2019. Bring it on! (gently this time)

Welcome to 2019!

How did your 2018 resolutions go?

I find a theme is easier than a resolution, which tends to become a promise to myself that I don’t keep. A theme, summoned up in a keyword, makes decisions easier. One year I had ‘brave’ as my keyword, which worked really well. Every time I had to make a decision I asked myself – “Am I being brave?”. Sometimes the answer surprised me.

For the last two years I have been working the theme of ‘Less’. While acknowledging that pursuing ‘Less’ is the height of White Western Privilege, I’ve tried to work less hours, eat less, spend less money and so on. The first year I tried ‘Less’ it didn’t work out so well,so I tried Less again in 2018. This time I was more successful, as I reported in my last post for 2018. I managed to cut down from 60 hours to an average of 42 hours a week with the help of a few apps like Timing and Omnifocus.

Doing Less was a good start, but now I realise: it’s not enough to combat the pernicious culture of over work in the academy. To illustrate, let me share a very personal story.

I like to go to the Society for Research in Higher Education conference in the UK every December, if I can. As an Australian, attending is a huge investment of money and time, starting with 24 hours of plane travel just to get there. To make the most of it, I hit the ground running, taking just one day of rest before heading up to Cambridge to give a talk. In a fit of madness I drove from Cambridge to the conference venue in Newport Wales. What Google had promised to be a 2.5 hour journey ended up being a 6 hour, non stop drive in an unfamiliar manual car through twisty roads through a dark and rainy night. I gripped the steering wheel with sweaty hands and tense shoulders the whole way; by the time I got to the conference venue I was shattered.

Little did I know this was to be the beginning of the worst month of my life, at least if measured in health. The next day I woke up with rash on my back and arms and my lips felt a bit numb. I tried to participate in the conference while the symptoms got worse. To cut a long story short, I ended up in the emergency room twice in the UK. The last time I had to be taken there by ambulance after I collapsed on the floor with an attack of vertigo at Goldsmiths, just before giving a lecture to 250 people (I cannot thank Kate and Marie-Alix enough for holding my hand while I lay on the floor, waiting for the ambulance, thinking I was going to die).

I was lucky to have this health crisis in a country with a fantastic public health system (despite what everyone says), and that I spoke the language and had friends nearby. The NHS doctors ascertained I wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke and treated the vertigo. I was looked after by my dear friends James and Nick, who helped me get on the plane home two days later. I went from the airport to my bed and basically didn’t get out again for nearly a month.

The vertigo was bad enough, but then weird neurological symptoms started appearing: pins and needles, muscle ticks, a strange feeling of sunburn. Waves of electricity going up and down my spine when I tried to sleep. High blood pressure. Fatigue like I have never experienced before. Another emergency room visit, 8 rounds of blood tests, an MRI and ultrasound scan – all failed to find anything substantially wrong with me. The uncertainty made me intensely anxious, no doubt this made the symptoms feel worse.

Being a medical mystery sucks. Doctors scratched their heads and said “virus?”. One gave me Valium, which actually helped a little. Xmas passed in a blur, then New Year. I alternated between crying and staring at the ceiling, too washed out to care. I watched a lot of Netflix. I half heartedly browsed social media. I fretted about what my future would hold if this state was permanent. When I was able, I read many of the books that had been sitting on my bedside table for years (the only good thing about the whole business).

Luckily, I have plenty of financial and emotional cushions. Sick leave was paid (appallingly, only around 1/3 of academics have access to this privilege). My husband and son surrounded me with love and care. Meals were cooked. I was driven to medical appointments. Hugs were always available. Friends messaged me from interstate and around the world. My friends in Canberra visited and didn’t mind if I fell asleep on the couch in front of them. My dear sister rang me everyday to offer words of comfort and encouragement. I felt loved.

