Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boast Post!

It's that time again! I've had quite enough of this month's news--women still not being reviewed, Jian Ghomeshi, Gamergate, predation in the guise of mentorship, catcalling, the election of another white conservative millionaire man as mayor, and on and on. I'm also in scholarship purgatory, very stupidly decided that I wanted to set the deadline for my current chapter on the same day as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are due, and am entirely unprepared for the onset of winter. That means we're due for a boast post to cheer ourselves up, yes?

Remember how this works? You have to boast about yourself, without apologizing or cringing. Did you get some awesome teaching evals? Land a new job? Submit an article? Finish a dissertation chapter? Give an awesome conference presentation? Ace an informational interview? Get an unexpected but meaningful compliment? Tell the world! Or at least, that chunk of the world that reads this blog. Yes, it feels super weird and awkward, but it also feels great when you're done.

I've got three things!

First, I got a lovely email not long ago from one of our Canada Research Chairs in mathematics, thanking me for my work on one of our Banting postdoc nominations and complimenting my development work to our Dean. For an English scholar, I'm pretty darn pleased that I can develop the heck out of a Banting-calibre math application. My eighth grade teacher would be so proud! 

Second, I launched our Graduate Professional Skills program in late September. With the invaluable help of my graduate assistant and other staff in our office I pulled together a half-dozen great workshops, a bunch of really excellent speakers, and a full day of training, eating, and talking about graduate professional development and its relationship to academic and post-PhD career success. Everything went off without a hitch, everyone had a good time, and the program I've been working on since 2012 now officially exists!

Third, I've finally gotten over my fear of pastry and learned how to make a really good apple pie. It's easy (albeit a little time consuming), delicious, and so rewarding. Watching someone enjoy eating something I've made is one of my favourite forms of instant gratification.

And now it's your turn! Remember, no self-deprecation, undercutting, or humblebragging. Just boast!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More Thoughts on Recent Events

I watched the story unfold in real time. I heard of Jian Ghomeshi's leave of absence on Friday, then Sunday that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi, which was a considerable surprise. Then I read Ghomeshi's Facebook post. Then Twitter. Then the comments. (Yes, I read the comments. Probably a bad idea). Then the Star Article. And Twitter again. Yesterday and today I've been following closely how the mainstream media has been reporting the story.

There is a lot of confusion related to this thing. As Erin said yesterday, we are not privy to the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors. There is little that is definite, much that is said, more that is unsaid. Voices have been heard, helped by high-stakes media management companies or filtered through the writings of independent male journalists. One voice has laid out the terms of the debate, and another has responded.

One thing is clear: We still don't know the whole story. We have yet to hear the unfiltered voices of those barred from doing so because of lawsuits alleging wrong-doings, or from those too afraid to speak out in public.

Reading comments like this one, I fear that we may never:


I hope for the unfolding of both sides of the story. For voices that refuse to be silenced by fear of reprisal or backlash, or because the public has already told them how they should feel about what happened. For the truth to come out. For the public to make judgements based on determined facts, not because they take one person's defence at face value or because they really liked 'Q.' We know that only 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. That advocates of BDSM have come out questioning Ghomeshi's claims. And it is important to note that in Canada, you can't consent to bodily harm. There is clearly more to this than what has currently come to light.

Like Erin, I want to keep the dial tuned to questions of power, issues of misogyny, and rape culture. Let's continue the conversation.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Social Media vs. Slow Academe: Some thoughts on recent events

Less than two weeks ago, I was at a conference about Canadian women and/as public intellectuals. On the first of a series of moderated public panel discussions Christl Verduyn interviewed Dionne Brand, Mary Eberts, and Janice Stein. In the question and answer session I asked the panelists about risk. Specifically, I asked them to think with we, the audience, about the ways in which risk is inherent to a woman speaking in public. For context, I cited #GamerGate--specifically feminist gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian's then-recent cancellation of her public talk at the University of Utah after threats of violence...and the police's response that guns are allowed on campus if the carrier has a legal permit. I also referenced a less widely known event: an article published on Hairpin by Canadian writer Emma Healey in which the author carefully thinks through her own experience of a relationship that proceeded despite unequal relations of power and was, for her, damaging and abusive. In both cases the women continue to receive varying degrees of public backlash for speaking publicly, albeit about substantially different issues. The connecting thread, for me, is that they are women taking up public space.

