Sunday, November 25, 2007

Work and Togetherness

I really love this posting on chores from Robin M's blog, What Canst Thou Say? There is a lot of wisdom here. One part that especially struck me was this:

"Another Quaker family I know with three boys, ages 10-15, has instituted a policy that no one should do a chore alone. Then everyone knows how much work there is and none of it takes as long or feels as thankless."

This way of explicitly connecting work with togetherness, helpfulness, and mutual appreciation is brilliant.

Much of the work that academics do is done in solitude. While being in the classroom is a communal experience, the hours we spend actually in the classroom are few in relation to the rest of our work. It takes hours to prepare for every hour in the classroom, and those hours are spent reading and thinking and taking notes, and grading student work. It is necessarily solitary work, in a certain kind of way.

But there is another way that this is not solitary work. The time spent grading student papers is time spent in a kind of dialogue with those students. The time spent reading for class is time spent in dialogue with famous philosophers of the past.

And yet, it is still not the same as scrubbing the floor with a friend or family member.

I have been fortunate enough to have frequent opportunities to co-teach courses. While some would think that this reduces the work, it does not. You have to put as much time into preparing as when you solo-teach, and then add in time to meet to plan together. So there is still the same time spent in solitary work, but added on is a little extra time of togetherness that I really treasure and value. There really is something wonderful about witnessing to the normally invisible, behind-the-scenes hard work that each other does. And being able to work together to solve the problems that come up is invaluable. My load does feel lighter, even if, in this example, the time spent working is not actually reduced but may in fact be increased a bit.

So, even though Robin's posting was focused mostly on the tedium and strenuous nature of manual work, I find that the ideas she shares are somewhat applicable to what is "hard" about aspects of the kind of work that I do, too. I have new ways of thinking about how to approach my work.

For example, while I like the solitude of preparing for class, I do not like the solitude of grading. Even though I know that I am not really alone, but am in dialogue with students, I still find doing this by myself to be hard.

When I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a large Introduction to Philosophy course. At the end of the semester, we had a very short time frame for doing the final grading for the course, and the professor had the teaching assistants gather together with him in the seminar room to grade together. We divided up all of the papers, and while we did each work separately, there was something wonderfully supportive about being in the same room together. Occasionally one of us would have a question about one of the papers, and we all appreciated the break from our solitary work to think together for a moment about the question at hand. Then we would refill our cups of coffee and resume our work.

Maybe I need to try instituting "grading parties" among my colleagues who feel as oppressed by grading as I do. Maybe the togetherness and mutual appreciation of each other's hard work would help us approach this work with more cheerfulness, and would help us all to stay focused enough to finish more efficiently.

I am going to keep meditating on Robin's posting, and on the nature and meaning of work.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Complexity of Call

A new crisis appeared last week in my ever exciting life as Department Chair. When I received notice of this, I was strongly "tempted to despair" (to quote George Fox). But then, miraculously, I rose to the challenge and I think things are going to be all right.

Dealing with this crisis totally sabotaged my efforts to catch up on grading last week. So instead of having this week (Thanksgiving Break) as a chance to work on research, I have felt under pressure to catch up on grading. I have made pretty good progress. I did take one day as a research day, and that was really good for my soul.

But, back to last week: towards the end of the week, my one other department colleague who is eligible to become chair, and who I was hoping would take over being chair next year, came in to talk to me about how this might not be possible for at least two more years. I could not help but think that this colleague, who was witness to last week's crisis, was getting cold feet upon realizing some of what being departmental chair entails.

I was so upset that I knew it was better for me not to respond at all yet. I knew that I needed time to process this before it would be fair for me to respond.

Fortunately, I had a counseling session that very afternoon. After I updated my counselor on all that has been happening, he surprised me by being totally outraged. He understands why everyone around me has responded to these events the ways they have, and knows that no one is out to get me. The "problem" is that I deal with all of these kinds of things too well. Nothing is going to change while I continue to handle everything responsibly.

