Monday, October 31, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Collaboration*

I was at another Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory event this week. The Canadian Women's Writing Conference on Space/Place/Play was held at Ryerson University. Over the course of three and a half days the conference participants sat together in a room so filled with windows that felt a little as though we were perching above the city. We sat in this room for almost eight hours a day listening to papers and meeting each other over coffee. Many of us marvelled about the sheer number of papers that were collaborative projects or collaborative presentations. Seriously, so many of us were presenting with or on behalf of larger groups of people with whom we work. For those of you who don't work in the humanities let me say that collaborative research isn't the norm...yet.

Much of my work involves collaboration either directly or indirectly. Indeed when I was a graduate student I was so eager to collaborate that I sought out three partners in crime and together we hosted a conference panel thinking through the positives and negatives of collaboration called "Twice the Work for Half the Credit?" I've written collaboratively on several projects already, and I have two more in the works, so it is safe to say I really believe in the benefits of collaborative work in the humanities. 

But, as so many of the presentations this week attested collaboration is often uneven, and almost always hard work. So here are a few gems of wisdom gleaned from some of the mutual listening and discussion this weekend.

1. Think: Does the project warrant collaboration?
Not all projects actually benefit from having many people working on them. It is worth thinking through whether or not your project actually needs/would benefit from collaboration. File this suggestion under 'avoid jumping on band wagons if you don't want to play in the band.' 

2. Say no
Not all of us are good/want to/should collaborate. Nor should we! Point one not withstanding, part of being a good collaborator is knowing your own limits. If collaborating is beyond your limits then don't do it!

3. Say yes and figure out the details later
Collaboration is hard work, sure, but if you don't try it you'll never know how it may benefit your work and your thinking in ways you may not even be able to imagine.

4. Figure out the details
Once you've decided to collaborate it is incredibly important to set some ground rules for your group. Though I rather fancy the image of a wildly artistic melange of creative minds working side-by-each on radical, organic projects that just, I don't know,  flow together the fact of the matter is that clear guidelines and expectations set the tone and help create a positive environment. It is worth remembering that the guidelines you begin with will likely need to change over time. 

What other advice do you have?

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*The Pros and Cons of Collaboration is a fabulous album by Carolyn Mark. Check it out here, it could be your collaborative soundtrack.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The email, oh I've had enough of it

My email is killing me. My work account currently has 263 unread emails in it. How is that even possible? The whole first screen of 30 emails only has two unread emails--one from a digest listserv I mostly delete (guiltily) unread every day, and one a Twitter notification. Where are the rest of them? Who are they from? They are hidden among the 1487 other emails sitting there in my inbox. That's a crazy, unreasonable number of emails to have hanging around, read or unread, in an inbox.

Then my other account. There's another 162 unread missives sprinkled amidst the 575 total messages there. A lot of those should have come and gone through my work account, but didn't because there was a week there where my email wasn't working at the office and so ...

Oh hell. It's 6:30 in the morning and I'm feeling exhausted and defeated already.

This email lunacy has to stop.

A lot of this I've done inadvertently to myself. The Facebook and Twitter notifications. Marketing emails from Apple and Hootsuite and The Gap and Old Navy and Lululemon and Barefoot Yoga. I signed up for most of that, I guess, but now I'm drowning. Why am I still getting email from the makers of EndNote? I don't even use EndNote. Other software vendors keep bugging me to upgrade, and I just want to hide under my bed. Stop sending me email, Adobe! And I'm looking at you, too, Screenflow!!

I have a lot of text-messagy emails from my husband and my sister that I never seem to delete. That clogs stuff up, too. Oh, and a million HuffPo and NYT and Globe and Mail articles I email to myself from my phone late at night, so I'll remember to add them to my online bookmarking service from my computer. I just checked and there are 83 messages from myself sitting in my inboxes. Oh God, *I* am the problem.

But there are other problems.

