Non-Required Reading: Redux

A few years ago I wrote a post about the importance of reading for pleasure in academia and suggested a non-required reading list for PhD students. The basic premise was that although great writing comes from great reading, great reads are rarely found in academic journals. Instead, if students want to write well, they need to immerse themselves in quality fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays, feature writing, memoir, and poetry. In short, phrasebanks are not the answer to poor academic prose, Shakespeare is!

There’s been a lot of interest in my Non-Required Reading List recently, so I thought I would revisit it. But rather than making the list prescriptive, as I did last time, I thought I would offer a simple framework and a list of resources. This would give students and supervisors more flexibility in how they approach the list and allow the resources to grow over time as I discover and remember other great reads (or you suggest them!).

Framework
Every month you should aim to read four long-form articles of your choice from Long Reads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic, and one quality work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

Resources
Fiction:

Non-Fiction:

Poetry:

 

Can you recommend other great reads that should be added to the Resources? Or have you got feedback on how you or your students have used the Non-Required Reading List? Leave me a comment!

 

Care: A Reading List

There’s a piece of street art in my home town that says “The more I think about it, the bigger it gets”. I was reminded of it during a recent visit to Keele University when a conversation with colleagues turned to recreational reading. I always have a book on the go and I’ve written before about the importance of good reading for good academic writing, but the conversation at Keele made me realise how much my recreational reading overlaps with my professional interests, particularly my interest in care. And it’s not deliberate, it’s just that once you start thinking about care, you see it everywhere. The more you think about it, the bigger it gets.

Not everything I’ve read, however, has been good. I’ve read many books that, while undoubtedly cathartic for the author to write, should never have been published for general consumption. So I wanted to celebrate the good books. The books that are both beautifully written and true to the experiences of carers (both family & professional). The books that expand your mind and tear at your heart. The books that I regularly recommend to friends, strangers, students, and colleagues.

I hope to continue to add to this list over time, as I read new books and remember old ones, but I’d also welcome your suggestions. What’s the best thing you’ve read that explores the concept of care?

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Shtum by Jem Lester

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Bettyville by George Hodgman

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

 

And the beat goes on

The findings from my first collaboration with European colleagues were published this week. This is a significant milestone for me, because it’s exactly the kind of collaborative, international research I was pursuing when I packed up my life and moved to the UK just over a year ago. More importantly, however, it’s a significant contribution to a growing body of research on suicide and homicide risk in people caring for family members with dementia.

My previous research showed that 1 in 6 carers had contemplated suicide in the previous twelve months, that only half of them had ever told anyone they felt this way, and that 20% of them were likely to attempt suicide in the future. This research also found no difference in the rate of suicidal thinking experienced by carers supporting a person with dementia at home, carers supporting a person with dementia in a nursing home, and carers who had been recently bereaved. These were ground-breaking findings and they generated significant interest from the community, the media, playwrights, and other researchers. But there was still so much we needed to understand.

In particular, the research was cross-sectional, so we were only capturing suicidal thoughts at one point in time. Consequently, we didn’t know how thoughts of suicide changed over time and whether carers who thought about suicide after the person with dementia moved into care, or after they died, had also thought about it while caring at home.

This new research addresses that issue. The article has been published ‘open access’, which means you can read the entire thing here for free, but to summarise briefly:

  • The study followed almost 200 carers in the Netherlands for two years, none of whom had depression or anxiety at baseline
  • Over the 2 year period, 40% of carers developed depression and were assessed for thoughts of suicide
  • 12% reported thoughts of suicide, with one third of those reporting suicidal thoughts at multiple time points
  • Thoughts of suicide were seen in various patterns, including only before the person with dementia was admitted to a nursing home, before and after the person was admitted to a nursing home, only after the person was admitted to a nursing home, and after the person with dementia died.

These findings support my previous research and show the incredible toll that caring can take, particularly at key transition points such as institutionalisation and death.

What they also show is that thoughts of suicide are not unique to Australian carers, but rather appear to transcend social, cultural, and political boundaries. Although more research is required to understand how the health and social care policies of different countries might influence suicidal thinking, this is another important step toward understanding and preventing suicide-related thoughts and behaviours in family carers.