The panelists took up my question in turn. Janice Stein spoke about the threats she has received over her career and told the audience that she tries to keep them from her family so that they don't worry about her. Ultimately, though, Stein's advice was to keep speaking and ignore the threats. Dionne Brand spoke about some of the ways in which speaking publicly as a woman, and as a woman of colour, are always-already risky. And yet, said Brand, I have to do it. Not speaking would be worse than any public backlash, she told the audience. Mary Eberts responded last, and she said this: women can speak about almost anything in public and survive the backlash. In some cases, they can even use the public backlash to underscore the points they are trying to make. However--and this was the big however--Eberts then paused--there is one thing no woman can speak publicly about without fear of fundamental and ongoing reprisal and that, said Eberts, is sexual abuse. No one else responded after that, and we moved on to the next set of questions.

I have found myself thinking about Mary Eberts's statement repeatedly in the last week and a half. Since yesterday, since the CBC announced that it was severing its relationship with Q host Jian Ghomeshi, and since Ghomeshi's own public Facebook post, I find myself with Eberts's words on a loop in my head. Let me be clear: I don't know what happened between Ghomeshi and his partners.  I don't know what went on behind closed doors. Lawyers for both sides have apparently been discussing allegations of abuse--by four women who allege varying degrees of non-consensual abuse, by Ghomeshi for defamation of character -- but I wasn't privy to those conversations. None of us were.   What I do know is this: women are statistically less likely to speak out about abuse. Women are more likely to trivialize their experiences. Women are more likely to use backchannels (emailing, using social media, talking) to alert one another to potentially harmful situations or to circulate stories of inequity. What I do know is that every day Mary Eberts's words are given more evidence.

But that's not all I know. I also know a thing or two about close reading and critical thinking. I know that recognizing, addressing, and changing longstanding systemic issues takes time, and that in a hyper-mediated world slow thinking--slow academe--is not something that is particulary valued. It is, however, something that is necessary. Take, for example, Ghomeshi's Facebook status update. Reading it purely as someone trained as an academic (I am 50% of the Star's strange, yet predictable qualifications for the women's credibility: they are described as "educated and employed") what I see it this: smart placement, smart rhetorical crafting. First, placement: Among other things, Facebook functions as a kind of faux-intimate confessional. As Chelsea Rooney wrote on Twitter:


In terms of rhetorical craft, the person who speaks publicly first sets the terms of the debate, or so it would seem. Ghomeshi's post makes the issue about sexual preference and desire that falls outside the restrictive parameters of traditional heteronormative relations, whatever those are. I could go on, but the point, for this post, is not to close read this event. Rather, I'm interested in opening a discussion about how to sustain slow, deliberate, and public thinking about issues of misogyny, rape culture, and asymmetrical power relations in the face of the rapid-fire pace of social media. I've written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we--by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere--working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. "Public" here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe--just maybe--long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

I don't know how to draw this to a conclusion, because having the final word is the last thing I want or feel prepared to do. Rather, I will leave you with this cartoon my colleague Xtine sent. The original posting is here:


Friday, October 24, 2014

Addicted to thinking

If you're an academic, how often do you reminisce about what brought you to grad school? My story starts with a longing for the kind of deep, analytical thinking I was lucky to experience in some university seminars, which entailed sitting down for a few hours to discuss great literature--in English and in German--and the ideas around it. You know, things like what's in there, but also where it was coming from historically, ideologically, and how it led to other places, other people, other times. Things like how Goethe's Romantic young hero Werther initiated a string of copy-cats, in fashion and in action, in spite of his ghastly outfit and drastic denouement. I came back to school for more of that kind of thinking, which, in spite of having had sworn off school forever after undergrad, proved too enticing to renounce.

It's kind of the same if you've ever had to be a caregiver for an infant. Even if you haven't, you know adults in that situation crave less baby-talk and more adult conversation. To my mind, it comes back to the same issue: a desire to think more deeply about meaningful ideas, and thus surround yourself with a life of the mind that can enrich the repetitiveness of an infant's routine. Not to mention drown out inevitable screaming matches, and possibly enliven the dull fuzziness of sleep deprivation.

As Aimée pointed out yesterday, carving out time for thinking can be a challenge in spite of the best planning and organization you can devise. However, a drearier situation takes shape when that plan is out of the scope of your activities altogether. So, here it is: I miss my research. I miss planning and making sure I carve out time for deep thinking about one focused issue. I miss looking for connections, sleuth-like, and I miss the thrill of identifying them. As much as I congratulated myself on being able to say no to going to a conference last week, I experienced the pain of withdrawal, of the inability of taking a couple of days to think through other people's arguments, contentions, and discoveries. What a luxury!

