Inspired by Nel’s post yesterday, “Hacking your Relationship With Time Together” and one of the comments in this week’s “Open Thread Wednesday,” I wanted to think a bit about one of the most important relationships in my life and how it has helped me to maintain balance and sanity while I try to negotiate life on the tenure-track. The comment, written by csdanforth, listed a daunting summer workload and closed with the statement “Thank goodness for walking my dog. ”
I’ve always been an animal lover, and I grew up with dogs, but until two years ago, I was a cat person. In part, I became a cat person because I lived in an apartment complex that prohibited dogs, and in part, cats were much easier to care for on a grad student schedule, which could be unpredictable and involve long hours away from home. In the fall of 2008, however, I began volunteering at the local Humane Society as part of a service-learning course I was teaching. During one of the initial training sessions, I fell in love.
The puppy in question had a wrinkly face and a profound fear of floors (she didn’t like their slipperiness). The rest, as they say, is history: I adopted her the very next day. This dog, a Shar-Pei mix who will celebrate her second birthday on Bloom’s Day, has affected my life as an academic in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
I can no longer stay on campus for 10-12 hour stretches. Before the dog, I would routinely go to campus in the morning and stay there well into the evening. This was the case in graduate school where I would camp out in the library or my TA office or a campus coffee shop grading papers, reading, and/or writing. It didn’t change much when I finished my dissertation; I primarily camped in my office instead of the other locations, but I still worked best away from home and all of its distractions. My cats didn’t care how long I was gone as long as they had a clean litter box and enough food, and I liked having the clear distinction between home and work. But there were also some negative results to this practice. Not only did it feed my workaholic tendencies, it also was not good for me physically. I came to rely on campus eateries and vending machines. Luckily, my alma mater had a Jamba Juice in the student union so at least there were healthy options, but even so I spent a lot of money.
Now that I have a dog, I am forced to limit the time I spend away from home. It’s not like I’m on house arrest or anything, but I come home to let her out at least once during the day, and I do recognize that I’m lucky to live close enough to my campus that such a trip is relatively easy. More importantly, knowing that I have 4-5 hours in which to work before “intermission” has helped me to be more productive. I’m a lot less likely to take a solitaire break when I have to accomplish a certain task or tasks within a prescribed window. It still happens on occasion, but it happens less often, which is a good thing. Last semester, my teaching days were broken down into three windows. I had class and office hours before lunch. I went home for lunch and a walk with the dog. I returned to campus for office hours, class prep, and my final class. I came home for dinner and sometimes another walk, and then I would often work for a couple of hours before calling it quits. Not only did I save money on food, but I also got exercise.
Having a dog forces me to get up and get moving. I mentioned exercise in the previous paragraph, and for me this one of the greatest benefits of dog ownership. For the most part, academe is a sedentary profession. We sit at our desks to read and write and grade and advise. We sit at meetings and conferences. We might be more dynamic in the classroom, but even if you are in a space where you can walk around, the classroom is not generally the best place for aerobic activity. Add to that the common tendency to feel guilty when we spend time away from our work, the urgency of deadlines, and the bounty of other reasons that we can all conjure when we are feeling lazy in general, it’s no surprise that many academics struggle with fitness. It is plenty easy for me to put off exercise even though I know that I feel better and I sleep better when I am active. But it is much more difficult for me to put off a walk when I know that the dog needs the exercise too. Exercise is good for both of us, but sometimes knowing that she relies on me to get hers gets me out the door when I might otherwise stay put.
Walking the dog gives me much needed “think time. ”Sometimes I walk the dog with others, but I generally prefer to go by myself. That 40 or 60 minutes can be valuable time. A few weeks ago, Brian wrote about “Hacking Your Commute” and offered ways for readers to make their travel time productive. As I mentioned, I live very close to my campus, so unless I walk (and I have on occasion), the travel time is too short to take advantage of those suggestions. But I do use my walking time in similar ways:
- I call family members and friends (as a result, many of my neighbors probably think that I have long and involved conversations with myself—or my dog, thanks to the Bluetooth earpiece I wear).
- I listen to music.
- I think through research questions.
- I reflect on class exercises and activities.
- I think about letters of recommendation I need to write.
- I try to work through responses to articles I’ve read.
- I brainstorm ProfHacker ideas
- I sometimes look for gardening or landscape ideas.
- Occasionally, I tweet.
My students relate to me differently. This final point is more difficult to quantify, but I’ve noticed a difference in my relationships with students. The difference is most apparent in the relationships with incoming students who haven’t yet figured out how to relate to college professors. My college has a lot of activities dedicated to helping these students negotiate the transition between high school and college, but for some reason, knowing that I have pets tends to put students at ease more than other kinds of small talk. Perhaps this is because pets are a topic that most can relate to, whether they have animals at home or not. Perhaps it relaxes them because it is a safe (read: nonacademic) subject that won’t influence their grades or coursework. Perhaps it simply reminds them that I am a human being. Regardless, having pets and being willing to talk about them has provided me with both an effective icebreaker and some great anecdotes for the classroom. There’s even a CHE Forumite who has used her dog in the classroom to teach the imperative voice. My campus does not allow dogs on campus, so the closest I’ve come to this is bringing her to a few athletic events.
Certainly, animal companionship has its drawbacks as well.
Mainly, it is expensive. Vet bills and vaccinations, obedience classes, kennel stays, food and accessories (leashes, collars, toys, etc. ) add up quickly. If you are a renter, you will likely have to pay a pet deposit, and many rentals have strict no pet policies.
It is a big responsibility. When I travel, I have to make sure to have a pet sitter or to stay somewhere that allows pets. Moreover, it is important to be a responsible pet owner and not only pick up after your animals (more below), but to be able to control them so that they don’t jump up on strangers or fly out the door whenever it is opened. For us, this has involved many obedience classes and a great deal of time training.
It can be inconvenient. I have to come home regularly to take the dog outside and let her do her business. I have to carry plastic bags everywhere we go and carry them until there is a suitable place to dispose of them. We have to go outside in the rain, in the cold, early in the morning and/or late at night. On those days when I can’t get home at lunch time—they don’t happen often, but they do happen—I need to make arrangements for someone else to look in on her.
How have your pets affected your life as an academic? Please share examples and stories in the comments section.
[Photo by the author. Creative Commons licensed. ]