Thursday, April 17, 2014

I forgot to be nice to myself for a long time, and here's what happened

Things have been, shall we say, stressful. As someone who scores pretty damn high on the privilege scale, I feel like a jerk for enumerating those stresses because they are totally the problems of the privileged. I have a very busy (full time, salaried, benefits paying, secure) job that costs me plenty of missed downtime and sleep, a major renovation looming (on a home we own in a city we love), a dissertation that demands lots of time and energy (which is part of a PhD I'll be completing debt free), a couple of side research projects that are ramping up, and a history of sliding into states of (luckily mostly mild) depression, the triggers for which tend to be major stress and the failure to exercise self-care. And as a confirmed perfectionist, I'm very bad at cutting myself slack.

But--first world problems are still problems, especially when they start to become debilitating. And when Saturday came around--a beautiful sunny day that I'd normally give anything to be outside in--and all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch, mainline Friday Night Lights on Netflix, have a little sniffle and feel sorry for myself, I knew something was wrong. After weeks of pushing myself to my limits, my limits pushed back. That this was about to happen shouldn't have come as a surprise, since Saturday was presaged by a whole bunch of warning signs that I had been ignoring, most of which involved my total failure to practice self-care. Carrots replaced with chocolate? Major lack of exercise? Mindless surfing taking the place of reading? More takeout than cooking? Work upon work upon work? Meditation practice off the rails? Waking up in the middle of the night to obsess about all the things I was doing and all the things that I wasn't getting done? Incredible difficulty getting out of bed in the morning? Failure to take my vitamins? Checkity check check check. It amazes me how thoroughly I can put my mental and physical health on the back-burner when work and stress come 'a calling. 

Just as a studies have started to show that frowning may cause depression as much as depression causes frowning, my failure to take care of myself exacerbates stress and depression just as much as stress and depression make me fail to take care of myself. It doesn't help that we work in a culture that tells us that work should come before everything else. Or that that same culture subtly reinforces the idea that our bodies are just vehicles for our brilliant brains and deserve only as much care as we need to give them to keep functioning. But after Saturday's meltdown, I realized that I needed to do better. Waiting to treat things once they become problems doesn't make much sense, and practicing some self-care is the best way for me to prevent something mostly manageable from become major.

So, little by little, I'm trying to regain the practice of self-care that my body and mind forcibly reminded me I need. It's hard to do when all you want to do, and feel capable of doing, is a whole bunch of nothing. But the more you do, the more you do. I've gone for a couple of runs since then, and spent some time in the garden. I've cooked dinner almost every night, and started in again on my giant "to read" pile. I'm taking a four day weekend, starting tomorrow, and I'm not going to think about my office job one bit.  And I'm finally celebrating the birthday that largely got lost amidst all the craziness.It helps, too, to know that it's not just me. Even with all my privilege, I really can't have it all (can anyone?), although that doesn't stop me from trying. But I need reminders, like Boyda's, and Jana's, and Aimee's, and Erin's, and Margrit's, that there's more than work and responsibility, and that slacking and self-care are not synonyms.

How about you, dear readers? Have you had a facepalm total self-care failure recently? How'd you turn things around? 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Associate Chair Grad Studies: Me

Did I tell you guys I'm going to be the new Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department, as of July 1?

It's a pretty big administrative role for me, and I'm excited, and nervous. I asked to be appointed--and apparently, I'm the first one to ever do so, which I actually found a little surprising. Grad studies questions are near and dear to my heart, as you know, since I've written extensively here (as have Heather, and Erin, and Melissa, and Margrit, and Janna, and Boyda) about grad student issues (just look at our keywords in the sidebar, and you'll see a compendium of writing on the subject--32 posts tagged "grad school").

I'm pretty proud of the intervention that Hook and Eye has made in the practice of grad studies in Canada. Just this week, I saw our blog name-checked and linked in the excellent and ambitious White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, put together by a group of academics under the umbrella of the SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis project on the Future of Graduate Training in the Humanities. The blog was noted for its participation in 21st century practices of open sharing and graduate professionalization. The report is pretty impressive: go get the pdf, right now. I'm hoping that as I take on this new role in grad studies in my department, I can put my money where my mouth has been on this front, in more programmatic ways. It's exciting, and it's daunting.

But since this is also a blog about being a professor as much as about being grad students, I thought I'd share some of this position with you, as I figure out how to do it. Like Heather before me, I'm wary about what it means to be an administrator of whatever level and still keep a public blogging platform active. But I think I can do it.