Well, kick in the behind, meet the step forward! As my students have embarked on the path of their own research projects, which I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in a few weeks, I have come to face my old yearning again, and to understand that I need this type of labour as I need air to breathe (not to be dramatic or anything); that it's not about love, but more about need. Just like with many other longings, we can debate whether it's inborn or whether it has been drilled into me by my background--what else does grad school, or post-secondary education more generally, do than teach you how to think, in a way that is irreversible? Irrespective of its origins, this need for thinking is intrinsic, and its lack manifests with all the power of withdrawal. Conversely, it signals its presence with the same tingling sensation of the first sip of wine seemingly coursing through every single artery down to the farthest capillary.

At the end of the breather that has been Reading Week, this is my resolve: to make time and find space for thinking consciously and systematically. And here's the clincher: unlike grad school days, when the aim was the writing, the dissertation, the end of the program, I have no other goal than allowing my mind to wander, and my thoughts to run wherever they would. I do not aim to be productive. I want to heed my visceral need for thinking without having to show anyone else the result. Hell, there might not be any. And that's it: time and space for my mind to wander. Oops, did some of young Werther's sorrows rub onto me, too?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I've slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I'd got done in a month. I feel awful--I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don't even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don't seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials--so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there's a new edition of the textbook. I'm prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who've already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband's job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I'm near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I'm too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You've probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I've done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It's all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN'T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what's not working, and try again. It's refinements big and little, and constant, that'll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I've fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I've missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thirty Seven Things: Trying out a Capsule Wardrobe


Maybe it's because our house is small, and we're still trying to integrate the possessions of three households (my mother-in-law's, whose house this was; my partner's, who had his own place before we moved in; and mine, since I had my own place too). Maybe it's because my working days are full and I'm feeling the need for a little more emptiness when I get home. Maybe it's because we're in the middle of a renovation and the contents of the room next door are crammed into the one I'm sitting in. Maybe it's because having less means having less to take care of. Whatever the reason, I just need less, and I'm starting with my closet.

It now contains, including shoes and bags, 37 things.

I've written before about my search for an efficient and sustainable early morning practice (that phrase makes me think I've been reading too many Strategic Mandate Agreements) that will let me get out the door looking professional and presentable in the least amount of time. I finally figured out the hair thing--turns out I didn't need to change my haircut, just accept the fact that my hair is actually (gasp) curly. Aimee has her go-to boots and her back-of-the-door blazer and her Serious Person Glasses (me too!). Erin has her Fluevogs and gorgeous big scarves. We all think about how we present ourselves in our classrooms and offices, and we're all pretty fluent in the grammar of clothing so that we can make deliberate statements with how we dress. But I was thinking about it too much. Like the strategic deployment of my academic credentials, I know what to wear to make people take me seriously at work and to make me feel like myself. It's always my uniform: a pencil skirt or sheath dress + blouse + cardigan + funky shoes. Imagine Joan from Mad Men in 2014, and you're headed in the right direction. And yet getting dressed became a chore, an over-long deliberation and a Sisyphean struggle to keep my wardrobe (and, okay, sometimes floordrobe) from exceeding the confines of my exceedingly tiny closet. Being efficient in my morning prep has become extra important of late, since I'm now on an adjusted schedule at work so that I can write more in the morning, and I'm trying to cram in all the words I can before I have to leave for the office.

I didn't realize how much this clothing conundrum was bugging me until I stumbled across Un-Fancy. (The capacity of the human mind to internalize habit and fail to see inefficiency never ceases to amaze me). Caroline's style is nothing like mine (okay, we do have the same glasses), but her concept of a capsule wardrobe was so appealing. Every day she wears something different, but that something different is simply another combination of the 37 things she chooses, and then wears exclusively, for three months. I've long known that exceptional creativity often emerges in response to arbitrary restriction (I'm not a reader of the Oulipians for nothing), but here were those principles applied to a closet. I was immediately sold, and I packed up my extra clothes the same day. The fact that it took me all of 10 minutes to create an inventory of the 37 things I wanted to keep told me that this was just what I needed to do.

My closet now contains: 15 shirts and sweaters + 7 skirts and dresses + 2 pairs of jeans + 3 jackets and blazers + 7 pairs of shoes and boots + 3 bags. C'est tout.

It's only been about a week, but I'm glorying in fewer choices. Getting dressed takes all of 3 minutes, because I can see all of my choices at one glance and pull what I'm going to wear from the back to the front before I go to bed. I'm wearing things I haven't worn for ages and love, because I'd forgotten about them amidst a wealth of choice. I'm not staring down clothes that don't fit well or that I don't love, which is a depressing way to start the day. I'm being more creative in the ways that I combine the things I do have. I'm not wasting my finite daily decision-making capacity on which sweater to wear. Truly, this is only the illusion of a lack of choice. If every outfit I make has three elements (top + bottom + shoes), I've got the ingredients for something like 5000 unique outfits here. Oh, and the other benefit? It's an easy way to limit the amount of shopping I need to do. I'll wear these 37 things until the end of December. At that point, I'll keep some of the things I'm wearing now, pull others out of storage, and perhaps buy a few things I'm missing or that need replacing. But then I'll live with those 37 from January to March.