Student emails. I'm teaching a total of 40 first years and 16 grads right now, and I'm on the committees of or supervising another 7 graduate students. It's paper-writing, grant application reference letter, proposal-writing, thesis drafting time. These emails require my attention, and then my action, and many of them have lots of links or documents in them I need to keep. Meetings I need to schedule. Things I have to keep thinking about and things I have to do. I'm not sure how to make this any better. It's obviously much better to hear frequently from my grad students than to never hear from them. And some of my graduate assignments require students to meet with me. I really push my first years to send me messages through the LMS, but since that software's email is so awkward and awful, I get them all forwarded to my university account and often reply from there as well, so it's not much help. Except at least they have a uniform subject line so I can find them later if they fall through the cracks now.

University emails. If I get one more cryptic memo written for the pleasure of the sending department rather than to meet the needs of the intended recipient, I'm gonna punch somebody, I swear. Noon hour concerts. Talks on medieval political science. Internal marketing about our vision our logo our new revenue generating graduate programs. Memos about plagiarism, about copyright, about religious accommodation for exams. Emails about software updates for machines I don't use; emails about machine downtime for software I don't use. Emails warning about email viruses. Emails announcing hirings and retirements and deaths and births. Imprecations to read all these emails more carefully. Reply-alls to the entire faculty of arts, then reply-all apologies to the entire faculty of arts. Some of this (a vanishingly small amount) is important but the sheer volume of completely irrelevant and uninteresting stuff is killing my will to live. Would the institution ever have sent me this many paper memos? Never. And what's worse? Colleagues who receive these mass mailouts AND FORWARD THEM TO ME AGAIN. Now I've received an irrelevant email twice. Awesome.

The one-offs. These I feel the worst about, because they are important. But they are also unique and require thought and so I put off dealing with them, and because they are unique, I then forget about them. They get buried in the avalanche and by lunchtime tomorrow? Three screens down, utterly neglected. Cold-call networking emails from fascinating people. Calls to review. Conference calls sent to me especially. Potential students currently at other institutions. Blog readers with questions. These all keep me awake at night--because that's when I suddenly remember them, at 3am, when I have to pee.

I easily spend over an hour every day--sometimes significantly more--just dealing with my email and the stuff in it. And then every couple of months I have to spend most of a day mucking it out. It's awful. This feels like a terrible waste and a terrible burden and just generally inefficient and wrong.

I'm subscribing to the email charter. Have you read it? You should. There's some pretty sensible stuff in there. Do you think it could work, in a university context? Are you overwhelmed by your email?

Just please don't ask me how many web browser windows I have open on my desktop right now. Or when I turned into Andy Rooney.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Four Legs Good! In praise of Companion Species



In The Companion Species Manifesto Donna Haraway asks what might happen if we started taking relationships with animals seriously. She asks this in part as a way to (re)consider history.  This feminist manifesto differs from the earlier (and I'd say more anthologized) Cyborg Manifesto in that the companion species is a precursor to the function the cyborg has in that earlier text. Here's what I mean: she's traded the slogan "Cyborgs for Earthly Survival," for the pithier "Run fast; bite hard." Upon reading Haraway I was immediately reminded of the tagline of my blogging cyber-mentor Sina Queyras's Lemon Hound: "More bark than bite since 2005." I wondered what our academic relationships with animals may tell us. Sure, not everyone is an animal lover and not everyone can--or wants--to live with an animal, but I am constantly surprised by how many academics--and how many female academics--I know who are dog, cat, or other animal-crazy. What's up with academics generally (feminists specifically) and animals?

I found myself mulling this question over again when I was standing in my dear friend M.'s office earlier this week. While we were chatting I noticed a poster above her desk. It read "behind every productive woman there is a rather remarkable cat." Indeed! I thought, but why?

Granted, my companion species is a rather remarkable dog by the name of Felix (though I've had fine cats in my life) but the point is that animals seem to be absolutely necessary in the lives of many academics I know. In my department alone Chai, Tusket, Finnegan, Sam, Obie, Sage, Rosie, Duchess, Herbie, Tink, Brock, Ollie, Cobaka, and Waldo provide unquantifiable amounts of anecdotes. Those of us who live with animals seem to flock together in the halls to share the most recent story of our four-legged friends. 

