Thursday, September 29, 2016

Easy commutes and hard choices

It's turned into commuter week on Hook & Eye, with Erin thinking about her new commute,  and Aimée musing on her un-commute. Like Aimée, I'm currently an un-commuter,  although it wasn't always that way, and getting to this point took some tough decisions and a whole lot of privilege. It might not seem like it, but my current commute has a whole lot to do with the state of academia, my place within it, and the kinds of decisions grad students have to make on the regular.

Scenes from my un-commute
For nearly seven years, I commuted from downtown up to York campus, the last two of those full time. When I started my PhD,  I was commuting from the apartment I shared with my then husband at the edge of Yonge/Eg and Don Mills, which took up to ninety minutes each way in the winter. I was also, for the first while, commuting to my full-time job at OUP. I'd never, not since I was old enough to work, not worked and had gone to school at the same time--I'm a pretty typical first year university student in that--and I thought my PhD should be no different. The work commute ended when I realized how wrong I was, and the school commute changed when my marriage ended and I moved back in with my parents in the suburbs. I couldn't afford to live in the city on my own--humanities graduate funding packages aren't kind to single people, especially not in Toronto--and I was lucky to have a home base I could commute from, no questions asked, until I could find a roommate.

But that commute from my parents' house was wearing, and when I moved in with a grad school friend downtown, we chose somewhere central that would minimize our travel time. The forty-five minutes I spent in transit--a walk, plus the subway, plus the bus--morning and evening was doable, for a time. But somewhere during that time I decided that one of the things I was absolutely unwilling to do was to become an academic road warrior, piecing together teaching across multiple campuses while I was hunting for a tenure-track job. And when my current partner and I inherited a house in the city (extraordinary, extraordinary privilege, despite the fact that it was only possible because he lost a parent), I made the decision that I was also not going to apply for tenure-track jobs that would require us to sell that house and move across the country, away from my family and his aging father, or that would see him stay in Toronto and me commute home at intervals from wherever I was working. Which meant, in practice, that I wasn't going to apply for tenure-track jobs, because there weren't exactly floods of Canadian literature jobs in the Golden Horseshoe.

Scenes from my un-commute

Making that decision was freeing, and taking my first full-time administrative job at York was even more so. But ninety-minutes a day in transit, five days a week, was a lot of time I could have been using to do other things--writing, exercising, spending time with my people--and a hard transition after so many years of a flexible academic schedule. And having made the first big decision not to become a professor, I felt confident in choosing to look for a new job that gave me back that time. So now I have a lovely walk to work, and colleagues that affectionately tease me that I only took the job for the commute. It's no coincidence that I wrote the largest chunk of my dissertation in the year after I settled into this new job, because the absence of a long commute--and the walking and thinking time my un-commute time gives me--turned out to be what I needed to write.

My choices were largely driven my personal preference, and I have enough privilege that I could make those choices. For lots of my people, choices about their commute, or their lack of one, are a matter of necessity--they have to choose jobs, or entire careers, that permit a commute and a schedule that accommodate a sick or disabled child, or their own disability, or their mental illness, or an elderly parent, or a combination of these. And the reality is that for those of us who aren't the lucky ones like Aimée, those kinds of necessities often drive our career choices, and drive us out of an academy that likes to tell us that having preferences about where we work and how we get there are less important than the tenure-track dream.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Un-commuting: some further thoughts

Erin commutes 90km to work. I commute about 1/40th of that distance. Or, rather, I mostly uncommute it, because 90% of the time, I walk. This walk is essential to my emotional and physical health. I am grateful for this but can't take credit for any of it, really.  Where I live, relative to where I work, and the subjective and objective qualities of any and each of home, the office, and the space in-between is pretty highly deterministic of some important parts of my life.

My situation is this. From home to office is about 27 minutes on foot, half through a heavily treed heritage residential area, one third of it through a park, and the rest through two big parking lots. It is mostly extremely pleasant: minimal traffic, lots of green leafy things, a skateboard park and playground, a tiny bridge over an adorable river shaded by an arch of overgrown trees. And the parking lots.

