As a digital humanist, I wear many hats…
(along with glasses and backpacks and papers and prosthetics and surfboards and friends and hospital gowns and nametags and progeny and flowers in my hair…)
This is a ‘classic’ post that seemed worth revisiting for the “Day of DH,” while I’m contemplating my own identity as a cyborg and the price I pay for that luxury.
Sometimes I make jokes about being a “bionic woman” or a “cyborg.” Having a prosthetic leg with a computer-controlled knee joint lends itself to such comparisons. Truth be told, the first thing I’d reach for if there was a house fire in the middle of the night and we needed to exit quickly, wouldn’t be the family photo albums. I’d reach for my robotic leg. It would make sense, given that the leg cost as much as a luxury car. And, of course, because it’s essential for my mobility.
I’ve been robotic for about three years. When I first heard that my insurance would pay for a computerized knee joint, I was thrilled to adopt the technology. I knew that it meant more stability, fewer falls, and a more natural gait. My prosthetist duly warned me not to get it wet, to charge the battery every night for at least three hours, and to notify him at the first sign of any malfunction.
My kids were thrilled with my leg and its robotic possibilities. We wondered what might happen if an evil genius reprogrammed my leg and forced me to rob banks or steal diamonds? We giggled long and hard about that scenario. The first time my battery started running low, I was standing in a grocery checkout line with my son and daughter. We heard the telltale beeps and I felt the vibrating sensation like a cellphone ringer, notifying me that I had 10 minutes to get my leg plugged in or I’d lose power altogether. We raced home and made it just in time. The adventure was more thrilling than a car chase scene in a spy movie.
Some days, however, I feel guilty about owning a leg that cost more than fifty thousand dollars. I think of my limbless sisters and brothers in other circumstances and I realize that dozens—if not hundreds—of low-tech limbs could be purchased for the price of my computerized leg. And I contemplate the thousands of new amputees returning home from Iraq, and those people throughout the world who live in daily fear of loss of life and limb.
Last year my leg malfunctioned while I was traveling in Asia, perhaps a result of using a faulty power adapter for charging my leg. Though there was no way to get the computer repaired during my trip, I was able to continue my travels with my knee stiff–walking as if wearing a cast. Despite the impairment, I carried on with typical tourist activities: scaling the Great Wall, strolling through the markets, touring gardens, and do forth. Nearly every place we visited there were beggars, many of them amputees. I knew I needed to avoid giving handouts or I would be besieged by dozens of people asking for the same. So I kept my hands in my pockets and looked into their eyes and felt heartsick and smug. Contemplating the price that bought my mobility. Feeling my own betrayal.
In a career trajectory that’s probably peculiar to my skillset as a Digital Humanist, I moved directly from being a graduate student to serving as a university administrator (I’m the Associate Director for the Office of Academic Technology & Digital Media at a private university in southern California). That transition resulted in a pretty steep learning curve for me, but now that I’m two years into my position at Chapman, I’m reflecting on the lessons learned along the way.
First, a few methods for increasing my personal efficiency…
1) Task Management
Going from working in my home office (i.e. my couch) to an Administration building means that I have to structure my time much more efficiently than before. I have to get dressed in professional clothes each morning, commute on SoCal freeways in rush hour traffic, and organize all of my appointments around business hours. That was a bigger transition than I expected, and never having worked full-time before, it was a huge lifestyle change. To aid with keeping myself in order, I use a few tools for task management, including Hiveminder (on my desktop & laptops) and iMinder on my phone. On my desk at work I keep a large yellow sticky pad where I prioritize all of my “To Do’s” for the day, and cross each one off with a sharpie marker when I complete them (because that feels so satisfying, and I like looking down at a list of marked-off items each day as I head out the door for home).
2) Partitioning my work/family life
I’m a compulsive email answerer–if I see the messages, I tend to want to reply immediately. So I’ve separated my work email from my personal email so I can ‘turn off’ work during my off hours (except in an emergency). My personal account is on Gmail and my work is on Exchange, so that makes it pretty easy to keep them separate. If I have my work email open during the evening, I find that my own writing/research just doesn’t get done (although if there’s a looming deadline or transition at work, I do sit on my university email account on evenings and weekends).
Though I know everyone doesn’t have the luxury of doing this because of the expense, I hired bi-monthly housecleaners once I began working. I realized that if I wanted my time in the evenings with my children to be of the highest-quality (I have mostly-weekday custody of my teenage children), I didn’t want to be spending that time cleaning house–I wanted to be able to focus on them. I’ll also usually take them out to eat one evening each week–that way we can have some fun and focused dinner conversations with each other, where I’m not bustling around in the kitchen.
On weekends, I tend to make sure that I have at least one evening set aside for a social event–either a date or a concert or a Happy Hour with friends. This is both for my own sanity and for trying to maintain my outside-of-work social relationships.
Our family keeps a GoogleCalendar with the kids’ appointments and our custody arrangements. I can’t say enough about how important this collaborative calendaring tool is for keeping abreast of all of the family happenings. My kids, my ex and I all have editing privileges to our mutual family calendar.
I’ll confess that I was a late adopter of a cellphone, but now I’m a huge proponent of how much easier it makes communication with my family. My kids have cellphones with texting plans, so we can communicate easily and efficiently. We use text messages for keeping each other updated on our whereabouts and for emergency communication. Email works for longer communication needs or for resolving problems. I keep my cellphone on my desk at work for monitoring the kids activities, and for just ‘keeping in touch’ with them during the parts of the day that they are out of school and I’m still at work.
