Monday, August 29, 2011

Materfamilias Writes. Under her own name.

From Frances Sprout! Who very kindly introduced herself to me at, yes, a panel on social media in higher ed, and who offered a post. Some great back-to-school musings on being personal, in public, as we all dust off our satchels and our lesson plans.

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Ever since I first discovered Hook and Eye, I’ve wanted to comment on it: at first, simply to congratulate its collaborators on creating this welcome venue; regularly since then because some post has reflected my experience so brilliantly or another has galvanized me to protest or another has moved me to share a sexist moment in anticipation of some feminist solidarity. Yet I’ve always held back. Why? Because to do so, I would either have to hide – or own up to – my own blogs, signalled as soon as another reader clicks on the avatar marking my comment. Hiding (registering another name, keeping it separate from my Google/Blogger identity) felt cowardly, but I wasn’t ready to own my digital corpus yet. Instead, stalling has been my chosen response for the past year, while I regularly composed numerous imaginary posts and comments “outing” myself. And then I met Aimée at an ACCUTE panel in Fredericton. Only two months later, and here’s my submission for a potential guest post.

The irony about my continued reluctance to expose myself is that my blog, Materfamilias Writes, began from an impulse to integrate my academic life with the rest of it. As well, I hoped to free up my writing voice from the strangling effect of dissertation-writing, a hyper-awareness of my internal editor. And perhaps most honestly, I wanted to satisfy my urge to write without the demands of research, difficult to achieve with a 4/4 teaching schedule. (I’ve been pleased to discover that the habit of regular non-academic writing has, in fact, led to a small, but satisfying, file of research-based writing.) Writing about my quotidian pursuits satisfied these goals, but left me self-conscious – at least in academic venues – about my less-than-scholarly focus.

How much less scholarly, you ask? Well, let’s see. My most common tags are “shoes,” “knitting,” “what I wore,” “garden,” “Paris,” “food,” “family,” and, more recently, “granddaughter.” All those pieces of life (excepting family and granddaughter, I hope) most likely to be dismissed as superficial. Not particularly associated with “the life of the mind.”

As well, as my community of fellow bloggers has grown and coalesced, I write increasingly about life for women “of a certain age.” Not only write about it, but also share photos of myself in that genre some of you may know as What I Wore/What I’m Wearing. I know other academics do this – Audi at Fashion for Nerds is a great example, as are the collaborative blogs Academichic (sadly seemingly defunct! --ed.) and In Professorial Fashion – but these stylish academic bloggers are all considerably younger than I am. Besides vaulting the hurdles that separate the “life of the mind” from ornamentation of the body, I’m contending with a social expectation that women my age (58, since you’re asking) not draw attention to their dress. Claiming visibility is too often rewarded with that horrid butcher-derived label, “Mutton dressed as lamb.”

And visibility, of course, is a huge issue when one teaches 4 and 4. I’m up in front of that classroom for twelve hours each week, scrutinized by a tough crowd. Disgruntled at having to write about poetry when they only want a B.Comm ticket to ride, my students may well delight at the possibilities for ridicule inherent in a post with photos of me “restyling” an old pair of jeans, a vintage sweater, demonstrating the value of Fluevog heels for enlivening a ho-hum skirt. I believe in the politics of posting about my late-middle-age pursuit of personal style, but I’ve so far been relieved that Materfamilias and Frances Sprout have been distinct beings, occupying parallel, but mainly separate spheres. That relief is doubled when I picture my dissertation supervisor stumbling across my blog (my security is ensured by the unlikelihood of her wasting time as an internet flaneuse).

