The Thesis Whisperer

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.

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