It is heartbreaking to do research that shows, time after time, how little the world cares about carers. They are the invisible scaffolding that holds up every part of our society and our communities would crumble without them. This research is only a small contribution to efforts to recognise and support the wonderful work of family carers, but, added to my other work and that of my colleagues around the world, I hope it is a meaningful one.

As ever, nothing good is done alone. I am indebted to Dr Karlijn Joling, Professor Cees Hertogh, and Professor Hein van Hout, who conducted the research that provided data for this study. I am particularly grateful to Karlijn, who led the analysis of the data and was a joy to write with. Karlijn, Cees, and Hein share my passion for research that cares and I look forward to our continued collaborationsl

 

Pimm’s & Privilege

Last night I drank Pimm’s, played Giant Jenga, and relaxed in a deck chair while a band played 80s classics on the quad. Provided free of charge by the university as part of an initiative to make staff feel valued and reduce stress, the Pimm’s, the games, and the music were the perfect end to a tough morning reading about people who kill their loved ones and a productive afternoon building new research collaborations.

Last week I played hostess when a friend came to Exeter for a job interview. I took him on a tour of the town and introduced him to all my favourite colleagues. I have since been sending pictures and text messages, as he decides whether or not to accept the job, extolling the virtues of the place I now call home.

Today I checked my privilege.

It’s easy to enjoy a Pimm’s and some live music, when you have a permanent job. It’s easy to put down roots and say how wonderful a place is, when leaving is a choice not a necessity. It’s easy to commit to new collaborations, when you know you’ll be around to see them through. And although exploring difficult topics in research is never easy, it’s definitely easier to step away for some self-care when you know you’re playing the long game.

A recent report from the UCU documented the number of staff on insecure contracts at universities around the UK. At my university it’s nearly 70%. So I am definitely one of the privileged few.

But it wasn’t that long ago that things were very different. I’ve written before about my experiences of doing research on short-term contracts (see herehere, and here) and it was less than a year ago that working in a pub in Wollongong was looking like the most viable way to make a living. But what I realised today was how easy it is to forget. How easy it is to embrace a life of privilege and dismiss the concerns of others because they are no longer my concerns. How easy it is to dance to a bad cover of My Sharona, while somewhere a postdoc is crying in their office.

Of course, to co-opt Tim Minchin’s great lyric, a permanent job in academia’s not all wine and roses; sometimes it’s handcuffs and cheese. I’m currently paying off a $6,000 credit card debt because the university’s relocation allowance didn’t cover the cost of the move. I haven’t slept in my own bed since November. I haven’t held my nephews or hugged my sister since Christmas. And I won’t be able to attend my godson’s christening. I’m also having to build an entirely new network of research collaborations and navigate new research, education, and health systems. And it’s been a long, hard road to get here.

But, in the words of Jeanann Verlee, those bruises will fall off eventually. The challenge now is what to do with my privilege. How to use it to support those around me who are still facing insecurity and instability. How to be the voice for those who aren’t in a position to shout for themselves. And how to offer guidance that is both practical and sensitive. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I think I’ll start by buying the next round of Pimm’s.

What is research?

When Robin Williams won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he forget to thank his mother, who was sitting in the audience. When Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, she forget to thank the director. When Jim Parsons won an Emmy for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, he said he wanted to thank “my writers” before apologising for the proprietary tone and changing it to “the writers.” Who you thank and how you thank them is a serious issue in Hollywood. It’s also a big deal in academia.

As an academic I don’t get to wear a designer gown and traipse the red carpet, but I do get to thank the people who’ve made my work possible. This usually happens in the Acknowledgements section of my journal articles. As well as making personal thanks – often to supportive colleagues or enthusiastic participants – I’m also contractually obliged to use this section of my papers to acknowledge the financial and practical support provided by universities and funding bodies. And this is where it gets tricky.

Here’s why: I recently submitted revisions on a journal article. I secured the funding for the study, collected the data, and conducted the initial analysis while I was in Australia. I conducted the final analysis and wrote the paper while I was in the UK. When I added a statement of acknowledgement for the institute that supports my salary here in the UK, my Australian co-author baulked. According to her, they didn’t support the research and so don’t warrant acknowledgement.

Which leads me to the question… what is research? Where does it start and end? And what counts when it comes to support?