I have always loved animals. I got my first pet--a hamster named Hammy--after I passed the goldfish test when I was about five. Tippy the Beagle came to live with us when I was about eight. Sam came later, and Wallace the cross-eyed, soft-hearted, fancy-stepping deer hound still lives with my parents, but it wasn't until graduate school that I really developed companionship with a four-legged friend. Felix and I have lived together for eight years. He came home with me when he was a wee pup and we were both in Montreal. He, in a pen waiting to be adopted; me, writing my MA thesis. I was one of only two people in my cohort who chose to write a thesis, and it was lonely work. While I think it prepared me for the solitariness that is (often) scholarly research at the time I was surprised by how lonely I felt. Walking with Felix got me out of my head and out of the house.

Since 2004 Felix has been my constant companion. We moved from Montreal to Calgary together. He has seen me through immense changes in my personal life as well as in my career. He sits beside me when I grade papers. He sits beside me when I read. He wakes up with me when I can't sleep because of some anxiety or another, and he leans on me when I have a cry (often that cry is my first response to peer review. There, I said it). But perhaps what my relationship with Felix reinforces on a regular basis is something that Haraway calls significant otherness. Animals--dogs, for Haraway--are "partners in the crime of human evolution." They tell us much about ourselves, and they tell us much about the way we as treat others. Oh yes, and they have wonderful senses of humor.

Do you have an animal in your life?






Friday, October 21, 2011

Grading: It is personal, actually!

Grading is personal. And I'm starting to recognize that, for my students, no matter how I frame my response to their papers ("This paper argues" rather than "You believe", for example) they take it personally: the grades hurt their feelings, they feel personally slighted.

I don't blame them. In fact, when I get graded, I have exactly the same reaction. I feel hurt, misunderstood, angry, sad, judged. I feel hopeless, or like a failure, or that my whole career is a sham. I drink. I cry.

Of course, I don't stay there. In the last couple of years, I've come to understand that it is perfectly natural and understandable to freak out like this about a less-than-perfect peer-review. It's okay to freak out. But. After a certain period (I take three days), you pick yourself up, re-read the review, and deal with it a little more dispassionately, because 90% of the time, the feedback is apt and valuable and attending to it will only make my work stronger.

So, I though to myself, why not model this for my students, too? The whole process?

I handed back 40 first year response papers this week in class. While I did that, I projected a couple of peer reviews of my work on the screen. One was really positive: I told them this is the review we all want to get. And the other was .... less positive. In fact, I highlighted all the negative words (too descriptive, insufficient, inappropriate, inadequate, lack of, dont' like the title, etc. etc.) in red. They gasped. I told them what I did when I got the review--feel sorry for myself, get angry, mope, drink, complain to my friends. I stamped my feet and pouted for them, in class. I called the reviewer names and questioned her intelligence. They laughed. Then I told them that it was okay that they probably felt the same way about how I'd responded to their work.

In fact, I said, I'm just going to sit here on the floor behind the podium where I can't see you, and you're going to take two minutes to complain about your marks to the person sitting next to you. And then we're going to move on.

So I sat down on the floor, and told them they weren't complaining enough. And then the room erupted in a storm of complaining and laughing. It was awesome. I stood up, and we talked about strategies for dealing constructively with the feedback they'd received.

I think it worked.

I used to give the graded work back at the end of class, telling them there was a 24 hour cooling off period during which they had to calm down before talking to me about their work. But it occurs to me that that disrespected and minimized the emotional reaction: I mean, I have always got super-emotional about being graded. It is personal, actually! Or at least, it feels really personal. It's not wrong, it's just part of the process. So now I model that to them, in the context of my continuing to be graded by my own peers. We go through it all together. And then we move on.