The panels on blogging I’ve attended at recent academic conferences haven’t made me feel any more comfortable – the blogs discussed are most often scholarly in focus, or occasionally creative, with an emphasis on experimentation. Even the name I chose just over four years ago sometimes embarrasses me: I wanted to signal the importance of my family life, the way my role – as mother of four grown children – acts as a balancing counterweight to the challenges of academe; instead, I worry that I appear to fetishize a retro-domesticity, never, ever part of my program. Even the gap between the name of my blog, Materfamilias Writes, and the key words of my URL, materfamiliasknits, seems to signal a gap between my claim to a writing (thus allied to academe in a small way) life and the reality of a domestic limitation. You might want to write, sweetie, but what you really should stick to is your knitting.

I’ve been taking some baby steps lately though, trying to own my digital corpus with something like the politics that propel me to own my physical body, to show photographs of what a late-middle-aged woman looks like in her jeans. The first baby step came involuntarily. I was pushed, in fact, by the Vancouver Opera when their Social Media Manager asked me to join the “live bloggers” during performances throughout 2009-10 and 2010-11. I had barely said “yes” to the opportunity when I realized my IRL name was being linked to my blog; googling it could show students a direct path to my blog. I gulped, thought about that reality, and carried on. Since most of them are more likely to click on Rate Your Professor than on a weird Latin name, I have not, so far, noticed any increase in classroom snickering. More recently, when signing up for a Twitter account, I used my real name on my profile, although I tweet as “Materfam” to continue building my blog readership. As well, using TweetDeck to send Twitter posts to Facebook means more colleagues may follow the breadcrumbs to my other side, and I’m trying to accept that this is an okay, if not definitively a good thing.

Because much of what I have to offer as a teacher, and even, I’d argue, as a scholar, was built in that other part of my life. I was in my early 40s, with four kids, before I completed my undergrad, over 50 when my PhD was finally done. I will never catch up to the scholarly research foundation built by those of you who have been immersed in academe from your 20s. But I have a wealth of life experience and tangible skills that I am convinced can – and really, must – be integrated with any scholarship and teaching that I do. So, whew!, here’s an attempt to do that, integrating my digital selves in a continuing effort to build an authentic life, in the classroom, in the library, and beyond, I’m finally free to comment as my “self” (however Judith Butler might problematize that notion) on future HookandEye posts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Boast Post: Not Drowning!

Back in the late 80s, the English Department at the UofA hired five women in a single year and then appointed a woman Dean of Arts.

Hold onto your hats, because this handcart's headed for hell.

A handful of professors founded a Merit Only group with the explicit purpose of winding back equity policies in university hiring. They tore apart the new English professors' credentials in the campus paper, they organized letter-writing campaigns to the new University President, and they generally menaced colleagues and administrators in the name of "free speech."

They sought, and eventually won, mainstream media coverage of the outrage. Feminists, together with 'deconstructionists' and other equally seditious entities, were featured on the front cover of the Alberta Report in 1994, the conservative Christian weekly founded by Ted Byfield and later taken over by his son Link. (Yes, mainstream: the Alberta Report could be found in doctors' waiting rooms and the like, where it didn't raise too many eyebrows.) Women, the story said, were taking over the university and bending its august mission to their traitorous will. It was a Famous Five persons case for our age.

I wasn't mentioned in the coverage, which unnerved me at the time. (Was I not working hard to dismantle the patriarchy, one scholarly article at a time? How could they not even know my name?) But of course it was deeply dismaying to the friends and colleagues who were maligned in the scurrilous reporting. They spent endless hours correcting the record and battling the Merit-Only group in person and in print. Two of the five English professors left within a few years, one for a Scottish university and one for a non-academic life.

If you want the full grisly story, Pat Clements's recollection of what it was like to be that woman dean, "My World as in My Time," makes for bracing reading. And where might you find that memoir? Well, gentle reader, I'm glad you asked: it is in our brand new book! Edited by Susan Brown, Jeanne Perreault, Jo-Ann Wallace and yours truly, Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011) is a collection of meditations on the status of academic life for women today - or is that the status of life for academic women today?

This is not a review, just a shameless plug, so let me rave for a minute about what else is in the book - others will say how well it succeeds.