And he doesn't want to discourage me from handling things responsibly -- he knows that my sense of responsibility is grounded in genuine caring, and he also realizes that this is a case where even if I could let go of my sense of responsibility, the bad effects of my doing so would ricochet right back to me. If I am the main one holding my little department together, and I let go of this responsibility, my own departmental home would collapse around me. How is that helpful to me or anyone else?

He said he is really worried about me though, because it is hard to see how it is possible for me to gain any relief from all of the pressures I am under.

So, if gaining relief from the pressures is not possible (at least not in the near future), maybe I need to change my question: How can I deal well with the pressures that I find in my life right now?

Back when I started this blog, I gave it the title "Embracing Complexity" under the optimistic theory that if I try to step fully into this complex life I find myself in, I can learn to cope with it well. I was hopeful that in the midst of complexity and sometimes a sense of chaos are the seeds of the kind of creativity that might have the power to change the world. I needed to stop shrinking away from this challenge; but also, I needed to stop wasting effort by attempting to solve the wrong problem: trying to tame, organize, or control the complexity. Can I learn instead to live in and with the complexity, with a trust that transcends the messiness of the day-to-day? With a faith that transcends the unpredictable emotional trajectory of exhilaration, anxiety, outrage, hope, peace, satisfaction, weariness, etc.?

Looking back, I see two patterns.

The subjective picture is that I've had momentary success "embracing complexity," and at those moments I have been hopeful that I could grow into accepting the kind of life I seem to have acquired. Yet, over time I have felt increasingly worn down, until a pattern of bona fide depressive symptoms became dominant enough that I've sought help. After my initial optimism that "help" could bring "cure," that I could make a few key decisions to change my life and then finally I would start to be able to feel that I was able to use my life to bring about positive change at some level (instead of just feeling in battle against being overwhelmed with my life), now I feel on the verge of some sobering new realization about how these things work. I'm starting to doubt that my life will ever feel like that.

This brings me to the second pattern. The objective picture looks very different. In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself saying, "Someday I'll fix my life. I am working on it." And this friend looked at me with what seemed to be genuine surprise and said, "From the outside, it doesn't look like your life needs fixing. You seem to be doing very well!" When I then watched myself deal with the crisis I had to deal with last week, I realized that this person may have a point. Despite all of my recent words on this blog about my not really being leadership material (really just because it continues to feel hard to me), in fact this may not be true at all. The me who dealt with last week's crisis was calm, efficient, creative, and reassuring to all involved, and had a solution in place in less than a week. This was not just a "let's desperately patch things together!" solution, but a good solution. Luck played a big hand in this (and for that I was immensely grateful), but my own role was not insignificant. I had to nurture things along, and my ability to stay positive, treat everyone with unfailing respect despite all of the background stress, and mediate two conflicting points of view (both of which I had sympathy for) were decisive factors in bringing about the successful solution.

People do see this about me and are amazed. This is why they keep trying to push me towards new leadership opportunities when they open up. It is really hard to find people who are capable of grace under pressure.

It's difficult for me to confess this positive quality I have, because I am ambivalent about it! While I want to be a strong and good person like this, precisely because these qualities can be so effective in bringing about positive transformation, as indeed I witnessed last week, I am also daunted by the responsibility this brings. "Your problem is that you handle things too well." In this, I become a magnet for unusual and difficult problems.

I am almost ready to accept that this just is the way life is. I'm almost ready to accept: (a) life doesn't always have to feel good to be doing good; (b) out of a sense of chaos, world-transforming innovation can arise; (c) the world leans heavily on those who prove themselves responsible and capable, and such people largely lose the ability to choose which problems to take on: instead, problems will choose them.

Right now it is especially the last one, c, that I do not like at all. I hope it is not really true. I want to get to a place where I have real choice again. That is what seems most hopeless to me, and is at the root of my current depression. Lately I have not been liking the problems that choose me (except in retrospect, if I feel they were successfully resolved -- then I don't mind so much).

But what if I could get to such strong faith that I really could accept c fully? What if I could regard each new problem with cheerful interest, trusting that meeting its challenges would bring gifts not only to everyone else involved, but also to me?

