Ten things I’m going to keep doing in 2016

Amid all of the wishes for a Happy New Year on Facebook and Twitter were hundreds of resolutions. Resolutions are an implicit reflection on what we could have done better in 2015 – the mistakes we made and shortcomings we had. I had shortcomings, certainly; in fact, that’s an understatement. My 2015 was full of (both glorious and inglorious) total failures, disappointments, messes, and the like – not only those, but definitely those. So I have a 2016 resolution – like most other people, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on how to improve the stuff I suck at. But then, I saw someone post this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to Facebook. At first, my reaction was to chuckle – in part, because my personal life has been somewhat nomadic lately, and I have embraced it – so the ‘wing it’ mentality is pretty near and dear to me; but in part because, at New Year’s, we don’t think a lot about “staying the course.” It made me think about the things I think I might be doing right – the good decisions I’ve made and good strategies I’ve come up with even in the midst of the nomadism and messes. This is not to say that I’m winning whatever game, or that I have all the answers – I certainly have more flaws than victories, and more questions than answers. But I thought it might be good to start 2016 with a sense of what is working for me, as a baseline to think about what isn’t.  So, here are ten things (in no particular order)  I’m going to keep doing in 2016:

1. Look for opportunities to engage my multiple interests in the field rather than looking to fall into one mold.

My work is in gender and security – Feminist Security Studies, to be exact. That’s what drew me to graduate school when I had no interest in academia; that’s what drew me back into academia when I had left for the legal world. It is my passion, and it will be a central focus of my work for the rest of my career. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t explore other stuff that I’m interested in (the Interpretive Quantification project, for example). It also doesn’t mean that I have to – or even can – have one perspective on it. In some of my work in FSS, I’m drawn to mainstream-facing work thinking about how war theorizing might be different if gender were taken into account, to a variety of degrees. In other pieces, I’m drawn to poststructuralist analyses of the grotesque. Sometimes, it is women I think about, other times, its queer or trans- bodies. There are some common themes across this work. But there are also tensions and contradictions. Some are places I’ve come to disagree with myself – for example, as I’ve said before, I’ve come to think my first book was too optimistic about the Just War tradition. But most are places where I don’t have one perspective, one interest, or one understanding. I think that I’d lose my sense of exploration and my sense of why I do this if I tried to be just one of these things. I know there are those who find following multiple paths problematic. But I’m not one of them, and I’m going to aim to keep being not one of them.

2. Put editing work and service work first. 

I’m busier than I used to be, and, for a wide variety of reasons, less productive (I know, friends, joke away here, but its relative, and true). I’ve found myself lately having to make priorities about what work gets done in a timely manner and what doesn’t. And there is an order of priority. It goes: 1. Editing work; 2. Reviewing work; 3. Service work; 4. University obligations; 5. Talk preparation; 6. Everything else (e.g., writing). This may be a career-counterintuitive explicit priority list; though I’m guessing more people behave like this list than explicitly endorse it. But I do live by it, and here’s why: my career will be ok – it will be ok if I don’t get to #6 for a long time. And that’s not true – I do get writing time – not as much as I used to, but I do.

The rest of it matters more to people who aren’t me. That responsibility to others is more important than my own work.  When I agreed to edit – now two journals and two book series – I took on a responsibility to other people to process their manuscripts efficiently and fairly. Its not about me, its about them. So the editorial work goes first. Perhaps priority #2 being reviewing work is a bigger surprise than #1 being editing. If I take on a reviewing responsibility, I do it immediately. I do that in part so it doesn’t get lost in the flow, forgotten, and become burdensome and late. But I mostly do it because I think reviewing quickly and efficiently is important, and I’d like others to do the same. I like the idea of knowing that I rarely if ever hold up a journal or a publisher – I either say “no” (which happens, though it is rare), or I just do the work. I feel about service work a lot like I feel about editorial work – if I take a leadership position or a committee position or some service responsibility, I’ve become accountable to others to do that work efficiently and well. Those feelings of accountability are why university obligations (that paycheck thing) and talk preparation (if people are going to pay to fly me somewhere, or come to my panel at a conference, I want to give them my best effort) come next on the list, and, honestly, why co-authored work comes before singly-authored work if #6 would get broken down. I like these work priorities, and I think I will stick with them.

