Friday, December 23, 2016

Researching as a Community College Professor

I've got a post up over at the University of Toronto Press blog about researching as a community college professor (it was written in conjunction with an article I published on how narratives of fitness and feminism conflict, which is available here from Project Muse).

Here's an excerpt from the blog:
See, I didn’t “need” to do research. As a full-time faculty member at a community college, my career trajectory is not welded to scholarship the way it would have been had I pursued a career teaching in a four-year institution. There is no “publish or perish” mandate hanging over my head. While scholarship is celebrated among my colleagues, it is not necessarily expected. What is expected instead are acts much more directly related to the day-to-day function of a community college professor: committee memberships, innovative course design, service to the community, and a substantial teaching load. 
Without the direct incentives and expectations to do independent scholarly research, community college professors face additional external hurdles of time constraints and internal hurdles of motivation. It is the latter that I would like to address here.

If you want to read the full post, you can check it out here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Minimalism, Peace, and Time for Fighting

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my blog has probably seen me complaining about housekeeping. It's been a regular feature stretching back over the years here. I've mused about the gender divide in housekeeping and how it impacts negotiations in equally shared parenting. I've wondered about seeing housekeeping as a skill and the gendered ramifications of positioning it as such. I've even written about my attempts to rid myself of this personal struggle through professional means including hiring a professional organizer and seeing a therapist (with whom I then got into a partnership-ending fight about whether or not housekeeping could be a problem).

Now, these problems are not gone, but I have found the first thing in my entire adult life that seems to be making a difference: minimalism.

I got introduced to minimalism as a movement when someone (I can't even remember who) told me to listen to The Minimalists podcast. The Minimalists are the collective name for a pair of men who left corporate jobs at the age of 30 and have built a pretty significant online following discussing principles of minimalism to simplify and better your life. Their work has been shared through the aforementioned podcasts, live tours, books, and a movie.

At its core, minimalism is pretty simple: pare down the excess from your life so that you have room for what matters.

In practice, this often leads to tips about getting rid of things you already own, buying less, living in smaller houses, and even (as the Minimalists did) downsizing things like career and relationships.

I've listened to several of their podcasts, and though I often disagree with some of what they say, a lot of it is insightful and inspiring. I'm particularly drawn to the advice that seems to overlap with finding your purpose and making room for life's passions.

This is where I should pause and tell you something else about myself. In addition to finding housekeeping overwhelming to the point of needing therapy, there are some other personality quirks that I've either acquired or came hard-wired with at birth.

I hate small talk. I hate it, hate it, hate it. I don't want to chit-chat with people about things that neither of us really care about. This description of a small talk-free party that went around earlier this year sounded like heaven to me. Want to tell me about your favorite place to shop? What you're going to eat for brunch tomorrow? I'll smile politely while feeling like small animals are trying to burrow out of my throat because I have no idea what to say when it's my turn. Want to talk to me about whether or not you think God is real? How you perceive corruption in the criminal justice system? If political parties can be united across an urban-rural divide? Exhale. Now we're in comfortable territory.

I also hate tasks that I know, logically, are no big deal. I hate having to stop and get gas. Right now, there is a package slip for a package I have to go pick up from the post office sitting in my dining room, and it feels like a ticking bomb. I bring books to read in the ten minutes I wait in line to pick my daughter up from school. I can't stand downtime. It makes me feel itchy and sick to my stomach.

I've read analyses of these quirks in terms of personality "typing" (an INFJ, if you're the sort who cares about that kind of thing). They say that it maps onto a very goal-driven persona that cares  about broad and deep topics that impact humanity. I've also read about them in terms of mental health disorders (anxiety, if you're the sort who cares about that kind of thing). They say that it maps onto defective brain chemistry that makes me unhealthy. Whatever the case, I've come to understand that these things are a deep-seated part of who I am. Bane or boon, I will always feel like my feet have been set on fire when I have to wait in line for more than three minutes, and I will spend every get-to-know-you chat awkwardly trying to remember the other person's name while internally wishing we were discussing whether or not death is a final state of being.

The more I listened to The Minimalists, the better I could articulate my problem with housekeeping. It's not the actual work that bothers me. I don't mind physical labor or menial tasks. I have done plenty of both in my life, both for pay and not. The reason that housekeeping (and other generally domestic tasks) sends me into a spiral is that it has no finality. I am deeply, deeply goal oriented. Often those goals are lofty and years away, but they are there.

That's not the case with the dishes. The dishes will never be done. They will always come back. The floor will always get dirty again, often moments after I have cleaned it. This was also the source of a lot of the postpartum anxiety I experienced while staying home with my kids during my maternity leave. I loved spending time with them. I did not love the never-ending string of chores with no finish line. The diapers went in the bin, in the laundry, folded, in the bin, in the laundry, folded, in the bin, in the laundry, folded . . . and I felt trapped. As the tasks piled on top of one another, they felt like bricks closing in on me. It was the Cask of Amontillado, but I was my own captor, having imprisoned myself in an endless, self-replicating to-do list.

So back to minimalism. I had, in a fit of desperation, previously used the Marie Kondo advice to purge my home of several useless or outdated items, but I didn't know how to prevent their return. The Minimalists were basing their philosophy in the same basic place Kondo did: keep what brings you joy, ditch what doesn't. 

Joy, though, is a weird motivator for me, and by that I mean it doesn't particularly motivate me in the long-term. Don't get me wrong. I have lots of moments of joy, and I hope to have many, many more, but what gets me up in the morning (and too often keeps me up at night) is not worrying how to be happy; it is worrying how to make a difference--in my discipline, in projecting my values, in my career, in the world. 

