“How Do You Work?”: An Interview With Deborah Neill

As part of our efforts to connect the graduate student experience to the professorial experience here at York, we are interviewing several professors about how they manage the work/life balance and how they do their work. 

Deborah NeillToday’s interview is with Dr. Deborah Neill, an Associate Professor in History at York. She is a Modern European Historian, specializing in European colonialism and the history of colonial medicine and humanitarianism. Her interests include the history of epidemics, the role of transnational ties between tropical medicine specialists in Africa and Europe (early 20th century), and the history of food. She has twice (so far!) been nominated for a faculty teaching award.

1. Between research, teaching, conferences, and administration, what techniques do you use to manage your time ‘on the job’? (Do you use a set schedule; do you allot a number of hours for each task; do you work during your commute; etc?)

Part of it depends on what time of year it is. Between September and April I have a pretty set schedule. On teaching days I get up, get the kids breakfast, and once their caregiver arrives I head to my desk and start answering pressing emails. Then I move on to teaching stuff before heading out to York where I do office hours and lectures. After that I will often beat the traffic home and get back to my desk in the mid to late afternoon where I look over other upcoming lectures, answer more emails etc… and then I quit at around 6, which is when I take over kid duties.

On non-teaching days I also start at around 8 but I will focus on a particular project, obviously prioritizing the ones with the closest deadline. So one day might be “grant day”, another might be editing an article, or if I am behind on lecture writing I will do that. I have one other consistent pattern: I never write in the afternoons. Afternoons are devoted to meeting with students, committee work and reading – as much reading as I can get in. I find I don’t have a head for writing in the afternoons.

When I have a really pressing deadline I work late into the evening. Since I had kids this is trickier, of course, so I will have to wait until they go to bed and then I start up again. So there are some days where I work very long hours, but since I think of my job as project-oriented, rather than punching a clock, I feel that it just comes with the territory.

In the summer I am lucky to have a more relaxed schedule and try to sink my teeth into something more intensive, particularly getting to archives, or reading archival files, and planning new courses etc.

When I have a pile of grading to do, I always take the subway. I am amazed by how efficient a grader I am when I am on a subway. I get quite a lot marked on the way.

2. When and where do you work best?

At home for sure. Once everyone is out for the day I have the house to myself and I like my work environment at home. Plus the dog is here, so when I need some space to think I take him out for a long walk to clear my head. When I’m doing an intensive writing project I find that really helpful. But I also like collegial exchange so I like being in my office from that point of view. It can get a little TOO quiet at home. Ultimately I like the balance. This year I am moving into the Tubman Institute and since I will have a great office, I anticipate working more often there. But nothing beats your home turf when you are writing, in my view.

3. Do you use any tools or software for your research that you find particularly helpful?

I use Zoterro for managing sources which I like quite a bit. I have started taking my ipad to the archives so I bought a keyboard for it and also downloaded “docstogo” so that I can write word files on the ipad. The handy thing about the ipad at the archives is it is lightweight, has the functionality I need (I can check email, can type documents etc) and as a bonus, if your camera battery runs out, you can take pictures of the files with it! (I speak from experience…)

4. How do you juggle between your family life and your career? Do you face or have you faced particular challenges in this regard? How do you overcome them?

This balance has been harder since I had kids. What I try to do is to think of my job as essentially about specific deadlines. So I don’t concentrate on the number of hours I work, but rather set a series of goals both short term and long term that I am aiming for. So for example, this year I committed to two conferences, launching a new course, writing an article for a joint journal submission and getting my new project off the ground. When you put your goals in concrete terms and make them as realistic as possible, it gives you something to sink your teeth in to. The caution here is not to promise yourself too much (I think I might have promised myself too much)! Anyway once I finish something big, like a conference paper or a lecture, I reward myself with a bit of time off with my kids before tackling the next thing. It may mean working on a weekend sometimes, but it also means being able to go to my daughter’s dance recital on a Friday morning. That’s one of the things I love best about this job – the flexibility. The problem, of course, is you can feel like you are always working in the sense that your projects are always on your mind. But I see academia not just as a job but a way of life – so the projects are usually things I am quite passionate about. So it doesn’t feel so much like work (except for maybe at 1 am the night before a submission is due….)

