When I was thirteen I persuaded my parents to buy me a year’s subscription to a hockey magazine. We had only recently arrived in Canada and almost every boy in my school either was or had been a hockey player at some time, though in some cases quite reluctantly. The boys who actively played hockey formed one of the elites of the school and most of them would not have given me the time of day, but one of my first, and lasting, friends in that town happened to be one of them. I read the hockey magazine for him, because of him. I didn’t know anything about hockey, other than the field hockey I had played in England, and I thought that taking an interest in hockey would be a friendly thing to do.

I learned something about hockey and made a good friend.

This week I planned to write a post about the things that are difficult to say because there is no situation or community in which to say them. In fact, I had already written that post when the spirit of Valentine’s Day reminded me that although I do struggle with finding a community for my work, I’ve always been keen to learn about things that my friends are interested in–things that I have no particular interest in except that they are interested in them. And the more I thought about this, the more I realized how much I have learned from taking an interest in what other people do, rather than looking for people who do what I do.  Among the things I’ve learned about in some detail because of someone I liked, or loved, had a passion for the subject are: the history of the early church, how to drink real beer, kendo, The Spice Girls, Tibetan Buddhism, how to play squash, Rembrandt’s etchings, and science-fiction.

Now, this may be a particularly gendered way to acquire knowledge. It is at least partly the result of being socially trained to relate to others as a listener, spectator or receiver rather than as the speaker, performer or doer. If I didn’t have my own intellectual, artistic and practical interests, there would be a danger in just following in the wake of other people’s passions. There is a valuable space, however, for learning things purely because they interest the people who interest you. It is the natural context in which many of us learn as children though we don’t usually reflect on it as such. If your parents enjoyed going to the opera rather than canoeing, you are much more likely to have done the same simply because of your relationship to them. I would have preferred to do more sports as a child but my father was fairly unatheletic, as a result of which physical exercise was not emphasized much in our home.

As it happens, my earliest experience of learning something outside the classroom was entirely driven by affection, rather than a personal interest. My younger brother wanted to learn the piano when he was as young as three years old, but he was both too little and painfully shy to go to classes by himself. He would, however, happily go to sit in on lessons with his older sister, and so I was given piano lessons so that eventually he would learn to play. Of course, I learned to play too, though never as proficiently as my brother, who is genuinely a more talented and natural musician, but my life is also enriched by having studied music for the love of him. (In that case, the affection worked both ways. He would go where I was and I would do things for his sake, and it was a dynamic my parents skillfully made use of.)

We live in a moment when managing your own life projects is paramount. You are obliged to develop yourself according to your skills, your interests and your talents, so that you are perfectly customized to realize your life as an individual. In such an environment, working with others is still important, but only insofar as you are working on your own project that somehow meshes magically and productively with theirs. There is something apparently authentic about working on your own hobbies or research, but equally something vaguely dependent or immature about following your affections for others wherever they may lead.

It is probably true that something you pursue for the sake of a friendship is unlikely to become your life’s work–you will remain an amateur. As a way of living, however, it has considerable attractions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of 2014 my partner defended a doctoral thesis. There’s nothing extraordinary about that except that when we met over twenty years ago I was an undergraduate and my partner was preparing to begin a phd at a Western Canadian university.

It has never occurred to me, and in fact I think it would be quite inaccurate, to describe my partner as a procrastinator because I’ve seen the work that has gone into the development and refinement of an original intellectual style. The person I share my life with has a profound curiosity, a propensity to investigate things thoroughly (reading everything one needs to know in order to say something meaningful about a topic), and a deeply independent streak (which often means investigating everything on its own terms and not accepting received wisdom).

Over the years, refreshingly few people have asked me why the dissertation was taking longer to complete than they expected. In the last month however, once the doctorate was a fait accompli it seemed to be a license for people to ask and offer some breathtakingly audacious advice on how my partner and I should manage our academic and married life better, more effectively and implicitly on the proper timeline.