I finally gave into what my body demanded and just worked on healing. After about a month, the weird sensations started to fade. The doctor cleared me to go back to the gym and do light exercise. The first day I could barely walk for ten minutes, but strength returned quicker than I thought. I still have more tests to go to rule out some more esoteric reasons for the symptoms, but every day I get better. I’m cautiously optimistic that the nightmare is be over.

I share with you all these gory details because I believe, at some level, what caused this medical catastrophe was 18 years of overwork in academia. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this physical breakdown happened after two years of really trying to do Less. Only after I managed to slow down was I able to hear what my body was trying to tell me and its message was loud and clear: don’t take me for granted.

This crisis has forced me to fully confront an uncomfortable truth: the academic system I work within valorises and rewards people who do themselves physical and mental damage. This is not just at ANU – it’s everywhere. I conformed to this system and reaped the benefits – but then I paid the price. So this year I need something more than Less.

I’ve been watching Australian politics slowly descend into farce, as it has in the UK and the US, and there are some parallels with academia. When politicians dare to question the system, or complain of bullying and overwork, they are shot down. Politicians who are benefiting from the system harp on endlessly about the need for ‘toughness’. The underlying assumption being, that thoughtfulness, care for others and an ability to admit you are wrong is ‘weak’. Similarly, in academia we are encouraged to be ‘resilient’ – which is almost the same thing as ‘toughness’ when you think about it. Resilience puts the onus on the individual to conform themselves to the system and take whatever is handed out. We only need to be resilient in systems that are badly designed and inhumane.

After a lot of thought, I’m going with ‘Care’ for my 2019 keyword. Care challenges us remake systems so they are well designed and humane. Care is thoughtful engagement and negotiations in relation to workplace demands, not just throwing yourself in and hoping for the best. Care is not individualistic, though practising care means getting an individual benefit. Obviously treating yourself with care means exercising, sleeping and eating well, but it also requires us to extend care to others. I strongly believe that following an ethic of Care is a win/win for staff and employer.

For me, caring means to continue to advocate for a better, fairer, more humane system in academia in words – and in actions. Lying in bed so long forced me to reassess how I spend my precious time and energy. I’ll continue my work with the ALLY network and the Union. I’ll continue to support the wellbeing of my team. Blogging stands out as important, fun and worthwhile – so does doing videos for my Patreon channel. Even though I have been told time and time again that I spend too much energy on writing books instead of journal papers, I am going to keep writing them because they are a good way for me to disseminate knowledge. In fact, I just signed a new contract.

I may never make it to full professor in living by an ethic of care, but I’m ok with that. But first – and most importantly – I’ve taken a couple of hours to craft this post. I’m going to take a well deserved nap.

I’m wondering, what is your theme for the new year? Chinese new year is coming up next week, so some of you will be still thinking about it. Anyone else keen on Care? What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear how you are going with your new year’s resolutions in the comments.

Related Posts

Less is more?

Failing – and getting back up again

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42 thoughts on “2019. Bring it on! (gently this time)

  1. Supervision Whisperers says:

    Wonderful Inger, as always! UCH LOVE AND LOOK AFTER YOURSELF

    Evonne Associate Professor Evonne Miller Director QUT Design Lab School of Design, Creative Industries Faculty Queensland University of Technology

    E: e.miller@qut.edu.au M: 0410 263 046 O: F104@GP Profile: staff.qut.edu.au/staff/millere2/


    • Susan Mayson says:

      What a sad system that we work in that requires us to sacrifice health and wellbeing in order to ‘progress’ to professor status. Take care Inger. I hope 2019 is a ‘care-full’ year for you.

    • Amy Bohren says:

      “We only need to be resilient in systems that are badly designed and inhumane.”

      I couldn’t agree more, Inger. Thanks for sharing your personal story – it’s a cautionary tale for the rest of us working in a range of industries. The notion of ‘care’ for self and others is something I’ve been seeking to instill in my workplace for some time, as part of various wellbeing programs. To truly succeed with this mission, strong leadership on this front is what’s needed.

      Take good care of yourself, and I hope your team have the warm fuzzies, knowing that you’re doing your best to take care of them too.