This walk helps my heart. I have feelings about this walk, feelings from this walk: except for the days when the garbage truck and I pace each other through the neighbourhood, I smell dirt and see birds and watch the clouds. One day last winter, I had to navigate on the narrow trail to get around a red tailed hawk that had just killed and was happily disemboweling a pigeon: we looked each other in the eye, eight feet apart from one another. I feel my shoulders soften. I breathe fresh air. I calm down. My FitBit, too, tells me that it's nearly half an hour of elevated heart rate--it sends me congratulatory stickers about my commitment to movement. I meet my daily exercise goals before I even get to work in the morning. I double it on the way home, and that walk has me shedding the film of anxiety and bother and other people's stresses and tiny tasks and big problems that descend on me at the office.

Sometimes I have to drive. On those days, I quite often head to bed at night several thousand steps off my 10K step target. I miss my exercise target of 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise. I feel crabby and rushed and spend only as much time outdoors as it takes to get the dog around the block, because I don't have time for anything else. Work all day is very busy. Evening are full of chores and family activities and obligations. I don't have time. Who wants to get on the treadmill in the basement at 8pm, looking out for spiders? Or, ack, have to leave the house and go to the gym. Not me. I would just never do it at all.

One of my departmental colleagues invited me to address some graduate students about The System, and one of them asked me about scheduling self-care. She could see my digital planner: I'm really busy! And that planner didn't show the yoga classes I teach, or piano lessons I bring my girl too, or any of the rest of it.

I told her this: I focus all my working during the day, and I go at it really hard, so I can be with my family in the evenings. I didn't mention the double-duty of converting my commute into emotional and physical self-care.

I didn't do that because I know that choice is not, particularly, free. I know that it is some combination of the privilege of being able-bodied, living in a mid-sized city, somehow accidentally timing a real estate market, the incredible dumb luck of having a secure academic position.

We hear so much, lately, about the so-called obesity and inactivity epidemics, the terrible road congestion and pollution, how people eat bad food and don't sleep enough. And we blame individuals for all this. Our activity trackers exhort us to move more, eat better, or generally make so-called better choices. But what kinds of choices do we, really, mostly control? Circumstances very largely out of my direct control mean I can walk to work in optimal conditions most of the time. I do it because, frankly, it's easy. My life is dramatically improved as a result. The exercise I get, the emotional release of the outdoors, the time I save not driving and not having to find 'exercise' time and can thus use for other things, enriches my life beyond measure, but I deserve nearly no credit for any of it. It is circumstance, luck.

I grew up in Kirkland Lake, where pretty much everything is 2km or less away from everything else. You could choose to walk everywhere or walk some of the time, and some people did, or you could choose to drive everywhere (there was plentiful parking, mostly free, mostly everywhere) and a lot of people chose that. Mostly, the choice was purely individual. When I lived in Toronto, I could live on campus and save the commute, but there was nothing for miles around York campus I could get to. Or I could live in a real neighbourhood but ride the bus for 90 minutes to and from school. In Guelph and Edmonton, it was easier to align a walkable life style with rental apartments and still be close to school. It would be nearly impossible in Vancouver, or Victoria.

Our jobs, our capitalist patriarchy, seem for the most part to conspire against this kind of balance, the balance that most of us really want. Our jobs are largely contingent and ill-paid. We have little control over where we might have to move to, closer to or further from our extended friend and family networks of support. We uproot so much and so often we have little say in determining the neighbourhood and city infrastructures that shape our experiences of life between bouts of work. We eat in our cars because we have no time to eat at home. We live where we can afford to live. We drive to work because it's too far away or the commute is too unpleasant or dangerous to walk or bike.

The struggle to have some balance is real. Most of us try really hard to do eat right, get our exercise, help the environment, all of it. But whether we can or we can't is mostly out of our capacity to choose.

