Monday, June 25, 2012

Time changes / Times change

Time changes.

Every year, around this time, I confront once more my still-surprising inability to create time. My academic travel season is over: my house is a disaster, my kid is manipulating my guilt, my husband is trying to catch up on everything he couldn't do when I've been gone, the puppy has managed to create three new pee stains on the white rug without anyone noticing, and it's all just generally feeling like a marathon being run at the pace of a sprint, and we've all been heading in the wrong direction. Balls are being dropped: appointments missed, noses out of joint, forms go unsigned, tempers flare, no groceries in the house, McDonald's twice in one week. Ugh.

Every year this happens.

I somehow have the idea that when I'm gone away for a weekend, for three days, for a week, that I can put in all those extra travel and working hours, and that despite my absence, the house and family can maintain themselves. That without going to yoga for a month, I'll still feel strong and grounded and be able to touch my toes, to sleep well. That my daughter won't suffer and that my husband and I won't miss each other.

Ha.

When I'm gone, 1/3 of the household resources disappear: we're a three person family, trying to operate with only two people. That's suboptimal. When I layer all this extra work and travel into my own schedule, my physical and emotional needs don't get met, and I can't meet those of my family, either.

Time is zero sum: when I disrupt our standard schedule to travel, everything is out of whack. Jet lagged. This is why it's the worst right when I step off the airplane: I'm exhausted and mentally in another time zone, my daughter is crazed from the excitement of me coming home, my husband is completely worn out from doing it all by himself. We all need someone to take care of us; none of us is much ready to take care of anyone at all.

I like the idea of flying west: I gain time. I wake up "early" and sleep well at night, and feel pretty good about life. But that time has a cost. There is no cheating time.

It's going to take us well into July to pay the bills, tend the perennials, fix the clothesline, put the hats and mitts into the attic, fill out reimbursement forms, dig out our respective offices at work, answer those emails. To sit on the couch holding hands long enough to feel like we're not holding on for dear life.

----

Times change.

This year, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, I found myself way too frequently saying things like "when I started coming here..." and "DHSI used to ..." and "the first several times I taught this course ..." You know, I've been to DHSI nine times in ten years. I'm actually very, very old in DHSI terms. And every time those phrases started coming out of my mouth, they felt like context and comparison and such, but by the time the sentences finished, I felt ... old? Like I was trying to hold onto something that happened a really long time ago, that wasn't relevant?

Being a professor is weird for this kind of thing: no one really gets their job until they're 30, so 30 is "young" in this profession. I'm 39 and am often treated like the breath of (brash) fresh air in many contexts, maybe because I work in popular internet media, so can pass for a digital native with a familiarity with millennial mores. Sometimes when I talk my colleagues look at me like I'm from another planet.

But then, because I work in popular internet media, much of what I know rapidly becomes outdated, irrelevant, old. We used to code web pages by hand in Notepad, man! I remember when the www was text only! Blogger didn't used to be owned by Google and once upon a time ... blah blah. Sometimes when I teach my students look at me like I'm from another planet. TL;DR.

So I vacillate on a pretty much daily basis between feeling hopelessly young (Hey, Professor Whipper Snapper, do you think we should make a Web Page Site for our digital? Lol? Did I use that right?) and godawful old (Email? That's for old people, um, and they made a new version of that software like, three weeks ago? But we all use the open source version, if you don't want to torrent that one on the sly.)

I don't often feel like what I know is just right, as I feel like I'm whipsawing between precocity and irrelevance, between too fast and too slow, too much and not enough, from morning to afternoon, context to context.

I'm not sure if I'm having an intellectual middle age crisis, or a teenage growth spurt. I've got an inappropriate haircut but that's par for either course.

In moments of quiet reflection (in short supply; see above) I'm generally happy with my own place in the world, with my knowledge, with my work. But things feel like they're changing with my own positioning relative to others, and I don't know why or how or what to think. Times change.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts


Numbers matter. 