We’ve never done anything at the right time or at the right pace. We married ‘too young’, then we spent ‘too long’ studying; we waited ‘too long’ to settle down (which we still haven’t done since I spend a significant part of the year in Canada teaching while my partner and our home is in the UK) and we may have left it ‘too late’ to have children.

It is hard to have conversations like this with friends. It is hard to realize that people around you, who actually care about you and your wellbeing, perceive your life as somehow failed, chaotic, or unproductive because it hasn’t followed the right pace or achieved certain landmarks at the appropriate times.

It is doubly hard when, of course, there are things you are not happy about with your life. Did I plan to sacrifice my family life for the sake of an academic job? Never. Until now, I’d always gone where my partner’s studies and work took us. Did I plan to be a blocked academic, who doesn’t produce enough research publications in a timely fashion that would allow me to get a job in another university in the current regime? No. I published a book with a serious academic publisher within three years of obtaining my doctorate. I thought I was going to be the academic that I planned to be and would be able to make choices based on my merits as a scholar. So the shape of my daily life right now is not what I want, and it is so easy to start believing the thoughts ‘if only you’d done this quicker’, ‘if only you’d done that at the right time’, ‘if only you’d …’ and ‘if only we’d ..’ until you are consumed with what you could have done, if only you’d handled time properly.

But the unsolicited advice I’ve been given in the last few months has helped me realize something that perhaps I’d never fully absorbed before. When my partner came into my life, it changed my whole understanding of time. I was brought up not just to meet deadlines, but to attempt to beat them. Much of my father’s self-image was built on having been the youngest to win a particular prize or pass an exam, and he was obsessed with his children doing the same. In that context, it was refreshing for me to meet and know someone who seemed to just follow where their own curiosity, intelligence and ethical commitments led, and did so persistently in circumstances when others would have given up. Over the years, I’ve also repeatedly seen the generosity of my partner’s paid and unpaid efforts, which have often been quite literally for the benefit of others, helping others to get their work done rather than achieving individual success. It is slow? Yes. It is. That kind of work cannot be fast, and it cannot be accomplished alone or attributed to the heroic self-disciplined efforts of one person. And it may never show up as something you’ve achieved in time-space.

There’s another way, of course, that time changed when I began sharing my life with this person, which is that as long as we were travelling together we were never wasting time. That is not sentimental consolation, it is reality. Time is not wasted because you fail to get things done, it is only wasted when you fail to live the life you want because you think it cannot be done that way.

In this way our experience of time is also intimately connected with imagination. How we imagine what is possible for our lives generates its own timelines–when things can and should be accomplished, how long we should spend on tasks, and how we will know when we have come to the ‘end’ of time. Some aspects of my life, such as writing, have become quite literally unimaginable. The only way I can grasp writing is by returning painfully, and unproductively, to the timeline that has been established by others (write more and publish now, frequently, faster). I cannot imagine it any other way at the moment. But other aspects of my life, such as the life I share with another, seem to be actually freed from imagination, and thus, also from time. There is nothing to achieve, nothing to be and nowhere to get to. Time is beautifully, serenely still. Has it been twenty years? We stopped counting some time ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today was another interesting teaching day, one that in some way struck me as a postscript to what I wrote about last week.

After a lecture I gave today, one of my students came to talk with me for the sole purpose of thanking me for speaking about race in the classroom. As she explained it, she has never been taught by a professor who is a woman of colour before and she wanted to express her appreciation for my willingness to talk about racism and racialization. This has never happened to me before in my teaching career and it took me completely by surprise.

There is a particular kind of identity politics and scholarship that has never held much appeal for me, partly because falling between various categories all the time I can never quite find myself in the identities described (for example, I’ve written before about the peculiarly displaced ‘Indianness’ that inhabits my body). For that reason, I assumed that it did not really affect me that much that I was not taught by women of colour (no, I did not have that experience in university either), or that I do not teach many women of colour. I experience the micro-aggressions of teaching and learning in a primarily white university but I also continually overlook the work it takes to do that because it is part of my normal, everyday existence.