My excellent colleague currently in the position is starting to pass some duties on to me, like some of the planning around graduate orientation in the fall. I think I did about two hours of work on that yesterday, which really got me to thinking: boy, things are really going to change for me at work pretty soon. I've been asking for advice far and wide. Some of what I've been told is:

  • be careful how much you drink
  • listen, listen, listen
  • don't try to change everything
  • there are more meetings than you can imagine
  • be kind to administrative staff
  • don't miss deadlines
  • block of time in your calendar for writing, or you will never write
  • use fewer words
  • put limits on evening and weekend work
  • book vacation time in advance and tell everyone you'll be gone

I fear the meetings and emails and busywork will spiral out of control. I fear that my plans for making more evident and programmatic the excellence of our programs are going to be too much to get done, but I fear not getting enough done. I'm worried I'll never write. I'm worried that I'll make mistakes in discipline cases, or admissions, or conflict situations. I'm worried my insomnia will come back. I'm worried I won't be good at this. I'm a little more worried that I will be good at this.

That's the squishy stuff, so far.

Here are some of the pragmatics, if you don't know them, or, if is likely, it's different at your institution. It's a three year term. I'll get a stipend every year for doing it, in addition to a two course reduction in my teaching load (so I'll be 1:1). I can change my assessment ratio for my merit review to weight more heavily towards service, so instead of 40 teaching, 40 research, 20 service, I can pitch a proportion of 40 service, 30 teaching, and 30 research, or maybe 40 service, 40 research, and 20 teaching, or even 40 service, 40 teaching, and 20 research. That's a good option to have, and it reflects how the kind of things I'll be able to get done will shift during this time.

That chunk of my day yesterday thinking about orientation, and then getting led down a paperwork / policy rabbit hole for a couple of hours has made the impending new position that much more real for me. So it felt like a good time to share it with you.

I'm still collecting advice: have you held this kind of position, or been subject to it? Any words of wisdom or warning for me? I'm listen, listen, listen-ing :-)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Writing all the time, including on the plane

I've been telling my grad students that the number one rule of successful conferencing is: don't write the paper on the plane. Like writing a term paper in the 12 hours before it's due, when you write the paper on the plane (or some similar frantic timeframe / inappropriate writing location) all you find when you hit the magic right number of words is when you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that you've just hit the point where the paper ought to have started?

Yeah. I hate that.

And yet, in the midst of the overbooked semester from hell, I've slated myself to deliver two talks on two different coasts of the US two weekends in a row. On two totally different topics. And both times I've started the paper two days in advance of flying away, and both times been interrupted by one kind of work crisis or personal crisis (ask me about the bed bug scare of 2014!) and boarded the airplane with the paper uncompleted.

But both papers turned out awesome. It's not because I'm any better at magicking up 10 pages of new material. It's because I don't have to start from zero.

My paper last week was on humour and the representation of trauma in web comics. When I sat down to start writing it, pretty much after I'd already got my suitcase out of the attic, I already had 4700 words of free-writing and textual analysis notes already available to me. So I cut and pasted in a lot of that, then cut out the stuff that wasn't relevant to the conference theme, and then rewrote it to sound coherent as a paper, and to give the transitions. Then I made the slides at the hotel. I was really, really happy with what I wound up with.

My paper this week is on selfies. I need about 1700 words, and when I left Waterloo this morning, I had a paper that was 400 words long. It had two paragraphs of text and some headings. But I had, again, three different documents full of notes and close readings: on snapchat, on Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, on Dear Photograph, on Selfies at Funerals. So I'm on a patio in LA, copying and pasting, and just moving into cutting and reframing. I'll do the slides in the morning once the text is finalized. I've been collecting images for months, it's just a matter of picking which ones and putting them in order.

Ideally, I'd like to arrive with printouts, and not read from my computer. But this has been a hell of a term, and the last couple of weeks haven't been any better. The whole term, though, craziness be damned, I've been reading. And I've been writing. Every day. Free writing. Jotting down ideas. Tuesday, my husband and I went out to lunch and we were talking about this upcoming paper, and I stopped and sent myself an email about an idea. I have got in the habit of doing that all the time. It's paying off.

I'm finding that writing "the real thing" is a lot easier when I have a lot of low stakes or no stakes writing just lying around in my Dropbox. And it's not just the word count, the cutting and pasting of finished prose. It's more that I've obviously been thinking in a daily and active way about the relevant ideas, so that when I put together the formal presentation, I'm really already quite close to done. I've had the ideas I need to have, and figured out how they all relate to one another and to the research, which is the hard part.

The last minute happens to all of us. I'm trying my best to get the formal writing done earlier rather than later, even if I'm not really succeeding this month. In any case, though, my daily low-stakes free writing habit makes all of this so much more rewarding, and my work is much better for it, with way less angst on my part. Even when I have to write the paper on the plane.