Last year when Amy King published The Count on VIDA's website there was a flurry of conversation on the web and in print regarding women, publishing, and numbers. Indeed, prior to The Count poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young published a controversy-producing piece entitled Number Trouble. In this text Spahr and Young refute claims made by Jennifer Ashton in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Poems” in which Ashton suggests that “by the mid-80s efforts to ‘redress the imbalance’ had apparently succeeded—women seemed to make up more or less half of the poets published, half the editorial staff of literary magazines, half the faculties of creative writing programs, and so forth.” Following Ashton’s lead Spahr and Young review women’s presence in anthologies and come to resoundingly different conclusions.

In Canada the Numbers Trouble debate did not get the same kind of attention, at least not immediately.* In their introduction to Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics editors Heather Milne and Kate Eichhorn cite Young and Spahr’s text as one inspiration for their anthology. Poet, blogger, and public intellectual (Montreal) Sina Queyras has been asking hard questions about the presence of women in public intellectual spaces for years. One of the stunning undercurrents in Unleashed, a collection of early blog posts, is Queyras’s unflinching refrain, “where are the women?” But aside from comments on her own posts the conversations around women in the literary arts remained siloed, for the most part. There are regional conversations, there are some conversations in the academy, and more (or so it seems to me) in creative writing communities. Last year poet, blogger, and intellectual-about-town (Toronto) Natalie Zina Walschots (aka NatalieZed) undertook her own analysis of the gender of literary arts reviews in Canada. Her post garnered quite a bit of discussion, unsurprisingly, perhaps, not all of it friendly.

Fast forward to this week. I was sitting at my computer looking at Facebook as I often do when I am procrastinating with my own writing. Lo, there’s a post from Sina Queyras that announces the launch of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). CWILA is the brainchild of poet, writer, teacher, and intellectual-about-town (Vancouver) Gillian Jerome. According to Jerome the idea for CWILA came from Vida’s Count, from Walschots’s post, and from her experience of organizing V125, where though they worked extremely hard to have gender balanced panels Jerome noted the conversations were not quite as balanced. Here’s a quote from CWILA’s site in which Jerome outlines the organization's aims:

CWILA strives to promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community by:
1) tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing;
2) bringing relevant issues of gender, race and sexuality into our national literary conversation;
3) and creating a network supportive of the active careers of female writers, critics and their literary communities.

I say: BRAVO!

I also say, if you are interested in helping out you can join CWILA here. One of the most exciting things CWILA aims to do is to garner enough funds to pay a critic-in-residence. While not all Hook & Eye readers work in English departments, I wager many if not all of us have a sense of the importance of having someone write about your work. Reviews—good or bad (so long as they are fair)—are generative. They generate awareness, conversation, and frankly, they generate the culture we live in, and the canons we teach. You might also consider making a donation to the critic-in-residence fund here.

Gillian was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Here they are along with her answers:

EW: Tell our readers about yourself. You're a poet, a teacher, an intellectual community organizer. What led you to form CWILA? Did you have help? What are your short and long-term goals?



GJ: You asked about why I created CWILA; and in a sense, I didn’t create CWILA—a group of 70 + Canadian women poets, novelists, scholars and critics did over the span of the last six weeks. But if you’re asking about how the idea for CWILA originated in me then I can speak to that.


The impetus came most recently from questions I asked myself after reading Natalie Walschots’ blog in which she discussed the imbalanced numbers of reviews—if counted by gender—in Michael Lista’s poetry column in the National Post. She counted the reviews he’d written in the last year, and out of fourteen books reviewed, only two were authored by women. I wondered: what are the numbers like at other national literary publications? What does the Canadian review culture look like in terms of gender? Is there imbalance in poetry reviews across the board? What about other genres? How might we measure these numbers against how many books are published each year by men and women in Canada? In short, counting became, for me, a very rational way to examine the gendered aspects of our literary landscape.