It never occurred to me that something as simple as the thanks my student offered me could make such a difference to my perception of what I do on a daily basis. It wasn’t an act of simple reflection or identification; she didn’t say ‘because you are a woman of colour, I also feel like I belong here’. It was an act of recognition that to speak about race and colonialism matters in the study of literature, in the university and in the world.

I’d like to believe that any student could come to this moment of recognition, that race and colonialism matter not just for me because I am a person of colour, but because those tools have been used to build the world we all live in. And, in important ways, I have been longing for my white students to give me the sign of recognition, as though that would be the real sign of my success as a scholar-teacher. Procrastination comes easy when you set yourself such implausible goals. If you hope for something that really seems quite unlikely to happen, it is very difficult to keep working on it year after year.

And then, on a day like today, I am reminded that I could work towards other directions. I could work towards the young woman who came to talk to me after class. And somehow that work feels a little bit easier to do.

 

 

 

Today was a good teaching day.

This doesn’t mean that my classroom activities were particularly successful or lively, but rather that by engaging in the teaching-learning relationship, the tight bind of procrastination was, for some hours, magically dissolved. Today, sitting and drinking tea with two of the women I am currently teaching after class proved to be one of the highlights of my week, and on the walk home I was buoyed up by the thoughts of all the things I wanted to research and write about following our conversation.

It was a salutary reminder to me of how much our interactions as students and teachers affect our tendency to procrastinate or, conversely, to have that expansive feeling of wanting to know more, to think deeper and to write about it all. During the walk home I tried to reflect on what those teachers did for me in order to try to understand something about the experience I had of being, once again, enabled to do my work–this time through an encounter with my students, rather than with my teachers. When I look back at my own history as a scholar, I see a person who slowly learned to procrastinate, not a person who was always ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’.

One formative scholarly experience for me was simultaneously taking a seventeenth-century prose and poetry class and an honours Shakespeare seminar with the same professor. I had probably never worked so hard in my entire undergraduate career as I did that year — learning to use the microfiche so I could read still unpublished seventeenth-century prose narratives, researching unfamiliar historical and literary concepts so that I could present them to my classmates, reading and re-reading everything I was studying so that I could do the analysis expected of me. It did not turn me into a seventeenth-century specialist or give me the best grades on my transcript, but I enjoyed that year so much because of the taste it gave me of being a scholar. I worked because I wanted to be able to take part in the conversation with my professor and my peers.

And that conversation took place everywhere. That professor invited us into his home and we ate treats that he and his wife had prepared for us. We also spent many an hour in his office outside class meetings, watching adaptations of Shakespeare–sometimes accompanied by his young children who were on campus for the afternoon.

I took that experience with me to grad school, where I thought that I would be entering into a permanent state of scholarly bliss–where still more work would be required, but the conversation about literature would also expand to fill the heavens of my little world. There were some wonderful experiences in grad school, but the climax of this scholarly bliss was probably the end of my years as a master’s student and the early years of my doctoral studies, after which things began to change again.

In the mid to late years of my doctoral studies I was, for various reasons, very much alone and without any contact with my peers or any other academics. It genuinely seemed to me that there was no one to have a conversation with. And the conversations themselves changed. Suddenly, every time I did meet an academic we talked about the job search, our prospects, where we were publishing, whether we had attended the right conferences and whether we were networking with the right people. The writing work especially became harder and harder as it became more and more disconnected from live, human relations.

When I began to teach I found it a tremendous relief to get back to talking about literature and literary theory. I enjoyed teaching because it, once again, seemed to open up the possibility of having long, slow conversations about books and ideas.

That is, I enjoyed it until I realized that, especially in North America, my students were not particularly interested in literature, or in examining the details of how a narrative is constructed. I am very fond of many of the young people I teach as people, but spending my days fruitlessly trying to convince them of the merits of studying literature does not leave much time to talk about the literature itself.