Getting assessed always made me feel awful--and for a long time I felt awful about my emotional reactions. It was a double-fail: not only was I sad and hurt, but I understood my sadness and hurt as evidence of my wussiness and inappropriateness as a scholar. I don't want to make my students feel like that. So go ahead: feel shitty when you get feedback that diverges from your expectations. Set a timeframe for moping and crying and yelling. That's okay. Later, we can deal with it. But for now, it's all right to just feel your feelings. Because we all do.

I don't know about you, but I feel a whole lot better now.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Meme Revisited: I want My PhD in the Humanities

Last year a pesky little meme made its way around the Internet.* First it circulated through the Facebook pages of my friends, then my acquaintances, and then those people whom I've befriended because they know me and I don't know them but feel guilty that I can't place them and thus haven't deleted them. Then it came up in conversation with colleagues in the hallway. A mentor of mine texted me from across the country to make sure I'd seen it (don't forget, I'm still a bit of a luddite). Finally I heard my students talking about it. I'd laugh about different things depending on who I was chatting with. Colleagues? We'd laugh about the inanity of having 'deep and meaningful things to say about death and literature.' Fellow contract workers? We'd laugh about the fact that we're fighting tooth and nail to gain access to a profession that depicts a (note: female) Dean in impossibly tiny shared office. But when it came time to laughing with my students I started to feel a little uneasy. Did I really want to laugh--and by laughing acknowledge--and by acknowledging condone such a bleak representation of studying the humanities? Not really, but readers, I'll admit: I laughed anyway.


In the last year I've found myself returning to those moments of uncomfortable laughter again and again, especially since the beginning of this fall. Perhaps it is the ailing economy, the onslaught (decades old, really) of dire news, or me projecting my own conflicted desire to be honest about traditionally conceived tenure-track job prospects while encouraging my students to follow their interests but I've sensed a heaviness in these hallowed halls, and it has me thinking that it is time to reevaluate my discourse in the classroom and in this blog. Put simply I'm worried that we're at risk of devaluing study of the humanities by spending too much time and energy on negative discourses.** Sure, times are tough, but they will be much much tougher if we educate a generation of students to see the humanities as a lovely but ineffectual discipline. Sure the system needs to be fixed/reimagined/retooled.  But me? I'd do it again. 


I think, in short, it is time to re-up hope.  


To a certain extent I'm taking my cue from the Occupy/DecolonizeWS movements. I really believe that positive momentum can create lasting positive change. So while I wont hide the fact that like so many others I occupy a tenuous and decidedly un-tenured position I will be encouraging anyone who will listen to engage with, and yes study the humanities. This semester I am teaching a course that asks an age-old question: can cultural production create moments of genuine civic engagement? Put another way my students and I are asking whether poetry can change the world. Lofty questions? Sure, but this is the fall for lofty idealism to morph into collective action and maybe, just maybe, make a little change in this world.


We have just finished working out way through Erin Mouré's fine collection O Cidadán. In a section that my students and I have come to call the preface Mouré states that she will inhabit gendered language through a move in discourse. We spent a great deal of time discussing what it might mean to deterritorialize language through a move in language, in discourse. They offered brilliant interpretation, grappled with unfamiliar language and form, got frustrated, and kept talking. By the end of a week's worth of discussion we hadn't come to a finite conclusion or changed the world in massive and perceptible ways, but we had talked about visible and invisible borders, the (im)possibilities of gender and genre, the gross human rights violations that occur right at the level of language. I don't know about you, but I find that pretty darn hopeful. 

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* I know we're not all in the Humanities, dear Readers, but I am, and I make my feminist and pedagogical stands most often in this context. 
**Diana Brydon has a wonderful essay called "Do the Humanities Need a New Humanism" which you can read in Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Daniel Coleman.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps

When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, "Well, at least she'll sleep tonight for sure!"

But here's the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn't nap. And, those weird days where she'd get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She'd conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I've been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I've come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.

