Wednesday, 8 February 2012

On the Perils of Balancing Old Lives With New

- i swear i think now that everything without exception has an eternal Soul!
the trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have! the animals!
i swear i think there is nothing but immortality!
that the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is for it, and the cohering is for it;
and all preparation is for it! and identity is for it! and life and materials are altogether for it! - walt whitman - to think of time -

This blog has been on a bit of a hiatus. Three and a bit months is too long a gap, of course, and maybe even too long to have continued to describe myself as being an "academic blogger," but that's something I absolutely want to be, a general project I have faith in, that academics should share research early, democratically, and socially. The gap in writing also seems ungrateful: this blog has led to publications, to career opportunities that I hope I'll get a chance to write about more in the near future, and has started conversations which I've needed to have in order to make my research better.

So it continues.

I'd like to give some reasons, not excuses, for why the blog has been neglected as I think they raise issues about what it takes to be both a good digital scholar and an early career academic. I'm very very lucky to have a good academic job, I know what the market's like, I know that, there but for the grace of whatever, I could very easily have been writing CVs and temping right now. But I also know that I worked to get where I am, and that the work (and play) that I did to be good at what I do is under threat from the work I do now I've got there. I also know this is no problem but my own, that a lot of people are going through this right now, but maybe we should share more advice on how we try and find the right balance.

My old life and my new life are...different, at least in terms of what I have to fit into my time:

In 2011 I taught two first year classes and had a long distance girlfriend. In September I finished my PhD after 4 years of research. I blogged.

At the start of October I began my job as a Teaching Fellow. Since then I became a module convenor for around 350 first years and taught two classes; I helped to run an MA in Theory and ran a seminar; I taught literature for the first time to three 3rd year groups, and I gave proper hour long lectures; I helped out with a third year Advanced Critical Theory workshop; made new friends after 60% of the people I knew left; joined two research networks; published an article; marked around 250 papers (from exams to 5,000 word dissertations); advised on a book proposal; wrote a module; attended more meetings than I can count; saw my 30 personal tutees and 15 dissertation students; and I started teaching Modernism to two second year classes. My girlfriend still lives four hours away. I did not blog.

Let me say right now that it's been a blast, I would not swap what I've been up to, what I've learnt, for anything, but at least part of the reason I got to do all of this was because for the last few years I wrote, read tons of articles in my RSS feed, read books, watched films, played games, hung out on Twitter, sent emails, kept up with people and the news, and generally tried to learn about interesting things (or at least things that interested me). I study the contemporary: reading technology, internet culture, modern theory, politics and philosophy, experimental writing, developments in cognitive and neuroscience, and yet I feel like recently I haven't been engaged with anything outside of a very small sphere of admin and teaching. I read less, I write less, I watch less.

This isn't a problem, not yet, but it could be. I have students who want to write dissertations or study with me because of my interests, interests which are fast becoming "things I used to do."

Now, next year all those classes and lectures will be written, the reading will be done, and I guess it will be a bit (a lot?) easier. But what if what made me good enough to do this can't be balanced with what I now do? That's a scary thought.

I have no answers, but thought that, in case anyone else is suffering these balance issues, I'd just say what have become my digital essentials, what I've come to realise I can't live without if I still want to consider myself a digital citizen/scholar/researcher as well as a teacher:

  • A pruned and useful Twitter feed - Even if I'm just lurking it keeps me informed. I don't follow people whose opinion I don't value (this doesn't mean I always agree with them...), and I don't think it's best, at least for me, as a social network (though I still use it for that maybe 20% of the time). I've got space to follow a few more people, but I tend to keep it pretty in check so that the time I spend on there is informative as well as fun.
  • A diverse, but not over-huge RSS feed - This is where I get my news, both academic and personal interest. I've cut back a lot, but there's still plenty of reading each day on music, technology, academia, friends' blogs, politics, philosophy, etc. Having everything in one place to skim and to bookmark is the most efficient use of my time at the moment.
  • Two email accounts - One for friends and family and people who understand if I take a while to reply (this is also what I use to sign up for stuff so it takes the brunt of the spam), one for work. This separation has been essential. I might not make inbox 0 very often, but I do ok.
  • Dropbox and Google Docs (not just a thumb drive) - I need all my files everywhere and backed up, these things have saved me so many times.
  • A favourites folder of useful links backed up with Xmarks - Vital procrastination, education, and digitisation tools (including blogger, which should be all three), and with Xmarks again I can access them anywhere.

And that's really it. I follow links, of course, and I might use any number of digital services in any given week, but this is my fundamental slimmed down digital life. I miss games. I might get to play a little Red Dead Redemption once in a while, but it's not a day-to-day thing. I don't watch any TV, and I only watch movies at the cinema. I don't miss Facebook, and Google+ didn't work out. This gives me as much time as I can muster for reading and music, a semblance of a social life, a girlfriend who's been unbelievably tolerant while I've found my feet, and now, I hope, more blogging and academic writing.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's had to work out a better balance, and what they had to keep, what they had to leave out from their digital life. I'm sure my balance will change, I'm sure it could be better, but this is just about working.


UPDATE: Clairey Ross, a fantastic and enthusiastic DHer if ever there was one, has been having a heck of a year by the sounds, and she's been working on her own slimmed down digital life. Go check out that post to see how someone else is trying to juggle everything (and subscribe to her blog too, many a great project to be found).

1 comment:

Touring Piano Tuner said...

Hi Matt, it was interesting to read someone else's take on this. This is my first visit to your blog, strangely enough I got here with the Google search for:

"two email accounts" junk efficiency

...because I'm wondering if I can do away with one of my two email accounts. I'm also scrapping my 11-year-old mobile number altogether now and I don't have a land-line either, so going down to only one email account would be the ultimate in simplicity. But I wonder if it'll just fill up with junk unless I keep the second email account.

I've just bought one of those bargain 3-Mobile PAYG data-only sim cards so I'm going to cancel my Vodafone contract. Hopefully more and more people will get smart-phones and receive email instantly.

I haven't tried Twitter, the only social network I use is Facebook but I only log in once per month, I'd like to delete it but I love the ability to look up long lost school mates etc. that I can't contact by any other means. Also looks like I may have to join Google+ purely for search engine optimisation purposes to promote my piano tuning service in London.

I'm simplifying my life in all other areas too for example I no longer have a home or a motor vehicle and have halved my work responsibilities. I'm in the middle of migrating my website to WordPress but you can see roughly what I'm up to by visiting the old site at

Interestingly I want more time for exactly the same activities as you do: reading, music, girls, social life, and writing! I would add travel and adventure but that's just me.

Good luck with keeping it simple!


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