Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Reading one book on international women's day?

My suggestion for the day is Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. The two books tell the story of a young woman growing up in Teheran during the Islamic revolution, and her development into a young woman. It is as funny, painful and embarrassing as all stories of teen-age girls, but it is also a powerful reminder of where the events so extremely relevant to the current discussions start, and how important it is to be concerned about how a nation treats its women.

Bonus: Lovely drawings and an introduction to a part of history most don't discuss when talking about Iran of today.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Life in Copenhagen: Stress resilience

How do I deal with stress? Stress has suddenly come into focus in Academia, and the media write about it and its ugly relatives; mental health problems and alcohol abuse.

Today we were sent off to a mandatory stress resilience workshop here at ITU, and while I can say a lot about that, I am going to keep it for the evaluation form. It did however make me think about what I do about stress. Before that, a big disclaimer: Stress in Academia in Denmark is mainly caused by systematic imbalances which the management needs to address. All I can do, with no particular position or responsibility, is to deal with it personally and socially. I am not going to claim that I know the beginning and the end of it, but I do try to handle stress for myself and for the sake of my colleagues. Here are the strategies I have found to work:
  • I try not to let my temper get away with me. This is a big one. While a lifetime of repressing immediate responses makes me appear quiet, that is surface only. My anger and frustration is an orca just below the surface, ready to explode in the face of some innocent victim. But that would be horribly unfair, and would just make things worse for us all. My killer whale of a temper is my problem, not that of everybody around me. I suspect it occasionally breaches the surface though. Sorry about that.
  • I practice ways of letting go. For me, that means gaming. When I play a game, I engage fully in solving a problem for fun, whether it’s how to crush candy or how to kill a boss.
  • I practice ways of thinking things through constructively. This is not meditating on something. I avoid meditating. Meditation makes me angry (see the above killer whale). I need to be distracted enough to not focus too hard on the the situation at hand, but relaxed enough that I can actually think about it. I do that by doing chores, drawing or knitting. If it’s really hard, I sit down and write, long-hand. Preferably as beautifully as possible, to keep my mind just to the side of the problem. It’s like those images where you have to focus elsewhere in order to see what is going on.
  • For my colleagues I try to make sure we occasionally do something fun. The last couple of terms, I have been too tired to take responsibility for parties and common activities, but I do try to engage and participate, and in that process be both goofy and welcoming. This isn’t because I think I can cure stress by throwing a party, but I do believe that by making people meet informally, I can help them meet others who might be able to say something interesting, important or useful. This, by the way, is one of ITU's great strengths. The parties are wonderful.
  • For my colleagues I also try to listen and participate, even if I feel like I am dragging myself there by the neck. It’s not their fault that I have too few hours in the day. That is the system we are all trapped within.
Because stress is rarely an individual problem. It’s a problem that comes from the system within which we work. No degree of mindful thinking or playful engagement will change a system where employees feel unappreciated or where we are not given the chance to work at the things we excel at. Being held back and under-appreciated in a thousand micro-encounters is what will make most of us collapse. The problem is the systematic neglect of the variety and individuality of the staff, the different skills, expertizes and abilities in a very highly trained and specialised group of strong individuals. Treating any group of humans as if they are a uniform mass of somewhat specialised robots will break us all.

I deal with that through analysis. Through knowledge. By worrying and picking at it, and occasionally that just makes it worse. If I have no agency, worrying leaves a wound. Understanding without power is perhaps the most painful problem if being in Academia. We know very well what we can’t deal with, and we may even know how to change it, but the majority have absolutely no influence. This is when I find a friend and spend a drunken evening wining and whining. Which, quite likely, may explain some of the alcohol abuse statistics. One more thing I try to do? Stay out of those statistics.

Bonus article: New Public Management and stress in Academia.