It’s been two days since my visit to Broughty Ferry (near Dundee, Scotland) and I’m still feeling mentally foggy. I don’t usually travel during term time, the perk of teaching at a university and all, but I wanted to catch up with my amazing friend. We don’t see each other often, maybe every two years, but this time there’s a lot going on so it was a much needed catch up.
The time away felt properly away. Usually I feel like there’s an axe over my head, hovering just enough to remind me that work is waiting. Nope. Not this time. My attitude to work has changed this past year and during my visit I didn’t feel the need to think about work, let alone do anything ‘just in case’ (hell no to checking email inbox). It was such a great feeling to be free. Well, free isn’t quite the word. I suppose more relieved, like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could actually be properly present with my friend.
That might explain why I feel so foggy today. It’s like I’ve been shoved back into a crowded Tube tunnel and I’ve got to make my way through the throng to get somewhere. Find my bearings. It’s noisy and dirty and I don’t have a lot of space to breath. Yet, this state feels familiar and disorientating at the same time. I suppose work is like that at the moment. I feel my mental state is on autopilot, set to cope with the work pressures. It’s jarring to be away in a state of calm, only to be thrown back into this level of stress. I suppose the mental fog is a good indicator that working this way isn’t normal.
This past week I had the privilege to help facilitate the first ‘solo’ Thesis Boot Camp (TBC) event on campus. For those of you who don’t know, it’s essentially 2 ½ days of no-holds-barred, intensive writing event intended for final-stage PhD students to get as many words down on paper as possible. Last year we had the brilliant Dr Peta Freestone, award winning writer and creator of TBC, lead the very first event. From that experience we decided to try our hand to run it again this year.
From a ‘former-PhD-student-now-facilitator’ perspective it was fascinating to observe this group of students rise to the challenge of writing their thesis. As I spoke to the participants I found I could really empathise with their struggles. The anxiety and self-doubt seem to grow during the final-stages of the PhD and I remember, quite vividly, the effort it took to ‘just write’. These memories made me all the more determined to find ways to keep the group positive and motivated.
Everyone needs cheerleaders, and during this event it’s a fine balance between what I call ‘pat and push’. Yes, it’s also known as ‘carrot and stick’ but I prefer my version. Less ‘you’re a horse being lead’ kind of visual and more sports orientated (?). Anyhow, knowing when to be reassuring and knowing when to issue an challenge wasn’t easy, especially towards final few hours when we’re all losing steam. Being ‘on the other side’gave me some insight into the process they were currently undergoing. This made it a little easier to know when to lend a hand and when to lend a listening ear!
It’s sometimes hard to know what to say, and I wondered if my words sounded ’empty’ because they seem so cliché (e.g. You can do it! Keep going! etc.). Then I remembered being on the receiving end of this kind of encouragement, and feeling quite relieved to hear these sorts of messages. So I hoped, in some way, what I said was useful to this group!
We’ve got another TBC coming up later this year so, fingers crossed, it’ll be just as productive as this one!
Image my own, taken before boot camp (duh)!
I remember the first time I learned that one of the professors in my discipline commuted to Manchester for work but lived in another city several hours away (by train). He’d stay a few days then go back to his family on the weekend. I remember thinking this was completely crazy – who would voluntarily do this? Well, apparently it’s quite common in academia have what I call a “two-city” life.
Last September my partner moved to Brighton to take up a post at the University of Sussex while I remained in Manchester, so we’ve been in this two-city living situation ever since. So far, the practicalities of travelling every few weeks (I go to Brighton or he comes to Manchester) have been smooth, though a little surreal. We were both so busy at work that the reality of living in different places didn’t really sink in until later in the semester.
Oddly, it feels kind of normal but at the same time I’m still getting used to all this. Technically one doesn’t travel “home” to the other – we both take turns visiting each other (though currently Ben travels more to Manchester)! I also don’t really have a “life” in Brighton – no networks or close friends, and I get lost easily. So when I’m there, the city feels more like a tourist destination than home.
It’s a weird kind of change, but the weirdness hasn’t come from the distance but rather how normal this transition feels. Like, it’s an inevitable (?) part of us both working in higher education. The move wasn’t expected, but when he got the job offer, it just made sense to live in different cities. Not for the long term (hopefully), but certainly for now. It’s what you do if you work in UK HE, right?
Things that make you go “hmm”! Feel free to comment below.