Today we feature an interview with James Howard, a graduate student in the History department, studying American abolitionist movements and their intersection with broader evangelical thought. In our interview, James shares his thoughts on graduate school boundaries, having a family in graduate school, and how he hopes the culture of academia is changing for the better around these issues.
BearTracks: Okay, so the first question is just getting formalities out of the way. Tell the people what you’d like them to know about you James – what department you’re in, your year in your program, your deep love of Pokémon, etc.
James Howard: Yes, I am a second year PhD student in the History department studying the abolitionist movement and with a specific focus on the religious influences in the antebellum era. Outside of that, I really like to skateboard I like to rock climb which is difficult to do in Central Texas, but I love hanging out with family. I have a daughter at home who’s less than one, and my wife and I just have the time of our life with her.
BT: Okay, so with all those things, tell me about what boundaries you put on your graduate student life.
JH: I think I learned early on as a Master’s student that once I get home, (and this is a bendable rule, depending on deadlines) work is done. I really try to separate myself from the different corners of my living place. Like I don’t do work at the kitchen table, because that’s where you eat, where you gather the community. So I have separate spheres, so to speak. So that really helps me. Secondly, if I’m ever feeling stressed about school, actually doing more school work tends to make me spiral. So I force myself to go for a run or just decompress before actually getting back to school work. I think breaks are one of the best ways to motivate you, because you’re actually stopping what you’re doing. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s really helped me this past year.
BT: What led to the creation of those boundaries?
JH: I think I did two all nighters my first year in the Ph. D program, and I was like, this is not sustainable! As much as people keep saying that you have to do this, I am totally defiant against that. I will be the minority, I don’t care; I don’t want to perpetuate this. So I just trusted people who told me that you can do this without acting like a maniac until 3am. I knew that if I didn’t do this, if I didn’t place margin on my life, it was gonna get worse. That sounds bad.
BT: Not at all! The whole reason we’re doing this series is because we think we talk about work/life balance, but no one is talking about actually taking drastic measures about it.
JH: It’s super important to realize what is your priority. This is difficult to do early in a program, but your loved ones or friends or family will appreciate you more. You will love to be around them because you’ve separated your work from them. I hate to say this but many academics struggle with hierarchically organizing their life, and they view their work above relationships with human beings, which is never okay.
BT: Where would you say you have grown in creation of boundaries, and where would you still like to grow?
JH: Yeah, I would like to – I’m ashamed to admit this – but I still do a little bit of work every day. I can’t help but do a little bit of reading, or even something as simple as checking email. I would love to to create some periods, a full twenty-four hours where I don’t do any work. It’s so hard, because I really don’t trust myself. I think that’s how much I don’t trust that rest is good for me, the fact that it’s still a battle, a fight.
BT: Okay, the next question is a choose your own adventure question. You can either, A) share the best advice you’ve received about setting boundaries, or B) share the best tool you have discovered for establishing boundaries.
JH: This is a great question. Okay, I think the best advice I got from a professor, someone in authority told me that this was okay to do, was basically this: you come to grad school and have all these classes and you think that you have to perform highly in all of them, but you came here with something specific to offer the rest of the academy, something very personal to you that you care about researching, and not all of your classes will add to that. So do not hold yourself to the highest standard in those classes, because you cannot! It sounds like heresy saying this at a university, but we cannot be pouring our heart and soul into things that we don’t really care about, because otherwise we will become too tired and defeated to actually do the things we do care about.
BT: This is probably an overly utilitarian statement, but I finally realized that all of grad school is just checking lots of boxes, even the things that we enjoy, even the things we came here to do, like the dissertation. We can’t be over-inflating the importance of certain things. We have to recognize that putting an extra week of work into something doesn’t necessarily make it better than not doing that. Just do it, get it done.
JH: Oh absolutely. When people say, Oh, you’ll get it done, I used to get offended by that, like they didn’t understand how hard it was, and what if I didn’t get it done? There are circumstances where it is justifiable not to get things done, but other times, if you just tell yourself that this thing is really not a big deal, it’s just something to get through, it becomes easier to push through it and be done.
BT: What has the creation of boundaries allowed to flourish in your life? By fencing parts off, what has been able to grow in the creation of new space?
JH: I have some spaces in the house where I’m not supposed to be doing school things, I find myself being much more intentional, consciously intentional, without having this liminal space in my head that’s constantly circling back to school. So having two separate spaces for specific things. I’ve even created this reading nook in my house where I do my reading. So that when I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, that’s where I converse when people come over, watch TV, listen to the record player. I don’t want to swap. I don’t want my work life to be everywhere.
BT: Okay, final question. How do you see these practices as an investment in your future? This could be your future in academia, your future as a human being, or anything between or beyond.
JH: Such a good question – I’m really passionate about these conversations. I think that there’s a shift taking place in academia. Because when I’m engaging with the faculty who have been around for 30+ years, they describe the same things that I’m going through right now, as “this is just natural,” and it is, but I’m trying to resist that in every way, shape, and form. And if putting boundaries on my life is capable of sustaining me thus far, why can’t it sustain me into the future?