Somewhere along the way, the conversation I was so excited to join seems to have become difficult to locate.  But just as a handful of my teachers cleared a space for the conversation–showed me what it could be–so too, a handful of my students every year show me that the space still exists. Every year, there are one or two faces that I recognize are longing to join the conversation too.

Days like today, when I have the opportunity to sit and drink tea and talk about the value and effects of literature on our lives, I feel incredibly grateful for the work I have. And I feel particularly grateful for the ways in which those live conversations with my students encourage me to keep trying to get back to the person I was when I first became a scholar.

For that reason, I want to say thank you to those whose teaching and learning has been invaluable to me. To my teachers, thank you for fostering in me a joyous sense of ability to join the conversation. To my students, thank you for generously allowing me to enter into conversation with you.

Thank you:  Leigha Bailey, Greg Blue, Luke Carson, Jess Cloutier, Ron Cooley, Deleone Downes, Cameron Duder, Robert Eaglestone,  Emilie Fournier, Joel Guillemette, Smaro Kamboureli, Mary Laur, Tad Lemieux, Yashoda Maharaj, Kristina Maki, Shannon McComb, Somdeep Sen, Emmett Turkington, Brendan Vidito, Elizabeth Vibert and Soile Ylivuori.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t visited Allie Brosh’s rather wonderful blog Hyperbole and a Half  you should do so immediately. I am especially fond of this particular entry, which makes me laugh at myself when I feel like crying about my procrastination. That being said, of the many interesting and thought-provoking things I heard at ProcastinOx this summer I keep thinking about the serious costs of procrastination. Economic historians at the conference reminded us that procrastination isn’t just something middle-class people do, it is something many working class people do precisely because of the material conditions of their lives. They put off going to the doctor to get that lump checked out, or renewing their car insurance, or any many of other things that they should do for their own safety and wellbeing, because of how and when they work. What happens when you don’t have the time to do the things you ought to do to take care of your life?

All the things I haven’t done yet, or don’t do anymore, are all on my mind at once at any given moment. No one is more keenly aware than I am of all the things I don’t do, but what is harder to make sense of as I get older (and therefore have more responsibilities in a general sense) is which things are genuinely more important than others. Which things should I not even worry about doing? In a productivity-oriented society, you should, of course, prioritize the product-making activities (making, producing, reproducing). But of course, you also have to be a healthy and well-rounded worker to make good products, so is that part of your product-making activity, or separate from it? Does it include time to sleep, make your own food from scratch and exercise? Time to sing in a choir or practice dance? I genuinely couldn’t tell you anymore.

When I look back on my earlier self, I tend to think ‘I was so productive then, what happened to me?’, but actually those times in my life usually included activities that did not lead to products other people could count or use.  In my final year of high school, for example, I spent 90 minutes every day practising piano. All through my years at university, I danced, belonged to art clubs and socialized regularly with friends. In those days, I even wrote fiction, in addition to writing essays for class and doing my readings. I never felt as though I was trying to get through a list of ‘all the things’, but I was regularly involved in a range of activities that had no real purpose except to be engaged in them. As I became more and more professional, I stopped doing more and more of those things. I was serious and committed to my academic work, I wanted to do it well and thoroughly and I thought the way to do that was to eliminate distractions.

That is emphatically not the way to be productive.

A friend of mine refers to these activities that many academics give up over the course of their studies as ‘things we lost in the fire’, an evocative and accurate metaphor for what happens when you let the discourse of productivity shape your view of yourself. Few joys compete, honestly, with creating the things that you want to create, the things that are going to help build the world you want to live in, but it takes some impressive clarity and determination to focus on what it is you set out to make. And it takes trust in yourself to know that your ability to make those things depends on making time to do other things that are not connected with your immediate productivity at all.

The only things that I still do, which are time-consuming but necessary for my well-being, are cooking food from scratch, walking, and sleeping a decent number of hours every night. The sacrifice of the other things hasn’t made me more productive, and it certainly hasn’t made me healthier. And yet I still find I put off taking up my non-professional pursuits. It will be time away from the time I should spend researching and writing and so I can’t justify it. It won’t lead anywhere. It won’t be of any use to anyone except me.

