Thursday, November 10, 2005


My Sick Fantasy

And no, it doesn’t involve Winona Ryder, or supernatural powers, or even dunking George Steinbrenner in a vat of boiling oil. (Not that I’d mind...) It involves....

Drum roll, please...

Uninterrupted time to think!

I’ve had two opportunities in the last month to think, alone, during daytime hours. One was jury duty, while I waited to be called. The other was at a conference, during the weirdly extended periods between concurrent sessions.

Neither was at work.

And heaven knows, neither was at home. The Boy and The Girl are lovable beyond words, but it would be fair to describe them as high-maintenance. Comes with the age.

In the two recent cases, I was able to make connections between disparate things long enough to write them down. My brain snapped back to its original shape. I felt refreshed, and actually capable of completing a thought. Some of the thoughts actually had something like value.

I have no illusions about being left alone for hours a day in the office, feverishly scribbling master plans and cackling while mainlining coffee. (Not that I’ve thought about it!) But sometimes it’s like standing too close to a Monet – instead of the picture, I just see a whole bunch of dots, and they look random from here.

(Honestly, part of the appeal of blogging for me is that it gives me a chance – a self-imposed obligation, really – to step back briefly each day.)

What’s even harder to find – and this is where you readers are so unbelievably valuable – is unstructured, intelligent, semi-focused feedback from people who know what I’m talking about. Although I have plenty of meetings, it’s rare that I get the chance to spend an extended period talking one-on-one with someone smart about work matters we both understand. Those conversations are usually when the breakthroughs occur, since they force me out of my own little pet obsessions and provide needed reality checks. The hierarchy of work makes it difficult – most of the people I see are either above or below me on the food chain, and the few peers are as busy as I am.

So my sick fantasy – a day without purchase requisitions, faculty complaints, crabby students, weird financial issues, meetings, or the ever-present phone. Just me, at a conference table, with a whole bunch of paper, and some damn good coffee. Punctuated by one or two extended, open-ended conversations with thoughtful and interesting peers, to provide some helpful perspective.

Sigh. This is what I’ve been reduced to...

A whole day is asking too much, but is it not possible to schedule some time just for yourself? For example, Wednesdays from 3 to 5, no visitors and no calls. Critical meeting in progress, between you and yourself. Perhaps at certain hectic times of year that doesn't work, but it should be possible to insert into the weekly routine.

Jury duty. Can you imagine anything less efficient? And the bad attitudes of the lawyers and judges toward the jurors--don't get me started.
I thought that was why people took "Mental Health Days."
When you refer to standing to close to a Monet and just seeing a whole bunch of dots...I think you meant to say a Seurat. Other than that though, I completely agree with your post. Even as a grad student, with theoretically nothing on my plate except research, I find it difficult to clear a day entirely for said research.

Art History isn't my field.

Mental health days are good, but they're away from work. I'm looking for time to think at work.
Seurat ... rhymes with Grande Jatte ... which is not far from the most famous painting in North America.

On to the substance of your problem. On the one hand, you might have to schedule a play date with a colleague (my chairman came over to my place and bashed a few freight cars around for a few minutes) after hours. If the model trains aren't your thing, perhaps a quiet saloon with good beer.

During the 9 to 7, another matter. Hide in the library? Possibly, although somebody as widely recognized on campus as a dean might not be able to hide very well. Close the office and take a working lunch at an off-campus cafe? (I don't know the geography of Anonymous Suburb, there are a few possibilities even at my suitcase mid-major.)
When I was chairperson for 15 years, I found it nearly impossible to get time for myself and/or research. My dean for the last 5 years of my tenure as chair made (i.e., requested) that each chair provide a list of 3-5 hours a week when we would not be available, and she would not schedule meetings, nor expect us to keep office hours during that time and requested that the school secretaries not make appointments for those times, nor interrupt us except in extreme emergencies.

In theory that was fine, but my faculty thought they were exempted from the rule, and gradually it eroded. The only way I found was to be in the library hidden in a carrel in the corner. That of course required me to leave the office and walk to the library which was not really convienent. When that cover was blown, the only recourse was to not be on campus when I wanted thinking time...often at the local coffee shoppe with colleagues from other departments. A group of colleagues used to meet at 7:30 each morning for discussions, but that eventually turned into a nonproductive bitching session.

It is a problem, and I guess the blog is a good release of frustrations, and luckily for you it is not a rambling blog, but full of ideas that both you and others bring up.
This has been my fantasy for non-teaching days, which I have in my schedule every other semester, but it somehow never works out that way because I wind up doing grading/class prep/sitting in meetings. The closest I come is the occasional conversation with fellow faculty about teaching, but even that is often not about ideas and our intellectual interests per se.

I do like the idea of scheduling a couple of hours per week for real thinking. I'm determined to create these mental spaces in my post-tenure life.

This response is very me-me-me, but I just wanted to say that I appreciated and responded to your post!
Dean Dad,
There's a book from two UBC professors of Poli Sci up here; it's called "No Place to Think" and is about the negative impact on the mission of *thinking* of policies geared toward efficiencies, and of increased pressure to produce *new* research, rather than to refine thought.
You may find it very interesting.

Meanwhile, I know what you mean; I had my first few-hour-uninterrupted-chunk the other day. I went to a *different* university in my region, sat in a caral, and just read and wrote for about 4 hours. What a brilliant luxury.
I work in: coffee shops, a university where I'm not affiliated, and the local public library. (Consider around your neighborhood as well as college.)

I know you said you wanted to be in your office. Maybe this is a reason people go in on the weekend, not that I'm recommending that.

You can silence your phone; does your door lock?
I think you need a high-status ally to stand guard at the door for a few weeks during the scheduled "down time" until people get the message.
I hear you. Uninterrupted think time is so valuable, and so rare. My fantasy is of a hotel with luxurious beds and a writing table, room service, and a beach or pool for writing breaks. And yeah, friends and colleagues who are smart to bounce ideas off of.

In other words, a writing retreat. Sigh.
I thought that was why people took "Mental Health Days."
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