Research, like raising a child, takes a village. It’s the result of long and complex collaborations between researchers, funding bodies, universities, participants, students, and industry partners. It also wouldn’t happen without the cleaners, administrators, and maintenance staff who keep universities operational, and the friends, families, and yoga teachers who keep researchers operational. It starts with an idea, requires lots of reading, needs money, involves collecting and analysing data, must be published, and should always be shared with the community. These components are all equally important and if any one step in the process is missing or incomplete, the research is unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

As for the study in question, it was not until I moved to the UK that I had the time and space to finalise the analysis and write the paper. The institute that supports my salary here was vital for getting this piece of work published and will continue to play a role as I share the findings with the community. The institute that supported my salary in Australia was equally important, without them I could not have secured the funding for the study or collected and analysed the data. So surely both deserve a mention in the Acknowledgements section of the paper?

But academia, just like Hollywood, is also driven by money. Acknowledgements and affiliations on academic journal articles aren’t just a professional courtesy, they also determine how funds are distributed to, and within, universities. So if they want to keep doing research, academics also have to play the long game. Thinking beyond this piece of research to the next one and the one after that. Ever mindful of the people or places they might need to support it.

For my part, I will keep the Acknowledgements section of my paper as it is, recognising the professional support received in both countries. My mother, however, still doesn’t rate a mention. Here’s hoping she’s not in the audience.

 

 

Enough!

As a staunch feminist, it’s surprising how often I’m unable to stand up for myself and other women. I always seem to have a nasty case of l’esprit de l’escalier, thinking only of what I should have said or done after the moment has passed. Five encounters this week have brought this problem into stark focus:

  1. I had a meeting with a senior academic who spoke entirely in male pronouns and adjectives.
  2. I saw two teenage boys call a 12 year old girl a whore.
  3. I got felt up in a pub while having a quiet drink with colleagues after work.
  4. The barista from my local cafe asked how my bed was, at the top of his voice, in the middle of a supermarket.
  5. A male colleague told me the reason my boss had suggested I hold off on submitting a grant application was because “he wouldn’t want to be embarrassed.”

 

Here’s what I should have done in each situation:

  1. I should have walked out of the meeting.
  2. I should have called the police.
  3. I should have said “touch me again and I’ll break your arm.”
  4. I should have started buying my coffee somewhere else. (The bed comment was, in and of itself, entirely appropriate, given our previous conversations about my having recently moved countries. The tone, however, was decidedly sexual and seemed designed to make me uncomfortable)
  5. I should have said “The university didn’t bring me half-way around the world to be embarrassed. They brought me half-way around the world to kick arse. And I’m going to start with yours!”

 

But I didn’t do any of these things. Instead, I stayed in the meeting, I kept walking, I took one step to the left, I said I’d pop in later for a pastry, and I mumbled something about the actual reason my boss had suggested I delay my application. Because, like most women, I’ve been socialised to be polite, to avoid conflict, and to blame myself for the bad behaviour of men. Even my use of the word ‘should’ in the previous paragraph is a reflection of the way women are taught to feel shame for situations entirely beyond their control (for more on the relationship between should & shame, read Brene Brown‘s great work).

Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and feminist scholars from a range of other disciplines have documented these problems for decades, but little has changed. It’s 2016! I am a white, well-educated, financially independent woman, living in a first world country, and these were my experiences in just one week! Women of colour, women with little education, women who are financially dependent, and women in developing countries face so much more. Decades of policy and legislation have also worked to address these problems, but the pace of change is glacial.

I know this post won’t change anything, but as a female academic with a public presence, I feel I have a responsibility to document my experience. This is not my academic area of expertise, but it is my lived experience and giving voice to lived experience is an important step in any movement toward change. Experiences like these (at least the first and the last one) also make it difficult for me to do research in my area of expertise, which is the wellbeing of people with dementia and their carers. I am not alone in this, with female academics the world over trying to do amazing research in environments that can only be described as hostile. So although this post doesn’t change what’s happened,  it does add my voice to the growing chorus of women saying “Enough!” and, for today at least, that’s a good start.

Postscript – 25th May
I stopped for coffee on my way to work this morning and, completely unprompted, the barista apologised for the way he had spoken to me last week. It takes balls for a middle-aged man to admit he was wrong and I was genuinely impressed by his apology. I’m also grateful to the barista’s girlfriend who, when he told her what had happened, agreed that it was not his finest moment (and, I suspect, suggested he make amends). So I’m calling this a win!