The distance from this frame of mind to burnout is very short, and sometimes, in a dark moment, I wish I would burn out, actually and properly, so that I could start over. Instead, I keep putting that off too.

‘I am unable to write when I am worried or awaiting solutions, for at such moments I do everything possible to make time pass; and to write is to prolong time, to break it down into particles of seconds while giving to each of them an irreplaceable life’

Clarice Lispector

Never ever reveal to the procrastination gods that your procrastination seems to be on the wane. A couple of months ago, I happened to mention that things hadn’t been so bad lately and of course, almost immediately, plunged into a period of severe procrastination. It is always disheartening when this happens. It’s not as though I actually believe I am ‘cured’ of procrastination in the periods in between, but sometimes it feels like there might be some progress in my habits and I might be developing into a mature writer who just sits down and writes everyday. And then, nothing.

It’s disheartening because its unexpected. If it is true that we are our habits, why don’t good stretches of productivity gradually choke out the tendency to procrastinate like a well-tended flower bed stays weed-free?

Obviously, I don’t have the answer to this, but a little while ago I was reading this exchange about whether or not writing and thinking are inseparable (in terms of work process) and found it illuminating. Basbøll’s point in his original blog post is that writing work, the work of representing, is a particular process and thinking work is another. As he puts it ‘The truth is often that you’re trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise‘. If you’ve paid attention to your procrastination, you’ll know that some parts of the process are stickier than others, and I wondered if Basbøll’s argument might help me understand the sticky spots in my cycles of procrastination.

Thinking is work we do by ourselves. Obviously thinking relates to things others have said, written and done, but it is fundamentally solitary as an embodied practice. We need time to think our own thoughts, we can only think them ourselves and we are relatively undisturbed to think our own thoughts as long as we are not trying to communicate them to others. Representing those thoughts, then, is a fundamentally different exercise, in the sense that representing has to take others into account. The ‘I’ who thinks has to ‘strip my thought of the form of ‘mine-ness’ so that the other person may recognize it as his own’, as Feuerbach wrote. Actually, it is quite a burdensome activity because the embodied practice of writing is also work we do by ourselves, but it cannot succeed as an act of communication and representation if we do not write for others.

There are lots of things I might say about that, but what I realized quite recently is how much of my scholarly writing feels like it is writing for others in a quite different sense: I need to convince the reader that they should allow me to think quite differently than they think. All good writing is about providing a different point of view, but there are important distinctions between feeling like you all share the same basic ground and are writing out of that space towards new places, or feeling like you need to connect your ground with someone else’s while simultaneously persuading them that (a) your ground is real (though they have never heard of it, seen it, touched it or known it) and (b) it is worth their while to consider building bridges from their ground to yours. In the first case, you have the challenge of persuading. In the second case, you have the challenge of verifying, justifying and persuading. When all of your writing work is like that, it gets tiring really fast.

What I have observed about productive writers is that they are generous people who share their writing and thinking time with others. They also establish communities within which they can usefully and critically elaborate on the ground they are all interested in building, which means that they can concentrate on persuading rather than fighting the verifying and justifying battles all the time (these come up, but strategically when they want to push their argument further out into the world–and there are several of them to do it all together). I envy the people who have found this place in academia, because I haven’t found it yet.

Scholarly writing continues to be a very fraught and lonely occupation for me, not because the thinking is hard but because when I sit down to write I am not sure I can cover the distance between my ground and the place I have to get to. That problem can easily rebound on you as a sense of your fundamental incapacity as a writer (‘if you were a better writer you would find creative ways to cover that ground’), which in turn demotivates you and thus almost inevitably ensures you write very little, and worse, what you do write is not really what you meant to write. (No wonder, then, if minority academics experience higher than usual levels of imposter syndrome.)

What is the conclusion to this? Quite simply, I have to keep trying to write, and trying to believe it is possible I can, and trying to believe it is possible someone reads my blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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