I mean, I've even got time to write a blog post ...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Horizontal Histories and Learning from the Archive

As a medievalist, I've had the great and unusual privilege of spending a fair bit of time in manuscripts rooms handling 600-year-old handwritten books. I fell in love with medieval studies during my undergrad due to a funded summer at the University of Calgary when I was asked to help catalogue and investigate over thirty manuscripts preserved on microfilm. I then spent a summer of my MA in England, bypassing the microfilm for actual old papers and books, and this semester I get to do it again: temporarily excused from teaching responsibilities, I'm currently hanging out in the UK for a few weeks to conduct primary research for my dissertation. It's....stressful (am I looking at the right things, from the right perspective, for the right amount of time?). It's tiring (must-get-there-when-library-opens-must-stay-until-close). It's a little lonely (Oh hello, girl in the white blouse. I sat across from you yesterday. Let's be pretend friends in my mind.).

But it's also invigorating and exciting, especially insofar as I'm encountering traces of people and bodies that have been forgotten for centuries, and as I practice a history that is reconstructive and "recombinative"--as Nicholas Watson terms it. Watson argues that we as literary historians are charged with forming a relationship with the past, of confronting its phantasms in the present and combating the teleological impulse to privilege the future of modernity over the historically premodern (and the Middle Ages especially is viewed as decayed and obsolete, remnants of a vicious and irrational time) (7). If we think horizontally rather than teleologically, we can learn to listen to what traces of the past have to teach us in the present, thus countering productivist or evolutionary dogma about the future, as well as the "climate of the obvious" that demands we translate our humanist work into metrical and instrumental terms (an issue I wrote about a few weeks ago).

On a more basic level, the archive has retaught me about the value of the book, and I'm not just talking about the medieval book. One setback of this digital age, with all its conveniences and technological marvels, is that the many scholarly materials readily available on the internet foster inattentive attitudes over the means of their production. As an example, I've been consulting the British Library's online catalogue version of one of my manuscripts prior to this trip, and when I located the physical catalogue in the BL Manuscripts room, I discovered that not only this single tome, but also all twenty volumes of the early-twentieth-century Sloane catalogue are handwritten. There were no digital traces of this fact. (Of course all the texts I deal with as a medievalist were originally handwritten, scrawled and deliberated over by poor monks in harsh working conditions with deadlines and demands.)

 Court in front of ye grande British Library

Everything at the British Library is ritualized and formalized, and the conversations overheard at tea time are most often serious, engaged, passionate. When sitting in the reading room, even with a modern book, I often have to suppress a strong impulse to snap a photo with my phone of a particularly useful piece of scholarship, due to the BL's draconian photography restrictions--instead I  type it out, forcing me to slow down and more consciously ruminate on the information provided. Even the daily ritual of opening my laptop case for the security guards as I leave the reading room serves as a reminder of the precious nature of physical archival materials. Erin has written about the systematic destruction of Canadian archives under the Stephen Harper regime; I dare you, Harper, to step foot in the BL and experience firsthand their protective stewardship of primary documents.

While I don't at all mean to romanticize books, spurn digital humanities (which have been valuable for scholarship in SO many ways), or fortify the privileged domain of the ivory tower, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the value of the humanities lately--as many of us have in this uncertain world--and I think the materials and products upon which our scholarly output is based deserve more attention than they're normally given. We should also question modes of access to and policing of these materials, and so fight for increased value allotted to primary documents alongside increased visibility and access (which the digital movement has greatly aided). Back home in New York, I've tried to be active in the SaveNYPL movement, which is working to prevent the city from incurring irreparable architectural damage to the largest noncirculating library branch in America, and demolishing one of the States' most frequently used libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Branch, in the process. This is a fight not just for architectural preservation, but also against letting information circulation accelerate beyond a point where we recall the value of slow, conscientious, recombinative scholarship as fostered by noncirculating libraries. The NYPL stands to become what one activist has called a "glorified internet cafe," and I hope some of you will join me in emailing the mayor to help protest these devastating changes.

So I guess we could all benefit from living for a few days or hours as medieval monks. And what about you, dear readers? What have you learned from working in archives and libraries, from digging through the past? How do you negotiate your own slow scholarship in the midst of the rapid flow of this digital age?

Works Cited
Watson, Nicholas. "The Phantasmal Past: Time, History, and the Recombinative Imagination." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 (2010): 1-37.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Boast Post!

We haven't had one of these in awhile, and I think we need one. It's the tail end of term, and everyone is getting a little sloggy. The sun is shining later and later every day, but it seems to be taunting us while we sit inside, buried under piles of work. Many of you are probably nursing sore backs and hands from lugging and notating piles of papers, and I know some of you are cursing the gods of exam scheduling who put you on the last possible day. I'm blurry-eyed and anxious from hours of very carefully clicking buttons, magic buttons that generate emails telling new and returning Master's students that they're in possession of a shiny new Canada Graduate Scholarship (or not, as the case may be, and god forbid that I click the wrong button). I've got a tower of ethics protocols awaiting review that looks set to topple. The hustle to meet admission targets is making everyone edgy, and the pressure to get all the things done over the summer that was the bane of my graduate student life has come back with a vengeance now that I'm in admin (blast it! There's no escaping the academic calendar).