As in most things, I'm left pondering the relation between individual agency and structural constraint, and wondering how much those of us in circumstances that make it easy to 'do the healthy thing' need to be less proud of ourselves as individuals, how much those of us labouring under more constraints can be kinder to ourselves about those realities, and how together we might advocate for better societies so that we all have a chance to stop and smell the flowers on the way to work, sometimes?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Commuting: Some Thoughts

For the first time in my life I have what counts as a long commute to work. It isn't what many business magazines call "a hellishly long commute," but it is a big change for me. Two hours of my work day are now spent in my car. Let me start by being very clear: I am excited about my new contract; it feels wonderful to be teaching in my field, and the health benefits don't hurt, either. In fact, the only hitch I have when people ask me how the new gig is going is the distance.

I don't mind driving. In fact, I am sort of used to it. I grew up in a rural area and getting to school (or the grocery store, or any friend's house, or the library, or...) meant driving half an hour or more. But this is a bit different. What I mean is this: I find that I account for the time spent commuting for work differently (does the two hour drive count as my work day? Or is it supplemental to it?) In short, I find I am thinking about why and how people commute in ways I hadn't had to before.

Here are some of the ways I mean this: I think about money and time. My time in the car costs a lot. There's the gas, of course, but I think about is the less visible cost. Because our kiddo is still a bit too young for daycare, we have a nanny for the term. Two hours in the car is a quarter of the time we pay for child care each day, so I am paying to go to work again, and I am then spending two hours of that work time in the daily commute. That's okay, by which I mean I am able to do it for now, but I am acutely aware that in terms of the cost many people are not. I wouldn't have been, not before this new contract. So there's that: the cost (emotional, financial) of child care. And there's also the question of productivity. Is it my protestant work-ethic, drilled into me from an early age? Is it the neoliberal institution of higher ed that gives me the not-so-unconscious imperative that I should be working every waking hour and the short term pleasure when I Get All The Things Done? Or is it simply that walking or biking or taking public transit to work felt like I was doing something for myself (fresh air! reading in public!)? Or maybe, as one friend who has commuted further and longer than I, I simply haven't got my podcast game sorted. Regardless of the psychology of my desire to make my commute matter! (whatever that means) I found myself thinking about how other people use their commuting time. Funny how that happens, eh? I've never given real thought to this until it really began to shape my daily life. Hmm... I sense another blog post coming.

Anyhow, I digress. When I started doing some cursory internet research on commuting two themes emerged: how to decide if your commute is too long, and how to improve your commute. The similarities in these articles are pretty predicable in that they are both predicated on the assumption that one has agency in one's employment situation and one's housing situation, for that matter. Some bloggers caution that trading a long commute for a job with more money will often deplete your personal happiness. Others suggest that long commutes chip away at your ability to empathize with others. And articles that are specifically about academics who commute are all-too-familiar in their sensationalism meets stasis. You know the formula (& indeed, you may live this too): two academics land good jobs in different cities/countries/timezones/continents. Articles that I've read about this underscore the extreme strain of this kind of distance and commute, but few (okay, none) have suggested any practical or structural changes to make the institution more open to the "two-body problem," except, maybe, this piece by Tenure, She Wrote. In short, public discourse on how academics and and other white collar workers commute are, well, not-so-subtly focused first on class privilege, and then not-so-subtly on gender. Not much (any) overt discussion of race or sexuality.  Surely when we are thinking through the material and affective conditions of academic work we need to take into account how people get there, what options they have for their commute, and how that commute structures their working and non-working lives.

For now, though, as I think about these things and drive my admittedly beautiful 90km drive, I'm also looking for audiobook, podcast, and music suggestions. Bring 'em on, please. Give me a soundtrack to my thinking.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ladies, Let's Negotiate

Did you know that Hook & Eye is now on Chronicle Vitae? We're excited to be able to expand our audience, and Erin, Aimée, Boyda and I have posts up over there.

