Academic guilt, work/life balance, and chasing time.

I really love the twitter and facebook feed, “Shit Academics Say”. It’s always accurate and nearly always funny. The image above this post was brazenly stolen from the facebook feed. This week, the humor is a bit too accurate. I’m winding down yet another 6 day work week (which should be seven if you count the exam I just wrote for tomorrow’s class) and wondering how long I’ll be able to keep chugging along apace.

I went back to grad school to get a PhD after getting burned out with direct therapy work. It’s a tough gig. I had a real mission to go out in the world and build up some damned good counselors to work with kids. I’ve definitely done some of that- I’ve had a lot of very talented students over the years.

However, when I take a step back and have time to sneak in some reflective thinking (usually while I’m waiting for a big data package to load or while I’m stuck in an airport), I ask myself if the academia thing is measuring up. At my current joint, I’m being forced to teach four graduate courses a semester, along with program direction, a boatload of clinical supervision hours/week, and of course, somehow I’m supposed to be writing while I keep all of the other plates spinning- and I’m not even getting into the service requirements.

Is it worth the bother?

In monetary terms, no. I’ve never been very motivated by financial gain, but when I calculated my actual hourly wage given the average number of hours I work per week, I did throw up a little. The university doesn’t MAKE me work 60 hour weeks, but if I don’t, plates begin crashing to the floor quickly. And what plates are ok to drop? I feel a deep obligation to the students to educate them adequately for their careers as counselors, so the teaching plate must spin. It’s embarrassing to show up to committee meetings not knowing what’s going on, so that one can’t drop. Publishers get peevish if you miss your deadlines, so the books have to happen, as do the research outcomes, because no one wants to go through IRB twice for the same study.

So, what’s left on the choice chooser? 1. Work long crazy hours. 2. Disappoint self and others.

Not much of a choice. I imagine that #2 is largely a by-product of the personality types common in the academy: compulsive, high self-monitoring, success driven, altruistic overachievers. It might be interesting to parse some of that in terms of early life psychohistory, but that’s not my mission today. Today I’m wandering about trying to decide how to decide the worth of time spent (this is the kind of sentence that ends up on “Shit Academics Say” because no other person would write such a thing).

As Mary Oliver said, we only get one wild and precious life. How we allocate the small quantity of hours within it is an enormous decision, worthy of a great deal of reflection and debate. I’m still working internally on the whole repotting idea; does it make more sense to try and reinvent myself outside of the academic context completely, or to try and talk sense into the admins at my current place of work so that the gig is survivable? Many pieces and parts join together to make this a complex and ambiguous situation, one that I won’t probably have a great answer to anytime really soon. Writing about these inner dialogues can help sort the reasonable thoughts from the nutty propositions, but mostly, it’s a matter of finding time to reflect and consider. I think I’ll start that today with the rest of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, where she equates attention to prayer.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


Book review: Four Ways to Click, Amy Banks (2015)

Amy Bank’s first book, “Four Ways to Click” (2015) New York: Tarcher/Penguin, distills the wisdom of the magnificent Jean Baker-Miller’s theories, infuses them with a new dose of relevance and importance via recent neuroscience findings, and pours out information written for a general audience. ┬áDr. Banks, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, had some help from professional writer Leigh Ann Hirschman making these ideas come across in such simple and basic language, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve been at a few training sessions Amy has led over the years, and I always leave feeling like my brain has over-indulged, much like my tummy feels right after Christmas dinner. Her ideas are brilliant, and in this new format, even normals like myself can get a firm grasp on them.

True to its title, the book breaks Dr. Miller’s Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) ideas down into four basic bites: Calm, Accepted, Resonant, Energetic (CARE for short). Each of the four bites,which she calls pathways, has its own chapter, where Amy explains what brain and nervous system parts have to engage to make that bite happen. She also tells us what emotional and behavioral symptoms emerge when that part is out of whack.

Two other key components of this book are the “3 rules for brain change” and a self-scoring assessment readers can use to determine how well balanced (or not) they are with the four basic relational pathways (The CARE parts). The three rules aren’t new to anyone who’s been reading the newer neuroscience books, especially the applied texts. The rules all relate to basic science about neuroplasticity, or what it takes to create new automatic or default thoughts and behaviors. It really boils down to the fact that you have to practice – a lot- to make changes permanent. It’s nice to have the brain science explained, although telling readers to practice a lot would be ok, too.

The self-assessment is pretty handy. It doesn’t purport to be psychometrically sound, which is fine, since it’s not being used as a true diagnostic tool. I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be (unless I overlooked it) any reference to Liang,et al and the Relational Health Index, which has been around for several years and is quite similar to this scale. Amy’s CARE Relational Assessment is tailored to fit within her framework, while the RHI is designed to fit under the more broad RCT frame. I don’t know the back story on this part of the book, but it does make me scratch my head a bit. The RCT world is small and deeply connected. Amy took pains to thank a lot of people in the acknowledgements section, but the RHI team aren’t there.

I found this little volume (it’s only about 300 pages, with the index, notes, table of contents, etc.) to be very accessible, and I imagine that clients who have at least a 10-12th grade reading level would find it interesting and helpful. I read most of it while waiting for an oil change to be completed, and found it very engaging. I’m encouraging my graduate students to pick it up as a good resource to recommend to their clients who are struggling with out-of-whack neural/relational pathways. It’s a nice introduction to how the brain influences and reflects our relationships, and understanding that interplay can be a life-changer for clients.