    • Fleur says:

      I cannot believe reading your words! This very thing has happened to me. Residual vertigo & associated symptoms still persist but now on the improve. I have been thinking about this very advice to myself as I enter my last year of thesis writing. I now have a plan and feel so much better for it. Less is definitely more, with the added bonus of resilience. I sincerely hope you are feeling better!
      Thank-you for sharing.

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        Thanks Fleur – I really help your dizziness keeps improving. It’s so debilitating! Makes long hours at the computer impossible, which is not a good mix with thesis writing. Take care!

    • KiwiWenders says:

      Thank you for sharing such a personal experience. I love your idea of having a one word theme (as a qualitative researcher, you kinda’ had me on theme LOL!) I can empathise with your body telling you it was time out after having to take a 1-year sabbatical from my PhD with post-viral fatigue (one of those labels that could easily read ‘who knows?!’) I’m easefully moving forward with baby steps back into the doctorate, and am guided by my theme of Seva and the question: “How can I best serve?”… which also has to include my own health 🙂

    • Tom Worthington says:

      I suggest “Professional” as the word for 2019. “Care” can result in being emotionally blackmailed. Being more efficient will not help, as that will just increase the demands on your time. What I suggest is a conscious choice as to what to do, and more importantly, what not to do, for the good of our students and ourselves.

      For several years I have given lectures to ANU’s computer students on “Professional Ethics”. Professionalism is, in part, about the obligations of the individual to their staff, and their clients. However, it is also about their obligations to themselves. Professionals are required to take time to keep up with their skills, and are obliged not to take on more work than they can do. These obligations are so the professional can do a good job for their client, but a byproduct is to avoid overwork.

      ps: The inspiration for my Higher Education Whisperer blog, came from Dr Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2019/02/thesis-whisperer.html

  2. klinkehoffen says:

    Bloody good on you. Take care.

    I LOVE teaching and researching. However, I take care of myself by opting to remain a contractor so I don’t get sucked into the whirlpool of meetings and admin, and only working a 50% role. I physically can’t do any more, as I get sick if I do. And, in saying that, my 50% academic workload takes over 100% of a 40 hour working week (closer to 50 hours, I think).

    The academic model sucks: it assumes that we all have a ‘wife’ at home whose only role is to look after us; a secretary to type for us; and teaching assistants to mark for us. All of that is very unlikely today. I am the lecturer, the wife, the secretary and the teaching assistant.

    Because education is government funded with budgets under pressure and political scrutiny, we are marginalised, precarious, and powerless. Yet I still do it. I think I am crazy, but I do it.

  3. Ricardo Morais says:

    Hi Inger,

    I hope you get better fast.

    This morning, I rented a car to go from Stansted to Bath in April and now worry that Google may be underestimating the driving time… hopefully I won’t miss my plane back home 😊

    My New Year resolution is more of the same: family, job and website 😊

    Take care,

    Ricardo Morais

    Design and defend your PhD with the Idea Puzzle® software

    De: The Thesis Whisperer Enviada: 29 de janeiro de 2019 17:03 Para: ricardo.morais@ideapuzzle.com Assunto: [New post] 2019. Bring it on! (gently this time)

    Thesis Whisperer posted: “Welcome to 2019! How did your 2018 resolutions go? I find a theme is easier than a resolution, which tends to become a promise to myself that I don’t keep. A theme, summoned up in a keyword, makes decisions easier. One year I had ‘brave’ as my keywo”

  4. Heather Burton says:

    A reflection of that system is often who gets promoted, when, where and why? Your blogs underpinned by experience, knowledge and networks are profoundly important to students and academics around the world. You know your own worth and its not measured in hours,dollars or frequent flyer miles, its inestimable. The worst month will always be memorable but one day you might look back on it and say ‘thank you’ I hope the nightmare is over and bless you for all the hard work you have done and all of yourself that you have given the world, I hope the rest of your life is balanced and full of (actually meaningful) rewards. And thank you for the warnings. It takes courage to tell it like it is, and I have no doubt you save lives.