CWILA’s primary goal is to start a conversation about our data. Of course, we would like to improve the numbers by asking editors to take stock of their numbers. And we would like to see greater equity in reviews in all regards, not just gender. It seems to me that there is great interest in talking about these issues, connecting with other writers and critics and shifting the climate of reviews in this country among men, women and genderqueer writers. I’m very excited about our call for a CWILA critic-in-residence which will provide the successful applicant with $2000 to take time to write book reviews or a longer critical project. We are fundraising rigorously for this project and so I’d like to encourage everyone to donate to it.

I’m equally excited about the community that has been created around CWILA. It makes me happy to discover that more women writers already feel more supported and empowered about entering critical space because of what we’ve done. CWILA members would like to see more women take up public critical space in Canada and feel more supported, more confident, more capable.

EW: What role do you see the Academy playing in fostering equitable literary communities? What role would you like to see it play?

GJ: The academy plays an important role by offering discursive space to talk and write about the politics of representation. But it also has the capacity to produce more female critics who could be trained, supported and mentored to write in the national literary press. This is complicated, I understand, because so many female academics are overworked already, but it’s vital, I think, for women in the academy to enter the national conversations about books inside and outside of scholarship. Women who teach and study in universities have all kinds of training that makes them very well-equipped for these conversations. I also think that there is room for more connections to be made between the work that writers and scholars do; I would like to see more scholars value creative work and more writers value scholarly work, and for more collaborative work in these communities.

I will also say that I think many academic publications, like Canadian Literature, are already doing equitable work in reviewing books.  There are all kinds of female academics in positions of power in this country who do amazing work in fostering important conversations about womens’ writing, and work in editorial roles to ensure that womens’ books get written about and talked about, and that women review books. It’s also true that more can be done: more scholarship on books by women and more scholarship that examines the work written by marginalized writers. The most obvious example would be indigenous writers: we need more conversations about indigenous writing in English departments and more books by indigenous writers on course syllabi. I know that the conversations that I’ve had in my work with CWILA have changed the way I think about my courses and the books that I will teach. After all, the choices we make as academics shape canons, careers and national conversations about books.

 EW: How can our readers become involved?

GJ: Readers can become involved by thinking and speaking up about these issues. Engagement is an expression of attention and respect. So far, I have encountered some silence in particular parts of my literary and professional circles.  Perhaps people are thinking; perhaps they are afraid to engage; perhaps they are waiting to see if it’s cool to engage, or if it will help or hinder their careers; perhaps they simply don’t care. There are a myriad of reasons for silence in this rhetorical moment and the moments to come. It’s a complicated topic that isn’t always easy to talk and/or write about. My hope is that CWILA will provide an entry point for conversations about gender and the literary arts in Canada among writers and readers, as well as editors, publishers, agents, etc.

A few women have said to me that they don’t expect men to care about CWILA’s work, but I totally disagree: why wouldn’t men be concerned? What male writer in Canada wants the numbers for book reviews to be so embarrassingly unequal and for the conversations about books in the literary press to continue to reflect a masculinized tradition? To not be concerned is just such an outdated position in my mind.

Surely it’s the case that some men in Canadian literature want things to stay as they are because they benefit, but I am hopeful that that belief is held by the minority. After all, some of the percentages of reviews of books written by women at particular publications were as bad as percentages for representation of women writers in anthologies in the 1930s and 1940s, and in review space in the 1960s. I would find it disheartening to discover that anybody---man or woman----involved in literature in this country doesn’t care at all about these inequities. This is perhaps why total silence on behalf of particular writers, editors, critics, scholars and publishers disturbs me. I think that saying nothing now or in the future— i.e. ever—is cowardly: it’s a means of keeping the numbers exactly as they are and hoping that the problem will go away or be handled by somebody else, i.e. the same women who have been speaking up—Sina Queyras, Margaret Christakos, Larissa Lai, Lisa Roberston, Kate Braid, Daphne Marlatt, etc. Lots of writers (male and female) are doing great feminist work in this country—I just want more of it. I want more people—women and men—to talk, write, engage in public where it counts. I want the conversation engendered by the findings to be robust, inclusive and transformative for everyone’s benefit.