I'm thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I'm thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That's the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of "writing" was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that's fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I'm not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don't work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you're likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they'll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I'm pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I'm always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I'm more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There's no onerous citation requirement. I don't have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that's all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It's fun, but I'm probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own "low-stakes**" writing has an impact on your "high-stakes" work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we'll start worrying about the productivity of people who don't fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes ;-)

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* "easily" is relative. I still really hate writing. It's just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I've had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more "Wow, I'm impressed."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The 51 of the 99

As faithful readers know, my colleagues and I recently published a book called Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011): I blogged about it here if you want an overview. One of the questions that's been nagging at me since NDBW came out is whether the book and its concerns might be belated. The occasion for the project was the career of the first woman Dean of Arts; since 2006, both the Interim Dean and the new Dean have been women. Some contributors wrote about how hard it is to be a mother and an academic; since then, conversations here at hook&eye - and here, and here - suggest things might be getting better. For my part, I was ground down and crazy in 2006; happily, I'm no longer as vulnerable as I once was to institutional bullshit. And so on.

I raised the question with my friend and collaborator JW: are we living the change we hoped to see? And she said yes, but only in small part, the part that is centered in the privileged classes which we tenured and tenure-track colleagues help comprise. She went on:
The gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater (except during the Gilded Age), and this is not even taking into account the conditions of women in many parts of the world. The equity audit of the universities is one thing, but all the big equity audits indicate that Canada has not come nearly far enough in closing the gap between men's and women's wages. And the very very wealthy are so unbelievably wealthy that some of them are embarrassed by it -- admittedly not many, but some. And our governments won't do anything about it. Even in the university the gap between the privileges of women academics and our mostly female support staff is massive.
Which brings me to where I am today, thanks to the magic of hotwire: a hotel on the corner of Wall St and William, two blocks from Occupy Wall Street.

Wed 12 Oct 4pm: the occupation began 17 Sept 2011

Confession: I was skeptical. Partly it's because I'm old: I cut my political teeth defending abortion clinics in California, an action with a clear, pragmatic goal and a well defined ideology. Partly it's because I'm an administrator: what's a demonstration without a manifesto? what does "leaderless resistance movement" mean, and exactly how do these people think they'll achieve whatever it is they want, without a clear go-forward plan and next steps? But partly it's because I didn't really think OWS had much to do with me. A belated response to the bailout debacle, I thought. An American issue in a city where unemployment approaches 10%, I thought. Not my issue, I thought.

Spending some time at OWS today has made me change my mind about that. It was exciting and fascinating and surprisingly inspiring to be in Zuccotti Park. Among the folks there on a rainy Wednesday nearly a month after the occupation began: librarians, anarchists, communists, atheists, christians, jews, muslims (conversation near me: is Wall Street a jewish conspiracy or a new victimization?), Tibetan monks, students, professors, journalists, trade unionists (I saw Teamsters, the Wobblies, and my friend Hector's SEIU local, 32BJ), African Americans holding banners proclaiming debt as the new slavery, something called the Retail Action Project, guys looking for beer ("you know where I can get some? I'm really riled"), and a man who appeared so old that he may very well have marched against Wall Street back in 1929. 


As you might expect, that diverse a crowd makes for a certain diversity of concerns: a semiotic richness, an ideological slipperiness. Some people are angry at oil baronry:

 Some people want better working conditions:

Some people are voluble (the sign below quotes Henry Ford, "It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning") and some are terse (one woman drew the invisible hand giving the finger):


I particularly loved the Granny Peace Brigade:

While it's true that there is no single overarching position and no definitive action plan, there is a definite feel to the occupation. The feel is exasperation. It's like a whole bunch of unrelated people got up one day and thought: are you fucking kidding me? It's about 2008, and the big bank bailouts, and the debt ceiling; it's the endlessness of underemployment, the Tea Party and Fox News. But mostly it feels like that dream you have where you simply cannot face one more email / student essay / scholarly rejection / committee meeting, and so you push back your chair, stand up, and walk away. That walk ends, I think, at Zuccotti Square.