Now that I've got the closet under control, I'm moving on to the kitchen--it's time to put a hiatus on grocery shopping for a little while and see what we can make out of a half bunch of spinach, some cornmeal, and an egg. I'm feeling inspired already.

What about you? How do you keep your closet under control and your mornings simple?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Tweet at a Conference

A couple weeks ago, we had a guest post from Danielle J. Deveau on "Conference Etiquette and Privilege." Danielle told a personal anecdote of a terrible conference panel that she attended (not the one she presented on, notably, as I imagine that would be a little too risky) in which a speaker rushed into the room 50 minutes late and then presented for 5 minutes on his research interests, proceeding afterwards to become defensive during the question period. While this story was bad, sadly it is not completely unusual, and Danielle's post established some baseline guidelines for, well, how to present a paper at a conference, about which apparently many [especially white, male] conference presenters are unaware. As Danielle's post implied, perhaps we should be talking more about who gets heard at conferences, and for how long. There are countless tales of panels whose presenters who drone on, who are underprepared, whose moderators do not intervene, whose "roundtable discussion" turns out to be more of a self-aggrandizing insular dialogue between eminent scholars who barely glance at the audience. I have a friend whose moderator did not show up for the panel she was on, so they just recruited some random passerby from the hallway.

As scholars devoted to questions of privilege and equitable representation, whose work is often primarily concerned with giving voice to those whom have not previously been heard, these issues should concern us. We should be noticing, when we're at conferences or public talks, who is qualified to speak, who is being ignored during the question period, whose panels are being attended and whose aren't. Perhaps we should be more actively engaged in making sure all panels are adequately populated, and should take it upon ourselves to--for example--attend at least one panel per conference that we normally wouldn't. As we all know, speaking to an empty room is just as bad as having to compress one's 20-minute talk into 5 because of lackadaisical timekeeping.

These questions are particularly urgent for graduate students or other precarious workers who have a particular stake in being heard in such professional settings. With the rise of Twitter as a conference tool and alternative discussion medium, there are now other possibilities for making sure everyone's voice is being heard, to achieving that ideal within the humanities of a polyphony of voices and thoughts. Unfortunately that medium is sometimes abused as well, and faces similar issues of silencing, underrepresentation, and/or professional grandstanding. This past summer I had the honour of writing a guest blog for the medieval website In the Middle about the use of Twitter at academic conferences. At the risk of copping out on this post slightly, but in accordance with H&E's recent upsurge of how-to posts (c.f. how to ask for a reference letter, how to read a book, and how to write a lecture), I'm going to adapt and repost here some of the guidelines I established in that blog, under the assumption that most of you are not medievalists and have not previously encountered it (though the original post can be found here, happyface).  I welcome your input and additions to this list, and hope that we can continue to find practical ways to acknowledge and address issues of privilege and silencing within the academy.

*  *  *  *

How to Tweet at a Conference
In six* easy steps. 
I could even tweet these steps, wouldn't that be meta.

1. [This is the Most Important Thing]: Every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea, ensuring that ideas remain securely pinned to their owners rather than let loose online. It is also customary to include the session and conference hashtags (see the MLA's official recommended guidelines here). Formats such as [tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end] are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions in subsequent tweets. If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing other voices in our own scholarly work, and should not be difficult. (sometimes we slip up. That's okay.)

2.     Try not to overtweet. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). Issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

3.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you. Favorite and RT other tweets, make it clear that you are listening and supporting other thoughts.  

4.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture, make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

5.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out and tweeting an underrepresented panel.

6.     Be aware of the form of your tweet. In my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components: local so that there’s substance for your claim, but global so that there's some kind of broader takeaway, and also for the benefit of those who are not at the conference. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument.

Here are a couple examples of my tweets from the New Chaucer Society Congress this summer, which I would like to think contain both local and global elements (y'all go ahead and let me know if they make no sense to you), as well as careful attribution to the speaker and session.


*  *  *  *

What about you, readers? Have you had some particularly bad (or good) experiences tweeting at conferences? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from the list? We're listening.

*This post has been edited to reflect the fact that there are, in fact, six tips here, not five. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.