Editor’s Note: In the “Are You Working?” series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions about scholarly motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read her previous columns here.
Question: I was greatly heartened by your recent column in which you discussed the forthcoming crop of Covid-related — or kind-of-Covid-related — tomes that scholars everywhere are no doubt rushing into production. But I would like to ask: For those of us who teach and do research on subjects that actually involve apocalypse/dystopia/catastrophe, how do you think we should present our work now, particularly to students?
I’ve talked with colleagues who also teach dark subject matter, and nobody really knows what to do. We don’t want to minimize our subjects or our students’ concerns, but we also don’t want to traumatize them.
Signed, Relevant but Hesitant
As someone who is currently teaching a course on the intellectual origins of the alt-right — whose first day of class was the day after the president of the United States told the Proud Boys to “stand by” in a televised debate — I feel this acutely. After years of my work toiling in relative obscurity — Ernst Jünger, anyone? Nope? Nobody? — suddenly students are very interested in learning about the aggressive young men of 20th-century Europe. But as with you, mostly what I feel these days is pressure.
Those of us who work on distressing subjects, as you pointed out, want to make sure students can use what we teach to both understand — and in some cases, improve — the world around them. Yet we also don’t want to bombard them with apocalypse and dystopia in their coursework when they already are getting daily doses of that in the news.
The advice I have stands for both teaching and scholarship on dark but inevitably relevant topics: Look for the daylight.
I don’t mean you should be falsely cheery or optimistic about these difficult subjects. The entire point of being a professional scholar is to spend upward of a decade — after your first 16 years of schooling — learning how to identify and exegete nuance, whether that be in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities.
By look for the daylight, I mean: Look for the ways in which the dystopian narratives that are the focus of your research and/or teaching differ from the real dystopia of now — whether that be in dark strains of hope or simply elements that don’t match. The work you’re studying is complex, and straight-line comparisons to the ills of today, while exciting, can have the effect of flattening out work that deserves a textured treatment.
The result will be research and teaching that is both more rigorous and less dated, and is presented in a way that helps students see light amid the darkness.
Question: How the *&*^% do you concentrate during a hellfire apocalypse?
Dear Everyone: I know. Listen, I know. All the usual advice — turn off the news, take time off, etc. — is just not viable for those of you whose lives are immediately and adversely affected by said news and can’t get away because you have to adhere to the academic calendar. (Oh, I’m not supposed to read about my employer cutting 15 majors? I’m not supposed to read about my college town tripling its Covid-19 cases in a month? I’m meant to ignore the latest act of unconscionable racist violence? Must be nice.)
Whenever The News starts to encroach upon my writing time (which happens more often than I’d like to admit), I try to be mindful of what I call the “curve of information productivity.” That is:
- When, precisely, have I transitioned from informing myself to spiraling into doom?
- And if I have spiraled, how much of my rage can be channeled into affecting change, and how much is just self-indulgent?
- How much news do I need to consume to know what’s happening without inadvertently swapping mourning for melancholia?
What usually works for me is to turn on a “doomscrolling timer” for 15 minutes — enough time to skim most headlines and read a few key pieces, but decidedly not enough to get into a Twitter beef with the provocateur of the day.
You may need more or less time to catch up on the day’s grim news. But if you can find that highly disciplined balance between remaining informed and becoming consumed by rage, then you will have more energy, which concentration on your work requires. Not a lot of energy, mind you, but an incremental amount.
Use that incremental amount of energy to take a breath and set another timer — a “doomscrolling cancellation timer,” as it were — for an additional 15 minutes. Use that time to do anything related to your research. Even if you decide that those 15 minutes are all you have to give that day to your writing, you can feel good about stopping, because that 15-minute stretch, done four times a week, is an hour of work, and those hours add up.
In this period when teaching (and everything else) has become so much more labor intensive and stressful, I find that the hardest part of concentrating on research is moving into the correct frame of mind. A quarter-hour can do the job.
Question: How am I supposed to find time to work on my research when I have so many student essays to grade?
No matter what your Ph.D. supervisor told you about deprioritizing teaching and elevating research, your pedagogical work is crucial and urgent. Over the course of your career, you’ll be responsible for teaching thousands of young people to think — in a world that seems to value that act less and less. It’s vitally important. But that does not mean teaching needs to take up all of your time.
Here’s what I recommend: Grade all essays using a detailed rubric of your own design, with criteria that cover all of the aspects of the paper you’ve assigned, such as writing quality, thesis, organization, or use of evidence. When you grade a paper, just check boxes, assign numbers, and type out a few lines of general commentary at the end. Do not do a line-by-line pass on every single essay at this juncture. Instead, offer that service to any student who wants one — so long as that student comes to see you in (virtual) office hours, and you go through that paper together.
That way, the students who truly want your help get the absolute gold standard of it, and those who are more of the “look at the grade and never think about the paper again” school (nothing wrong with that, either!) no longer inadvertently suck your time into the void. Everyone who wants line-by-line feedback gets it, but I find that only three to five students per class usually ask for that level of assessment.
The rubric and end comments usually satisfy even the most micromanagerial administration’s feedback requirements, so you’re covered there. Trust me, this saves hours upon hours. To my mind, anyone who doesn’t grade papers this way simply enjoys the martyrdom of unappreciated labor.