My first, on negotiating while female, discusses what the research says about the best strategies for negotiating as a woman, strategies that help to counter the unconscious bias that has contributed to the gendered wage gap.

I was annoyed at negotiating advice that just told women to ask for more, as research suggested that asking for more in the wrong ways could have significant negative social and financial impacts for women. But what I didn't know at the time--for new research has just come out--is that women do ask. In fact, they ask as much as men--they just don't get what they ask for. You can check out that study from the University of Warwick here.

I still stand by my advice about how to ask in ways that may get you what you want more of the time. But the fact that asking more doesn't seem to be part of the issue at all makes me even more angry than I already was.

You can read the full post over at Chronicle Vitae.

Image: vintage photo of women boxing (via Creative Commons

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It's not getting my bum in the seat that's the problem, it's not finding the time. It's not that I'm not writing, even. I've done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There's probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I'm stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I'm trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I'm not sure what professors do in this situation.

I've spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they're overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames .... but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I'm married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. "Look," he said, "If your student came to you with this 'draft', what would you tell them?" And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it's not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I'm always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it's going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here's a first step to take. I mean, I can't really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It's not good that I'm finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I'm really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hot Topic: How to Amplify Women's Voices in the Academy

Last week a short article was making the rounds on social media. The article was about how women in the Obama administration managed to make their voices heard. The interviewees in the article noted that initially it was difficult to even get into the important meetings. And, when they did get into the meetings they were often overlooked. Or their ideas were not heard and credited as theirs.

Peggy accurately captures my feelings.

So they made a plan.

The women got together (hello, shine theory!) and decided that each time a woman made a suggestion in a meeting other women would repeat her suggestion while naming her and giving credit.

There they were: women boosting other women's ideas and demonstrating how to give credit where credit is due. Think of it as amplification.

I love this idea, and since I read the article I have been thinking about how to bring this more deliberately into my practice in scholarly writing. So here is the beginning of a list of ways to amplify  work by women and other marginalized people:

I often make an effort to write two lines of argumentation into one paper. Rather than being confusing (two thesis statements?!) this is fun and political. Here's what I mean: I regularly make an effort to cite friends, peers, colleagues, and mentors in my paper if their thinking is relevant to the work I am doing. I've done this since I was a graduate student, and I learned the practice from some of my mentors who thanks me and other students in the acknowledgements of their books. Now, I go out of my way to reference the intellectual work of women when I speak publicly and write. It's my academic version of Le Tigre's anthem Hot Topic.

If you're on advisory committees or in department meetings or have any opportunity to influence who gets brought to your campus then speak up! Bring in women. Bring in women of colour. Bring in Indigenous women. Bring in differently abled women. Bring in trans people. In fact, bring them into your classroom! Skype and google hangout are free. Departments often have some sort of funds for guest lecturers. Getting invited to speak, getting paid for your public thinking, and getting your work introduced to a new group of people is invaluable. So speak up and suggest names when you have the opportunity to do so!

Book Reviews
In one of my other writing lives I chair the board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts aka CWILA. Every year we do a gender audit of book review culture in Canada and one of the things we've found that doesn't show up in the metrics (yet) is that reviews matter in terms of how books and ideas circulate. You know: buzz. It is a real thing. And here is something I have found, though again anecdotally: there's not as much buzz around academic writing by women and other Others. So pitch book reviews! And feel good about the crucial contribution you're making to a richer, more diverse and representative discourse of writing happening in academic circles. Hype books you're excited about (I for one cannot wait for Professor Karina Vernon's book to come out, for example). And speaking of hype...