Next, some reflections on my role at Chapman University
At first, my biggest struggle was the Imposter Syndrome. I kept having this feeling that I didn’t really belong in an administrative role, and that my incompetence would soon be revealed. Like many other women I’ve known who enter the workforce at an older age, I worked extra-hard to prove myself in my position. That first year, I was often the first person in the building in the morning and many days I left long after the dinner-hour. Those long hours contributed to the rapid decline of my marriage after I began working (although it was only one of many factors, and it’s also true that my long hours in the office were an escape from an increasingly-toxic home environment). Now, I tend to keep a regular business-hours schedule and still manage to complete my tasks on time (a skill learned by trial-and-error), except that I do tend to come into the office an hour earlier than most people to ‘miss’ the heaviest traffic and also leave just a few minutes before the 5pm rush hour for the same reason. (As a relevant aside, I’ve made it clear to the people that I date that I’m a bit of a workaholic and find that those I’ve matched well tend to carry a heavy workload, too.)
Though I do attempt to be as competent as is possible in my job, I feel that it’s also been important for me to admit when I don’t understand something and to ask for help. Sometimes it’s just a phonecall to an IT-knowledgable staff member where I ask them to explain how something works. Sometimes, it’s time spent online teaching myself a principle or a software (and reading through user forums and documentation). Sometimes it’s telling a faculty member that I don’t yet know the answer to their question, but I will find the answer and respond as quickly as I can. More than anything, I try to be honest and clear in my communication, and when I realize that the person that I’m talking to might not also understand what I’m saying to them, I rephrase or re-explain until it’s clear that they do.
Related to my fears about incompetence and my on-the-job learning curve, I leaned extra-hard on my technically-inclined friends (old and new) during my initial few months. From them I learned project management skills, brushed up on my IT vocabulary, and even shed a few tears on late-night evenings when I was pushing into deadlines and needed help at the command line. Kudos to those of you who asked about my work and who listened patiently as I yammered on about technical details. New colleagues at Chapman made me feel welcomed and integrated me into happenings on both the academic and the administrative sides of the campus. I found librarians and junior faculty to be particularly generous to me as a techie-humanist who didn’t have the benefit of an academic-departmental affiliation for my social circle.
8) Building Bridges
Moving into this role meant jumping into political forays and administrative divides that existed long before I came to the university. I soon learned to be cautious about such matters, and to ask around a bit to better understand university policy (or long-standing practice) before making decisions. Navigating the power structures in an academic environment is dicey business, and it was (and sometimes still is) difficult. In my role this might be especially apparent because I straddle the lines between the faculty and the IT department (I soon learned that faculty rarely appreciate or understand the work of IT staff, and IT often doesn’t understand the concerns of the faculty, or the peculiar rhythms of the academic calendar). One of the biggest pleasures of my job are those moments when I can communicate the perspective of the ‘other side’ of the campus, and see that leading to greater understanding rather than greater frustration.
9) Keeping Things Simple
The office space that I inherited when hired at Chapman was chock-full. It had a large u-shaped desk that hugged three sides of the room like the command center of a ship. There was a large upright filing cabinet and two small ones, as well as one bookshelf full of mostly-outdated technical manuals and bins of electronic equipment. There were three large wheeled office chairs also cluttering up the space. For the first few months I was at Chapman, in my free time I sorted through all of the paperwork left in the file drawers and winnowed them down to a handful of file folders. Then all of the unnecessary furniture and equipment went out and in came wooden bookshelves with my (tagged and organized) academic books. In short, my office is rather sparse and tidy now. Everything is within arm’s reach and has a purpose for being here. I work so much more efficiently in a clean and organized space–a place where I can “think.” My desk has a both a Mac and a PC computer, as well as an office phone. There’s a cup of pens/pencils, my coffee-water mug, my cellphone (docked), and a sticky pad. That’s it.
Though I still have two small file cabinets in my office, they are largely empty. One drawer holds my tea and snacks, one has miscellaneous office paraphernalia, and only one actually has files (of which there are just a few dozen sheets of paper–mostly printouts that I take to workshops or HR-related documents). Whenever I can, I opt to keep documents electronically rather than in hard copy.
10) Having an Outlet
I’ve learned that in the midst of the highest stress of my life, that having a physical outlet helps to keep it all in balance. Sometimes this means just stepping outside of my office for a few minutes and taking a walk around the block. But most of the time, for me, it means some sort of vigorous heart-pumping exercise. At home I have a small set of dumbbells and can do a brief routine with those and some pushups if I can’t find the time for the gym. And even when I travel I either use a hotel gym or do a floor routine of exercises. But mostly, my outlet is getting out on the ocean in a canoe which I tend to do 2-3 times per week. When I’m on the water I can’t bring a cellphone, I can’t check my email, and my mind and body get to be in an entirely different place for an hour or two. I find that there’s little space for work-stress when I’m being pounded by the ocean wind and water, and I when I return from the ocean, my perspective on everything else is improved.
The other outlet that I need is to always have a book that I’m reading for pleasure at hand. Nowadays I keep my books on my phone or iPad, and this keeps it terrifically easy to have them always-nearby. One of my favorite things to do is escape to a favorite local cafe for lunch and ‘hide’ at a table in the back corner and read a few chapters in a novel during my lunch hour.
The major things that I’ve learned from this transition are to streamline and organize daily tasks, to be constantly learning new skills and adapting to new workflows, and to keep my busy-ness in perspective through quality time with my family. That this still sometimes all “falls apart” when there is a personal crisis or something “falls through the cracks,” seems to be unavoidable. But for the most part I’m finding that it’s working because of the routines that I’ve established for myself and for my kids.