  5. Simon Bowland says:

    Loved your article on care. I work in TAFE-based Higher Education and your observations couldn’t be more accurate. It seems to take good people and break them, and then the blame is on the individual for not coping with their ‘perfect’ system.

  6. Tseen Khoo says:

    I am glad you took a couple of hours to craft this post as it is so important and resonated with me a lot. Though I am committed to maintaining good hours for work (that is – minimal imposition after-hours and no weekend work as rule), I know this puts me automatically behind. And I don’t know whether I’ll get anywhere in terms of climbing the ladder. That said, I feel that the contributions and creative/leadership work that I do in my own way are already there – I don’t need the Prof-ship to tell me this. There are many out there, though, for whom titles are extremely important as markers of identity and worth. It’s a complex zone. You have been disrupting it beautifully for years.

  7. lindathestar says:

    Thank you Inger for writing this thoughtful, personal account. The time spent unwell and unsure what it meant sounds scary. I’m glad you are coming out of it ok. Care is an excellent guiding principle to live by, of self and of others.
    I’ve been reading about the medical system lately, and how trainee doctors have a really difficult time, especially if they represent a minority group. It is almost as though new doctors are disposable, as there are plenty coming on. This is not an approach to care–for the individual, or for establishing a culture of people who care.
    Thank you for the work you do; as Tseen says ‘disrupting…beautifully’. Disrupters play an important role in society.

  8. Bridgette says:

    As a PhD candidate and single parent of school aged children, I know how important it is to care for myself and others. I’m in my completion year and have been teaching my kids some basic life-skills as everything is usually up to me to manage. The theme of my thesis: Art and Attention Restoration, is something I’ve applied to my writing and studio practices. If you want to know more about managing mental fatigue, here is a link to a play that I produced as a “Perform Your Science” initiative. The play was awarded a prize!

  9. Miriam says:

    I’m proud of Inger for making ‘care’ her theme for the year. What a profound testimony of how overwork can affect physical and mental health, and what it takes to recover and then change life to accept what our bodies need. Inger, you don’t need to make full professor to have the admiration of those who benefit from Thesis Whisperer and see your academic credentials and value. Congratulations, and all the best for a 2019 of care.

  10. from NL says:

    Dear Inger, thank you for writing about this experience. I hope you find ways to spread strategies of care and health. I am so glad you’re speaking out. What resonates so strongly with me is the pervasiveness of systems inside our minds and bodies. We come to accept the pressures and the unhealthy idea that it is our individual responsibility to deal with them. I see and feel the same in the cultural sector. This is a societal issue that seems globalizing. I am writing about the value of care for self and other in my PhD (which is way overdue due to many circumstances). Perhaps that is my way of resisting, while I am very sensitive and suffering a lot from the pressures that I just can’t seem to externalize. I know I’m not alone, but how do we resist more collectively?

    • from NL says:

      ps. my 2018 theme was ‘do what you love’ and my theme for this year is ‘vitality & connectedness’ – as a guideline and mantra against all those other internalized measures of succes.

  11. Rebecca says:

    I love your single word new years commitments – you’ve inspired me to choose ‘deliberate’ for mine (the adjective, not the verb). I want to be more deliberate about what I do with my spare time (read and learn and contribute to my household instead of watching shows on Netflix I don’t even like), what I eat and how (ideally not at my desk), and how I interact with people at work (slow down a little to give others more space and understanding) . And I also want to be more deliberate with my relaxation – if I’m going to chill, I want to do it in the most satisfying way for me, not just by doing whatever is easiest and nearest (see: Netflix).
    Here’s to a productive and enjoyable 2019!

  12. JC says:

    A great NYs theme! I might borrow that one 🙂 Bravo to you for this piece. Agree 100%. Nice to know know others have a similar view.