A final thought: I often find myself fretting about how heavy I sound when I write my posts. Partly, as I have so often reminded myself, that is my role as a precariously employed academic worker. I often feel as though I cannot take on a single thing more, not one thing! But get this: in addition to having her own writing career Jerome is also a sessional lecturer at UBC. CWILA was formed and launched in six weeks flat! How inspiring is that knowledge?

What have you been dreaming of building? What would it take to get that underway?
__________________
*In 1984 Barbara Godard wrote an incredible essay suggesting why this may be a 'Canadian thing.' That essay is entitled "Excentriques, eccentric, avant-garde." A Room of One's Own 8, 4 (Fall, 1984): 57-75.



Monday, June 4, 2012

Find or Forge: Locating Your Intellectual Community

A few years ago my mentor and I were chatting over coffee. I was nearly finished my dissertation and was in what I can only describe as a state of heightened anxiety. In addition to worrying about finding a job I was feeling adrift. While I had made good friends in my PhD programme I did not have people who were working in similar areas to mine. When I looked to my peers at my own institution and elsewhere it seemed as though there were many people who were falling into natural intellectual communities. There were reading and writing groups being formed, conferences being organized or attended. I was talking with my mentor about this and she said something simple that has stuck with me. She was talking about her favourite annual conference--an international one--and said that practically all of her intellectual community was there. When I asked her what she meant she told me that she found her intellectual community--those people with whom she did her best and most generative thinking, writing, and imagining--by going to interdisciplinary conferences.

It had only occurred obliquely to me that I would have to search out an intellectual community beyond the borders of my own institution. Sure, I had friends and acquaintances elsewhere, but how is one to forge a functioning intellectual community with colleagues who are far-flung? Here are a few ideas based on my own trial and --often--error. (You can find additional suggestions at the University of Venus's Networking Challenge):

1) Talk to your peers about their work. Tell them about your own!
After that first semester of the MA or PhD, or the orientation session for the new job how often do we really sit down and talk about our work with our most geographically close communities? There's something to be said for proximity. Proximity affords the luxury of hanging out, of chatting, of slow thinking together. Is it possible there are people on your own hallway whose work might chime with yours? Besides, talking about your work puts your own trademark on it, in addition to the benefits you get from the input of others.

2) Proximity isn't enough, you need structure.
Sure, there is something quite wonderful about serendipity, but we'll get there in a moment. If you want to forge an intellectual community that is sustainable you need a plan and you need to delegate. First, the plan: do you want to read together? Talk? Write? Identify the aims of your group and set some parameters. How often will you meet? Who will facilitate? What is everyone responsible for when you do meet? What will people get out of it? This last question is kind of a doozy. I've spoken to several friends who have attempted to start writing groups at their own institutions with varying degrees of success. While it would be wonderful to believe that people want to get together for the love of the work that isn't always the case. Start with a clear structure and aim and the cult following will come.

3) DIY is great, but don't reinvent the wheel. Find a conference and commit.
I have a tendency to take things into my own hands, and that has its benefits for sure, but it is also tiring, often lonely, and it can be a real waste of energy. For those who are affiliated with major research projects the forging of an intellectual community is a bit more organic: network both within and outside your group! But if, like me, your work isn't affiliated with a clear-cut community then try committing to an annual conference. I started attending Congress when I was an Masters student. I was overwhelmed and excited. I was also pretty lonely, but I kept going. It seemed as though there were so many exciting people doing incredible work. I just wanted to be around them. Stick with it and you'll start to meet people.

4) Look beyond your horizons. Cold call someone whose work you admire.
This is tricky, I'll admit. However, we all know the handful of people whose work we turn to again and again. Consider introducing yourself. Who knows, you might strike up a correspondence, or you might not. The only thing that is certain is the you wont know until you try.

Do you feel you have an intellectual community? How did you find or forge it? Do you have any advice for other readers?