Life/work balance is something I think about a lot. I think in academia we are lucky that our work is often related to things we would be doing anyway…. for example, sometimes I feel guilty when I am sitting on the couch reading a book in the afternoon, and I have to remind myself that this is what I’m supposed to be doing! It seems like such a luxury to be paid to read. But when I am in the midst of a late-night pile of grading or frantically trying to finish a lecture, I am not so happy about the fact that this kind of thing has to take priority over my kids. So on the one hand, I think we are lucky because our work doesn’t always feel like “work,” but when it does… it really does. So I do think it is important to also try to get away completely from one’s job. I try to build in week long family vacations in December and in the spring. My husband also works long hours so this is tricky. But we try hard to carve out family time. You will not be good at your job if you never get away from it.

But… who is kidding who, I have been known to bring a nice juicy monograph with me on a family trip….

5. Are there any aspects of your work that you were surprised to encounter when you embarked upon your career?

It isn’t that I was surprised, but I was struck by how hard you have to work at the beginning. Everything is front-loaded…. to get the job these days you have to build a publishing profile almost before you are hired, and the pressure to publish articles and a monograph builds quickly once you start a job. And this happens to you at a time when you have less experience, are trying to develop collegial relationships and have a lot of teaching and committee duties. I am glad I didn’t have kids then, because I was not very balanced in terms of my time and I found the consistently heavy hours I was putting in difficult. But over time it got easier for two primary reasons: the first was of course that I was able to get some writing out the door and publish the book, but also because the whole thing just becomes faster because you are more experienced and confident, can avoid research and writing pitfalls a bit better, know what kinds of shortcuts will get you to the finish line faster, and you develop a network so new opportunities arise more quickly. So I would just add that it does get easier, which was a nice surprise. Not exactly easy, of course… but definitely easier!

6. Is there any piece of advice that you wish your professors had told you when you were a grad student?

OK it is a small thing, but for what it’s worth: when you are writing and you add your footnote, do the whole footnote right away, even if you are worried it might break your rhythm. There is nothing worse than that time when you are checking your notes and can’t remember a full reference. I lost so many hours tracking down my own references, and in one memorable case had to jettison a whole quote (which was an awesome quote) because I couldn’t re-find it in my archival sources. I knew it was there, but without checking it against the original I couldn’t keep it! Ack! It is these small things that add time and anxiety to the process.

Still on writing — and I know this is obvious, but anyway — no matter what you are writing, keep it simple. Lay out your argument really clearly off the top with no jargon or complex wording. Keep your structure simple too, and hammer your readers over the head with your argument and structure in the introduction. I find a lot of academic work is overly-complicated and good ideas are obscured by in-group language. The more accessible, the better. This goes for lecture writing too – simple thesis, lay out your structure, and have a fairly basic but important point at the centre of your lecture. When I look back on my own work I am often struck by my own needlessly complicated wording and a structure that could obscure as much as it revealed. So my new mantra is: keep it simple.

Oh, and get a dog. Or borrow someone’s dog. Or walk a pretend dog. This almost always gave me space to figure out how to resolve a research or writing problem! (Ok you don’t have to have the dog. But being forced to take a daily walk, regardless of the weather, always snapped me out of research and writing conundrums.)

Thank you again to Dr. Neill for finding the time to answer our questions! If you have a professor you would like to recommend for an interview, or if you are a professor and would like to be interviewed, pleased let us know!

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1 Response to “How Do You Work?”: An Interview With Deborah Neill

  1. Sean Kheraj says:

    Great responses, Deb! I found this useful for my own work. This interview series is not only good for faculty and students to make better connections, but it is helping me understand my colleagues better.

    Unfortunately, I do not yet have a dog. I recently got a cat and she is a great writing companion.

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