“How do you work?”: An Interview with Jessica van Horssen

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.

Jessica van HorssenToday’s interview is with Dr. Jessica van Horssen, an Assistant Professor in history at York University. Her graphic novel based on her doctoral research, A Town Called Asbestos, is available online in both English and French. She is also on Twitter.

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?

Things can get pretty hectic with multiple things to do (and due!) in a short period of time. I like to set a plan at the start of each week to organise and breakup the things I need to do. I typically allot a full day to lecture planning, another for marking, another for new research, another for writing/publications, and so on. Breaking up the week like this helps me focus on one specific thing at a time, which helps me get things done more efficiently. I do a lot of reading on the subway, and find it’s a great place for this task because there are very few distractions.

2. When and where do you work best?

I work best when I’m in the office. It doesn’t have the distractions that home does, and there are great people around in the department to talk with about any specific project I am tackling, or something completely different to give my brain a rest for a short while! I think of the office as a space where only work happens, and it’s incredibly easy to focus while there. I typically take digital photos of my archival research and can go through these photos in my office, on my big desktop screen. Laptops and home offices (ie. couches), are not good for the eyes or the spine!

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

I invested in a high quality digital camera early on in my research so I could take clear photos of my archival sources, which I have stored on an external hard drive. Photocopies keep piling up and take up a staggering amount of space, so this was a way to minimize that issue, to decrease my use of paper, and to take my research with me anywhere I may need it without needing a giant suitcase to store it in.

I started using Endnote while writing my dissertation, but found that it did not allow me to cite in the exact way I needed to, so I have given that up. Another program, called One Note, however, was extremely helpful to me when I was doing my comprehensive exams, as it creates a digital filing cabinet for notes that you can search through via keyword. I still rely on these notes today.

I also use Twitter in my research, which I never thought I would do, but it’s worked out really well! I remember a time I was having trouble finding sources on medical professionals and their views of the working class, so I put the question to Twitter using #histmed. Within a half hour I had an overwhelming number of great sources to find, read, and use in my work.

 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?

Juggling between family life and career can be a challenge. My partner is also an academic, so understands the often unique requirements and demands of the profession, and we are able to support each other because of this understanding. This includes him getting up with me at 6am to make my lunch before I head to campus, which is a real bonus! He is British, and this has presented some difficulty in accessing visas on both sides of the ocean, and finding fulfilling work for us both. This is an issue that simply takes time to resolve. Because our field of research is similar, we often go to conferences together, and just this past summer he convinced me to do a stand-up routine based on my research at the International Congress for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. It was terrifying, but totally worth it, and only he could have gotten me on that stage. I’m not sure my parents fully understand what it is I do, but things like my digital graphic novel, or the series of web episodes I did on my research for EHTV, really help convey my research to my non-academic family members and friends.

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

One thing that surprised me, although shouldn’t have, is that the community of professors around you genuinely want you to succeed at whatever it is you choose to pursue, and you can rely on them for much more than reference letters. This goes beyond the traditional student-supervisor dichotomy, and extends to the department as a whole, as well as a wider group of scholars you encounter at conferences, archives, and elsewhere. Do not be intimidated by a name: every professor knows what it’s like to be at your career stage, and has gone through it themselves. When they offer you assistance, take it! Your work will be better for it, and it helps chip away at the isolation that can often come when researching and writing.

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

Have fun! Alongside dividing up your week with various research, writing, and teaching duties, make sure to plan time with academic and non-academic friends alike to let loose, laugh, and not look at your computer screen. It’s so easy to become isolated while doing your doctoral degree, and this isolation can be incredibly counterproductive. Your brain needs a break every now and then, and being social is so crucial in helping with this. Inspiration for my graphic novel on Asbestos came from watching The Dark Knight Rises, and some of my best ideas have come from relaxing in a sunny garden with friends, eating cherries and drinking wine. You never know where a good idea—or a good belly-aching laugh—will come from, and you need both of these things while doing your PhD!

Thank you again to Dr. van Horssen 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, please let us know!

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