness will be found in the most unequal societies? That actually we should aim for a world with less opportunity for kindness? While kindness will always be a good thing (or else it is not kindness, it is something else), possibly finding “more kindness” also says something about the background power relations as well as the level of social cohesion??

I don’t have answers, but I am loving the journey.

Here’s the movie that goes with the latest Carnegie report, outlining ideas arising from the last year of the Kindness Innovation Network across Scotland. Kindness at the University of Glasgow library is mentioned at 1:46.

CarnegieUKTrust. (2019). The Practice of Kindness. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP6G3y7EVJ8&feature=youtu.be

Jun 282019

Lots of lavender down the driveway. At first I would carefully pick the flowers each year and dry them before giving the bushes a hard pruning back so the car could get past.

Now, we have had so much lavender that it is just binned.

One of the kids tried making a lavender syrup for ice-cream a couple of years ago. It was kind of successful, but not something we repeated.

Jun 272019

Email rules my day far less than it used to.

Here are some tweaks I made to make it so.

1. I turned off desktop alerts – no more audio or popup messages when I get a new email. (Only took me 30 years of using work email…)

2. I close Outlook when I am not actively using it.

3. Filters, filters, filters and folders, folders, folders. Only about half of my email goes into my inbox. The rest is filtered automatically into one of 30 or so folders sitting under the inbox. I have:

  • A filter for mail from each co-worker, with a separate folder for each person
  • A filter for new mail coming from each Blackboard unit that I teach, each in a new folder for each unit
  • Filters for alerts from journal databases, library catalogues, listservs and other informational resources – each one with its own folder
  • Filters for important work distribution lists that would otherwise go straight to my inbox – each one with their own folder
  • Filters for emails I sent from my other email addresses to myself

4. Prioritising when I check filtered folders.

  • I monitor email from students from my Blackboard units every time I have my email open
  • I prioritise emails from co-workers
  • Journal alerts I would look at maybe once a week during quiet periods, when I deal with my reading backlog…

5. Each day I set aside two blocks in my calendar of one hour to deal with email. These are appointments marked “busy”.

6. I set aside one three hour block in my calendar at the end of the week to deal with any backlog. Most weeks I get to inbox zero and make sure I have either completed, or know when I will complete, each task associated with each email from that week.

7. When checking the filtered folders or inbox, emails are either:

  • If they can be done in under 2 minutes, dealt with then
  • If they are urgent, categorised with a red “Pending my action” flag
  • If neither, manually moved to one of my “to do” folders. (see left hand side of image above)

Once I have done the “first pass” of my email, I go back and deal with the red flags, and then get to work on the “to do” folders.

8. Some tasks need more than just a reply email. I have other regular blocks of time set aside in my calendar (e.g. for teaching or for course admin). I add the task to the calendar description for the next block of time I work on that area.

9. I never delete emails once I am done with them. Either they remain in their original filtered file (so all email from co-worker x is together) or email from my inbox or a to do folder is manually dragged into just one of five folders:

  • Done2019Teaching
  • Done2019CourseCoordination
  • Done2019StudyPlans
  • Done2019Research
  • Done2019Admin

10. If I want to locate previous conversations, I just use the search function.

I originally had a lot of categories in my Done list. Then for the last five years I had a “Done2019Month” folder for each month. This year I just started using these five, and will continue for the year.

11. At the end of the year, the whole lot of folders are transferred to a single folder called “[year]Archive”, keeping the same file structure. Then I set up a whole lot of new, empty folders ready to receive filtered messages and the cycle starts again for the new year.

Jun 262019

This little orange has given us one orange. Last year. I used it to bake a “whole orange” cake for my son’s birthday, so we could all share it.

It was repotted last year, so I think it may not give us any fruit this year, but I am hoping that it will bear at least two oranges. Then I can use it to make my favourite cake at the moment.

It uses up lots of the extra eggs from the chooks, and is so simple that it can be memorised. (2 oranges, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup almond meal, 6 eggs, 1 tsp baking powder – done!).

Orange and Almond cake

from SBS Food.

