Friday, September 28, 2012

Shut up and write!


So, how’s your research going, now that the academic year is in full swing (for academics in North America and Europe, at least)? Good, right? And that grant/scholarship/fellowship application? It’s probably writing itself by now, am I right? ‘Cause now’s the time, isn’t it, before student essays start coming in for marking in earnest, before midterms, and before finals, and before “oh look, it’s December!”

Yes, I know. I’m with you. I’m trying to pressure/convince myself of the same things. You’ll see me wandering the halls muttering things like “no time like the present!” and “what? only one week until SSHRCs are due?” and “how is it only September 26?” in faulty punctuation and capitalization, because who has time to edit one’s mutterings anymore?

And I look at Erhttp://www.hookandeye.ca/2011/06/summertime-and-research-is.htmlin and envy her well laid-out plans. Then I look at Aimée, and admire her, too, for having developed good research and writing habits. And then I talk to my friends in the hallways and in the offices. And you know what? They’re having a hard time, too. And then? Then I go to my own office, alone with my Facebook or Twitter. Or I go to the library, on my own, and give people I see studying in groups the stink-eye for disturbing a “quiet space.”

Actually, I don’t. Not really. Not openly. Not a lot. But I do wish I were part of their group, or a group, ‘cause that’s what works for me. Accountability. Camaraderie. Community.

So, I’m taking matters in my own hands, and calling all people in physical or virtual proximity to join me for a recurring Shut Up and Write! session Thursdays 10 am – 1pm. For people at the U of A, you can join me physically, in HC 3-47*. For those not, why not convene your own: make a Facebook group, or a Google Document, or a Google Hangout, or a MeetUp, and organize weekly get-togethers in a café, a library, or some other easily accessible place. You don’t have to go every time; the group will take a life of its own. You also don’t have to be there for the whole time. People can come and go. The point is to create the opportunity for the writing group to emerge, and then it might surprise you how it can take of its own existence.
This, obviously, is not my idea. Bay Area group(s) were formed way back in 2007. Inger Mewburn, curator of The Thesis Whisperer has blogged about her group in Melbourne, Australia last year. Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote about it in 2010 as one of the ways to be productive over the summer. She also provides many other suggestions for writing, which might be useful for you if this one isn’t. I’m sure many other people shut up and write all over the place, because that’s what works for them. Here in my own department, we used to have a group like this a couple of years ago, and it worked really well.

So, I’m crowd-sourcing my writing opportunities. Because, hey, you’ve got to find what works for you, right? Also, because I want to practice what I’m preaching. I tell my students that to be able to develop your writing skills, you need to write regularly. That essay writing is a skill that can only be attained through practice, and that practice entails daily free-writing and ink-shedding, and other sorts of habit-forming activities. However, I didn’t always heed my own advice, and writing (especially in incipient stages, the ones involving the blank page/document) was paralyzing and anxiety-inducing for me.

Luckily, I was here to read when Aimée was talking about daily writing and how she developed the daily writing habit by using it, and I took her advice. I joined Academic Ladder this summer, and the accountability it demanded of me made me much more productive. They advocate the pomodoro method, and so do other people. All of a sudden, thinking about writing—whether a conference paper, a job letter, or a research proposal—in small chunks of time (45 minutes, but one can start with however long or short suits one) took the anxiety and paralysis out of it. Most importantly, it helped me, too, build that habit, and expect that I produce some writing daily.

Academic Ladder is a paid service ($70 for 4 weeks), and I might try to wean myself off it, and see if I can “maintain the momentum,” like Erin said, or if my good habits can work when I am not directly accountable to someone else. Instead, I hope to find my support among friends, whom I can physically see once a week for this purpose. Will you join us? Or, better yet, will you give us tips of what worked for you? Or warn us of what didn’t and should never again ever be attempted? 

*With many thanks to a certain wonderful person in the admin of my department, who made the booking possible. M M-D, you are awesome!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Failing, failure, failed: part 1

I don't know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about failing. I probably spend more time worrying about failure than I do dreaming of success. I don't think this is uncommon among academics.

Lee has been thinking about winning. Me, I'm thinking about failing.

The three kinds of failure that most terrify academics are, I think, these:
  • Failure as not-winning
  • Failure to live up to an established standard, and being told so
  • Failing to create something of value from our time and effort
Let's hit 'em in turn, shall we?

Case 1: Failure as not-winning.

