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Speculative Diction

Juggling Act


Today’s post is about “process/es”, in the somewhat abstract sense that refers to the ways we organize ourselves when we need to make things happen, particularly things that are work-related.

I had to think a bit about this recently when I did an interview for Networked Researcher and was asked what my “workflow” looks like and how blogging fits into it. I had trouble explaining how I actually get things done, and I think that’s partly because the amount of work I do has been ramping up consistently for a few years now and I feel like I’ve been scrambling to keep up, rather than coming up with new and appropriate ways of dealing with it all. I have so much going on that I’m constantly “running behind”, so what could possibly be efficient about what I’m doing? What am I really “getting done”?

When I thought about it, I realized that of course I have found ways of juggling many things at once, but I don’t give myself any credit for it because there are usually so many unfinished projects pending. That’s why it feels like nothing is happening most of the time–so many things are “in progress”. It’s true that I’ve developed a bit of a system of dealing with all the projects and ideas that come up, so I neither have to dwell on them or forget about them. This involves a lot of little folders and documents, a means of channeling the urge to squirrel away every little thing in such a way that I can use it eventually; Liz Gloyn has written a post where she calls these tidbits “academic otters”. They usually need to be tucked away and kept for later, or tended over time rather than becoming the immediate focus.

All this relates to the process of becoming academic, or whatever it is that we want to be when the PhD is over. Though everyone is in a different situation in the latter part of candidacy, what I’ve noticed is the difficulty with trying to balance the necessary academic work (i.e. the dissertation) with other work and opportunities that come along, which can in turn lead to jobs in the future. This is a dilemma that many PhD candidates face, since it involves a difficult transition into largely unknown territory. We’re aware that the job market isn’t a friendly place these days, but the idea is to advance towards it as quickly as possible, whilst somehow simultaneously gaining enough experience to make ourselves employable when we’re done. We have to figure out how to split up our time between the all-important dissertation, and the publications, teaching, and other pieces that are needed to prepare for the post-doc and faculty job applications that many of us will be submitting later. Of course we’re also working to pay tuition and costs of living while we take care of everything else.

My biggest problem with “process” at the moment is that I’ve ended up having less and less time for necessary deep reflection on the things that are coming up both academically and in other areas of life. There is always a lot going on, but I don’t have much space to think about it. On the one hand it’s fantastic to have so many things on the go–I’m blessed–and each time something comes up I want to jump on board because of the benefit of the experience; it’s also an honour to be invited to participate in other people’s events and projects. But I’ve finally reached a point where, for the first time, I’ve had to start saying “no” (even when I feel guilty doing it). This is something Jo Van Every wrote about in her blog this week.

There are so many possibilities for distraction when focus is required. Though I need to concentrate on the parameters and completion of current projects, obsessing over (often) longer-term goals doesn’t seem to be productive; it interferes with work “in the moment”. It’s also harder to think about the ideas you’re trying to articulate in some particular paragraph or chapter, when you’re thinking about the hydro bill, the talk you’re giving in three days, and the grading that needs to be finished. Most academics are juggling in this way, and I think there’s a need to carve out a specific space for reflection without pressure because if we can’t find that, we simply can’t think and reflect the way we need to.

That part of the process is perhaps the most important one, yet it’s the easiest one to lose when we’re overwhelmed since we can always “get to it later”. I’m reminded of what some academics have said anecdotally about being overwhelmed by changes in the workplace, such as downloading of certain types of administrative work to faculty, that decrease the amount of time available to think about what’s going on. In the end, we can’t just quickly digest ideas and regurgitate them if we’re going to do our best work–as much as it feels like a luxury to take time out and reflect (or to “just read” as some academics say), to process what we’ve seen and heard and read, how else can we participate in the “life of the mind”?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Mary-Ann / February 27, 2013 at 13:34

    I agree with much of this – it is a struggle to find focus – and yet, conversely, the opposite can also be a problem: a lack of tight deadlines and elusive goals can lead to spinning wheels and not making headway. Sometimes I need to be busy – I need that adrenaline rush that comes from working down to the wire – to articulate the thoughts that have been swirling in my mind.

  2. Kirandeep Herr / March 3, 2013 at 11:45

    Hi Melonie, I liked your post as it very well describes the way the mind of academicians process so many things they juggle. Having so many things on my agenda of ‘to-do-list’ and feeling overwhelmed about the deadlines(that I set-up) for myself; I find it a relieve to know that I am not alone:) I agree that sometimes it is better to concentrate on the little things that are in present than to focus on long-term goals; as these small things that need immediate attention are the things that needs to be tackled quickly as they clear the path to accomplish big themes. Thanks for your insights.