3. Set writing quotas each day, and expect myself to meet them. 

I have been doing this for years – every day has a writing quota. Those writing quotas vary significantly on the basis of what is realistic for the day that they are assigned, and the sort of work. On a day when I have nothing else to do but write, and the writing obligation is a summary of something I am comfortable with discussing and done researching, my writing quotas can be as high as 8-10k words/day on a first draft.  On days when I have decision letters to write, airplanes to take, or family obligations, the writing quotas are reduced to fit the amount of likely time I will have to write. So days, writing quotas are as low as 100 words. Likewise, writing quotas go down for the difficulty of the particular task at hand – writing 100 words in a dense, mathematical paper is (usually) more difficult for me than writing 100 words in a textbook chapter – so I would account for the project in assigning myself the obligation. Generally, my writing quotas on full writing days are work that, if I were fully attentive, I could accomplish in eight hours, with breaks for meals. On otherwise-packed days, they calibrate for a half-hour of uninterrupted writing time, or an hour or so of writing among and between things. On vacation days, the writing quota is meant to fit the few minutes between when I get up and when I need to get going, or between when I get in and when I go to bed (this has produced some, though not a lot, of drunk-writing).

Sometimes, the writing quotas get met in that amount of time. Sometimes, the work is genuinely harder than I thought, and the writing quota will get adjusted for some unexpected hiccup, despite working the expected amount of time and working hard. Sometimes, I goof off on facebook, or have writer’s block, or watch an old movie on TV, or play Wii, or write a self-indulgent blog post. Those are activities my daily schedules don’t account for (as opposed to meals, showers, exercise, and time with the dogs, which they do). In those cases, I’m not allowed to go to sleep until the writing quota is done. This only happens to me three or four times a year – where I don’t get serious about writing until later in the evening, then have to work through the night in order to meet the quota. But I learn a lesson when it does, and am more focused after that (until I forget and relearn the lesson).  Often, when there’s a writing task I genuinely don’t want to do, I do it until there is some otherwise-unpleasant household task I’d actually prefer to do (mowing the lawn is pretty high on this list for me). Then I do that task until I’d actually prefer to be writing. That makes it feel almost like a reward. This internal system of self-discipline works for me. I don’t think it would work for everyone, but I’m much happier with both my work and the time that I take off it when I live by this structure than the times I slip off of it.

4. Put my writing effort into getting rid of backlogged obligations before taking on new ones. 

Enthusiastic-assistant-professor-me took on a lot of writing obligations when I was writing at a speed that might have made them possible. But then, both life and having a job happened, and then administrative responsibilities got added to it. There was a time, two and a half years ago, when my writing backlog included four and a half books, and uncountable journal articles and book chapters. I don’t have that long an attention span, and it was threatening to get to the point where I was writing stuff I was no longer interested in. So I started both dedicating my time to clearing the backlog explicitly, and refusing to allow myself to spend time and effort really working on new projects until the old ones were cleared. There’s still a backlog – a book and a half and about a half dozen journal articles. But I have been making real progress, and I’m still working on it. I feel less like I’m drowning in the backlog than I was two and a half years ago. Though its tedious sometimes, focusing on the backlog is helping me dig out of it, which will make me happier professionally in both the short term and the long term.

5. Spend time engaging in mentoring, professional development, and reading the work of junior people in the field. 

This is among the service work that is important to me – though I thought it deserved its own bullet. Someone told me back when I was just getting started that I had something to offer the senior people I wanted mentorship from – because my work was new and different and interesting. She told me that if I approached those senior people, I should do it not with a sense of inferiority and needing their help, but with a sense that they could help me and I could help them. I don’t know if I ever felt that way as a graduate student – but, now in a place to see both sides of that story – I should have. Or, at the very least, junior people should. Reading the work of new people in the field makes me smarter. It makes me think of things I hadn’t thought of before. It helps me make connections between different things that I’ve read. It helps me keep a pulse on a field that is, to be honest, changing faster than I am. So mentoring and meeting junior people is not fully selfless. And that’s ok. But I also think that there’s an importance to paying it forward – I know I wouldn’t have made it in the field without the advice, mentorship, and infinite patience of people who’d been through it. And I think that, now, comfortably established in my tenured job, I owe it to versions of my younger self to try to make it easier, more navigable, for them.

6. Be unapologetic for taking time off.

I take time off differently than other people. Other people will take days or weekends off sometimes, or even all the time. I do that every once in a while. But mostly, I like my time off in bulk. Now, and until the end of my editorial terms, there is no ‘time off’ from editing. And when I have university obligations I always fulfill them. But there is time off from the rest of the list of obligations. I don’t think a lot of people I work with/around know it, because I do balance obligations in a way that makes me not miss deadlines, and choose the time I take off carefully, but I take time off in pretty big chunks when I do. There was a time (and no, I won’t tell you) where I didn’t do a single thing other than my editing obligations and my university obligations for six months. Smaller chunks (a month, two months, three months) have happened a number of times – either on research leave, or just doing my teaching. I like just being me sometimes, and I think that’s ok.

