The Summer of Reading

It is the last week of the semester and I’m turning my thoughts to my spring/summer work plan. Like many academics, I normally start off this “research season” with very long “to do” lists and lofty plans. “This year will be different,” I say to myself, “this year I WILL DO ALL THE THINGS between April and September.”

Yeah right…

One thing I am normally doing at this time of year is finalizing my spring/summer travel plans – ’tis the season for for research trips and conferences! However, this year I plan to spend most of my spring/summer here at home in Niagara. There are many reasons for this – we are getting some much-needed major renovations done to our home. Also, we live in a pretty excellent part of the country for kayaking adventures, and I certainly hope to be doing a lot of paddling in the coming months.

Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)
Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)

I also have been dealing with some rather mysterious health issues lately. It has been incredibly frustrating and stressful, and we are still trying to get to the bottom of all of it. I feel like it is important to stay close to home right now as we are working this out.

In terms of my research and writing, the book I have been working on for the past decade will be out later this month. (Yay!) This project has been such a big part of my life for so long, and it feels a bit weird to not be actively working on it any more. I still have tons of material that didn’t make it in to the book – my archival explorations turned up much more information than I’d ever imagined I would find about how animal advocacy groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used art and visual culture. I certainly have more writing to do on this front, but I’m also thinking about new avenues and directions for my research – related avenues, but they would be spin-off projects that require me to dig in and do some reading.

I have, therefore, decided that my research focus this summer will simply be reading. I know I will feel like I need to be doing more than reading, but I’m going to try to quiet that part of my brain. Sure, sitting on my front porch reading a pile of books isn’t quite as exciting as being at the British Library, but it is what I need to be doing right now. I’m looking forward to it!

I’m surprised at how many people have asked me what my next book will be about — my latest isn’t even out yet! I’m going to draw on the wisdom of my colleague Dr. Barbara Seeber who, along with Dr. Maggie Berg, wrote the wonderful book, The Slow Professor. One of the main points they make in this book is that the scholarly work we do requires time – we need to spend time reading carefully, thinking, making notes, etc. I am not going to give in to the pressure to get the prospectus for my next book project whipped together in record time. I really feel that right now I need to immerse myself in the literature related to some of these new avenues I want to be exploring. I need to slow down, to read, to think, to figure out the next steps.

I’m excited about the #summerofreading – I think it is just what I need right now.

Some of the books I want to read this summer.
Some of the books I want to read this summer.

The End (of Sabbatical) is Nigh

And just like that, we are at the end of 2015! I’m always amazed at how fast a year whips by, but I was especially aware of it this year. When I began my sabbatical year back on January 1, 2015 a year felt like a nearly endless expanse of time. Perhaps I thought that this year would be different. Perhaps I thought that being on sabbatical would slow down the passing of time, that if I took the time to read, to savour, to think, that I wouldn’t feel as though the weeks were flying by. I was wrong.

So, now I’m in the final days (7 left!) of my sabbatical, although as my friend and colleague, Gregory, pointed out the other day, I am, in actuality, “like everyone else at Brock now, on holiday break.” I suppose he has a point given how quick I was to jump in to sabbatical mode this time last year.

It has been a good year. It was a busy year and when I look back at where my days went, the list looks something like this:

Over the course of the year I also was constantly reminded about what sabbatical (in an academic context anyhow) is and isn’t.

