Thursday, April 30, 2015

Applications of sound in engineering

Some time ago, I gave a short presentation about the use of sound in engineering for the college of Medicine of Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

In this presentation, you find a brief overview of how we take sound into account when we design (buildings as well as pavements), and then I go deeper into the use of sound in bridge engineering. Sound is used for the inspection of bridges (non-destructive techniques) as well as for measurements during proofloading. I used the case of the Ruytenschildt bridge which we tested in The Netherlands last summer to illustrate how acoustic emission measurements work for proofloading.

You can find the slides of the presentation here:


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pulling the Plug as an Act of Self-Care

Today, Eric Vanden Eykel is sharing his views on self-care in academia with us. Eric is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Ferrum College, where he teaches biblical studies and world religions. The focus of his research is in the history and literature of early Christianity. He and his wife have two daughters and a dog. You can find him on Twitter at @evandeneykel.

Several years ago now, while I was studying for my doctoral qualifying exams, I stumbled across a provocative read: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In it, technology and culture author Nicholas Carr argues that the internet is changing how we think and process information, and not in a good way. At the end of the preface he leaves the reader with a haunting proposition: “The computer screen … is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

I found Carr’s argument compelling because at that time I was experiencing many of the issues that he mentions: difficulty reading for extended periods, trouble focusing and retaining information, anxiety about not being able to read everything, etc. All of these are symptoms of what is commonly called “information overload,” and any one of them can be crippling or even fatal (metaphorically, of course) for one who is studying for their doctoral qualifying exams.

In an attempt to remedy my situation, I tried an experiment: leave the laptop/phone/tablet behind when I was heading out to study, start taking notes by hand, and see what happens. To say that the first few weeks were difficult would be a gross understatement. Some days, my angst would peak before I had even escaped my driveway: “What if someone e-mails me? What if I need to look something up online? What if I need to download an article that one of my books mentions? What if I need to take a picture of something awesome?” But I pushed through, and after a few months I found not only that my focus had improved, but that I was remembering details of what I was reading in a way that I’d never before. Even the quality of my sleep increased! I had discovered firsthand the joys of unplugging.

Fast forward a few years and I no longer have the benefit of being able to leave my laptop behind for extended periods of time. In academia, the ability to spend months doing nothing but reading and thinking about interesting books is a luxury afforded to graduate students and faculty on sabbatical. For the rest of us, electronics are an inescapable part of the job: e-mails from students and faculty don’t answer themselves; course management software, however intelligent, needs a push in the right direction every now and again; and workload and scheduling forms must never be written by hand!

But while unplugging for months at a time might not be feasible for most, the good news is that there are simple ways to unplug for short periods of time every day, and significant benefits to be had by doing so. Below are three examples, all of which involve what has become (at least in my life) perhaps the most dangerous and harmful device that I own: my smartphone.

1) Take a walk — By far the easiest way to unplug is to put actual, physical distance between you and your electronic devices. So about once every two hours while I’m at work, I go for a walk. I have a route through the quad that can be accomplished in about ten minutes, which is long enough to feel like I’ve taken a break, but short enough that it doesn’t affect my ability to accomplish my daily tasks. The key to making these walks “unplugged” is that my phone has to stay behind in my office. Otherwise I am too tempted to answer it when it buzzes in my pocket or to fiddle with it as I’m walking. While I am walking I try to focus on something mundane in an effort to give my brain a real break: counting my steps or the number of seams in the sidewalk usually does the trick.

2) Designate a phone-free zone in your house — Another way to guarantee that you get some unplugged time every day is to prohibit use of your phone in a specific part of your house. It should be a place that you use on a daily basis, otherwise you are kidding yourself. My kitchen table is my phone-free zone. When I am sitting there, whether it is to eat, to play Play Doh with my children, or to chat with my wife, I do not allow myself to touch my phone. If by force of habit I find that it has leapt out of my pocket and into my hand, I put it in the other room. The kitchen table is an ideal phone-free zone for me because it is also one of the most social spots in our house, and making it phone-free allows me to unplug not only for my own benefit, but to give those seated there my full attention and respect.