I won't get off on too much of a tangent (tangent? me? never!), but this article about happiness vs. meaning takes a look at this pretty well. 

So I kept feeling partially motivated by these discussions and then having them fall hollow. 

I decided to join a few "minimalist" groups on Facebook, and something interesting happened. 

First of all, I want to say that these groups are full of lovely, helpful, kind people. The conversations I see are almost always genuinely rooted in wanting to help one another out for no external motivation other than knowing that we're in a shared condition and have experiences that others could value. What I am about to say about these groups is in no way meant as a criticism of what the people (mostly women, which I'll talk about in a minute) are doing there. The spaces they've created serve a clear purpose, and it's even a purpose that I find helpful for myself and plan to continue visiting. But they didn't provide me the answers I was looking for, and so I am still searching. 

For one, these groups are almost entirely made up of women. I think this might be true of Facebook community pages in general. I've read lots of theories on this: women use Facebook more, women are more likely to seek out collective answers, women are more likely to be home and have access to the computer. Whatever the case, these are female-centric (and more often than not stay-at-home-mom-centric) spaces. I feel that's probably connected to my next observation. 

Secondly, the version of minimalism that gets the most attention in these groups is one that often gets intertwined with (and perhaps conflated with) concepts like tidiness and frugality. Most of the women posting seem primarily motivated to take up "minimalism" as a way to save money or make their homes meet a certain "clean" and "modern" aesthetic standard. 

I want to stress again that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to save money or create a home that reflects your aesthetic tastes. These are absolutely valid reasons to join a Facebook group of like-minded supporters and gather tips and advice. There are tons of Facebook groups specifically about both of those things, and the "minimalism" layer to it just helps to separate out the specific type of aesthetic and money-saving techniques one might be seeking. 

There is another more insidious trend in these groups, though, and this one I am pointing to with a critical eye: some people seem to think that because their decorating and money saving endeavors are "minimalist" that they are somehow morally superior choices. 

It's a high horse. Get it? Get it?!
Unpacking all of this (and still personally trying to figure out why minimalism kept tugging at me while not quite finding what I was looking for in these groups and explorations) made me think about the connection of morality to minimalist principles. 

The Minimalists have a post on the topic of religion (certainly not the only source of morality, but a source of morality) and minimalism. They muse that several people have written them praising them for walking the correct path of [insert chosen religion]. People have inaccurately identified them to be Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim. They, for what it's worth, say that they each have very different personal religious beliefs but both find minimalism to have "nothing to do with religion; instead, it was a reaction to the discontentment we experienced after being steeped in consumerism for three decades."

So they root their path in a secular adherence to anti-consumerism, and that's fair enough, but their readers aren't just imagining the religious undercurrent to their message. Minimalist principles are well-represented in a variety of religious and spiritual places (as another minimalist blogger briefly explores here). Philosophical approaches like asceticism and stoicism also have minimalist cores. 

To place minimalism in conversation with the particular strain of consumerism bred from American capitalism is fine, but I find it much more interesting to trace it through a host of moments separated by religion, geography, and time. Minimalism seems to be much more universal and deep when examined through the lens of historical interaction with codes of morality and philosophy. 

And the thing is that minimalism is not, for most of those philosophical and religious approaches, an end game. It's a means to an end. One does not rid one's self of worldly possessions for the sake of having empty shelves or being able to win a competition to see who can fill the most trash bags to send to Goodwill. The ridding of the things is a very early step in the process toward creating a life filled with more important calls upon the energy that previously went into coveting, purchasing, and maintaining those things. When that goal overlaps with moral codes, it is often a way to make space for religious reading, committing acts of faith and service, and otherwise giving one's self to the world. 

That is why I continue to be drawn to minimalism. I have used the very practical and pragmatic tips to get my house clean and purge it of unnecessary clutter so that it stays that way, and it's wonderful, but it's not wonderful because I can post pictures of my clean sink and feel accomplished. It's wonderful because now instead of dreading doing the dishes, I can spend that time reading The New Jim Crow and thinking about what I can do to fight a corrupt criminal justice system. The time I spent stuffing clothes into a drawer only to have them explode all over the floor the next time I needed to get dressed can now be spent having meaningful conversations with like-minded friends about the local political races coming up in my city and how we can mobilize to get people to the polls. Instead of spending thirty minutes procrastinating about the task, twenty minutes actually cleaning out my car, and another fifteen minutes pouting about having had to do it, I can now plan a better lesson for my students. 

I would say that it allows me more time to spend dancing with my daughter or reading to my son, but the truth is that I made time for those things already. What was suffering, instead, was my sense of fulfilling my purpose in life, a purpose that I fulfill through my career and my activist work. 

I don't think that makes me any better than the people who turn to minimalism as a way to make their house Pinterest-perfect (and I'll admit that I enjoy looking at their pictures and find them calming and inspiring). Even though I'm trying to align my personal moral code with these actions, I am not claiming a moral high ground in doing so. 

It's simply that, for me, virtually every action I take has to be connected to the longer term goal or I won't do it (or will dread doing it so much that it consumes me). By understanding the task of maintaining the domestic sphere as a means to a more activist and philosophical end, I have finally made it (not easy but) manageable, and I have minimalism (even as it enjoys its pop culture moment) to thank for that.
Images: John Keogh, salimbasar, zoom in tight,