Saturday, June 28, 2008

Cure for summer brain drain: Noodling or study?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer.)

There's something about going to school that keeps my brain active. I don't know if it's the sustained reading, the intellectual discussions, the constantly changing subjects and challenges--or just the motivation I get from regular essay deadlines. But since finishing my schooling (yeah, right, as if I'll never go back), my brain has definitely slowed.

Why isn't my brain as responsive as it used to be? Is it distracted by too much web surfing? Do I have a brain-eating amoeba? Is it the (I hope mythical) "mommy brain" that accompanies life with young children? Am I just too damn busy with too many projects, so I lack time to reflect? Am I spending too much time in that stream of constant interruption, 140-character world of Twitter? Has my RSS reader driven me to distraction? Is it just that my brain is aging and therefore less plastic that it was in my/our twenties?

I've devised many plans to get my brain back into shape, but procrastination has thus far kept me from many of them. Here are some of my ideas:

  • Renew my commitment to challenging (e.g. academic) research, thinking, and writing. And lo! I have done this: I recently finished an (ambiguously and broadly defined) article on museums for a library science encyclopedia, I have an academic book review due in two days, and I've been revising an academic journal article that was all but accepted to a great women's history journal a year ago. Plus I'm teaching a couple graduate courses again this fall, as well as reading students' master's theses for the first time this spring.

  • Figure out this whole "WordPress" thing for work. Too many plugins! Too many widgets and themes!

  • Commit to learning a difficult foreign language (e.g. Arabic). Why must Rosetta Stone be so damn expensive? And why must local Arabic classes meet in the middle of the workday?

  • Arts and crafts. I have a closet full of arts and crafts supplies that are calling to me. If only I could pull myself away from everything else I'm working on.

  • Pick up the French horn again. This is hard because, well, the horn is a very loud instrument, and someone always seems to be asleep in this house. But someday I shall regain my mediocre embouchure.

  • Learn more about gardening than I know now (i.e. "Put plant in ground. Water. Cross fingers.") Progress: I've planted two raised beds of summer fruits and vegetables, and so far nothing has died (again, fingers crossed).

My plans involve a blend of study and what Barbara Ganley has termed "noodling." BG writes about the healing power of noodling:

I’m tired of writing angry. Frustrated. Negative. And so I have stayed off-blog. Thinking. Feeling. Planning. Noodling. Doing. Tweeting. But not sharing writing longer than 140 characters at a stretch. Not until now. This morning when I whined a bit on Twitter about my lack of posting due to having little positive to say about schools, especially those of a private, liberal arts, expensive nature-Bud Hunt came right out and told me to move past the need to write about formal ed (i.e. get over myself) and write about the new thoughts, the new connections. With that one little nudge, I could feel myself start to shuck that snakeskin of academia and the baggage of nineteen years and be ready to start noodling around out loud about what I’m reading, thinking, dreaming and wondering.

Barbara has a kindred soul in Bethany Hiitola of Mommy Writer Blog. Hiitola is going through an annual ritual she calls "Clearing." She explains:

I let go of projects that aren't routine. I let work slide a bit instead of living the life of an over-achiever. And in the end, I spend quality time with myself, my family, and sorta experience life in order to "fill the well."

Sure, I'll still be blogging here. And reading. And writing. But no pressure. No substance. And hell, you might even get some delayed postings around here. But, it's all part of my process. My brain re-wiring itself for more creativity. Or at least I tell myself that so that I don't think of it as "lazy."

Other bloggers believe more firmly in studying. Beatricks of Easel Ain't Easy writes that taking a summer class is helping her brain to grow. Kirsten Fisch of Math Monkey has a variety of ways to keep her kids' brains active during the summer, including reading enrichment, math practice, Apple (computer) camp, creative writing, online classes, and learning guitar.

How do you stave off brain atrophy?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Not to obsess or anything. . .

. . .but these are the levels of particulates I've been breathing all day:

And yes, I did attend a BBQ lunch. In that air. Ick.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Two photos of our smoky sequestration

Here's Lucas at one of his favorite pastimes: arts and crafts. We keep our kitchen table overflowing with paper, glue sticks, small glueable objects, watercolor paint, markers, crayons, stickers, scissors, and even a hole punch. (When we eat at a table*, we eat in the dining room.)

