“How Do You Work?”: An Interview with Jaclyn Neel

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.

Dr. Jaclyn NeelToday’s interview is with Dr. Jaclyn Neel, an Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University.  Her research interests are in Roman history and historiography; ancient religion; and papyrology. 

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?

I think I’m a bit unusual in that I often don’t work during my commute. I live very close to York, and I like to use that time to let my mind wander over various projects (both research and teaching). I do keep multiple sets of hard-copy calendars, but I schedule my ‘free’ time fairly loosely — it’s more a prioritized “list of things to do” than an actual schedule. It’s often in my head. The calendars are for keeping track of meetings, courses, etc.

2. When and where do you work best?

On my couch. Usually midday, which is unfortunate for teaching; I’m best at sharp thinking in the morning and creative thinking at night, which is fairly typical, I think. When I have an afternoon free, I can usually mix a bit of both.

You didn’t ask this, but I cannot stress enough (at least to my students) that different people work best in different ways. I can’t work in a library. I’ve never been able to. I spend as little time there as possible. Most of my friends thrive in the library and are there all the time. I know people who work in coffee shops. I know people who need a desk. My point is that it might take some experimenting, but once you’ve found your way of working, don’t feel pressured to change because you’re different. It’s more important to be productive than identical.

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

There’s not very much ancient material compared to other eras of history. A lot of it is online in databases; they’re probably the best tools. Most of the time, though, I’m pretty old-fashioned: pen, paper, Word. Maybe Photoshop. My teaching is more high-tech than my research!

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?

It’s something I’m constantly working on, and I could do better. It’s easier during the summer, because I have fewer urgent priorities (like preparing classes for the next day), and that makes it easier to shift things around.

I also know that I have it fairly easy, since I don’t have children. This summer I took off every Sunday afternoon to spend with my grandmother. I worked on the train there and back, but those hours were for her. As I said above, I have a prioritized to-do list; if something important doesn’t get done, I’ll stay up late to do it. While I was writing my thesis, I realized that I needed to start putting family and friends on the list, rather than assuming that I would just spend time with them. It sounds very sad, but it’s worked out a lot better that way. Even so, in term I tend to be more of a hermit.

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

How much scholarship there is on almost anything. It’s hard to keep up with everything new that’s published on the areas I work with. When you think about early Roman history, it’s 2500 years ago, and sometimes it amazes me how many new books, articles, etc. are published every year.

On a more positive note, it’s always both surprising and gratifying when I tell people what I do. People are fascinated with history. Whenever I meet someone new, I hear about how s/he loved his/her myth class, or Greek drama class, or “I, Claudius”. The older ones often quote a few lines of Latin to me; they remember learning it in school. It’s not just wonderful that these non-specialists remember their ancient civ classes so fondly; it’s also humbling that their teachers in high school could instill such passion in them that they can recite Ovid at me 40 years later.

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

Two parts: (a) the job market is really, really tough, and as a result (b) you should have a non-academic hobby that can moonlight as a plan B. But it’s important that it be a hobby, because you’ll have a lot of non-relaxing work to do as a student! You’ll need to have something you really enjoy besides your academic work. And of course, it’s better if that hobby can one day make you money.

Also, there are days when it will be a slog and you hate what you do. It’s normal. I have days when I think about Caesar and want to stab him myself. So I learned early on to have two projects going on at the same time. Now, when I’m tired of Caesar, I can switch to Maelius. It’s not a huge leap, but it’s enough variation to keep me sane, and lets me show a varied research agenda.

Thank you again to Dr. Neel 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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