Nurturing academic orchids

Last post I promised more on acts of kindness that have the potential to change academia from a place marked by undercare to one that is nurturing (especially at times when people are not entirely productive or unencumbered). Here goes.

Image result for Australian orchid CSIRO

Dancing spider orchid (Caladenia discoidea), photo: Mark Clements, CSIRO

I attended a panel discussion entitled Life: work, family, leisure – having it all? last week. The five members of the panel spoke openly about the challenges they face combining work, family and leisure in the contexts of precarious work, relationship breakdown, international moves, career progression and the life-changing impact of having a child. The session ended with a summing up of practical suggestions, and because they came from five different people, at different stages of work and family, these reflect a range of (sometimes contradictory) ideas:

  • Learn to disconnect from work
  • Take the email app off your phone and tablet to make it harder to check
  • Try to avoid working a ‘second shift’ after children have gone to bed
  • Leave work early then do a ‘second shift’ after children have gone to bed
  • Have down time to enable reflective practice
  • Allow time to be non-functional after having a child
  • ‘Calendarise’ everything
  • Make plans for where you want to be in 1 year, in 5 years and in 10 years
  • Make decisions based on what you value and what you enjoy

Perhaps unsurprisingly none of the participants ‘had it all’—sadly most had given up leisure in some form. My two cents: I think it is possible to have work, family and leisure in your life simultaneously, but none will look entirely the way you imagined before you tried to combine them.

I find the value of these types of events comes from the personal stories people tell and the conversations they provoke. There was a question from the audience that I have been mulling over ever since. (This very much paraphrased and I am trying to capture its complexity and nuance). Has care-giving (for children, elderly parents, ill partners) changed how you care at work? Does care for others outside of work translate into work contexts? Has care-giving added value to your work? A difficult question to answer without thinking time, but the panel made a couple of points about valuing relationships at work and outside, being more efficient so there is time for care, and how conversations with children spark creativity.

As I have written before, caring for my children has changed my orientation to life and work. For a long time after the placental abruption during my daughter’s birth, during my daughter’s illness and following nerve damage sustained in surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, I required care. I was fortunate to be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues who cared for me, for us, in ways large and small. I have been primed to notice care, and its absence. These ideas connect with my previous post on undercare in the academy.

I have also been thinking about care in academia following this thought-provoking Twitter discussion. The entire thread is long but worth reading for practical tried-and-true ideas:

I had a conversation with Lilia Mantai earlier today—as part of a project on the history of the academic identities conference—and she talked about the following interconnected ideas: circle of niceness, academic kindness and the gift economy of academia. These examples of care are vitally important for the vulnerable among us—the orchids, if you will.

I first heard about the idea of kids as dandelions or orchids last year (I think it was at a presentation from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health):

As Ellis and Boyce explained in their paper, dandelion children seem to have the capacity to survive—even thrive—in whatever circumstances they encounter. They are psychologically resilient. Orchid children, in contrast, are highly sensitive to their environment, especially to the quality of parenting they receive. If neglected, orchid children promptly wither—but if they are nurtured, they not only survive but flourish.

Academia is not just for dandelions. In thinking through how to nurture orchids in the academy, I turned to the following resources, some of which I have linked to in previous posts:

At the centre of all of these resources is care. Share them generously.

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