Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Spring Cleaning

The last couple of weeks have been an emotional up and down rollercoaster ride. My Research Assistant contract ended officially at the end of February when I received my last pay cheque. That was kind of nice in many ways, as I was relieved to have some time to reflect on the experience and where I want to go next. My energy levels were suffering also right up to the holiday period, so by January I was happy to catch up on some much needed rest. By the beginning of February I felt a nice sense of elation at the start of my new unemployment status. Mid-February was okay but the days of elation were mixed with the anxiety of having to tie-up loose ends with the project that I've been involved in. By March I still haven't reach any firm conclusions and my pleasurable days are met with mixed feelings about (non) work and terrible guilt about moping around like a slacker!

What hasn't helped this moody state of affairs, for some months actually, is that I had been noticing the huge build up of papers and notebooks in my little cubby-hole of the study room that I share with my husband. As we use the room to sort out bills and other domestic-related business (letters from our kids' school, medical stuff and so on) the space has gradually become an unattractive dumping ground with piles of folders and papers delegated to the floor, hence closing up the small space even more. As I looked again at it this morning, I thought if I don't do something drastic soon then there will hardly be any space left to pull out the desk chair. The walls felt like they were finally closing in.

I have been avoiding this moment of awakening for some time now, as it has meant finally facing up to the job of going through all of this stuff and making a decision about what to do with it. Do I throw it out or file it away somewhere in the loft storage? The dust-collecting papers are (were) all mine and they were largely connected with a research topic that I had been trying to work through and write about for many months (unpaid, of course). If I am honest, it's been lying around, quite literally on the study floor, for at least 18 months.

Most of the time I came up with a good excuse as to why I still hadn't completed a good enough draft to send the intended article out to my intended respectable journal for peer-review. Teaching time and family commitments got in the way. I needed to devote time to applying for jobs so I would put it on hold and get back to it. I got the recent RA job contract and couldn't get distracted with the article because I had to get on to some new research, new literature reviews. I would get back to the article, I told myself, after the RA job finished and I had time. Well, I tried this for a few weeks in February. Wrote a bit more, tidied some of the earlier sections up - mulled over silly little details and wasted even more time. I asked a couple of close academic friends if they would be willing to have a look at a rough draft when I finally pulled it together with conclusions. But in the last week or so, in fact, since I started spending more time imagining what I could do outside of academia and found the post-academic bloggers, I decided to call it a day on this intended project. My husband thought that after all the effort I put it into it, I should finish up, send it out, it doesn't need to be perfect. This process would offer me a good point of closure. That advice, at the time, sounded like it made sense and I went along with it for a while, but after giving it more thought I realised I was only prolonging my liminal state  - the insider/outsider of academia. With all the time it takes to finally submit something and wait for peer-review (they almost certainly would have found a list of reasons to insist that I spend another 6 months writing it to make it publishable), I realised it was healthier to call it a day.

So when I walked into the study today intending to get onto the task of writing some stuff that is needed to complete my part of work for the RA job I've just finished, I looked at the dust-collecting piles and began the process of spring cleaning. The job isn't finalised yet but it's a start and the soul is already feeling a bit more clear.

After running out of shelving space in the last year I dragged out a storage box to tuck in the corner of the room - this is what held many of the teaching materials I've used and adapted over the last 5 years or so. Oh dear, I just looked up now and discovered another pile that I forgot I had squeezed into a space at the top of a storage cupboard - that'll have to go after I finish this post. Without too much pain and indecision, large batches of paper with course schedules, reading lists and overviews, have now gone into the recycling bin outside. I now have lots of empty folders ready to refill with other important things that will inevitably come up!

Going back to the start of my PhD study, I came across conference packs, more reading lists and teaching notes. Academic journal references and photocopies from chapters and articles. I can't quite allow myself to chuck all of that (the academic in me says, 'But what if....?'), but I have allowed myself to put them in large bags (need to get some boxes) and they are on their way up to the loft area for storage so that they are out of sight. A blast from a longer past revisited me when I discovered a folder of some creative writing I did as an undergrad student in the late 80s (yes I am that old). It is typewritten from a manual typewriter, revealing the many hours of effort that I would have had to put into the endeavour. My very sweet, hard working past self! That folder still sits in the corner of the shelf now, but it isn't surrounded or suffocated with the later PhD work and teaching folders.

I am already feeling better after initiating this cleansing process, which I think really started when I decided to say goodbye, finally, to the topic of the never-finished academic article I thought was so important. It's a beginning. I'm still left with the job of wrapping up the RA work and this requires non-paid intellectual labour hours that I do resent. I guess the closure will begin to happen more concretely when I fulfil this end of my commitment to the project. I also feel a bit stronger in the sense that I am more confident that I can allow myself to only do so much and not over-extend my services in a way that is not too self-exploiting. Soon I will be setting up a time to talk to my manager about my future intentions and ambitions. This will be hard. I anticipate the usual response that I need to give it more time, putting in extra is what this life is all about, don't give up now, blah blah blah.

Heavy sigh.... The days of March are longer now and the sun is shining more. Spring cleaning has begun but isn't finished yet. At least my view isn't obstructed by all of the overwhelming stacks of history that were collecting, not to mention the dust that stifled my breathing.


  1. I dragged around several boxes of PhD notes through too many house moves. When I eventually realised that apart from a few precious photocopies of things not available electronically that I hadn't delved into them for years, I threw them all out. I had tried a few times to sort them out, but when I finally chucked them out, the world kept spinning. And at no point have I ever thought "Now where is that article?"

  2. You are so right about the nonsense of hanging on to this stuff when you haven't given it a minute's look in years. It's a bit like hording clothing in your wardrobe after it's gone out of style or you've just outgrown it! My first step of just moving the folders to an out-of-sight place seems to have helped a lot. Later - some years ahead possibily when I run out of loft storage space - I'll be brave enough to ditch the stuff forever or donate it to other, younger suffering academics!