People are fed up with the world we have. They are fed up with a system where it's okay for some people to get obscenely rich and others to sell plasma. They are fed up with lily-livered politicians and their apologists; they are fed up with greed. While it may not be a terrifically nuanced analysis by academic standards, OWS offers one of the clearest anti-capitalist actions I've ever seen. Of course there's no action plan, no manifesto, no list of demands: are you fucking kidding me?

The occupation opens up space for what Stuart Hall calls "articulation": it's an opportunity to connect events with meanings, to wrest a historical moment out of its given context and assert its significance and its importance in terms of an emergent (sometimes) discourse. Forgive my quoting from wikipedia, but I don't have my books at hand:
[T]the relationship between actual culture...on the one hand, and economically determined factors such as class position, on the other, is always problematical, incomplete, and the object of ideological work and struggle....Cultural relationships and cultural change are thus not predetermined; rather they are the product of negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on....
What I understand Hall to mean by this is that we don't always have a preconceived idea for political struggle - we don't always know exactly what we want in advance of wanting it (the vanguard is a bankrupt concept) - but meaning is forged in and through political struggle. Getting there is a matter of "negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on." 


This concept gives shape to what I've seen at Zuccotti Park: a group of people yearning toward something different. In a profound way, OWS calls on us to articulate our sense of the world in terms of the power relations its occupants have laid bare. In this sense, OWS belongs to all of us - the genius, obviously, of "we are the 99%": OWS is an issue for women, for feminists, for academics, for teachers, for students, for parents.

And so OWS speaks to me, and perhaps to you, of the ways in which the academy is changing: the chronic underfunding of the system, references to students as clients or consumers, the speed-up and download of responsibilities that generate the need for more administrators, the crappy academic job market, the reliance on international registrations as revenue streams, public denunciations of the humanities, reductions in SSHRC funding, casual anti-intellectualism, even in the cities we rely on for the opposite (Rob Ford, I'm looking at you), the loss of the long-form census, three-job sessional commutes, instrumental learning, budget cuts, again: are you fucking kidding me?

The good news is you're not alone. The OWS movement is growing, and it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon: cf "occupy," verb. This Saturday there will be Occupy events going on all over the world, probably near you. (You can check here.) Perhaps you'll be inspired to go and start articulating the change you wish to see in the world.


If you do, here's a couple thoughts to bring with you. We - women - are 51% of the 99%. But we - TT academic women in Canada - are also the 1%. That's worth thinking about.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Un-Outfit Project

It's the end of week four, and I've not yet repeated an outfit on campus!

Off-campus, though? That's a different story. Thanks to JoVE and to Lady English Professor for giving me the idea of writing about the things we wear when we work from home.* You know, what we wear on the writing days, the reading days, the grading days, the deadline-crunch days. Usually, we're not wearing skirts and high heels and makeup. Often--and I mean no offense--we look terrible. This is cliché, even: while "elbow patches" is a very well-known professor aesthetic, "crazy slob writer" also has some popular cultural traction. Thus Michael Douglas in Wonderboys:


It's funny because it's true, am I right?

When I work from home, I have a very limited set of things I wear. My Magical Work Slob Un-Outfit comprises:

  • Pink Crocs with some princess stickers on them, courtesy my five-year-old
  • Fuzzy 'white' chenille slipper socks
  • Grey baggy Old Navy yoga pants -OR- pajama pants
  • T-shirt that I slept in the night before
  • Super-fuzzy Lululemon hoodie -OR- ancient grey wool cardigan -OR- overized superlong terry cloth bathrobe

It is important that my hair Not Bug Me, so I usually pin my bangs back somehow. It is also important not to wear makeup or contact lenses, so that I am able mash my face into my hands in despair, or have a nap, without making a big mess.

I kinda look like this:



(I guess there's a reason for the stereotypes ...)

