“Being Human: Intellectual Life, Balance, Being In Time And Space” (FHIS graduate workshop on mental health and academic productivity)

7 October 2022 – UBC Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies Graduate Student Workshop: Mental Health and Academic Productivity. Magali Blanc, Juliet O’Brien, and Arturo Victoriano. Series organised by Ana Casas Aguilar. Lounge (and room next door used for workshop) courtesy of the Department. View: looking north-west towards Bowen and Gambier Islands, Howe Sound, and the mountains of Tetrahedron and Tantalus provincial parks. Pizza thanks to our Local Pizza Gods, Pizza Garden.

PDF version of these talk notes

Good afternoon! Thank you for being here and for letting me talk. I hope that at least the images will provide some consolation. 

So: let’s start with intellectual life. (Including communing with the dead and imaginary of literature and ideas.) We all have support: people around you, in expanding and intersecting circles, and not just people doing the same thing as you in the same area at the same stage. Hang out. Talk about reading, thinking, ideas. Maybe also play games while doing so: I got through grad school thanks to foosball. Or board games, leisurely more physical games, whatever it is that *you* enjoy. If this talk has one Imperative Authoritative Instruction it’s this: never lose touch with joy. 

Try to hang out with people far outside your field. This is also good for perspective, explaining your work, and maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity through seeing it through others. I recommend mathematicians.

Not necessarily always structured, work in progress, keeping each other on track, like spotting a buddy with weights (though that can be helpful too, in what is otherwise a solitary long-distance pursuit). Speaking as a feminist and an Irishwoman: you need the intellectual interactivity of chat, blarney, gab, and confidential gossip: with at least one trusted person in your life with whom you can be fully freely bitchy. And do this wherever you’re comfortable: if the pandemic is helping with one thing, it’s opening up virtual spaces for being with other people when you can’t always be in the same physical place. And UBC has support resources: university level, department, individual faculty and staff and student people. Especially individual fellow human beings. You, we, are surrounded by good kind (and fellow suffering) people. Look around you right now.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed here, to see only structures and systems, including seeing other people not as people but as their roles and functions, seeing them systemically. Never forget that this is a university, and as such it is an entirely different thing from other places of human activity and their cultures. It is, at its heart, historically, and in fundamental essence: a community and a collective. Insofar as higher education is what’s been labelled, in late capitalism, a “service industry” it’s as a sacred space dedicated to serving knowledge. Like libraries. Add libraries and librarians to your resources, and everyone else, inside the university and outside, who works with knowledge. 

Some practical stuff. While Vancouver isn’t great for bookshops and book culture, there is the excellent Massy Books and their very comforting space, where like any quality bookshop they leave you alone and make you feel welcome. Kidsbooks. Vancouver Public Library, especially its fabulous central branch. Not the most obvious mental health and productivity resources, but for people like us and our beautiful minds, and for exercising imaginative muscles and not losing sight of your humanity, things like readings and storytelling events are essential—and here are four magic words that will change your life: drag queen story hour—these events are essential even if they’re not about anything that’s related to your area of study, or they seem to be for a different audience of different interests, ages, socio-educational and cultural backgrounds. Be humble. You might learn something, and you might enjoy yourself. (This is the medieval “sentence and solaas”.) 

(This is the long slide.)

There’s a paradox in academia that it’s not just “academic work” but “academic life” and a vocation: that your work and your life are one and the same and intertwined. Academic “lifework” can be wonderful if that means that you enjoy your work so it doesn’t “feel like work” (or, suffering, martyrdom, and crucifying you; those are the actual meanings of the word “passion”). But academic “worklife” can be abusive and self-abusive, when work invades every waking moment, or is allowed to, or feels systemically expected; think for example of the job market and competitiveness. 

A second paradox around balance is the use and abuse of “professionalism,” and “balance” and “wellbeing,” as prescriptive normative conventions. Conventions imposed by hierarchical authorities and maintained by closing down any discussion of that convention; discussion that starts with asking questions. (That’s why we’re here today.) Questioning as curiosity, wonder, delight—and, again, joy—is a cardinal intellectual virtue. Be wary when questioning is quashed, and that includes pressure from superiors and peers to make your academic work “sound scholarly,” “neutral,” “scientific,” to make your interactions in scholarly and teaching contexts cleanly appropriate … be wary of pressures to dehumanise that work, academic and otherwise, and those interactions, and you yourself. 

Your balance is yours. Yours isn’t necessarily anything like mine, or Magali’s, or Arturo’s. It might take any extent of time to find that balance, just as it might take you time to figure out what kind of “academic product” you and your work are. It might not correspond to what any of the faculty around you are doing and living. That’s OK. Intellectual lives, and the way those who live them balance that part of themselves with the rest of their lives, that’s as infinitely variable as humans are.  