What makes this hard for me to accept is that I also wrestle with another sense of call that finds little room for expression in my life when my life is like this. The day-to-day crises that emerge keep pushing it out. Living in the tension of this paradox is what I have found most hard. How do I honor this sense of call when it feels so consistently frustrated?

The real complexity is in my own soul: my sense of responsibility feels like one important part of my call, and it manifests itself as a "problem magnet" in my life. But my being a contemplative scholar is another important part of my call. It is this part of me that feels closest to the core of my identity, and yet is what is most challenged and pushed aside in my busy life.

I realize that I've thought that the two were incompatible, and seeing one sacrificed in favor of the other, I've wanted to find a way to trade the sacrifices! But now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I must accept both as two aspects of my call, and so my real challenge is to find the right balance. Is this really possible?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Spontaneous Sabbath Moments

This semester, I have not been as intentional about taking sabbath time as I tried to be last year. This semester, my life has been such that I feel less able to predict when I will be in a productive working mood, and when I will need a sabbath-like break. And so I have felt the need to take full advantage of good working moods when they come, but, to balance that out, I have also been alert for spontaneous sabbath moments, and I have been letting myself take them when they come. So instead of taking a whole sabbath day each week, I let small spaces open up every few days or so. I may take an hour here, a half-hour there. Sometimes on weekends, I may even take a 2- or 3-hour block.

This is sort of working. But I'm writing about it to be more intentional and aware of this change. If I didn't mark this change and describe what it is, I would become vulnerable to lapsing into an undisciplined life, characterized by a half-asleep consciousness. Strangely enough, if I did allow this, my "productivity" might increase in a certain kind of way, but it wouldn't really be a high-quality productivity. It would be an obedient productivity. It would be the kind of productivity that helps keep the world humming nicely (and blindly) along its self-destructive path.

But I prefer to lend my energies to a more transformative productivity -- the kind of productivity that builds a sustainable, peaceful, and creative world. A person's ability to be productive in this way requires awareness and reflection. And some form of sabbath is very helpful to cultivating awareness and providing time for reflection.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Something Else Hard About Grading

Since I'm preoccupied about grading these days, I thought I would note something else that I find hard about grading: giving bad grades to students I like.

Since I like all of my students, this means that giving bad grades at all is always painful to me.

Depression and Energy

I was talking with a friend today who was advocating the use of medication in treating depression, even "situational" depression, as opposed to "biologically based" depression (if such a distinction is meaningful, which is disputed among the experts). This friend was saying that IF this distinction has meaning, she thinks that medication can be helpful not only to those with biologically-based depression, but even to those whose depression is caused by difficult life circumstances. Here is why she thinks so. Difficult life circumstances can cause depressive symptoms. While the ultimate "cure" for this kind of depression is to deal well with the difficult life circumstances, medication can still be helpful as part of the process. One common depressive symptom is lowered energy. Medication can raise energy levels, which in turn can help the person deal with their difficult life situation better.

I found myself liking aspects of her theory very much, but still resisting her conclusion. But rather than write about the pros and cons of medication for different kinds of depression, I would like to highlight what I like about her theory.

I do think that there is a strong relationship between (certain kinds of?) depression and energy levels. I've long been fascinated by human energy. There's a certain kind of physical energy we have that is strongly affected by our physical health and fitness, but it seems to me that there is another kind of energy as well: psychological energy? spiritual energy? psycho-spiritual energy?

The reason I believe this is because I notice when the two do not coincide. There are times when I am physically very tired, but through a strong sense of determination I push on through that physical fatigue. This can be quite an exhilarating state of being. But there are other times when I can tell that physically I really am fine -- well-rested, not ill -- and yet my overall sense of energy feels low. In fact, this can be quite a miserable state, because physical rest is not helpful for this kind of tiredness at all. It can be a weariness of soul. It can be a sense of being tired of having to make hard decisions. This is the kind of low energy that can be a depressive symptom.

The two are not completely unrelated. Over time, the one can affect the other. Getting physical exercise can revive sagging spirits (low psycho-spiritual energy). Pushing one's physical energy too relentlessly, too long, can eventually cause high spirits to droop again. But high spirits can recharge physical energy (if you are just tired and not exhausted), and low spirits may, over long periods of time, cause physical health to deteriorate.