Contributors write about work, whether it's their jobs (Donna Pennee, Christine Overall), their scholarship (Christine Bold and Amber Dean on remembering women, Marjorie Stone on sex trafficking, Lise Gotell on the Nixon case in Vancouver, a splendid way of thinking through the question of separate space for women), or the labour of others (Ann Wilson on night cleaners and knitting). Susan Brown and Cecily Devereux write about the vexed status of motherhood in the academy. Len Findlay rants (in the best Findlayan way) about institutional branding. Several pieces talk about periodizing feminism, and several of them are co-written across generational, geographical or intellectual divides: Jo-Ann Wallace and Tessa Jordan, Phil Okeke and Julie Rak, Rusty Shteir and Katherine Binhammer, Liz Groeneveld.

Your very own co-blogger Erin Wunker thinks through the experience of being savaged (there's no other word for it) at a feminist conference.

Illness comes up a lot, metaphorically and literally - and the literal illnesses are both physical (Aruna Srivastava) and mental (my piece, though please don't read it because I am feeling quite exposed and a little less plucky than I did when it was in press). Isobel Grundy talks about mentoring. Heather Murray offers a terrifically instructive history of co-education in Toronto. And the fierce, inimitable, gorgeous Aritha Van Herk - oh, how she can write! - holds it all together with a meditation on women and bathtubs and oceans and "waves" of all sorts.

So here it is.



Ted Byfield, this one's for you.





Monday, August 15, 2011

Anxious August: What is worrying students?

It is mid-August. Never mind that summer seems to have arrived in Halifax (ie. we have had three days of sun in a row), I've got my head firmly--if reluctantly-- turned towards September. As Heather wrote in our inaugural post, September is something of a fetish for us here at Hook and Eye. Sure, the work shifts into crazy-busy gear, but you must admit there is something thrilling that comes with those first early weeks of fall. Is it hope? (This year I'll finish my book! This year there will be more jobs to apply for!) Is it possibility? (What will my students be like? Will they be excited? Recalcitrant?) Is it blind optimism? (See parenthetical statement number one) For me, that je ne sais quoi of September in the Academy it is always twinged with anxiety, but I find myself wondering: what are the students feeling?

When I first arrived on a university campus it was 1997 and I was in America. I had done my high school degree in a small town in North Carolina where my parents and I had moved five years previous. I was paying in-state tuition, which at the time was roughly $4,500 (plus books, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses). The price has gone up.

Sure, I'd been saving money in my bank account since I was a wee lass. Indeed, I have a very fond memory of my dad taking me to the bank to deposit the innards of my piggy bank (mostly pennies and nickles) which I had dutifully rolled into those paper tubes. I worked every summer, I worked throughout university, and I was very lucky in that my parents were able--and willing--to help me. Nonetheless, money was--and is--a huge source of stress.

My major, however, wasn't. I was optimistic about my major (English), excited about my minor (Creative Writing) and absolutely certain that I would get a job when I graduated. My certitude didn't come from a sense of entitlement so much as what my cousin and I refer to as our Protestant work ethic. Hard work wins out, at least that's what I'd been taught.

But as I sit here watching the slow trickle of students return to the city I wonder: what are they anxious about? How have their anxieties remained the same as mine, and how have they become profoundly different? Do they feel disenfranchised? Do they worry that the world has no place for them in it when they finish their degree (that is, if they can even afford to begin)? Are they as apathetic as some media outlets would have us believe?

I know some answers to some of these questions because I have the very good fortune of knowing some of my students quite well. I want to get to know them better. I am trying to make space in my classroom and on my syllabus for the discussion of their issues through the literature we read together. I wonder how else I might productively address their anxieties...without taking on or creating more of my own?
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*An especial thanks to TMacD, RM, and my other Internet pals for this post.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Do you care what I teach?