Still, despite the end-of-the-marathon fatigue that always sets in this time of year, and the frayed nerves that accompany it, good things still abound. Let's celebrate! Since it's been awhile, here's how it works: you have to boast about yourself, without apologizing or downplaying. Did you have an article accepted? Put together an awesome conference panel? Finish a dissertation chapter? Win an award? Finally figure out how to do that thing in PHP? Get an unexpected but meaningful compliment? Tell the world! Or at least, the little chunk of the world that reads this blog.

I have three whole things, which feels like a lot today. 

First, 60% of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship applications I midwifed (as a friend so delightfully put it) this year won awards. That's a huge jump over last year, a crazy percentage considering how hard Vaniers are to get (they're Canada's Fulbright), and a wonderful assurance that a whack of our students will have phenomenal funding and the recognition that they're the strongest students in their fields. I'm particularly proud of one successful application--it was rather a diamond in the rough when I first got it,  so rough that it almost got scrapped, and after lots of hard work by me and by the student, it positively shone. 

Second, I was invited to speak on a panel on careers for humanists at MLA 2015, which makes me happy twice over because a) I love Vancouver, and b) I didn't even have to write an abstract! 

Third, I'm lucky enough to work in a super supportive office full of thoroughly delightful people, a number of whom, including the Dean, told me this week that I'm doing a good job. Yes, I know that I'm a very competent person. No, I haven't screwed up in any major ways in the last seven months. But man, external validation feels good. 

So, that's me. It's been a crazy, crazy few months, ones in which caffeine and grouchiness and late nights and insomnia have played far too large a part, so let's start the slow slide into summer and the turning over of a new leaf with some boast-y goodness. And look--no self-deprecation or cringing!  Your turn! 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Feels like starting over ...

I went for a run yesterday. This was my first run since mid-November, when I got banned from running because of a knee injury that needed several months of zero high-impact activity to heal itself. In mid-November, I was gleefully running 7k at a steady pace, floating on endorphins, listening to albums, melting snow on my eyelashes and filling my lungs full of fresh air, smiling all the way. Yesterday, I ran for one minute, then walked for 90 seconds, then did that seven more times. Yup, I'm back on my couch to 5K app, the one I gritted my way through last year.

I'm starting over but I'm not back to zero.

When I started running last year, it was hard. I was nervous and insecure and unsure. I didn't know how to pace myself. I didn't know if I would ever start to like running, instead of liking to bask in the glow after I stopped. I didn't know if I would ever be a "real" runner. I sometimes got too hungry mid-run. I sometimes drank too much beforehand and had to pee. But by mid-November, running in the snow with my nice neckwarmer and my Young Galaxy and my new app, I had mostly solved those problems.

So yesterday, running those 1 minute intervals made my heart pound harder than those 7k runs did. And today, my quads are burning more than I would like. But I do know, now, that I'll improve pretty rapidly. I already have the right socks and the right sports bar. I know when and what to eat and how much to drink. I am a real runner--I'm just training up again.

It might look like I'm back at the starting line, but there's something different and better that comes from my earlier experiences.

Writing is like this, too. Every new project--every new class, even--feels like starting over. Feels like getting winded going up the stairs, an embarrassing kind of weakness. But at least for me, I'm finally starting to learn the patterns. We all already know enough to be suspicious of teleologies, right? That progress narrative by which successful persons move from strength to ever greater strength, to the summit of their potential? Sometimes our narratives are more like spirals, looping back on themselves while still expanding: starting a new research project, a new grant application, a new conference paper, a new curriculum revision puts me back, in many ways, to zero. But in other ways, not. Things are maybe not getting easier in the sense that I no longer feel helpless and overwhelmed by the wide open expanse of a new writing project. But they are getting easier in the sense that I know some good ways to move past the helplessness without too much emotional difficulty, and that I know this is a regular part of my research cycle. That's progress, I think.

So I'll do my nine weeks of running and walking, moving back off the couch and into 5k, benefitting from my experiences and showing myself some compassion along the way. I hope I'll be able to do more of this in my academic work in the coming year as well.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Conquering Fear, Risking Failure

I'm writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.

In the last few months, as I've sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I've come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one's work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she'd written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.

While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.

Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I'm often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.

But I've been inspired by these writer-activists I'm studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.

Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn't go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.

But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.

I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I'm not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.