Friday, December 16, 2011

Coats on the floor, the wine's over there: Department parties

By the time Friday afternoon landed on my lap, the party had 60 or so confirmed attendees. The department holiday party. At my house. And from my rough estimation--necessarily rough because some people, sighted by my husband in our very living room, came and went without me ever pushing through the crush to get to them--it seems like they all came.

I love the department holiday party. I have always loved these affairs, from the very first one I attended nervously as a Masters student, to the first one I attended nervously as a PhD student, to the first one I attended nervously as a new Assistant Professor, all the way to the ones I now (nervously, natch) host.

The tally:
  • 24 empty bottles of wine
  • 18 empty bottles of beer
  • 5 king cans, hidden under the dining room table
  • 4 bags of ice
  • 2 trays of sushi
  • 2 vegetable platter
  • 1 tray of sweets
  • 1 cheese platter
  • 2 boxes of Carr's water crackers
  • 4 bowls of cheesies
  • 3 ramekins of homemade nuts-and-bolts
  • 1 Christmas cactus
  • 1 pointsettia
  • 2 hostess gifts of cookies
  • 1 daughter in a taffeta dress offering one cheesie to each incoming guest
  • 0 edible leftovers of any kind
  • untold amounts of shortbread ground into the floor
  • vast amounts of wine spilled: on the walls of three rooms, the kitchen cupboards, the floor
  • 15 guests shooed out after midnight
  • 3 leftover mittens
  • 1 lost bicycle light
No Mad Men-style debauch (and thank God) but no stilted junior high school church social either, the holiday party as manifested around here is a real mixer: staff, and faculty, graduate students from all levels and years of study, locals, out-of-towners. Spouses, kids, kids' friends. (Only one sessional instructor this year, though.)

It's the kind of thing, actually, that makes me think about the general segregations of everyday life. About how narrow my own life is, in general, and how much like sticks to like. In playing host to so many different people, I'm aware of doing some ... stretching to make everyone feel at ease, and this reflects on the insularity of my own life rather than on anyone else's awkwardness. I'll find some toys for the two year old, and then, across the room, all of a sudden, a Master's student I taught a required undergraduate course to several years ago. Asking a former chair about his European adventures over the last decade and a half and then joining a conversation among twenty-somethings about long-distance relationships. I'm at a place in my life where I know what daycare costs, what constitutes a good mortgage rate, how to distinguish gins in blind tastings, what it feels like to get older, how to be "appropriate" in company, what's happening in the New York Times and The Guardian. I don't know which are / if there are any good live music venues here. Do people go out dancing? Where? Good, cheap ethnic food? Dunno. Used bookstores? What? What happens after 8pm around this town? I have no idea. What do apartments cost? Bus routes to the grocery store? So parties can lead into new conversations, for everyone. Even meeting colleagues in this context can lead in new directions than might usually be traversed: you experience different conversation prompts while trying to wipe soy sauce off the wall than you do around the committee table waiting for the meeting chair to show up.

One of the great things about a really good party is mixing socially with people who are not exactly like me, and in situations that are not the norm. (I say not exactly, because we were averaging about two degrees in English apiece.) Candles and students and spouses and everyone in their socks and sparkly things / nicer pants.

Long live the holiday party, I say, a bit of fun and magic in a mostly routinized term.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Look Homeward, Angel

Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel traces the journey of young Eugene Grant as he grows up in a mountain town in North Carolina. I don't love this novel for its literary value (which marks likely the only time I agree with Harold Bloom about anything). It does have a special place in my heart though, and I find myself thinking about it often these days. You see, I'm heading home for the holiday break. Now, while I know this isn't particularly unusual I am feeling particularly sentimental about my journey. As many of you may know, I grew up in North Carolina. Or rather, I grew up between North Carolina and Ontario. I'm originally from Ottawa but when I was a decade or so old my parents made a radical lifestyle change. My father gave up his government job, took over the family business in rural Ontario, and, since the business is a seasonal one, decided that there was no longer a need to shovel snow in the winters. We moved from Ottawa to an antebellum plantation house in rural North Carolina. I'll let you imagine all the culture shock we encountered (and the reciprocal culture shock our neighbours encountered when meeting us!)

I'll be frank: it was a hard move for me. I didn't make friends easily, I didn't feel I ever fit in, I didn't understand the social and cultural mores. I counted the days until we would return to Canada for the summers. Sure, things were easier when I arrived at university in Chapel Hill. There were simply more people, more chances to be myself without feeling I was under a microscope. But, when it came time to figure out what to do with my life, while all my friends were moving to San Francisco or New York or Chicago I came back to Canada. I'm not sure why, it just seemed like the right decision for me. Nostalgia? Rose coloured glasses? Yes and yes, but there was also something more. A sense that I hadn't really given my Canadian self a chance to know what that meant.