3) Exercise — Last, but certainly not least, exercise can be a wonderful means of unplugging. I say “can be” because many forms of exercise (walking, biking, running, etc.) lend themselves to headphone/phone use. I used to run with headphones because I liked listening to podcasts (it made me feel more productive). I don’t anymore, for two reasons: first, because I found the experience of running without headphones to be significantly more relaxing; and second, because the ultimate source of my music while running was my phone, and its presence had started to become a distraction. I have no qualms whatsoever with those who use headphones while exercising, but I have found their absence from my exercise routine to be freeing.

I’m no Luddite; I spend a good portion using, enjoying, and benefitting from my electronic devices. But I have found that giving myself frequent breaks from these devices helps me to be a more productive scholar, a more present husband and father, and a happier and healthier human being.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stumbling towards grace with self-care in academia

Today, I have invited Kathy McKay to share her story and insights on self-care in academia. Kathy is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New England, Australia. Her work focuses on stories of suicide and resilience.

Hand on heart.
I am not good at self-care. It’s very much still a work in progress and only became a vague priority when I burnt out last year and fell sick. Self-care is my stumbling towards grace, because it’s far too easy to lose sight of yourself in this work. True, you see yourself all too clearly in the lack - what more needs to be done? What am I not doing? But it's harder to see yourself as enough – that you deserve to, and that it’s OK to, not work all the time. In all the busyness, it’s far too easy to forget to stop.

Pieces about self-care seem sometimes to be written as prevention, with things to do to avoid burnout. They sometimes assume you can take time off, that deadlines are soft, and that your track record can handle the delay a break will bring.

This is not one of those pieces.

Burnout sometimes does not ring a warning bell. Burnout sometimes looms over you in the middle of the night, clutching at your chest while you gasp for breath, so you wake up the next day and struggle to find the energy to do the basic things, let alone be vaguely intellectual. Burnout makes absolutely everything you need to do during a day hard, even the simplest task that yesterday would not have given you a second thought. And, because burnout can be so closely tied to anxiety and depression, it is also, to paraphrase the brilliant writer Anna Spargo Ryan, dull. The sheen is wiped off everything.

This is a piece to hopefully give solace to those in the grips of, or in the aftermath of, burnout. How do you take care of yourself when absolutely everything is exhausting and there are still a million deadlines due? This is not meant to give you more things to do. God knows, when you're burnt out the very last thing you want is more things to do. These are things that have worked for me - or at least keep me more mindful to be more caring of myself and provide more useful warnings for when I need to rest. These are things I'm trying to not forget to do amidst the grant writing and the teaching and all the deadlines in between, and when time off is an unavailable luxury.

• Vent to friends.
A caveat here: not just anyone. These are the friends who get it, who have either been in the trenches or are there alongside you. Ones who don’t just say meaningless, placating things simply because those words seem nice to say. The ones who let you cry, or whatever it is you need to do to vent, until you’re ready to go back to the deadline. They are the ones who understand the peaks and troughs of academic life, where a grant can be rejected on the same day a paper is rejected. And when they say meaningless, placating things, it feels a bit better because things tend to get better eventually. Or more absurd.

• At some point you need to eat and move away from the screen.
Self-care is hard. Looking after yourself is much harder, requires much more attention, than not taking care of yourself. Making a nutritionally-dense meal takes far more time than toast. Exercising takes more time than not doing anything. However, the time you save in the short-term bites you later – and bites with teeth. It makes you very sick. Because these things are so easy to push to the side – I’ll eat later, I’ll exercise tomorrow – they’re the ones that I structure into my life with an organisation that is unlike me in every other way. I joined a fitness challenge that came with a meal plan so the part of me that always wants to do well at everything is placated and inspired. I make enormous meals on Sunday to freeze for the rest of the week because I live by myself and there’s no one else to fall back on. These activities as well, when I’m being mindful, also allow a quite space as well, just to be.