We often confuse "failure" with  the quality of not-succeeding. We consider ourselves to have failed as academics if we do not win that graduate fellowship, that research grant, that job interview, that award.

This is a mistake. It's not you--it's the pool. Or, it's not you--it's the department and its needs. Or, it's not you--it's the very precise requirements of the funder. Let me be clear: 99% of the time, it's really, truly, not you.

For me, this is hard-won knowledge, that I have to hard-win over and over again. May I be perfectly frank with you, dear reader? I have tended to always deem myself a failure in these situations because, at base, I am a control freak: I have this cuckoo sense that somehow my own efforts are enough to shift the earth on its axis to secure a desired outcome. It turns out that I do no have such powers. And neither do you. Sanity is restored through the cultivation of a shrugging attitude towards this reality.

Believe me, it's only four years of near-constant yoga that's taught me this kind of non-attachment in the face of 15 years of academic failures of this sort. And hoo boy! I've had some doozies. Like the job interview where the members of the search committee didn't talk to me at all during the fancy dinner, after a long day where it had become apparent by 9 in the morning they weren't going to hire me. Or like my first SSHRC doctoral application that just missed the funding threshold. And! I just lost an election for a departmental committee I really wanted to be on! That had two open spots! WAAAHHHHH!!!!! I suck!

Obviously, even today this kind of "failure" sends me immediately for my Comfort Gin Drink (Bombay-Sapphire-martini-extra-dry-two-olives-straight-up) and a day of maudlin self-pity and self-recrimination. But I try to damp down the failure self-talk as fast as I can.

In any of these kinds of competition, there are always many more qualified candidates than there are prizes and jobs and grants to bestow. I have been on plenty of appointments committees, scholarship adjudication panels, and the like, and I can tell you this much: rare is the application that is considered to be an outright, positive failure. You know, where the committee members enjoy a moment of levity marvelling at the sheer incompetence of it? Howlers do happen, but they are very, very rare. It is more usually the case that committees employ idiosyncratic sieves (and a good deal of arguing) to sift out an application or an applicant of a particular kind of size and density--what that sieve sifts for is largely dependent on qualities internal to the bestowers of the desired thing, and much less so on the intrinsic qualities of the applicant. Once, I won a travel scholarship over one of my good friends, because she proposed to go to Germany and I to France, and the funder had a special keenness for France: my application was no worse than her, nor hers than mine, but the adjudicating committee applied a particular filter that in this case favoured me.

So in these cases, to judge yourself a "failure" for not "winning" is to fruitlessly cause yourself anguish. It still sucks to not win; but not-winning doesn't make you a loser or a failure, and it won't help to consider yourself so.  Remember: attitude of shrugging, Gallic-style. Possibly while sipping a martini, or meditating.

Next week, we'll tackle one of two varieties of real failure: the kind where you actually fail to live up to standard where only you are being measured. Ulp.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Guest Post: Hitting the PhD Running


Morning, y'all! We have a guest post this morning from Aubrey Jean Hanson:

What I want to share with you here and now (thank you for having me!) are my experiences of shifting into the academy. That is, I’ve just begun a PhD program, and a good friend suggested that I share my experiences here. I am honoured to be writing for hook and eye. How cool is this blog?

Before I can really start, I have to acknowledge the miraculous fact that I am sitting down to write. How come I am able to carve this time out now to write, to think? First, I take seriously to heart the advice I have heard from many others that we simply have to carve out these kinds of spaces and times – to do the things that aren’t strictly necessary, but that push us a bit beyond the everyday, extend our practice, feed us in a new way, bring a new kind of satisfaction, indulge a whim. I’ve heard some very admirable people talk about the happiness that they find when they just make room for these things in their days. (Here too!) In this new life of mine, I am going to experience this kind of happiness. I am doing it every day. Otherwise, why have I shifted away from a career that has been not only my life-long goal, but a source of intense and wide-reaching fulfillment?

Second, the stars have aligned. Yes, the other things are calling me (dirty floor, errands to run, kitty litter, lists of readings, course work, kids’ toys all over bedroom, piles of laundry, dirty dishes, presents to buy for birthdays, exercising, heaps of emails, grant applications, paperwork, scholarship hunting, kids watching cartoons again instead of doing something more nourishing, like, I don’t know, learning Latin…); I certainly hear them. But the coffee has kicked in, the other things are underway, the kids are quiet, my partner is out, and somehow I am alone at a clean table with my laptop. (Have laptops done almost as much for women’s autonomy as birth control? Really, so exciting, this mobility with work.) There are many days when circumstances don’t actually conspire in this good way, but today is an exception. And now, I can begin writing.