I haven't had much chance to go back home to North Carolina. For one thing, my parents still run the family business. It is a little lodge that my paternal grandparents opened in 1928 in Miners' Bay, Ontario. Logistically it is far easier and far more affordable to go visit them there. But there's something else behind my infrequent trips south of what a good friend once dubbed the muffin-biscuit line. Despite or in spite of all my conflicted and complex feelings about North Carolina I feel fond....and I worry that things will be different (or that they wont be different). No matter how much I move to find myself, no matter how much I move for the degrees, or for the job, for  me looking homeward is a transnational journey bound up in all kinds of emotion. And you know what? I'm looking forward to going home. I'm looking forward to showing my partner where I grew up, and I can't wait to see old friends, eat some hoop cheese at the Warrenton Hardware Cafe, and maybe hear some music at Cherry Hill where the curtains are older than the angel statue in the cemetery in Hendersonville that is said to have inspired Wolfe.

So in the name of nostalgia, loved ones, rest, and celebration here's my mom's recipe for Shoo Fly Pie. Mom is from Pennsylvania Dutch country, so be forewarned that this isn't a southern recipe per se. Take care dear Readers, see you in the New Year.

Shoo Fly Pie

3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter or vegan shortening (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup molasses
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Oil and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan (mom says two pie plates work also)

Mix together the flour, sugar, and butter OR vegan shortening so that they crumb. I use my hands, mom says I shouldn't because it warms the butter. The consistency should be crumby and crumbly. Remove 1 cup worth and set aside for topping.

In another bowl combine the molasses, boiling water, and baking soda. Be prepared for the fizzing you might remember from volcano experiments in elementary school.

Combine the 2 cups of dry mixture with the wet mixture. Mix thoroughly. Pour into baking pan and crumble leftover dry mixture on top. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Eat warm with soy ice cream (or regular--whatever works for you).


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guest Post: The first time, for the third time


My first-year is almost over. Again.

I'm 25 years old, and I'm in first year again - in a different field of study, but at the same campus as my last degree. This is my 7th year in a university. Reading this post by Aimée made me want to reflect on my years since leaving home for the Ivory towers, and my development as both a student and as a person. 
My "real" first year was in 2004, where I was a bewildered West Coast transplant on a university campus in a smallish town in Ontario. That year was too new and too over-stimulating to reflect upon. I remember learning how to make mac and cheese for the first time in a residence kitchen, going on my first awkward date with an engineer, and going to a Finnegan’s Wake reading group and not understanding a thing.

I was in first year again in 2008, starting my Master's degree in a new city and a new campus.  That time, I was no longer a naive teenager not knowing how to do basic adult things. But I felt overwhelmed in a different sense - from knowing my professors intimately to having trouble connecting to a new group, from the comfort of a small anglophone town to the foreign "city" where most people spoke in a language and accent I couldn't fathom.

This time? I feel so much better - albeit still a bit unsettled as first years tend to be. The law program at McGill presents factors that appear contradictory and a little disorienting as a result. I'm now pursuing a degree that is kind of like a post-graduate degree (many people already hold Bachelor's, Master's, and some even PhDs) but not (in its designation as a "bachelor's" and the presence of post-CEGEP students pursuing their first university degree). It's two degrees at once, purporting to be "transsystemic" that is meant to teach you about two legal systems in one program. It's a bilingual degree where "bilingualism" really means "passive" bilingualism where you don't have to express yourself in the other language.
Being a first year again meant pushing myself to limits and places I hadn't been to before. Pushing myself to work the hardest I've ever done in many, many years - yes, even harder than that Master's. Pushing myself to write multiple drafts when I only wanted to stop at the first one. Pushing myself to read one more article on a topic I didn't understand when I wanted to stop. Pushing myself to do the French reading when I wanted to copy-pasted it into Google Translate or look at past summaries. Pushing myself to talk to strangers at minglers, and pushing through the first few seconds of awkwardness.

It's also been about allowing myself to feel imperfect and uncomfortable. Allowing myself to feel lost in concepts and feel overwhelmed by so many Latin phrases. Allowing myself to make mistakes in my writing, subsequently see the weakness in my writing - yes, writing! for this English major! - and address them as best as I can. Allowing myself to admit that I don't know, that I am no longer in control. Allowing myself to accept the results that were not always the best. Allowing myself to close my book and watch an episode of Boardwalk Empire or go to the gym even though I had not finished my readings. And allowing myself to still see my friends without too much guilt - there is never no guilt - because it is important to be a good person that makes me feel whole, rather than focusing too much on being a good student.
Sometimes it's a little bit of both - allowing myself to feel disappointed, frustrated, but also pushing myself through those feelings to a better place.