  • It is a gift. I felt so grateful to have so much dedicated time to work on my book manuscript. I sat with it day in and day out for months. I immersed myself in the project in a way that would have been impossible without sabbatical. I put in long hours and worked 7 days a week on the manuscript for a good chunk of my sabbatical time. People kept telling me to “take a break,” but I had been gasping for time to really sink myself in to this work and I wasn’t going to tear myself away from it until I had a full and polished manuscript ready to send to the press.
  • It is a privilege. If you get to take sabbatical you are very, very privileged. Do not forget this. It is important to check your privilege and to be careful how you talk about your sabbatical with others.
  • It isn’t a vacation. I am sure I had friends and family who were genuinely baffled by the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and come for a visit or go on a leisure outing this past year. As mentioned above, I am sure that I actually put in more hours at my desk this year than I regularly do during the years I’m not on sabbatical. When you are on sabbatical you are hyper aware of how rare and precious this time devoted to your research is. I know I won’t get another sabbatical for a while and I didn’t want to waste a single second of it.
  • It isn’t a magic “cure all.” I think I was guilty of imagining sabbatical to be this blissful, stress-free year. I might have imagined that I was going to sit at my desk, think lofty thoughts, and become a better person. When I imagined my sabbatical I didn’t imagine the days filled with writer’s block, panic, and stress related to “imposter syndrome” (“what if I don’t have anything interesting to say after all?”). My imagined version of sabbatical also didn’t include getting sick, debilitating migraine headaches, sick pets, sick friends and family members, bad weather, travel woes, and financial worries. But, guess what? All of those things were also part of the year–of course they were, because sabbatical isn’t a magic bubble!
  • It is a limited amount of time. At the start of sabbatical it may seem that you have SO MUCH TIME to do ALL THE STUFF. But, in reality, it is only 365 days, just like any other year. I did get many of the things I set out to do crossed off my list, but there are other things (clean out the basement, reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories) that I’ve not yet managed to accomplish. I guess I still have 7 more days!

It has been a good year, but I am looking forward to going back to teaching  in January. I love my classes and I am excited to teach in the beautiful new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Sabbatical Panic (Really?)

It is Wednesday, the third day of the winter semester and the third “real” day of my sabbatical. Sure, it officially started on January 1st, but those days between the 1st and the start of term on January 5th were still part of the holidays. I got ready for the real sabbatical work to begin on those days — organized my desk, sharpened my pencils, etc. But now there are no more excuses. And it isn’t easy. I know that this is likely not a popular thing to say, but stay with me. First of all, I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical. I truly am. It is a gift and I want to make every moment count. But that is the rub. I want to make every moment count. What does that even mean?

I began on Monday morning in a state of panic–there is not enough time left in my sabbatical (only 52 weeks!) to get it all done! I grabbed some books from my ever-growing “to read” pile and started ploughing through them, wildly taking notes and barely stopping for lunch. At the end of the day I felt worse. There are always going to be more books! I also realized that if the goal is to simply get through them, I’m not really absorbing what is written in them. What is the point of that?

I fear that the past decade or so in academia has conditioned me to the idea of getting throughgetting it donechecking it off the list. To what end though? There is always another hoop or deadline. Academics are skilled at multi-tasking–juggling grading, meetings, grant writing, committee work, lecture prep, report writing, form filling, etc. But when, if ever, is there time to read for the sake of engaging with new knowledge? This, it seems, should be the starting point for everything else. How have we lost sight of that? Part of this sabbatical may be about unlearning some old habits. Quinn Norton has written a great essay called “Against Productivity” that reminded me that the fast-paced, multi-tasking way of being in the world is not the only way. I’ve filed this essay away in my Evernote. It is one I think I will want to return to throughout this year.

Yesterday I tried a different approach. I opened up the book manuscript that I have been working on for far too long, the manuscript that is going to get finished on this sabbatical if it kills me. It was daunting. It had been a while since I sat with it, but I went back to a trick that helped me get my dissertation done when I was in grad school–I set the timer. 20 minute sessions in which the only thing to focus on is the document itself. Have to look up a reference? Too bad! Wait until the timer goes off. As anyone who has used this technique knows, by the time those 20 minutes are up you are in to the task of writing. You have found a groove and want to keep going. Get up from the chair, stretch, get some more tea and set the timer for another 20 minutes. I did this a few times yesterday and it felt good. I also gave myself permission to sit and think. Towards the end of the day I shut off the computer, grabbed a book and sat in my reading chair to read. I didn’t take notes. I simply read. The panic started to subside. It isn’t gone completely, but this seems to be a much better approach.