I can happily spend entire teaching days all dressed up and feel stylish and comfy. I can go to lectures by visiting speakers, a bunch of meetings, and sit in my office prepping stuff for class and answering student emails. However, Real Thinky Work (research, writing) as well as Real Slog Work (grading marathons) for me necessarily entail wearing my Magical Work Slob Un-Outfit. I just can't write anything more complex than an email in an Outfit Project outfit, because when I try, I feel helplessly and hopelessly constricted by garments with no spandex content, pants with fasteners, shirts with buttons, bras with underwire, shoes. I freak out. Even my hair bugs me and I start grabbing at paper clips to try to hold it back. Paper clips.

But maybe that's just me. Maybe my discomfort is legitimately physical: who can really rewrite our shared understanding of the (im)materiality of digital culture when slumping forward toward the computer screen makes that weird second button on the fly of their dress pants dig into their belly button? Or maybe it's psychological: I've said before that writing makes me literally itchy, no matter what I'm wearing, and writing is maybe just so very awful for me that I'm trying to externalize that discomfort somehow. Still. The Magical Slob Work Un-Outfit gets things done for me.

What about you? What do you wear to stay home and write? Why?

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* And if you want to know what other people's writing spaces look like, Lady English Professor has put together a slideshow of submitted photos from the Waterloo English Department faculty and graduate students, and they're on the blog. (Mine's the one with the cat and the gin.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Conferences: How Many? How Often?


In the last thirty-six hours I've flown from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Edmonton, Alberta and back. The trip out took me twelve hours (thanks to a four hour layover in Pearson Airport) and the trip back took eight hours. I left Alberta Saturday night and arrived home at 6am on Sunday. I'm jet lagged, a little behind on my work, and still have a lecture to write, but if you're asking yourself 'was it worth it?' I can say that for me, this time, the answer is yes! 

The topic of conferences has cropped up here multiple times. We've considered why conferences are so bad and offered examples for how to make them better. There have been posts and responses that discuss the ethics and practicality of recycling conference papers. We've also written about the joys and complications of conference season. Lately, I have been wondering how many is too many? And, when you're not on the tenure track and don't have access to conference travel funds, how often should you pay out of pocket to attend a conference?

Like the author of this article and the author of this one I am of the mind that conferences are a great way to get a sense of your field, especially as a graduate student. I started attending conferences as a Masters student and throughout my degrees I went to LOTS. This was made possible both by my mentors who build conference travel funding into their RA budgets, as well as my choice to attend association conferences like ACCUTE which offer travel support for graduate students. But, if I really wanted to attend a conference and felt like it was going to be useful for my professional development I paid for it myself. Yes, even when I couldn't really afford it (which was most of the time). Wise? I'm not sure, but I can say that attending conferences has been integral to building my confidence in my own work. Then again, it takes a looong time to pay off conference travel if you couldn't really afford it in the first place.

I'm lucky right now. Though I am still in a contract position I am qualified to apply for some conference travel support through my university. This year all of my conference energy is focussed on the same project, meaning that unlike previous years when I've written papers that are conceived of specifically for the conference I want to attend, this year I am only submitting abstracts that come from or will turn into chapters in my manuscript project. This seems like an obvious tactic for the busy academic, but it has taken me years to realize that conferences can function as self-imposed writing deadlines for projects that extend beyond the twenty-minute presentation!

But not everyone is in a position to apply for travel funding, and in a job climate that seems to demand bigger! better! more! the pressure to attend as many conferences as possible and achieve Maximum Networking Time can be, well, daunting. While I'm no authority on the matter my feeling is that when funds and time are tight it is best to focus your energies on one significant conference in your field per year. Significant might mean big (lots of other interesting papers!) or small (no concurrent panels! sustained discussion over days!). That decision is ultimately up to you, you should decide what is best for you at this stage of your career and wallet. When you do choose a conference, ensure that you'll make the best of your time and money by preparing a paper you're proud to present

When they are well-curated and moderated conferences can be a wonderful way to network, to get a sense of your field, and to encounter emergent topics of study. Be realistic, do what is feasible for your schedule and your budget. 

What are your thoughts? How many conferences do you attend in a year?