Ergonomics for Academics

by Lena Leson

Picture1At some point in the spring/summer term as I prepared for candidacy exams, I realized that it was my body, not my brain, that was suffering the most after hours of studying each day. I made changes big and small to my work setup, and wanted to share the practical lessons I’ve learned about ergonomics with fellow SMR members—as well as other folks who find themselves glued to their desk for the better part of the day.

The single most important take-away from my summer of studying was to pay attention to your posture. Take a moment to sit up straight, square and relax your shoulders, and uncurl your spine. I was spending hours every day hunched over my books without paying one bit  of attention to the stress I was unnecessarily putting on my body.


You may have splashed out on a standing desk or convertible station you use while sitting or standing, but most of us are probably working at stationary desks or tables. If you’d like to use a standing desk but don’t want to entirely scrap your current work station, consider a riser or standing desk converter to give you a bit more flexibility. If you are standing at your desk, make sure to wear comfortable, supportive shoes and even consider incorporating an anti-fatigue mat.

Assuming that you’re using a more traditional work station, you’ve likely got a chair of some sort and a tabletop. Ideally at least one of these will be adjustable, so that your keyboard is at elbow height and your feet are comfortably supported, either by the floor or a footrest. I ended up moving from my favorite spot at the kitchen table to my office to take advantage of the adjustable and supportive office chair that I had all but forgotten. Office chairs need not necessarily be expensive, but they should be comfortable to sit in and feature some lumbar support, at a minimum. You might also install an adjustable keyboard tray, particularly if your chair and/or table can’t be adjusted. The goal is ultimately to support good posture and to keep your wrists neutral while you’re working, thereby preventing strain.

Your monitor or laptop screen should be near to slightly below eye level, and about 20 to 40 inches from your face. Laptop and monitor stands are great for this, but I’ve found that a couple of hefty Wagner scores also does the trick.

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While I long resisted book stands, they aren’t terribly expensive and will do wonders for your posture and comfort. I like to customize the height of my book stand by placing it atop both volumes of Richard Taruskin’s Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, but any stack of books will do. Bonus: it makes it easy to consult these works during your research!

Make sure that your workspace has adequate and appropriate light. While overhead lighting can be good in some situations, the glare of screens under overhead lights may cause eye fatigue. To that end, make sure to get your eyes checked regularly, as regularly reading from a laptop can take its toll.

Picture3Small breaks, stretching, and even a short walk can be beneficial to both your scholarship and your health. Taking the time to periodically stretch your shoulders and arms can go a long way, especially when you’re spending hours at your desk.

Perhaps the good news for cash-strapped grad students is that new gear or a fancy chair won’t count for much if you’re not mindful of your body while you’re working (says the music and dance scholar). There’s no substitute for being aware of your posture, adjusting your lighting throughout the day, and combating strain and fatigue with stretches and breaks. These are cheap ways to improve your working environment, but they will also have the biggest impact on your well-being. Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy start to the academic year!

Musical Instrument Museum Trip

On the opening weekend of spring break, Alyssa, Ho-Chak, Casper, and I had the great fortune of visiting the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, as arranged by Professor Lester Monts and the Stearns Collection.

The museum operates on the slogan “Music is the Language of the Soul,” and the bulk of the museum is devoted to geographical regions of the world and their instruments. These regions include (1) Africa and Middle East, (2) Asia and Oceania, (3) Europe, (4) Latin America, and (5) United States / Canada, and the majority of the regions are broken up by country. Each subsection within these areas shows instruments, captions, and a monitor that wirelessly connects to museumgoers’ headphones, playing for them the video material shown on screens.

Picture2Fig. 2: Indonesia, which is represented by a full gamelan (right front) and a demonstration of how gongs are made (left back). The gamelan includes instrument descriptions and a monitor that plays short excerpts of gamelan, Indonesian dance, and shadow puppet theatre.



Fig. 3: Casper x 9000 years of continuous history

Additional galleries included one devoted to famous musicians who have performed in the museum, a room devoted to mechanical instruments, an interactive room with somewhat child-proof instruments, and the special exhibition devoted to ancient instruments from central China, curated in partnership with the Henan Museum.



There were also, of course, ample opportunities for us overworked graduate students to goof off. The museum had a Steinway in the lobby that was open for anyone to play, and the museum gift shop had a handful of instruments available for purchase.


Special thanks to Professor Lester Monts and the Stearns Collection for arranging the trip, and to Stearns curator Ted Lottman for setting up a behind the scenes tour of the museum.

– Conner VanderBeek




Fig. 4: Conner and Ho-Chak quit the band.


U-M Ethnomusicology Represents at the 2017 Chicago Marathon

Last weekend, Ho Chak Law raced in the Chicago Marathon. He finished in a personal best of 2:58.10, placing him in the top 150 runners in a rather competitive age bracket (see below for results). This time qualifies him to run other marathons, including the Boston. But don’t bother looking for Ho Chak training around Ann Arbor: all you’d see is a blur—although on Sunday afternoons, Ho Chak condescends to the pace of mortals to run with William van Geest. Congratulations, Ho Chak!

Ho Chak Chi marathon results