• Find a mentor totally outside academia.
I’ve only just started working with a non-academic mentor and, so far, it’s been confronting. The thing is, someone outside academia hasn’t normalised the same things we have and they see what’s not working for you more clearly. Working with this mentor is making me realise how little time I’ve spent since my PhD just doing something quietly, just for me, with no constructive feedback attached. Learning that I am not just an academic, that my identity can be more than that, is both frightening and liberating.

• Remembering the small beauties.

Unexpectedly adopting my demented wonder of a small cat has actually been one of the best things for my wellbeing. She pulls me back into the moment as I watch her stalk a butterfly in the garden (think the Simon’s cat video), or when she decides I am the most comfortable place to sleep. Plus she loathes my phone and will push it out of the way, just as she will steal pens from my hand and hide them under the couch if she thinks I am working too much at home and not paying enough attention to her. And the thing about small beauties is that you don’t have to do anything more than simply look out your window and exhale, just for a moment.

Reading these, you may not agree. Self-care is so tricky because it not only completely individualised (not everyone appreciates my cat) but it’s also not our natural way in academia. How do you turn your brain off when an idea is bubbling in the back of your mind but it’s Sunday afternoon or four o’clock in the morning? Self-care is something I’m training myself to do, and appreciate, and I stumble towards this grace all the time. It’s a learning process like any other.

And I wish you nothing but wellness in your journey.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Avoiding mental burn-out by organizing your day around self-care activities

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Catherine to share her views on self-care in academia. Catherine is currently writing up her PhD in linguistics at the University of York, studying the role that onomatopoeia play in child language development. You can find her on Twitter at @cathesmith24.

Being an effective researcher is a balancing act, and for me, achieving that balance requires real attention to my emotional, mental and physical well-being. I wasn't far into my PhD before I started suffering mental burn-out - I'd be unable to focus for days at a time, leading to a cycle of guilt, misery and unproductivity. I realised that I needed to make some serious changes to my approach if I wanted to do a good job of this PhD - after all, three or four years is a long time, and I wanted those years to be as enjoyable and rewarding as they could possibly be.

I started with some strict rules: no working at the weekends, not even to answer emails - I aim to go for two whole days without even switching on my computer. This works for me, as the two days off gives me time to reset mentally, and by Monday morning I'm ready to get going again, with the five days ahead presenting a manageable chunk of working time. I also limit the hours I work in the week, and anything that can't be done before 6pm in an evening has to wait until tomorrow. For me, this helps to limit procrastination, knowing that there's a deadline waiting at the end of each day.

Monday to Friday, 9 til 5. It sounds pretty much like a normal working week for any normal job. But writing a PhD isn't like a normal job, and I don't believe that it's necessary to stick to such a routine if that doesn't work for you. It doesn't work for me: when I worked in a normal job I struggled to get through the afternoons, as I seem to hit a wall at about 3 o'clock. Since I've got the freedom to let my day run as I please, I use these afternoon slumps to my advantage, and every day I take an hour's break at around 3pm, or whenever I start to lose focus. I go for a walk or a run, take a nap, do some yoga or even some laundry, and when I return to my desk an hour later I'm refreshed and ready for another couple of hours' work. I try to get outside at least twice every day - one morning walk before I start the day, and then again in the afternoon or a short stroll in the evening; getting outside frees up any blockages in my mind, and I almost always feel less anxious and more clear-headed when I return home.

I think there's lots of scope for creating mindful routines to accompany work, and as I've approached the end of my thesis-writing period I've come up with numerous ways of 'setting the scene', to make the difficult process of sitting and writing or reading for long periods of time more manageable, and even indulgent. I tried working in coffee shops but I found myself too easily distracted, so instead I treated myself to some nice loose-leaf hibiscus tea to drink while I write. I also burn peppermint oil, as peppermint is good for concentration. It might sound simple, and perhaps a little ridiculous, but sitting in one place for hours is tiring on the mind and the body, so the added stimulation really helps to keep me going mentally.