Last month, I finished my first pieces of first-year legal writing assignments, and felt the anxiety of doing something I had never done before. It's always an interesting experience - telling your brain to think and organize in a different way, to orient your thoughts in a way that you had never thought possible.
I'm studying for my first set of law school exams - and my first exams in 3 years. I am making coherent study notes of everything I've read instead of banging out a 20-page paper and reading a ton of Judith Butler. I go through the daily grind of stressing over the information I have not yet mastered, and procrastinating over Facebook and Globe and Mail browsing for something - anything! - more interesting than my own notes. But then I feel the moments of joy when I finally "get" something, when I can check off a month's worth of notes off as having been reviewed.

So all in all, first year for the third time feels pretty good.

Rosel Kim

Monday, December 5, 2011

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Actually, the Future Looks Bright


Many of us who are in teaching or administrative positions worry often and worry vocally about the future of the profession. On Friday when I had the distinct privilege of chairing a panel at the Honours Colloquium I received a lovely gift: reprieve from worry.



Meet Kaarina Mikalson, Katherine Wooler, and Kristen Flood.

All three of these women will finish their BA degrees this year. On Friday they each presented twenty-minute conference papers on one of the several concurrent sessions of the Undergraduate Honours Colloquium. Kristen’s paper, entitled “Re-Writing Systems of Communication,” which performs a close critical reading of Erin Moure’s O Resplandor, considers the role of translation as a readerly role. In ““Reaching to the Very Corners of the Night,” Kaarina read’s Anne Carson’s Nox as a critical edition of grief. In her presentation, “evolve” Katherine demonstrated her inventive, non-linear editing strategy, which she employed to create a mini digital critical edition of some of bpNichol’s poetry. After their presentations every question the audience posed was prefaced with an acknowledgement of the incredibly high-caliber of critical thinking in all of the papers. As the panelists answered questions they engaged each other’s papers as well as discussing their own.

I left the panel feeling proud, excited, and a wee bit better about the future. When I reached the atrium where all the Colloquium participants and faculty were gathered to celebrate I heard from my colleagues that this intellectual generosity was present in each of the sessions. Bravo students!


This past Friday Aimée asked what your sugarplum visions entail. Take a peek in the comments section, you will see that some readers are pragmatic, others are fantastic, and still others mesh the ‘will’ with the ‘wish’ and imagine wild, wonderful, and restful breaks. I found myself thinking about my own sugarplum vision, especially after the lively conversations we have been having here at Hook & Eye regarding the future of the profession. I have imagined jobs for everyone! Academic freedom! Curricular and administrative reform! I have imagined how wonderful it would be if we could stop worrying about breaking hearts and breaking banks and just start living the life of the mind. I didn’t come up with any solutions—I’m tired too—but it was fun to let my mind wander enthusiastically down the aisles of idealism without pulling on its little leash and dragging it back to the land of reality, pragmatism, and grading. I thought about my wish list for the profession all day on Friday, all day until I went to chair a panel at the Dalhousie English Undergraduate Honours Colloquium, that is. Sure, the profession needs a mighty intervention and a great deal of work, but after seeing these students present their work and share their incredible ideas I was reminded again that this is work worth doing, not only for the present, but also—especially—for the future.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Visions of sugarplums

I have another post in me about training PhD students, but I just can't do it right now. Right now, I'm so dumb I left my yoga mat (My $100 Manduka Pro special edition black cherry mat that I would rush back into a burning building to save) at the yoga studio. I'm so tired that it's 9pm as I write this and I can't wait to go to sleep.

To sleep. To sleep and perchance to dream. It's early December, it's late in the term, and the sugarplum visions--you know, the ones that begin with me submitting a tidy spreadsheet of grades to the Registrar--well, they're dancing in my head.

I swear, it's only the daydreaming that gets me through this final slog of final essays. My students were all so relieved to hand them all in--their work is done. Now mine ... doesn't begin, of course, because it began that first day of class in September, but continues for another week or so of solitary, thankless grading.

My daydreams are simple: filled-in spreadsheets, time to read a novel, staying in my pyjamas, doing some Christmas shopping, drinking a leisurely latte with a friend without laptops taking up the entire table between us. Of having a little more patience in the morning with my family because I"m not gearing up for class. Of sleeping a little more soundly because I'm not worried about the handout / the lesson plan / the computer podium key and where I may have put it.

Many of the graduate students I interact with talk of Christmas breaks full of reading ahead, of thesis projects started, of daunting paperwork addressed. That's the wrong attitude, I think. Term is hard. It's long and intense if you're taking courses, or teaching them, or studying for comps or preparing a thesis proposal, or if you're writing, or especially if you're on the job market. Take a break.

Do something selfish and decadent, even if that means something as simple as watching TV in the morning, or as elaborate as leaving town for sunny, warm climes.

My sugarplum visions include slipper socks and staring at the lights on my tree, mug of Holiday Tea in a Santa mug in hand.

What do yours look like?

Oo-err. Even my computer is *tired*