We've been spending more time than usual inside. Why? The damn fires. Here's a photo I took about an hour or an hour and a half before sunset this evening.

Nice, eh? Those colors are pretty damn accurate, and yes, the sun really did seem to be that far away.

On the upside, it hasn't been as warm lately as it usually is this time of year. Hmmmm. . . I wonder why! :P

*Our big comfy couch has this nifty fold-down flap (I call it "the bachelor flap") in the middle that makes a nice little table and has drink holders. It's verrrrry easy to get into the habit of eating there.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are academics the loneliest professionals?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

I was recently talking with a colleague from another campus of my university about older male professors, those who have retired but who still hang around for various reasons. I said (mostly tongue in cheek), that we have two kinds of male emeriti on our campus: curmudgeonly (whom I adore) and creepy (not so much). At the same time, despite their, um, quirkly personalities, these men seem to still have many connections and friends. It made me think about the career trajectories of women faculty--and then I stumbled across a series of blog posts about women's lives as faculty members, and I realized once again how different our experience is from that of male faculty.

I wrote a couple years back about how some faculty, and especially women faculty, struggle with depression. (Fun fact: my blog ranks number one in Google for the phrase "depression in academia," and it's one of my blog's top keyword phrases.) Academia and depression are a nasty feedback loop, a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Are people drawn to graduate school and faculty work likely to be depressive, or do grad school, adjuncting, and the tenure track make us depressed? I sense it's a bit of both.

Making things worse is a deep-felt sense of loneliness. I did my first two stints in grad school alone, sans really close friends. And it was rough. (On the positive side, it made for some good poetry for my creative writing degree--solitude lends itself to self-reflection and lots of time for writing.) I was fortunate to have a partner to support me through my final, successful stab at the Ph.D.--but many people aren't so lucky. And even those who do have partners may still feel isolated from friends and family.

Recently New Kid on the Hallway threw herself a self-described"pity party" because she realized it had been too long since she'd had any summer fun:

But if I'm completely honest with myself, one of the problems is not so much summer, but missing having a group of friends with which to do any of these summery things. I recently read a blogger talking about having friends over to her new house, grilling in the backyard and just hanging out on the deck in the warmth of an evening. And I was so envious that I could hardly stand it. I have all sorts of wonderful friends. But none of them are HERE.

Meanwhile, Hilaire of clashing hats recently had a scary medical situation--she thought she was having a stroke--and came to the realization that she lacks a local support structure:

I feel better now - still some pain and sensitivity, but it's pretty minor.

What I didn't like (well, who am I kidding, I didn't like any of it) was the feeling that the people I wanted to talk to and have there with me were so very, very far away. The one friend here that I really would have liked to call was away. My downstairs neighbour, with whom I've been becoming friendly, wasn't answering her door. It just sucked to be so scared and to feel alone. Yeah, I should have thought of migraine, but I didn't. So I was scared.

The work environment in academia rewards time spent alone on research and writing, which can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. The remedy? Try to be collegial. But be careful. If you think all universities are places where bright, mature people engage in vigorous, open-minded intellectual discussions and treat one another equitably and with respect, you have another think coming. Historiann writes about workplace bullying at her former university, how it escalated, and how it cascaded through her department:

People were filled with ressentiment about the way they were treated, and most of them either became bullies or apologists, explaining that “don’t worry, you’ll still be tenured. That’s just the way we do things. Everyone goes through it, so you’ll just have to suck it up.” There were a few good people who tried to make changes–but they have been easily defeated by the others. Those who were my friends and allies were valiant in their optimism and their commitment to change, but in the meantime, what a life: stomping out flaming bags of poop that someone else is leaving on yet someone else’s doorstep.

Go read the post for some insights on women and the tenure process and how academic bullying might be stopped.

But there is hope for the patient, long-suffering, and slightly extroverted. After reading Hilaire's post, Bardiac reflected that after many years of feeling isolated, she has finally established a circle of acquaintances and friends in her town:

I was thinking about that and Hilaire, and realized that if something happened to me here, now, I actually do have a community to call on. And I'm glad to have realized that. Even if what I need is only a gardening consult, I have friends to call on. It's a really comfortable thing to realize, after feeling sort of alienated in this community.