It's taken me over two and a half years to find a routine and an approach to doing my PhD that suits me personally, putting self-care at the heart of my day and fitting everything else around that. If I think too much about the fact that I don't work weekends or into the evenings I end up feeling guilty, as if I'm somehow doing it all wrong, but for me my approach to my research only increases my productivity, and reduces the number of hours and days lost to mental exhaustion. Of course, when deadlines are approaching or when I take on some unexpected extra commitments, I have to be flexible if I want to fit everything in, but having a steady and reliable routine for the majority of the time makes it easier to cope with those busier periods when they turn up.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Does anyone in academia even know what is self-care and its value?

Today, Kate is sharing her views on self-care in academia. As an American abroad, Kate graduated with her PhD in Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2010. At present Kate splits her time working for the US government as a Navy Intelligence Officer during the day and writing on Greek Bronze Age archaeology at night. She blogs at: https://duckingoutfromacademia.wordpress.com

Until Eva brought the topic of self care in academia to my attention, I realized I have never once heard this phrase mentioned—the very idea of caring for oneself, with all its attendant soothing and calming overtones, runs counter to academic culture. We simply do not talk about caring for oneself; we talk about surviving—and we reward those who can thrive in competition. We don’t tell graduate students to nurture themselves—we tell them to get used to it.

I cannot consider the issue of self care without acknowledging how the desertification of the job market—at least in the arts and sciences—exerts relentless pressure on all the young academics I know, myself included. I was in grad school from 2002 until 2010, and reflecting on the (few and far between) job discussions I had while I was a student I’ve come to the conclusion that PhD supervisors frequently err on the side of caution and tell all of their students they’ll get jobs. This isn’t necessarily a bald-faced lie; now that I’ve been on the job market myself, and seen many others cycle in and out of positions, the truth is: The job market is unpredictable. Unpromising and lackluster academics have as good a chance at succeeding as anyone else. Certainly back in 2002 no one could have foreseen how bad the academic job market would become. Indeed, I am not sure we fully understand how bad the job market is even now. Where will the jobs be in 10 years? Who will be holding them? Perhaps at no other time in the past two centuries can an early career researcher feel certain that her future as an academic will be very different from the generations of professors that preceded her. And there is perhaps little else to be certain of.

Anxiety about the state of my future career has a tendency to creep into my job applications, interviews, and even how I do my job when I hold the position. The problem lies in my head; I keep trying to make my life in the actual world follow my projection of life as a tenured academic, and of course, the reality is that I am not even sure there will be tenured Aegean prehistoric archaeology positions anymore. It is a tale as old as time; I get down and out about my job—and myself—because I keep trying to live in a fantasy. I regularly have to remind myself that we are living in a new era. Academic jobs in the future may not have tenure. University level teaching may become a product for sale. I am not sure where I will fit into this new world. No one does. The bottom line is that the greatest care I can extend to myself in this context is to stop living by these outdated expectations.

I had to come to this uncomfortable realization when I was at my most recent postdoc, a position I hated so much I wanted to leave after only a few weeks. I didn’t know how I could make it an entire year. In the end, I realized that my fear of being a failure was the only thing tying me to desperate unhappiness. And so I left the position. It turns out to have been a great decision for me, one that I look back on and give a mental thumbs up to my earlier miserable self. At first I dreaded telling people what I had done, but I have been surprised by the response—my PhD supervisor and my cadre of advisors who I turn to for guidance have been utterly supportive from the outset. I think they have been watching students’ careers wilt in the past couple of years, which must be emotionally and intellectually damaging for them as mentors. There has also been a minority of academics who were appalled at my choice. I politely listen to their advice about what they would have done if they had been me while mentally assessing them as being straitjacketed by their own projections.