When you're in a conference Q&A or sitting in the department lunchroom talking to colleagues or speaking with graduate students and the inevitable "do you have a text to recommend?" question comes up... recommend with relish and enthusiasm and care! Reference diverse work in your lectures! In your conversations! order to do this, challenge yourself to keep a current sense of new and archival work by to draw on. When's the last time you had Mary Ann Shadd on your early Canadian Literature syllabus, for example? Or what about Tanya Lukin Linklater's work on your Performance Studies syllabus? Referencing and referring feels awesome and it is awesome.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

When In Doubt, Buy Office Supplies (or, I Got My PhD)

I spent Saturday morning swimming in a soupy blend of emotion and leftover adrenaline. I don't think I spoke much. Mostly I just read the Black Panther comic my husband had bought for me earlier that week, curled up in my favourite living room chair, and exclaimed quietly every time our eyes met: "I did a thing!"

I did. I did a thing. I did a big thing.

I got my PhD.

Dr. Dalgleish, happy and tired post-defense. 
I've been so grateful for the family and friends who wanted to hear the story of the defense, because telling the story over again has let me consolidate in my mind what is a genuinely treasurable memory, one that has already become a touchstone. My defense was a joyful, fun, challenging, exciting, euphoria-inducing experience--probably the best single academic experience of my career. I had fun!  My committee made me think hard about how and why I'd done the work I had, and made me think more and differently about my place in the field. I shared in my post last week my worry that my day job has made me less effective as a researcher, but the defense proved that it was actually quite the opposite. Having a career in addition to my research practice has made me more confident, better spoken, more thoughtful, more stylish in my writing, less cautious and conventional in how I perform my research, far better able to articulate the value of my work, and far better able to craft a research practice that has real value in and out of the academy. I walked out of my defense completely over the moon, and that's a feeling that I hope stays with me for a long time.

Aside from my happiness and pride at accomplishing something that was hard work and took a long time and demanded a lot, there are other things the PhD has given me that I don't want to lose: the structure that having a large ongoing project lent to my days, the time I carved out for research and thinking and writing, the sense of purpose it lent me, the broad set of skills I developed, the confidence in my abilities, the friendships with fellow researchers and writers, and the deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world. I want to use this time, while I'm still on the high of having finished, to be intentional about crafting the next phase of my life, one that holds on to all of the space I've made for thinking and reading and writing. I also desperately want and need to reshape my life in ways that are more balanced than it has been recently, in ways that leave room for creativity, spontaneity, embodiment, exploration. Not having my dissertation fill so much of my time makes me both exhilarated by the possibility, and a little panicked about how best to make use of all the time not having it on my plate has opened up.

When in doubt, I buy office supplies. On Sunday, I picked up some lovely paper, some new highlighters, and more ink for a beautiful fountain pen I was gifted as a defense present. I sat down at the dining room table on Sunday afternoon, and I drew what I wanted my first week post-PhD to look like, the week that I've been dreaming about for years. I drew it with my new fountain pen, and beautiful paper, and all the colours of highlighter I could find. I took my time, and I thought about the things I wanted this first week to have, the week that would let me begin as I mean to go on.

And so I penned in time to read in the living room with Moose the cat. I drew in time to go running and swimming and yoga-ing, to remind myself that my body is something other than a living jar for my brain. I put in time to walk and listen to podcasts, time to cook, time to work on the novel I started at the beginning of the summer and some non-dissertation academic projects that are in the pipeline. I penned in time for relaxing and self-reflection and projects around the house. I drew in time with my husband, my family, my friends, and more time to sleep that I've allowed myself in a long time.

A very colourful week. 
It's a beautiful week, not just on paper but in practice. It's a week that's chock full of all the things that to me say a good life, one that's full of intention and effort and expanding my horizons. On paper it looks a little like panic, a little like trying to keep the uncertainty of the future at bay by locking the present into tiny boxes, but to me it looks more like intention, like putting down on paper how I want my life to be, the life that the PhD gave me.

My external examiner mentioned that she'd read my "I quit" letter, and she jokingly told me that she thought that letter was a lie. She's right. I didn't actually quit. I'm just swimming in a different lane of the same pool. And the water's fine.