Sabbatical 2015 Starts Now!

Today is the first official day of my sabbatical. Ok, technically it started yesterday, but since yesterday was a holiday I’m not going to count it. Making brunch and drinking mimosas with friends isn’t exactly an auspicious start to a sabbatical year. Or maybe it is!

Is it weird that I’m already worried about running out of time during this next year? So many things I want to do, and I know that the year will just fly by! I think some people think I’m “on vacation,” but I think it might be the opposite. I’m know I’m going to be trying to cram as much writing/research as I can in to the next 52 weeks. Sabbatical is such a gift and I want to be sure to use it wisely!

I need to finish up the book manuscript I’ve been working on for a while. I had hoped to be able to get more work done on it while I was Department Chair. No big surprise that this didn’t really work out as planned. Being Chair was a lot more time-consuming and energy-draining than I had budgeted for. So, this is the first big thing I’m going to focus on. But, I’ve got some new projects that I want to work on too, projects that will take some time to set up. I need to do some background reading and research to get them started. I’m also developing an online version of my first year course. Throw in some conferences and some research travel, and all of the sudden 12 months doesn’t sound like that much time! Eeep!

I never make new year’s resolutions. For me, as an academic, September is the time for new beginnings. This year is different though because of the sabbatical. So, while I hesitate to call them “resolutions” (that just feels like setting myself up for failure), there are some things I want to put in place as this year begins — good habits that might help me stay on track and get the most out of the sabbatical. Things like making sure to get some exercise each day and to drastically reduce my time playing around on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

I’m also reviewing the tools I need to help keep me organized and to keep the writing/work flowing. Evernote, Dropbox, and Zotero are an essential part of my research process and have been for a while. I would like to transfer my writing from Word to Scrivener. I have had Scrivener for a while, but haven’t quite had the time to learn how to use the software properly. I think it has a lot of potential though. Word is getting on my nerves. I’ve also started a 60 day trial of Basecamp because two of my new projects are collaborative. I’m still getting up to speed on what Basecamp does, but so far it seems like a great way to work with others.

Here’s to a great 2015! I look forward to seeing what it brings!

Summer Reading, Summer Writing, and Old Habits

My term as Department Chair came to an end on June 30th and since then I have been knee-deep in writing/research. I didn’t get as much done on the book manuscript as I had hoped while being Chair. (Surprise, surprise!) This was very frustrating, but I have spent too much time feeling awful about how behind I am. Onwards and upwards.

So, now I’m pulling up old files and documents. I have been trying to get my head back in the game, trying to remember what I was thinking when I wrote certain sections (in some cases many months or, gulp, even years ago!). I am forcing myself to go back to an old habit I picked up in grad school, free writing. It works. It always amazes me just how effective this is for writing. The trick is to keep up the habit – right now I am still at 15 minutes each session, but I don’t always get around to doing it each day.

I’m doing a lot of reading right now, revisiting texts that I’ve previously read and enjoying some new titles. There are a lot of great books on different aspects of human relationships with nonhuman animals in previous eras. This week alone I have read:

David Grimm’s new book, Citizen Canine
Garry Jenkins’s history of the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, A Home of Their Own
Neil Pemberton & Michael Worboys’s fascinating history, Rabies in Britain

I’ve also made sure to set aside some time to read fiction, one of my favourite summertime pursuits. Right now I’m enjoying Donna Tartt’s most recent book, The Goldfinch. I’m not that far in to it yet, but so far I love it!

Summertime reading - Miss Jenny isn't sure what to make of this book.
Summertime reading – Miss Jenny isn’t sure what to make of this book.

Picturing Animals

I am delighted to be part of the new online magazine published by Our Hen House. For years I have been a huge fan of the incredibly important work that Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan have done through this site, so it is a tremendous honour to be a columnist for their new magazine.