Reading about freedom is not the same thing as feeling free. I do not feel free from my expectations of success 100% of the time. At times when I grapple with feelings of failure, I am worth the effort it takes to pause and remember that I am living my own life. I like to ask myself on a regular basis what I would do if I wasn’t afraid; the answers to this question frequently make my playing field twice as large. My path is wide open; it will encompass as much intellectual pursuit as I desire, and probably as much adventure, good times, and creativity as I’d like too. This attitude is sometimes called “having it all”, but I do not see it that way. I am not having it all. Neither am I turning my back on a “career” so that I can enjoy “life.” I am having what is mine.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Self-Care in the Face of Affect Tourism

Today, Jake Jackson is sharing his views on self-care in academia with us. Jake Jackson holds a Master's in Philosophy and is currently a Philosophy PhD Student at Temple University. His work is concerned with integrating phenomenology and affect theory into a comprehensive interpersonal ethics aimed at promoting better mental health practices with others. He still hasn't cultivated any sustainable hobbies.

I am terrible at self-care.

Or rather, I constantly find myself believing this when I talk to others about self-care.

There has been a recent surge in thinkpieces on self-care, how to self-care, what it requires to take care of oneself, and on. The rise of self-care discourse is liberating and helpful for academics (and certainly others) who need to be reminded to take care of themselves. This rise in discussion ought to be praised in its insistence that taking care of oneself is a necessary activity and we should never feel ashamed of taking care of one s emotional well-being. However, I want to take a pause; in our discussions of self-care, we need to move beyond simplistic descriptions that revel in the wrong aspect.

Discussing self-care with others can be helpful, yet there is also oftentimes a negating undercurrent. Self-care has become not just a thing you do for yourself, but a thing that you do before others in comparison. Many discussions of self-care focus not on the intended effect of relieving stressors, but instead the cultivation of affectations. We lose sight of the efficacy of self-care or even what small everyday activities can count as self-care in striving for a certain purity or connoisseurship of activities.

My concern regards a subgroup of self-care enthusiasts who I call affect tourists . Affect tourism is when one does not authentically enjoy affective experiences like self-care activities, but instead cultivates such experiences in order to weave them into a narrative that one can tell to others. The affect tourist is not simply interested in taking care of oneself, but instead in creating the experience of self-care. That is, the affect tourist manufactures affective experiences in Sartrean bad faith in order to present oneself as someone who has experienced deep emotionally-transcendent moments. These are the people who constantly insist that others should try this one activity or film, swear by a particular restaurant or beverage, or argue that others haven t done x properly if they haven t done it in y way.

At the most basic, the affect tourist displays oneself as a worldly figure, one who has experienced many things in search of higher or more transcendent experiences through a form of connoisseurship. Connoisseurs in this sense do not enjoy the objects they enjoy and fetishize, but rather enjoy the process of learning a vocabulary and a palate in order to appear more cultured. At the most extreme, affect tourists are those who travel as literal tourists to different locales just based upon the ability to weave the experience into a longer narrative of their life journey . These are the tourists who travel to a particular location because the guidebook or another affect tourist told them to do so. They create the experiences that they feel that they ought to have, leaving nothing to the moment of self-care to take them directly.

Affect tourists cultivate hobbies not directly for their own self-care, but treat this activity of insistently narrating these hobbies to others as a self-care activity instead. This person curates experiences in order to smugly recommend what others should do. This vain presentation of one s emotions is an affect tourist s form of self-care. This is good for affect tourists and their own self-care, I suppose, but it is damaging to others who feel that they cannot keep up or afford such suggested practices.

While recommending activities could be helpful for those seeking new self-care practices, the affect tourist will give their opinion whether solicited or not. The affect tourist makes others believe that their activities or feelings are in some way inadequate. The very act of insisting that there are purer avenues of self-care than those one practices recodifies such them as shameful again. In comparison, what I do for self-care does not seem as extravagant as what others insist as a greater method of self-care. This is why I feel that I am terrible at self-care. I don t see my evening winding down watching television or talking with my wife as enough when others insist on cultivating more elaborate or expensive hobbies.

But self-care in itself should never be dependent upon the insistences of others. Self-care must be seen as a pragmatic activity in itself. Whatever works as self-care must be identified as such. The moments we take for caring for ourselves should never be made to feel inadequate, just as they should never be seen as shameful or selfish.