  • 2 oranges
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 250g almond meal
  • 1tsp baking powder
  1. Boil the oranges whole in a pot of water for 2 hours. (We made two cakes one day, one skipping this step and one including it, just in case it was being a bit precious…. who has time to boil an orange?? One kid much preferred the non-boiled version (more tart and tangy), while one preferred the boiled-version (far creamier texture).
  2. Puree and ALLOW TO COOL.
  3. Preheat oven to 160 degrees and grease and line a 22cm spring form tin.
  4. Beat eggs and caster sugar until combined.
  5. Stir in puree, then meal, then baking powder.
  6. Bake 1 – 1 ¼ hours until skewer comes out clean.
  7. Allow to cool before dusting with icing sugar to serve.

Jun 252019

How much should one share on a blog? TL;DR “Totally the author’s decision, but my governing rule is “I try not to tell other people’s stories””.

That’s why my last post sounded so very vague about some things that had happened in my life, even as I thanked others for sharing their stories.

.sarahwynne. (2012). veiled [Photo]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/bGw8BF

In December 2007, five months after the first iPhone was released, a year after Facebook first allowed people with non “.edu” addresses to create profiles, I wrote about my decision to try not to tell other people’s stories, in a post about Drawing the veil … .

Chiefly I was thinking about co-workers and my kids. My decision was not only about privacy for others, but I reasoned that even if the person in question had given me permission, or even wanted me to tell their stories, publishing it on this blog altered my relationship with other co-workers. Would they think I was looking at what they were doing as blog fodder? I didn’t really want to add that layer to my work relationships. Likewise, I respected my kids’ privacy, and that of their friends and schoolmates, so minimised how much I discussed them.

I didn’t tell the story at the time, but it was actually in response to an incident at work where I was extremely confronted. I’m OK with telling it now because I can anonymise it, and if it makes my current workmates feel worried that I may tell a vague story about them in 12 years time, I can live with that impact on our work relationships today. The incident made me feel about 100 years old and like the world’s biggest fuddy-duddy.

I was running a “23 Things” project that involved staff blogging, and a member of staff far younger than me was taking part. The blog they linked to as part of the staff project was used for posts other than for the project. Mentioning work. Including a conversation with their supervisor. One that revealed information about them, their supervisor and work circumstances that had not been revealed to their co-workers.

It was my job to explain to them, with the help of supervisor, why it was not on. As I tried to explain I was seeing a nodding head, with a look of total incomprehension in the eyes. What seemed obvious to me about workplace decorum and social media evidently was not universally apparent.

Even worse, this was the days before organisations had grappled with social media, so I had no idea what was a reasonable (and even legal) way to ask this person to deal with the posts. Today, it would be much clearer. Then, I tried to appeal to their better nature and explain the likely impact on their co-workers if the co-workers stumbled across the posts as I had. What I did not do was request that they remove the posts from their blog, or tackle the issue of why they should not have made them in the first place… although the supervisor and I did work toward a solution that the person in question agreed with.

THAT was what led to me trying to articulate a personal policy on my blog.

It sounds unbelievable now, but many bloggers, like me, had not thought about the issue in any depth until something like that forced us to.

I discovered among the comments for that post my speculation:

“I wonder what we’ll be thinking about my self-imposed limitation in ten years, or even five? I wonder whether I’ll seem like I was being terribly fussy and prim.?”

It’s kind of nice to look back and think that I probably made exactly the right choice for me, one that has worked to help me decide what I share in my online life.

It also makes me wonder what other challenges to privacy or communication or …boundaries??… are around the corner as work/life/social media …even government policy and governance…blur further. What other things that seem self-evident to me about navigating this world would cause a 20 year old to gaze at me with total incomprehension?

Jun 242019

The weeping mulberry in the rear courtyard is kept trimmed to the height of the rear fence, as this is the direction that the prevailing winds come. The house is designed to catch the breeze through the kitchen window. If it wasn’t, then the tree would be much, much taller and wider.

There is a Gedye compost bin at the very base of the tree…hidden most of the year by the leaves. The chooks eat most kitchen scraps, but citrus, onion skins and eggshells go into this bin. Rather than composting, it is more a large cockroach and worm farm, full of creatures that wriggle and crawl en masse every time the lid is lifted.

I take out a top layer or two of worm castings every so often when I pot up something new, but generally the system works really well to make all our scraps disappear. The tree seems to like the arrangement too.