My column is called “Picturing Animals,” and focuses on the ways in which art and visual culture can be an important part of animal advocacy efforts.  In this column I will be writing about how activists use imagery today, but will also be considering examples of art and visual culture used by activists in previous eras as I think it is important to draw connections between the history of animal advocacy and what is being done today.

I am very excited about the opportunity to write this column–I had been wanting to do more writing that blends activism and academic work, so this is a perfect fit. I’m also really happy to be part of the Our Hen House team. Jasmin and Mariann bring an “indefatigably positive” spirit to the work they do, and I find this tremendously encouraging. Activism can be a tough, lonely, and discouraging road (heck, so can academia!), and it is so easy to get burnt out. However, without fail, every single time I listen to an Our Hen House podcast or hear these two talented women speak I feel inspired to do more, to work harder to help make a difference for animals.

Tools To Stay On Track

As part of my efforts to refocus and find time for writing/research each day I have been thinking a lot about how to best organize my work and how to most effectively use some of the many apps and tools available for these purposes. The key for me (and for many other academics, I suspect) is portability. If I’m serious about finding time for writing/research each and every day, I have to be realistic and realize that this may often be on my lunch break or squeezed in to an hour I have between meetings. I also need a system that works well across the many devices I use (my office computer, my laptop, my iPad). What I don’t want to have happen is to find myself with an hour or two of “free time” to work on my book manuscript, but to not be able to use that time effectively because my notes, research materials, and chapter drafts are not physically with me. I also don’t want to be wasting precious writing/research time fiddling with settings, syncing, and just generally trying to get a piece of software to do what it is supposed to do!

I’ve been playing with a number of apps and pieces of software over the past little while, but hadn’t really set up a proper system until recently. I guess I wanted to test-drive a few to see which worked best for me and also with one another–compatibility is key! There are four apps/pieces of software that have risen to the top for me: Zotero, Dropbox, Evernote, and iAnnotate PDF. I like these because they have many useful features, are easy to use, and work well with one another. At the start of this semester I spent some time setting up a system that I’m hoping will help me stay focused:

1. I switched from EndNote to Zotero because of the portability factor. I was getting really frustrated with having my “library” on my home computer but only working from that computer a fraction of the time. So far so good. It was easy to import my Endnote library, and really like the ability to capture citations right from my browser! I can now access my library from anywhere I have an internet connection.

2. Dropbox rocks my world. Chapter drafts, articles to be read, image files are all just there waiting for me when I need them. No more worrying about whether I’m working from the most recent version of a document or not. I upgraded to a Pro account so I have more storage, and it is totally worth it. I love how easy it is to use, and I really love the new feature where my photos from my iPhone are immediately uploaded to Dropbox, a fabulous back-up system for any photos, but an especially great tool for keeping track of the photos I take on research trips.  Simply fabulous!

3. Like most academics, I take a lot of notes. I have handwritten notes scribbled in notebooks, typed notes on the computer, notes I wrote on my iPad with my stylus, etc. The trouble is, I hadn’t stopped to come up with a way to organize them. I would spend far too long looking for notes that I took on a book that I only vaguely remembered (“umm…I know I read a book that mentioned this last summer, what was it? The title had the word “Peace” in it and might have had a blue cover…”). Enter Evernote, a fabulous tool that works on my computers, iPhone, and iPad. You can set up multiple, searchable “notebooks” that then sync across devices. I am in the process of taking all those wayward notes and putting them in to an Evernote notebook called “notes for new book.” Transferring them all is time-consuming, but I am sure this will end up being time well-spent. I also have a notebook in Evernote with the images I am using for this project as well as a master “to-do” list.

4. iAnnotate PDF is another tool that I’ve started to use lately, and I find it especially great for reading journal articles as you can highlight and make annotations on the PDF document as you read. I do eventually still make notes in Evernote, but I find this a really useful intermediate step in the research process.

I’m sure there are other tools and systems that people have found useful for organizing a writing project. I’d love to hear about them!