This (Un)certain Life

I recently finished reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days At Memorial. A compelling piece of investigative journalism, it explores the euthanasia and abandonment of hospitalised patients during Hurricane Katrina. The complex issues and Fink’s exploration of them are particularly relevant to my research, but the book also got me thinking about academic life. As one of the doctors accused of euthanising patients waited to hear if she would be tried for murder, she was quoted as saying that not knowing what would happen was the most effective form of torture.

So much of my academic life has been characterised by ‘not knowing what would happen’. I spent the last five and a half years on a series of short-term research fellowships. Funded by what’s known as ‘soft money’, these were discrete fellowships, secured through a competitive process, with no possibility of renewal. The two and a half years before that were spent at a not-for-profit organisation, the funding for which was at the whim of the nation’s politicians. The three and a half years before that were spend doing a PhD and the year before that was spent working part-time as a research assistant – again funded by ‘soft money’ – while caring for my grandfather. I moved house eight times during this period; twice interstate and once overseas. I only had three holidays that weren’t tacked on to the end of academic travel and all were less than a week.

This experience is not unique. Almost every academic I know has been through some version of this. And the ‘torture’ is not just psychological. It’s also physical, emotional, and financial. When you don’t know for more than a year at a time where your salary is coming from, it’s almost impossible to save money, buy a house, or take a proper holiday. When your ongoing employment hangs on the outcome of a fellowship application that has a less than 20% success rate, it’s easy to abandon self-care in favour of working nights and weekends to increase your chances. When moving interstate or overseas is the only way to pursue your vocation, it’s hard to maintain a relationship or a sense of self. Almost every academic I know is either overweight, living with a mental illness, or has an autoimmune disorder. Those who’ve been lucking enough to avoid these things tend to be single, childless against their will, or in unhappy marriages. Almost all are financially worse off than their same aged, non-academic friends.

So you’ll understand why I put everything I owned in boxes and got on a plane when I was offered a permanent academic position in the UK. Although the move will set me back financially and require me, once again, to build a life from the ground up, it’s a small price to pay for certainty and the opportunity to pursue my passion for research and education at an international level.

But here’s the thing: I still don’t feel certain. Twelve years of uncertainty and instability has taken its toll. Multiple moves have taught me never to get too comfortable; to not recycle the packing boxes but instead keep them at the back of the closet. As a result of the unpredictable mix of fellowship successes and rejections, I have internalised the message that I am not good enough. Too many ‘down to the wire’ moments –  in which I was forced to wait until just a few  weeks before a contract ended to find out if I would have another – have made me question my worth. And so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep wondering why they hired me. I hesitate to buy new clothes or appliances, knowing they’ll max out the 30kg luggage allowance if I have to move again. I was genuinely confused when my new boss suggested I spend my first few weeks “just getting to know people.”

I described these feelings to a dear friend as being “like academic PTSD”. She said “it’s not like PTSD, it is PTSD!” PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a serious condition and I wouldn’t for a second think of comparing my experience to that of refugees, soldiers, or abuse survivors. But the parallels are compelling and, I think, warrant further consideration in research and academic policy-making.

Although academic uncertainty is a special kind of torture, it’s not all doom and gloom. If a friendship survives this kind of uncertainty, you know it’s for life. As a result of all my moves I have been blessed with a network of lifelong friends and a place to stay in more countries than I can count. Although starting from scratch in a new place is exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. Finding a new yoga studio, a new cafe, and a new cinema has brought me so much joy here in the UK. Although financial security is an oxymoron for academics, the opportunity to spend time in San Francisco or Amsterdam after a conference or research trip is not to be sneezed at. And although health problems have threatened to derail my life and my work, they have taught me not to take anything for granted. But perhaps most importantly, all this uncertainty has brought me here. To a place of relative certainty.

So I will hold tight to the good things as I process the events of the last twelve years and embark on this new, more certain, stage of my career. I will draw on the support of an international network of friends, work on my ‘down dog’, and embrace the opportunities for international travel. But I will not forget. And I will continue to speak out on the challenges that face academics who want nothing more than to do research that makes a meaningful contribution to the world and educate students who will go out and do great things in the world. Because I recognise that certainty is privilege. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll recycle the packing boxes.