How I come to where I am is like this. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl. I had older sibling authority, I liked helping others, and I loved school (and learning too). I was awesome at school. I wanted to follow through on that and be an awesome teacher. I went directly through. I did an awesome English degree and still wanted to teach English in high schools. Most of my honours-program comrades were going on to grad school, but I was sure, and I completed my B.Ed. as soon as I could. When I finished, I was so excited to be finally there. I was ready to jump right in. Except for a couple things – the timing was not great, given the circumstances in the job market, and the opportunity came up to jump right into a Master’s degree in Sociology and Equity Studies at OISE instead. It was super fun; I loved the challenge and the people around me. So I did that, and then I started teaching in high schools. I had an awesome job; I had some great teaching years. I had a couple of kids, had some time on mat leaves, moved provinces, and did some more teaching. Part of me thought that I was just getting started as a teacher: working towards a permanent contract (put your hands up if you have had the pleasure of moving from temporary contract to temporary contract), less than ten years into the career, and still feeling joyful and optimistic about my work. But in the dark, busy middle of last winter, I put together an application to another graduate program. I told myself I was just keeping my options open, and helping myself to feel that I had agency in the choice – that is, instead of feeling trapped or victimized by my non-permanent job situation. From where I am now, I see that I was already leaving. As soon as I filled in that application, I was out the door. (I reserve the right to keep that door open, though!)

So what is my experience of coming into this PhD program, of coming (back) into the university world, given where I’m coming from? I am tempted to jump away from this to other questions. Like how do I navigate the straightness of academic spaces, when I want them to be queer-friendly spaces? Or how do I engage with the webs of power relations at work in departments and classrooms? Or how do I avoid feeling like either an imposter or a cultural informant as a Métis woman working on issues tied to Indigenous studies? Or how do I integrate my feminism into my work in a sustainable way, and why does that end up seeming invisible sometimes? But I promised to focus on this one question today: how is it, starting a PhD?

First of all, it’s not a super big leap. I am studying education, and there are many continuities in both the intellectual terrain and emotional climate. Beyond that, though, I’ve felt a visceral kind of relief to be reading and talking about things that really matter to me with new colleagues who are as interested as I am in intellectual engagement. For instance, my classmates and I just read an essay (by Yatta Kanu and Mark Glor) that, among other things, takes on the effects of capitalist imperatives on teachers in public schooling. Like, check out this quote: “Particularly disconcerting for public education, knowledge economies impose ‘soul-less standardization’ that leaves some students behind by eroding curricula and pedagogies that build on the experience, language and cultural identity of these students, decreasing teachers’ autonomy of judgment, undermining moral vision and social commitment in schools, and derailing the very creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility that schools are supposed to cultivate.” I have wanted to bring up issues like this for years, and the staffroom at lunchtime, when everyone has a thousand things to do, just never felt like the right time. (I have also encountered several spaces that I can only describe as anti-intellectual in my years in public school teaching – and yes, there are social reasons for why that sometimes happens, and yes, I think it is tragic and discouraging that many of our young people are being taught by teachers who don’t usually have the opportunities or energy, given the constraints and burdens in the job, to really think critically and constructively about learning and teaching.)

But wait, some of you will say – you’d better not be coming into university life expecting to find freedom from socio-economic constraints, unfettered intellectual engagement, and open-minded, friendly communities everywhere you go! Haven’t you seen that video on youtube, “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities”? Don’t you know that universities are just another kettle of fish, with their own slimy, smelly parts? I think that I do, as I am in touch with the lives of some very dear friends working and studying in universities, but also, I am taking to heart the good advice that I have heard from several trusted friends (and from a post here , too), that I treat my PhD as a job: a four- or five-year, not very well-paying, but challenging and enjoyable, job. I don’t have any hard and fast expectations of what will come next. I am consciously bracketing off my future; I’m not dwelling on my future job prospects, and I am open to doing different kinds of things afterwards. This PhD is a track – I will run round the course, and then see what’s next. Maybe I’ll be stronger, more tired, more competitive, sicker of races, more unrelenting, faster, dizzier, stinkier, shinier, thirstier. Going around, I hope I won’t feel that I am running away: my teaching will always be with me – I can hardly say I’m leaving education when I clearly can’t stay out of school. But I know I won’t lose the feeling of my own feet touching down, weight straining, muscles pushing, mind fighting off unwillingness, breathing step by step, body moving under my own power.