Not Enough Hours In A Day

I’m now about half way through my term as Dept. Chair, a post that has come with a relatively steep learning curve. Suffice it to say a PhD in Art History does little to prepare one for the realities of University administration. However, there are many good people around me that have been patient and helpful, something for which I am very grateful.

I think the most difficult thing about this post is that it is incredibly difficult to carve out sustained writing and research time. I’ll have an afternoon here or there, but the amount of time between these sessions means that I spend most of this precious found writing/research time trying to figure out where I left off. I need to get better and finding a way to implement regular, sustained writing/research sessions, even if they are shorter. As I learned while on sabbatical, it is the frequency of these sessions more than the length that really makes the difference.

Last summer I took two weeks vacation time (something I’ve only done once before since finishing the PhD, probably not a good idea) to have a mini writing retreat. I had a colleague take over as “Acting Chair” (see point above about helpful, good people around me) so that I could just focus on the book manuscript I have been working on. 2 glorious weeks of just thinking, writing, reading was just what I needed and felt more restorative than if I’d taken those two weeks to travel. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling, but I was aching for some focused, quiet time with my research. In December I took at trip over to London to spend some time at the British Library for the same reason. This time another wonderful colleague stepped up and was “Acting Chair” in my absence, allowing me to make the trip.  I found a great flat walking distance to the library and quickly fell in to a routine that included hours in the reading rooms and then evenings filled with quiet reflection and free writing. Pure bliss!

These two writing/research “retreats” were amazing, but it is so difficult it is to get this kind of sustained time to really focus. I need to work harder at building this in to my daily schedule. When I was working on my PhD, Joan Bolker’s advice to “write first” and “write every day” really helped me to stay focused and finish quickly. It is time to go back to those basics!

Be Kind

I was honoured to be asked to curate an online exhibit on the subject of “Humane Education” for the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS) this year. After several months of research and preparation, the exhibit is now live. I enjoyed working on this project, thrilled to have had the opportunity to bring this story to a broader audience. So many people helped make this exhibit a reality, and I’m so grateful for all of their kindness, hard work, and generosity.

The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!

Research and the iPad 2

I recently got an iPad 2 and am still discovering all of the ways that I can make use of it. In addition to being a “bigger iPhone without the phone” (how I initially conceived of it), I’m discovering just how useful it can be for research.

I have been playing with a number of different note-taking and “productivity” apps, but so far my favourites are Evernote and Penultimate. Evernote is kind of tricky to describe because it is just so darn robust. Think of it as an updated, improved and digital version of that big notebook/day timer/coupon holder/place to shove a photo of your cat that many of us lugged around in the 1990s. In the few short weeks since I signed up for my Evernote account (which is free, although you can upgrade to premium for more features – something I did pretty quickly once I figured out just how fabulous this software is!) I’ve used it for taking notes, for “clipping” sections of webpages I need to refer to later, and for storing photographs and documents. I’m sure there are all kinds of other uses for this software that I haven’t yet discovered. Penultimate may be easier to describe, but it is no less awesome. Basically it allows you to handwrite notes on the iPad. You can use your finger, but I like the stylus that I picked up for $15. You can scribble, doodle and erase to your heart’s content on pages that look like an old-school notebook. Why not just use a notebook? Well, this way all your scribbles and doodles are all in one place and not as likely to get misplaced. You can share your scribbles and doodles via email or save them as photos.

I just discovered today that these photos of your notebook pages can, in turn, be inserted in to your Evernote notes. These two applications work amazingly well together and I can see them really changing how I approach research. Today, for instance, I was trying to summarize a Sherlock Holmes story, so I whipped out my handy-dandy stylus, opened up Penultimate and scribbled down a few thoughts. I then saved it as a photo and popped it in to a larger Evernote note that I had started on the broader project I’m working on. Seamless. Easy. No more scraps of paper to lose. Yay!

I’m looking forward to seeing how the built-in camera in the iPad 2 works for taking photographs of documents in archives. I’ve got a few research trips planned this summer so will be trying it out soon!