7. Be unashamed of  the life choices I’m sure of, even when people are asshats about them. 

Speaking of, I hear a lot of feedback about my life choices through the grapevine. I’m an ardent feminist who defends childcare and work-life balance needs of other people, but my less traditional choices seem to draw ire. It makes me sick at the pit of my stomach when people equate having a full life with having a job and children. That might be true for some, but its not true for me, even a little bit. I’m not missing children in my life. I’ve never had the least desire for them, and never had the least sense of maternal instinct. For me, personally, I think biological reproduction is outright morally wrong when there are hungry and cold kids out there without parents. But also, for me, personally, I’m not going to be a parent to one of those kids – because I don’t want to be a parent. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a full life, and it doesn’t mean that my choices and obligations outside of work aren’t as important as someone who has chosen to have children (I can’t tell you how many times ‘but you don’t have children at home’ has been the excuse to give me more work, or schedule a meeting at a terrible inconvenience to me). That’s essentially saying that my life choices are inferior to yours. Which, if you’re going to say it, do – and if not, don’t treat me as less than because I’ve made a different choice. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made on that front, and no amount of parent-shaming is going to change that.

8. Know, but don’t advertise, my personal priorities. 

I came into this field with the assumption that there would be some people I would bond with and be close friends with, and others that I would know less well. I have been lucky to find great friends in the field, who I won’t tag in this embarrassing blog post. What I don’t think ever occurred to me is that there would be a lot of people watching my personal behavior who aren’t close friends, and reading into that behavior what kind of person I might be. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me, in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. But because it didn’t occur to me, I didn’t notice it until a very low point – where I happened to be at a conference in the midst of a personal event which included both tragedy and violence – and I heard people talking about how disrespectful my lack of attention was. My first instinct was to look to explain – to say, listen, I’m not a bad person, there was this stuff going on in my life …. I largely didn’t follow that instinct – in fact, the explanation above is more than I’ve said to anyone who wasn’t a close friend. My second instinct, and the one that I went with, is that the people who really want to know me, will. The people who want to read into my behavior a set of nefarious motivations also will. There are lots of times to wear your heart on your sleeve. To me, though, self-justification isn’t one of them. And I’m happy with that – I’m happy not being a person who is incredibly self-defensive in professional settings.

9. Be happy to admit my flaws and shortcomings. 

Accordingly, I’m happy to admit mistakes, blunders, shortcomings, and poor choices. I’ve done some stuff that, if I could, I’d undo (e.g, the ISA2012 tweeting incidents, and dozens more). I’ve made a lot of other mistakes that I wouldn’t undo, because learning is life. Defending every choice one has made, or every word one has written, at least for me, would be tiring and disingenuous. We are our mistakes as much as are good choices; our failures as much as our successes. There are a lot of processes and decisions and research products that I’ve made that I think a lot of, and would defend. But there are a lot that I just fucked up. There are a lot that everyone just fucked up. And I think that I’ve been pretty willing to say that when asked about it. I’m not celebrating having fucked up, and its not an invitation for people who don’t know me to hypothesize as to why particular fuckups happened – but it is that I think there’s no reason to pretend we have a perfection we don’t have, and I don’t think that every choice has to be good or every piece of work brilliant-in-hindsight to have a successful career and a good life. And I like admitting that. BTW, in case this paragraph doesn’t prove it, one of my flaws is my profane vocabulary. This is a flaw that, despite sporadic efforts made at changing it, I am unlikely to make real headway against.

10. Say what I think, and do what I think is right.  

I’ve been described as not having a ‘filter’ between my brain and my mouth a number of times, sometimes by me. There’s an extent to which that’s true (though if I told you how often I actually do shut up, you’d be in disbelief, and think I’m even more of a freak than you think I am now). I think, though, that there is a place for frankness in both personal and professional worlds – and I think more frankness might lead to more discomfort but less misunderstanding. And I think I’d be ok with that.

There are a lot of things that I do wrong, and maybe even some of these things that I’m not going to change are among them. But what I like about this list is that it looks at things that I’m not ashamed of, and don’t need to change. There’s something appealing to me about focusing on those going into a new year.