Needed distractions

One of the great pleasures of being an academic is that reading is a part of my job. But at times this can become a great frustration too. Not only is it impossible to read all that one might want to (or feel the pressure to), but reading can become tinged by a compulsion to productivity. Time spent with a novel may be enjoyable, but can be more difficult to justify when one’s physical or virtual desktop is strewn with articles to be read or reviewed. Yet at the same time, reading widely and outside of one’s immediate area of work can be rejuvenating, and can even prompt stimulating adventures or even improvisations.

This weekend was therefore one filled with some much needed reading diversions and distractions.

Thinking about new media and curation:

The striving toward autonomy is, some argue, ever more prevalent, perhaps even a prerequisite, for works of new media, which exist in a technological context shared by other media and entertainment that have educational and other commercial objectives. In this, it would seem that no matter the form of the artwork, the medium never matters as much as the context. However, the more interconnected the work to its context, the greater the change in the way the work of art might be curated or approached by a curator.

– Graham and Cook (2010) Rethinking curation: art after new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pg. 83.

Thinking about the possibilities of short plays that take place inside cars:

There is great pleasure to be had in a world of limits.

– Neil LaBute (2005) Autobahn: a short-play cycle. NY: Faber and Faber, p.xv.

Thinking about a colleague hosting an event next week to bring together community around the challenge of food justice:

Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate and which is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else.

– Megan Blake, posting on her Geofoodie blog

Thinking about a colleague posting about her new Leverhulme-funded project:

Focusing on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

– Imogen Tyler, posting on her Social Abjection blog

Becoming a writer

Last week I took part in my first structured writing retreat, which was sponsored by my Department and facilitated by wonderful colleagues. Although I was initially unsure about some aspects of the approach – in particular having to name specific goals before each writing session and writing for set periods of time in a room with eleven other people – it ended up being a wonderful experience. The weather and setting were beautiful, and it was incredibly nice to have time dedicated to discussing the writing process, given the fact that most of my interactions with departmental colleagues tend to focus around teaching or administration.

The three days reminded me of the occasions when I have felt most like a writer – like someone who prioritizes writing, schedules a day around it, and feels regularly energized by it. While writers have very different patterns of productivity (and sleep), I seem to find the most focus when I write first thing in the morning, before checking my email. It was the unexpected discovery of this routine (after having long thought of myself as a night owl) during the last months of my PhD that gave me renewed energy and to this day makes me miss the attic room where that writing took place. Rediscovering the pleasure of this routine has been lovely, and I look forward to using it to ground me as the chaos of term time begins.

On the topic of writing, I thought I would post a few other resources that I’ve come across and plan to use in my teaching. While we didn’t speak about teaching writing at all during the retreat, thinking about the writing challenges that still exist for my colleagues and I reinforces my interest in discussing writing with students. One thing I came across is a nice post by Rachael Cayley about how to use reverse outlines to edit a piece of writing. In addition, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings often provides me with interesting ideas to muse over, and part of David Foster Wallace’s discussions of writing struck me as potentially helpful for students:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

– David Foster Wallace

And to finish, another thought from David Foster Wallace that is useful for writers at any stage of their careers:

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Giving advice

One of the newsletters I subscribe to is from The Happiness Project‘s Gretchen Rubin. While some days I barely take notice of the short quotes she sends, on other days they resonate. Today’s offering:

“Most of us are experts at solving other people’s problems, but we generally solve them in terms of our own and the advice we give is seldom for other people but for ourselves.”
Nan Fairbrother, The House in the Country

I can’t help but think about how this can be true not only on an individual level, but also on a social one. Too often it seems the advice and solutions we hear from managers and lobbyists and policymakers seems to speak as much or more about their challenges as those of others. In part this may be because we just understand so little about the problems of others, either not appreciating their complexity or not having time to learn more. How can we build up a culture where advice given in our own image and with our own concerns foregrounded is minimized? How can we build up a culture where complex problems are acceptable and complex solutions are expected?

They said it

Over the last few weeks, I have spent a lot of time combing through the stuff I left behind. Opening long-closed boxes and marveling at objects I didn’t remember owning. Weighing whether things are meaningful or useful enough to travel across the world to a new home. The physical and emotional work of this sort of excavation is considerable, but it was also a rewarding process because of the moments of surprise.

I had no memory of once wanting to become a naturalist when I grew up. Or of conducting a survey of my Gr. 7 classmates and teachers regarding how much homework is enough and what the purpose of homework should be. But it was fascinating to realize just how much I have stayed the same since I was very young.

For instance, I uncovered many old notebooks filled with quotations. At some point in my teenage years I developed a love for other people’s words. Not just any words, of course, but those that managed to eloquently capture some reality I had just started to become aware of. And so I took to collecting. I found an old school notebook and copied out these phrases by hand, in no particular order. While this project eventually became a chore, with the compulsion to archive weighing down the joy of finding new quotations, I kept the notebooks, and periodically re-read them. Though I didn’t have time to consider their contents during this most recent visit, I realized that in a way I have grown up and taken on a professionalized version of the same process. Instead of just combing through existing wisdom, I now interview people to prompt new insights as well. I’m still fascinated by the captivating things people say, or occasionally don’t say.

Here then is one gem from the project I have been wrapping up on Hong Kong return migrants and changes in everyday life. It came at the end of our last interview and managed to bring together themes that many participants had been expressing:

For me, human beings are animals of habits, patterns. So as life goes on, we do things calling the routine; I eat the same breakfast. Especially we look at most of us who come from a modernized educational system and we look at our schooling. Physically, that’s fitting us into a certain kind of a pattern, certain kind of a routine, everyone is roughly the same. You get a little different choice here and there but roughly, it’s the same.

That being said, different cultures can have very different ways of setting these routines and I was very fortunate to be able to experience tertiary education within another cultural setting. This cultural setting is very different to the one that I had grown up with. And going back to what I said about life processes being cyclical. I mean, I’m in Hong Kong, I eat, I play, I sleep, I do things like that. I’m in the US, same. I’m in Australia, same. However, when I do it in a different space, in a different time, in a different cultural context, I cannot help but look more and clearly, oh, so what it is that I’m doing. Oh, I’m eating because I’m eating something that I don’t usually eat, I am forced to go out of my pattern. Oh, so this is a burrito, I mean, I never had a burrito in Hong Kong prior to my stay in the States. Oh, so this is your sweet and sour pork in the States, well, it’s noting like the sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had in my life. So you call this sweet and sour pork, okay, fine. Things like that.

And looking at life like that is just, first of all, for me, it gave me question marks, sparks of question marks to help me look at my life. What exactly am I doing?

And I dare say, for all of us, it boils down to very simple things. Doing things that you enjoy doing, pursuing it. Whether professionally or not, do it just as a habit or do something that you enjoy doing repeatedly over and over again. Hanging out with people you like hanging out with. Again, professionally or not, just go on with that.

– Daniel, Single, 35-39 Years Old

Knowing your values

“To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family. Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

via a ‘Moment of Happiness’ post by

More on Eleanor Roosevelt and her thoughts on happiness at Brain Pickings.