Lucky me, lately I've had to write my bio a couple of times: you know, between 50-150 words that describe who I am and what I do, to accompany an article I've written, a textbook I've edited, a public lecture I'm giving. You know the drill: you write about yourself in the third person, trying to balance out a recitation of your credentials strong enough to add gravitas to whatever it is the bio is accompanying, against an impulse not to brag or be over-wordy or do it wrong.

I hate writing these. And every time I have to write one for a new context I write a fresh bio, because I want to give the right info to the right audience. And I figure out what's the 'right info' by cruising for similar bios written by others.

Here's some of what I've noticed, generally:

  • Often, graduate students write the most about themselves in their bios, and this can be a little off-putting. ("Janey Ambitious (BA Podunk) is a pre-PhD student in the program of Arts and Culture at the University of Bigname, where she teaches several yearly sections of freshman comp and studies the grand literary theory of everything. Her research combines new criticism, poststructuralism, new media studies, and continental philosophy to propose that everyone is wrong. She was a valedictorian of her high school and published a poem on the Arts Student Association website, which earned three comments.") Otherwise, they say very little, which I kind of like for its clear-headed brevity. ("Janey Ambitious is a Masters student at University of Bigname.")
  • Early professors sometimes couch their whole records like a selection -- this was my particular trick. ("Aimée Morrison (PhD, Alberta) is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of Waterloo. She has recently published on videogaming in 1980s popular cinema, blogging, and rhetorics of internet democracy.") The trick here is that 'recently published' was in fact everything I had ever published. It just sounded less shitty that way ...
  • Some really senior people write damn near nothing and are intimidating as a result ("Susan Accomplished is CRC of Magnificence in Scholarship at Hyper Competitive University, as well as President.") Of course, when they list out even a representative sample of what they've done, it's huge, and still totally intimidating. ("Susan Accomplished (PhD Oxford, FRSC) is CRC of Magnificence in Scholarship at HCU, as well as President. She has published three mongraphs on That Very Cool Thing No One Else Does But Everyone Cites since 2004, earned a Nobel Prize for Literature as well as a Pulitzer Prize for journalism for ... [Oh God, I can't go on. I'm getting depressed]") 
It's just generally awful for everyone, let's admit. Awful because it feels important and risky and fraught with rhetorical danger.

Anyhow.

One thing that's increasingly becoming clear to me is that the bios that accompany Serious Scholarly Writing, like a peer-reviewed article, don't mention teaching. Better more words devoted to where you've published and who funded your work, than to describe what you teach in the graduate (or, heavens! the undergraduate) program at your institution.

Why?

I myself have begun to remove references to my teaching from my bios in these venues: it just doesn't seem like the done thing to talk about my teaching there. I almost feel like it takes away from my credibility if I give the same number of words to my teaching career as to my research. So now I just list more publications, and talk about my external funding. Because it's the done thing.

Bios are important. For me, the are one of the filters I apply to the database of 800+ things I have lined up as possible research sources. A bio will tell me what field an author works in and that matters: a communications scholar's take on Facebook is one among a million, but a literary scholar's is much more rare. A bio will tell me someone's rank and experience level, and it is (true story!) often the case that this knowledge forms part of the context by which I decide how and if to read something. I will even admit to you that I can get a little judgy reading bios: worse, lately, I find myself wondering if someone is really a serious scholar if they put too much emphasis on their teaching in their bios.

WTH?

Teaching is a huge, esssential, fundamental, joyful, exasperating, rewarding part of my career. I love teaching. Someone asked me recently if I (hypothetically) would like a lower teaching load (2/1) than I have now (2/2) and I said no, because, dammit, teaching is a big reason I became a professor. If you glance your eyes over at the tag cloud on the sidebar to your right, you'll see that this blog, even, has way more discussion devoted to teaching than to research: it's a huge part of our lives and our self-image as professionals.

So why the bias against teaching in the bios? Have I unveiled a conspiracy, or does it not matter? What do you think?

When you write your own bio, how do you balance out the different aspects of your life as an academic to tell the story you want to tell about yourself in the context of your research?