In the end, finding your own self-care practices can only come from assessing yourself. Self-care requires your own evaluation in what supports yourself. Take time for yourself and for your relaxing activities. Find what drives you, and pay no attention to the pressuring insistences of affect-tourists.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lines in the Sand and Boundaries: Surviving Graduate School

Today, Rachel Anna Neff is contributing with her thoughts on self-care in academia. Rachel Anna is working an alternate academic career as a copy editor and writer for a public university. She finished her doctorate in Spanish literature in June 2013 with her dissertation “Weird Women, Strange Times: The Representation of Power through Female Gender Portrayals in 19th and 20th century Hispanic Literature.” She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing. You can find her on Twitter as @celloandbow or read her weekly blog at boredgnat.blogspot.com.


The first and most important step before you start your graduate studies is to make a list of three things you will absolutely not give up for graduate school. Already in graduate school? Make that list now. Making a list may seem silly, but the purpose and act of writing down what is most important to you is very serious. By writing down and thinking about what you hold most dear, you are setting up a boundary.

Boundaries are extremely important to getting through your graduate studies and navigating the daily stresses and expectations from your students, professors, peers, and yourself. When you write down the three things you will not give up for graduate school, you are drawing a line in the sand. You are telling yourself these things are most important to you and graduate school is not worth losing them. Make this list. Make boundaries. Mean them.

My personal list was (if I recall correctly): my relationship with my fiancé and my family, playing cello, and sleep. The worst year I had in graduate school was when I realized I had given up too many of my initial limits from when I started graduate school. I had lost touch with what was most important to me, and I had let preparing for my qualifying exams and writing my first dissertation chapter take over my entire life. I was miserable and depressed.

My epiphany came when my fiancĂ© and I almost ended our then-six-year relationship because I felt I couldn’t spare any weekend to fly up and visit. I skipped my favorite aunt’s wedding because I was scheduled to take my qualifying exams two weeks later, and I felt in that moment I couldn’t spare any time to fly out and attend.

What was most upsetting about the decisions I made was I missed out on a lot of family events, and I still ended up taking an extra year to finish my dissertation. I canceled my scheduled qualifying exams in early April 2011; the chapter was not anywhere in good enough to shape to go to a defense and I still had a significant number of works to read for the written exam.

Sitting in my adviser’s office, my ears rung and the world started becoming small when I said to him in this mewling voice, “I don’t think I’ll be ready to take my exams this year.”

I had spent so much time building up this idea that my adviser would be incredibly disappointed at me for not taking these exams. I felt embarrassed and humiliated knowing other students who entered the program after me were further along with their research projects and writing. Taking in small, shallow breaths, I tried not to start sobbing, even though I felt my eyes watering. I stared at the edge of my adviser’s desk, not wanting to see if my fears were true.

He calmly and kindly said, “That’s okay. We’ll cancel your exams. You can let us know when you’re ready to take them. I’d rather you have a better long paper and pass your qualifying exams than rush in and be asked to take them again.”

I looked up, slightly stunned. I had expected to be dressed down, to have to face a look of disgust or disappointment from my adviser, from my academic idol. Instead, I was fortunate enough to have a compassionate and caring individual who was sincerely concerned for my wellbeing.

Two years after that afternoon in my adviser’s office, I was packing up and moving across the country for a second time in less than eight months. I only had one more dissertation chapter to write, and the end was in sight. (N.B. Don’t move across the country twice while you’re writing your dissertation. It falls into the category of bad ideas.)

The greatest set of questions I learned to ask myself during the dissertation process was: Will this really matter in five years? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

Surviving graduate school means you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. Giving up all your boundaries will result in you losing yourself and being frantic and miserable. If taking care of yourself means you take a quarter off (I did) or do your dissertation in absentia (I did that as well), then do it.

Like my father once told me, “You know what special name they have for the (medical) doctor who graduates last in the class? Dead last, barely passing all the classes? Doctor.” The dissertation doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be done. Let go of the small things and look at the big picture. Did you cave in and lose your boundaries? Did what you give up those boundaries for matter? Will it matter in five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years? No? That’s what I thought.

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