I, too, have been fortunate to establish a small network of good friends who I can call on in an emergency--and I hope they feel they can call on me, though I suspect (OK, know) they're far better ensconced in the community than I am (having school-age children gives them an advantage). But this network is transient in many ways--my friends who are grad students are on their way to graduation and (I hope!) good jobs far from here, while early- to mid-career faculty members feel the need to stretch their wings and move on. Of course, people in many professions have this experience of losing friends and comrades to bigger and better things, but there's something about the cycles of academic life that can make it feel especially keen--particularly if you feel you're being left behind.

Do you feel lonely? If so, how do you cope with loneliness?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fire map

I'm loving this image that maps the current fires in Northern California because it pretty accurately captures how I picture the 500-850 fires (depending on who's counting) in Northern California over the past week.

(image source)

But I'm not loving the fires. The air is nasty, sooty, yellow-gray. It's like being in the Los Angeles basin in the mid-1980s. Bleah.

My town isn't in any danger, but my thoughts go out to those who have had to evacuate or who have lost their homes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

On my entrepreneurial streak--and why I haven't been blogging much here

Growing up, I had a very limited view of possible careers. By high school, the careers I had been exposed to, either through my family, through personal observation and experience, or through books, was still a short list. Mind you, these are the careers I knew existed at all--I wasn't necessarily interested in them.

- public school teaching
- public school administration
- journalist
- supermarket checker
- dentist or dental hygienist
- doctor or nurse
- horse trainer
- actor
- police officer
- lifeguard
- chemist (one--a woman--came to my 1st-grade class)
- paleontologist (I heart dinosaurs)
- geologist (took a class in 9th grade and loved it)
- car salesperson
- postal worker
- bank teller
- firefighter
- EMTs
- locksmith (a friend's parents owned a shop)

I had some sense that my friends' parents had jobs in "business," but I wasn't sure what that meant, and I certainly didn't know what a cubicle looked like.

And so imagine my surprise when I went to college and grad school and found that there were all these interesting majors--historic preservation! museum studies!--that were connected to careers I'd never even really heard of. Still, as someone who had always been gifted with language, I tracked myself straight toward a Ph.D. program in the humanities.

As we all (now) know, predictions of mass retirements of tenured professors, and thea ccompanying mass hirings, have not--and probably will not--prove correct. We creative and academic types live in an age of adjuncts, of contingencies, of contract work, of freelancing.

With a family to support, I very much appreciate (and enjoy!) my staff job as a teaching consultant. I've got health insurance, a half-decent salary (if I were living in the Midwest, I'd be wealthy!), and excellent coworkers. I really can't imagine a much better place for myself right now.

But there's really no place to move up from my position. As the director of our teaching center pointed out recently to the coworker with whom I share assignments, there's no one else at the university--out of 28,000 people employed by the campus--who does the kind of work we do. The directorship of our center rotates among tenured faculty. It's important, therefore, that while I maintain an excellent reputation in this job, I look ahead to where I want to be in three to five years.

And the answer is, I really don't know. I'd love to be a museum education and exhibits consultant, but I don't see that as being economically sustainable. The university where I teach museum studies each fall has expressed some interest in hiring me, but the salary I'd earn there as a faculty member is about 1/2 to 2/3 of what I'm making now as a staff member. Maybe ideally I'd be teaching full-time there and consulting, but that sounds exhausting, doesn't it?

Early in grad school, I did quite a bit of freelance writing, editing, and indexing. Both Mr. Trillwing and I still freelance occasionally in order to plump up the family budget (we're still recovering from the student and consumer debt of the grad school years).

Increasingly, however, I'm wanting not to freelance on the side, but to have a business, something that earns money even--unlike freelancing--if I'm not working on a specific assignment. So I've been doing a lot of research on conducting business online--reading blogs on business, social media, marketing, etc. I'm not sure if it's my world--I'm much too idealistic and left-wing to be a capitalist, after all. :)

But. I think I've finally found a need that's going unmet, my very own niche. Without giving too much away (competitors are like sharks, and would beat me to market), let's just say that I'm developing a product related to multiculturalism and informal education, to hands-on learning and right-brained thinking. It's going to be a long, hard slog, but the more I think about it, the more excited I become.

So that's why I haven't been blogging much here--I'm in "grand plans" mode. (I'm also spending much more time on Twitter--it's become my new venue for my RBOC, my ideas and observations and frustrations.)

I'll try to blog here more regularly, but I just wanted to let you all know what's keeping me up at night, and away from The Clutter Museum.