You are more than your work. You are more important than any work. That has been true of all kinds of work and worker for more than two full centuries before this one, and their labour and social justice movements. The reason why I prepared notes and am using them pretty strictly is because otherwise I risk digressing and occupying all our—and your—time with my own and my family’s long past histories in, so to speak, “mental health and productivity” (academic, other intellectual, and otherwise). There’s a whole bigger picture of a long world history of rights and justice. This isn’t the place for it. But think about your stories. We all have stories: remembering, remembrancing, and retelling them is important, and a fine thing to talk about with other people, therapeutically and in friendship. In some parts of Ireland, we use “What’s the story?” or “Storytime!” as standard greetings. Recommended.

So. You are a human with human rights. These rights are about work, and about many other things too, because you and I are still human beings no matter what we do, how important what we do might seem, how much more important what we do might seem compared to any other kind of work or to the rest of our lives and selves. Although we can help to save lives, we all need to acknowledge our limits, humility over hubris, acknowledge our humanity: we’re not emergency medical superheros and cannot and should not be on call 24/7. Be that for coursework, research, or teaching. 

Have time every week that is yours. And sacred. Not “using” or “spending” time; or “cutting into” a time that belongs to someone else. Maybe think about this as  “making” a different kind of time, for “passtimes.”

Think about this time, and what it means, and what time means: to you, to a surrounding social structure and culture and ethos. Think about time as a social, political, and ethical thing. Think about it in a questioning way: asking questions about “decolonising and Indigenising the university,” about institutional social injustice, about equity and diversity and inclusion.

This might be a time to pass with other kinds of literary activity. That is: activities that are “non-academic” but not necessarily “non-intellectual” or otherwise lacking in substance and value. I mean “literary” in the broad Roland Barthes sense of reading and engaging with a whole environment. Your literary time might be creative, sports, meditative, cooking, eating. It might be wandering around, meandering, flâner, looking at the sky, tree-hugging, smelling things, bathing while singing, zoning out, napping. 

Remember that you’re human, and “re-member” yourself, taking yourself apart and looking at those parts and putting yourself back together again, as a living breathing sentient sensitive humanimal being. Yes, this overlaps with “recharging your batteries” to make you a better more efficient machine. 

But never forget that sleep is also a time for dreams. 

Thank you for your time!


Sarah Ahmed, Christine de Pizan, Claricia, David Graeber, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Mona Eltahawy, and anonymous marginalists

ON READING AND WRITING (including “badly”):

Suzanne Conklin Akbari, ed., How We Write: Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blank Page (New York: Punctum Books, 2015). Open access free ebook PDF at https://punctumbooks.com/titles/how-we-write/ 

Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Kaitlin Heller, eds., How We Read: Tales, Fury, Nothing, Sound (New York: Punctum Books, 2019). Open access free ebook PDF at https://punctumbooks.com/titles/how-we-read-tales-fury-nothing-sound/ 

How these books came to be: 


We are here to spread joy, justice, and a more fabulous future!

– Lil Miss Hot Mess, 5 October 2022 (source: Twitter)

A list, in no particular order, of general advice from what I remember of our talks and of our conversations before and after. Unless specified otherwise, credit is to conversation and the collective:

  • make lists, tick/check off items as you do them
    • do not delete “to do” items when you’ve done them: move them to a “done” list
    • anything that takes around an hour counts as an item
    • yes, there will be times in your life when your list for a day was monumental, a week was epic, and you might hit Academic Overshoot Time around 5 p.m. on a Wednesday when you’ve done 40 hours of immediately pertinent work
    • but also: anything and everything counts; there will be times in your life when it takes you all day to summon the energy to have a shower; that’s often the weekend for me (and sometimes I’ll have more than one shower and enjoy being in water)
    • keep those lists and read them later: they’re a good record of your general state, and changes of state
    • you might also find it useful to keep a sleep diary, but paper not electronic, including what you did just before going to sleep, food, weird dreams, waking up during the night, and seeing what (if any) patterns emerge
    • to combine (if you’re part of the 50+% of the population who are women, and yes that means trans women too and 🤗🦄🚺⚧❤️ to all fellow sisters) with recording observations on menstrual cycle, hormonally-related fluctuations translating to physical and mental expression, gut feelings, skin and hair, and anything else in your individual body that is connected to your endocrine system. I say this as someone whose body had the impeccable comic timing to start perimenopause, accompanied by shite sleep, during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • set up “do no disturb,” “work,” and “sleep” modes on your electronic devices
    • (all three of us do this)
    • (I would add also) ban electronic screens from the bedroom / your sleeping space
    • (and) set up daytime/night-time modes, increasingly yellow screen at and after dusk, dark screen with light writing if you’re reading ebooks after sundown
  • take breaks
    • from conversations with many colleagues and friends over the years: a lot of writers, thinkers, artists, scholars, and/or academics use the Pomodoro Technique
    • I’m not a good person to ask about this: like everyone else I know, I’m great at learning from my mistakes—even if that’s slow and with hindsight seems stupidly so—and giving advice on what not to do, but terrible at following my own advice. To make things worse, part of my wiring (teaching, the standing up talking to and with people sort, seems to be different) is for hyperfocussed zoning out for hours at a time. I read and research and write like that and have had to learn to use a timer so that I remember to feed and water myself before I hit hypoglycemia, migraines, and fainting.
    • recommend low-tech mechanical timers, not apps, to reduce distractions and physical, electronic, and mental clutter; I do my best writing (and marking, which is the bane of my Academic Productivity life) in a decluttered small low-distraction environment. Like many other people, that can include a café with background noise.
  • stop work and turn off at a certain time
    • this can take a long time to learn: see for example “On work, overwork, folly, and resistance” from this time last year
    • you often figure this out the hard way because your body stops first in a hard crash, and it’s scary
    • and you’ll be scared of But What Will People Say? and I’m A Failure They’ll Sack Me And Replace Me With Someone More Fit And Healthy Performing 100% 24/7: if They don’t, you’ll know that you work with good people; if They do, you’ll know that you don’t and you’re free to seek out good people with whom to work; expect complication as it’s often the case that an immediate working environment—lab, department, school/faculty—is good and nice but TheUniversity™️ is not
    • weekends are for weekending; but also, it might be hard work to learn to weekend
  • laundry
    • I probably revealed all sorts of things that were horrific over-shares about laundry: it’s a love-hate relationship
    • putting it off for more than 2 weeks is always a bad sign that even the small things in life that are controllable are running amok and my life is collapsing
    • but I never forget the sheer unadulterated but purely adult joy and pride of fresh laundry, it’s a bigger better high than shopping for new clothes
  • us humans, we have issues with turning our brains off, or making them focus on one thing, or making them manage several things simultaneously, or avoiding the thing we don’t want to do, or getting into a panic when it’s all too much, or any combination and permutation thereof
    • some of that is Formal Named Conditions, and some of us have medical and other therapeutic support for these conditions: what, did you think that *all of the things* magically go away fhe minute that you hit a certain stage in your academic/working/adulting life? or that you stop changing when you become a formal responsible adult?
    • some of that is being fragile and human in all their glorious neurodiversity
    • some of that is having experienced injury, illness, burnout, breakdown: your people today are all scarred, but we’re still here, and alive, and lively feisty fiery 🐉
  • “impostor syndrome” is endemic in academia
    • of course it is, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the only people who don’t think that they are impostors are the impostors (which is also a fun variant on the liar paradox)
    • and it’s worse in our area of activity—from graduate student onwards—as we deal with knowledge and learning, histories and worlds, infinities
  • letting go
    • not caring about some things
    • (I would add: learning to say “no”)
    • (and that includes learning to say “no” and “stop” to yourself, resisting any inner Voice Of The Abusive Capitalocene Patriarchy—see also, “impostor syndrome”—and eventually rebelling against it, rejecting it while swearing fullsomely—see also, being bitchy—and then celebrating with a nice cup of tea and a sit down)
  • time and space: even in a tiny space (and I’ve lived in some small ones), compartmentalise so as to have a bed-nest separate from work-place
    • futons and other sofa/bed fold-out furniture
    • in an ideal world, a desk that can be folded away, furniture that folds up and stacks on the wall, go seek inspiration from the IKEA model tiny rooms (also, when I was living near New York, you’ll meet other grad students and fellow humans living in small spaces)
    • the best furrniture I bought when I was a grad student: a folding screen; mine was cheap (W***art) but did the job, to fence off your work-place when you move things and self into sleep-mode, and vice versa for writing
    • seek out spaces for work, including of course libraries; our senior TAs are experts at this, for example the excellent JA
    • look after your neck and back, torso and core, guts, eyes, and the rest: how, physically, you work is important; this too may time to figure out, and testing out various kinds of seating and angles. My own preference is for a pilates wheely ball chair—it’s also therapeutic because however grumpy, panicked, sad, despondent you might feel, bouncing helps (similarly, dancing, and some of us do dance “just” by bouncing around)—and for standing up. A standing desk is easy to set up in a small space (my first one was made out of a side-table and a plank rescued from a dumpster, an old cardboard box), can be set up and dismantled fast, and it’s an easy way to work anywhere—cafés etc.—where the seating isn’t ergonomically sound.
  • Ana did some brilliant magic in the first part of our session: she turned the words expectation, speed, multitasking, deadlines, punctuality into the beautiful RHYTHM. Related:
    • Arturo shared an extended metaphor about baseball which has transformed my perception of the sport, I see it now with a new sense of awe: thank you for adding wonder to my life
    • and we had music and dancing at the end, which is how any workshop should be, and finishing with perfect timing five minutes before the scheduled end: all credit here to Magali for her organisation and superb hosting!
    • Queen, “Bicycle Race” (Saturday morning addition to this list, sing-along version)

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