Dr. Stephanie Rutherford is an alumna of St. Michael’s College (BA 1997) and is now an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment at Trent University. Her work is interdisciplinary, focusing on the intersections among the environmental humanities, animal studies, and cultural geography. She is the author or co-editor of three books that consider these themes, the most recent of which is Historical Animal Geographies (2018). She is currently writing a new book on the history of wolves in Canada for McGill-Queen’s University Press. You can learn more about her work here.
Letting Go of the Treadmill of Productivity; Or How to Finish a Book in a Pandemic
The book was already late when the pandemic hit. Of course, being late is nothing new to most academics; we are often scrambling to meet—and missing—writing deadlines. Teaching and administrative work often take precedence during the term; bite-sized articles seem more doable over big projects.
But this was a big project that needed finishing. I’ve been working on this book about wolves for about eight years now. Eight years is a long time for any project; it starts to feel like it’s strangling you. The funding has elapsed. People keep asking when the book is going to be done. I started to be called the wolf lady, and not just behind my back. It was time to move on.
Last year I decided it was a good idea to seek a book contract to impose a deadline since I couldn’t seem to meet my own. It seemed like a smart thing to do—adding pressure from an outside source—as if the reason I hadn’t completed the book was out of slothfulness instead of being pulled in a variety of academic and administrative directions. It’s the curse of academia: you are never doing enough, publishing enough, or reading enough. It’s a feeling bred in PhD programs that lasts throughout your career, if you let it. Shame is not only the purview of my Irish aunties; it’s also the handmaiden of neoliberal academic life.
So, I got my contract and I had a June 2020 deadline. Then the pandemic hit. My 9-year old started school from home and in many ways that became my full-time job and my actual job began happening in smaller chunks and much later at night.
Of course, this has been the reality for many parents, and the effects can be quite gendered. For instance, there have already been a fair number of stories about how women academics have slowed their research output while men have sped theirs up during COVID. Guiliana Viglione in a Nature article tells us women are starting fewer new projects. Diane Peters in University Affairs writes that women’s research has been “squeezed” by the pandemic. I have received invitations to complete three surveys meant to measure my own gendered lack of productivity, which have only succeeded in making me feel that the authors of these surveys are much more productive than I am. My fabled life of the mind has been replaced by the life of “Mom, can I have a snack”? So it goes.
But I have discovered, amid a fair amount of frustration, that I can work in new ways to accommodate our present reality. They aren’t ideal; right now, I often write in short chunks, bookended by swims and bike rides with the best kid I know. And I’m lucky. I don’t have to do this while worrying about my job, or my partner’s job. It also helps that I have the security of tenure. My research can be put on hold in ways that more precarious faculty could never consider. Neoliberal academia once again.
But I’ve realized something that feels significant in my own understanding of the kind of academic life I want to lead. If my project was new, this approach wouldn’t be tenable. It seems those eight years of researching and pondering might, in this strange time, be an advantage rather than a liability. Put differently, maybe it pays a little to be late (don’t tell my mom) and engage in a kind slow scholarship, one that allows for a capacious openness to the kinds of ideas that might sometimes be missed when the treadmill of academic production has to be so very fast. At the very least it allows you to dig deep. In this way of thinking, instead of too long, eight years might seem like just about the right time, at least for me and at least with this project. The pandemic graced me with the ability to let go of the shame that goes with an obsessive emphasis on academic productivity, and embrace being present for myself and my family, as well as my work. In doing so, I learned to love those wolves again, which is really how this whole project started.
It turns out that letting go of that shame was perhaps just what I need to do. Just before writing this short reflection, I completed the draft of the book, late again but done this time. It feels great; it’s time for someone else to worry about it. So now I’m going to go enjoy another swim with my kid, because as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously noted “No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.”
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