What I find especially helpful about my friend's theory is that if a boost in energy can help one get through trying situations better, there may be other ways than antidepressant medication to gain this boost of energy. Exercise, in fact, is known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. There are meditation practices as well that can help boost overall energy.

So, when feeling overwhelmed by life's events, to the extent that you feel yourself lapsing into depressive low-energy, it can be helpful to shift attention away from what is overwhelming you and focus on your energy level itself, and consider what you might do to re-charge that energy. Exercise or some form of meditation may help. Or sometimes what we need is something to recharge our enthusiasm for life. We need to try to reconnect with who we really are, what we most value, and what brings us joy.

I think that depressive low energy comes about when we are feeling particularly ineffective: when we have put forth a great deal of effort to deal with life's challenges, but things don't get better, or they even get worse. We experience low energy because something is trying to tell us to slow down, quit wasting our effort: it's obviously not working. It may in fact be important to slow down and reconsider our approach. But if we decide or realize that we must press on, and yet continue to find it difficult to summon new energy, remembering that we are more than how this situation characterizes us, and our life is more than this challenging event, can be a way of finding new energy.

Even so, there still may be times when it is very hard to do that: very hard to get back in touch with enthusiasm, joy, and a positive sense of self. Nevertheless, our failure to make ourselves feel better does not cause us just to vanish. There is still something that holds us up, and holds us together, even though we may be feeling profoundly lost. If we just let it hold us, there will come a time when a sense of the meaningfulness of life will start to flow back into our awareness.

This miracle too is why I believe in God.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stuck at the Bottom of the Grading Vortex

Having gotten partially through the grading over the weekend, I now find myself in that most horrible place of being well into the grading, but life's busyness keeps intervening and not letting me finish! Today, for example, students came to talk to me during office hours! Can you imagine?! Of course it was actually wonderful. I love talking with students one on one.

Then we had faculty meeting. I took some logic quizzes to try to furtively work on grading those when things got a little dull, but things didn't get dull. Besides, someone sat directly behind me -- intrigued, I think, at watching me grade just before the meeting got rolling. "What is she grading?" he may have wondered. (Indirect truth tables.) There I am pointing seemingly at random to little Ts and Fs -- suddenly I circle one and draw a line and write something cryptic like, "when trying to prove validity you should set this one up as F." It was fun to think I might be amusing my colleagues, but in actual fact I am sure that no one was really paying any attention to me at all.

Our faculty meeting was actually very interesting, because we were making changes to some academic policies that I was pleased we were changing. We were making our grading practices a little more forgiving.

Now I must plunge back into the grading and see if I can finish the quizzes and a batch of papers tonight. I will be very happy if I can accomplish at least this much.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

About to Be Caught in a Grading Vortex

I have a lot of grading of student papers to get caught up on. Finally I had managed to clear a complete weekend to try to get caught up -- and then found myself crippled yesterday by a fierce headache. It came back this morning. Coincidence? Bad luck? Or did I create the headache as an excuse to keep postponing this difficult task?

Why do I have such a block about grading? Why is it a task that has become harder over time instead of easier?

At the beginning of the semester I resolved to grade each set of papers at once and get it over with -- but that noble plan has long ago collapsed into dust.

Part of the problem is that it takes such time and energy that I feel I need big blocks of time to do it and get it done. There is nothing more frustrating than to do three or four papers and then have to put it aside, so that when I come back to it, I have to re-read those papers to ensure that my grading standards are consistent across the batch of papers. So I tend not to grade in small doses like that. I wait for big chunks of time (which are very hard to find in my complicated life) -- and then get so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me that it's hard to get into it when I do have the time -- or a fierce headache suddenly attacks me, like this weekend.

There are other factors that make the task difficult too. I think I've written about this before. But I bring it up again simply to ask for help. Do other teachers out there have this problem? Have other teachers found a way to deal with this better than I have? Are there any secrets to how to just grade a batch of papers immediately when they come in, efficiently and effectively, without a lot of angst?