  13. Kara says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    A health crisis early on in my PhD continues to affect my work and progress, and it has really taken me a while to stop being so tough on myself about it. I’ve learnt that I can’t always just soldier on or feel guilty, but that I need to look after myself first and foremost. Hearing that others also struggle with health issues, stress and burnout has made me realise that I’m not alone and that nobody can be the “brilliant academic” 24/7.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      absolutely – and I’ve learned that pushing too hard means you’re only generating a technical debt that you have to pay somewhere down the track anyway. Best to step back and restore health and wellbeing first – if you can. People are not always in the position where they are able to, sadly

  14. Jill says:

    Kindness has been my them for some time. First it was about kindness to self. Next it has been about kindness in interactions with others.
    Am I succeeding? Well possibly not in all aspects but I am always trying. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? These are the questions I ask myself when I go to speak to anyone, stranger, friend or family.

  15. Lauren says:

    This is a beautiful post and oh so very true. I have watched higher ed tear people to pieces. I moved from the Uk to the US and have been applying for academic jobs here. First of all, a system reliant on adjuncts does not work (and I won’t even address how abusive it is). Secondly, I looked at a job description lately and the incredibly large list of job responsibilities and thought “no.” Then immediately felt bad: I need a full time job, I should be applying for everything! I condemned myself for being lazy. But something in me decided that it was too much. Having a life matters. You have reaffirmed that for me and it encourages me to let go of that guilt. The big question is though: what next?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      What next indeed. It’s certainly a tough one Lauren. I worked in architects offices before I entered academia and the workload demand there was even more intense. I think professionals in any field have huge demands put on them and this is more a symptom of late capitalism than a single workplace issue. I wish I had more positive thoughts to offer!

  16. Claire says:

    Thank you for being brave enough to share this story – I suspect there are many people who try and hold things together behind closed doors. I love the idea of a theme – I usually have a word. My word for this year is “patience” – with my family, with myself, with my writing, with my career, with my health etc… Off the back of last year’s word “listen” – I have also realised that overdoing things might not be great for my health. I wish you all the best for a “gentle” start to the new year.

  17. Kamal says:

    Thanks Inger. I hope you are on the road to recovery and that your year of “care” focuses on caring for yourself.

    …which reminds me. When I first saw your offer of an extra Thesis Whisperer Patreon bonus for donors, I thought, Crikey! How on Earth does she have time to do more? Speaking for myself, I am happy to contribute on the basis of your regular blog alone. Go easy on yourself.

  18. Omoluabi says:

    Thanks, Inger for the thoughtful post. Get well soon and please do take good rest (as feasibly possible of course) and care of yourself.

    The story you have narrated not only relates to people in academia. I think it is a general problem. People often struggle with work-life-balance virtually in every sector. In the banking, oil and gas, telecom, even in the health sector, the reward and valorises are for people who “so to speak” distinguish themselves. In most cases, to “distinguish” oneself in the workplace is all about a bit of extra in everything you do. And so, no one can really do this extra “very well” without doing themselves some damage – social, mental or physical. There are plenty of examples to illustrate this. Social damage is quite common if, for instance, you end up spending a lot of time at work, at the expense of quality family time. Mental, for instance, in being depressed if you are doing a lot and you are not being recognised/acknowledged/rewarded. So I think you have made a very good point in this post. An approach of addressing this issue of work-life-balance I would say may lie in the wonder of this little sentence – Start with why!, just as used for the title of Simon Sinek’s book. If you always start with “a clear” why in whatever you do, you would always be in a better position to avoid, at best, some of these damaging struggles of being distinguished. I believe everyone can still be ‘distinguished and rewarded’ without doing “much” damage to themselves and their core values. It’s all about starting with why.

    Best wishes and again, please get well soon.

  19. stevewalton2014 says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this so openly, Inger. I’m sure you’re far from alone in this—I’ve had spells of depression because, I’m sure, of overwork, and I’m now glad to be outside ‘the system’ as a part-time faculty member at a fabulous college. It means I can pace myself much better than I ever could do in a full-time post.

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