In summer, the tree is full of mulberries, generally on the inside branches, which create quite a cavern. I usually forget that it is near fruiting season, then spot maybe a small berry on the outside, before going under and discovering a huge harvest.

When making mulberry icecream, it is important to de-stem absolutely every berry. I learned the not-so pleasant way, when we had a batch with green crunchy bits that simply should not have been there.

Jun 232019

You know how there are life events so big that you divide life into “before” and “after”?

One of the joys of Blogjune is insight into how other people live and think. I really appreciate the careful storytelling this year, where people like Fiona, Sean, Graeme, Cath and Hana have been sharing their journeys with ongoing health issues and the impact of big life changes and taking on a caring role.

Their posting confirms for me that I am now living in “after” time…. and I am very grateful that they had the wherewithal to share with such generosity, to help me treasure the quiet wonderfulness of my everyday, right now.

But it also reminds me that most, or all, of us are probably living in “before” time as well, so it is worth loving every minute of it and joyfully appreciating it.

Internet Archive Book Images. (1873). Image from page 118 of “St. Nicholas [serial]” (1873) [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784359522/

I spent several years where every day I knew that the ONLY thing that would help me heal and cope with where I was now…was time.

I knew I was overwhelmed and hurting and had to just do the best I could, in circumstances I did not choose, nor want, nor really understand well. As years passed, my life would heal and grow around the scars from what was happening now, even if it would not be the life I planned.

Several times a day I repeated “this too shall pass, this too shall pass”. Sometimes my aim was to get through the next minute, then the next one, then the next … I could cope if I only had to keep it together for the next 60 seconds, hour, half a day….

One day this would be behind me and fading, loss no longer so gaping. I would be able to make future plans without waking every day wondering what fires would need fighting today, and whether I had resources to rise to it. Where I would no longer be running in ever decreasing circles trying to do what I could, with energy I did not know I possessed, to make things better. To wait for this doctor or that specialist to tell me barely-understood numbers. To try to keep people I loved safe. To make decisions about matters I did not feel qualified to make, that I did not want to have to face.

Internet Archive Book Images. (1897). Image from page 313 of “International studio” (1897) [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14581807019/

Nowadays, I can have several very uneventful days in a row and feel utterly grateful that … NOTHING HAPPENED. I can make plans and have goals other than sleep, shower, be there for the kids, perform at work. This feels miraculous and something I should rejoice in daily.

The way I look at my everyday life has changed for the better. In most circumstances, that could be upsetting to most people, I can now use the yardstick “Is this as bad as THEN?”. If it is not (and it never is), I can sail through it with ease and grace. I would, of course, probably rather not have the yardstick.. but it does infuse me with a sense of calm I simply did not possess before.

It also involves accepting that some things that I wanted, that everyone else seems to have and not appreciate, I will not have, ever. And understanding that what I see as mundane and sometimes annoying in my everyday life (like a kid leaving a wet towel on the chair in their bedroom), someone else may consider to be the height of desirability. And to not assume that, just because someone seems functional and is not talking about issues in their lives, they have capacity to do more than put one foot in front of the other.

I also am keenly aware of the temporariness of this everydayness. Of the utter arbitrariness of the good fortune to not be in crisis right now. Some days it drives me to a deserted beach to swim alone – and hang the risk of drowning by myself or sharks or my wobbly bits being visible in my swimsuit. Some days I stay in bed all day and read and snuggle with my cats – because I can, and nobody will be impacted if I do not get up and be there for them.

Jun 222019

Ballerina apples are dwarf varieties that generally have just a single stem, but I have allowed mine to spread a little. The red is a “Pinkabelle”, which is like a Pink Lady, while the green is a “Leprechaun” which is a Granny Smith. This is their first year fruiting.

Certainly this is unseasonal, so I am not sure whether they will just keep growing until they are full-sized fruit in a few months, or whether they are getting close to ready, but will be small sized.

If you have ever travelled in India and had “nimbu pani” (lime water), the dwarf in the pot is the variety of lime used for this.

I have planted lettuce for quick cropping at the base of the lime, then lobelia (because I like blue flowers) and viola (a lovely yellowy-white variety). Both flowers can be eaten in salads for colour, but the viola is also nice candied.

You can see the tail-end of some tomatoes and basil as well.