Aubrey Jean Hanson
PhD Student

Monday, September 24, 2012

Make a Fuss: Calling All Critics


I am feeling unusually excited. Maybe it is the residual buzz from spending the last three days talking with critical and creative practitioners at Public Poetics. Maybe it is the excitement of having seen Tanya Davis, El Jones, and Ardath Whynacht on stage telling it like it is ... and watching a crowd of people listen, enraptured. Maybe its the launch of the new Lemon Hound site. There are so many women doing such diverse, engaged, and important public work right now! And there are ways you can participate too. 

Today's post comes care of the wonderful Christine Leclerc and on behalf of the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. CWILA launched in the spring, and one of its foundational initiatives is to create a critic-in-residence position. Here's how you can apply.

Christine writes:

This year we released the Canadian Women In the Literary Arts numbers, attracted fine folks like yourselves to our emerging organization and raised more than enough for CWILA's first critic-in-residence. Still haven't applied?
If you're a female Canadian writer (poet, novelist, storyteller, scholar) who'd like to raise awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters, we hope you'll submit your critic-in-residence application to info@cwila.com by November 1, 2012.

The resident critic will work on critical essays and/or book reviews and submit them to one or more Canadian review venues (print or web). CWILA also archives the work, which will be available at cwila.com following publication elsewhere, copyright permitting. If there's time, the resident critic is encouraged to support a climate of critical responsiveness in Canadian letters with a collaborative or community-based project. The residency is virtual, so the writer is free to work from home. Please visit cwila.com for full details.

To apply, please send a letter of intent to describe your project, the venue (or venues) you plan to submit to, a one-page CV and a short sample of critical work to info@cwila.com by November 1, 2012. A $2,000 stipend will be awarded in December.

We encourage applications from genderqueer writers, indigenous writers, as well as other women and/or genderqueer writers of colour.

Or, if you'd prefer to support next year's critic-in-residence, we are pleased to accept donations of any size. Thanks for your ongoing support! We have much to be proud for such a young organization.

If you're on Twitter, Facebook, or have a blog, please share this year's Critic-in-Residence November 1, 2012 application deadline with as many women in Canada as you can. And if you're with a university, please send a short email to your department, or better yet, print and post the attached poster. Thanks so much!

All my best,
Christine

For Twitter or Facebook: RT @CanWomenInLit Advance women's presence in Cnd letters. Critic-In-Residence w/ #CWILA - deadline: Nov 1 - http://cwila.com/wordpress/critic-in-residence/ #canlit

Friday, September 21, 2012

What's your happy dance, and how often does it see the light of day?

At the risk of being labelled a cheerleader, I want to talk about the need to be more joyous, more toddler-like, more childish in our academic lives. See, the thing about toddlers is they live in the moment, and they experience everything with a power that later becomes dulled by years of being disciplined into becoming a good subject: a good student, a good family member, a good contributing member of society, a good citizen, a good employee. So, here's my pitch to embracing our inner toddlers.

Oh, joy! Reader, how do you allow yourself to en-joy your triumphs? Do you? Because I have a hard time with it. My most recent one was being asked to become a regular blogger here. First, I couldn't believe it: who, me? Why? Then, when assured there had been no mistake, I wanted to do a mental happy dance in triumph. Yes, that took all of a split second. Because next? Anxiety set in. What would *I* have to add to this blog I had been reading and admiring since its inception? Alongside three exceptionally accomplished academics acting as editrixes, and many more who had guest-blogged? Surely nothing, or nothing significant anyway. And now I'm sitting here wondering about triumphs, their acknowledgement, and their celebration.

Although I suspect I'm not alone in my reservations, I won't make any generalizations here. (Ok, I'll try not to, and if you see me veer that way, you can poke me.) I'm afraid I don't even acknowledge my triumphs as such, let alone enjoy them, because of so many reasons: 1. the academic time; 2. deferred gratification that becomes averted gratification; 3. superstition or fear of retaliation. Yes, I am an academic ten-year-old. But I'm still working on becoming an academic toddler.

First, when it comes to professional triumphs, the lead time between the work and its validation is so long that it makes any celebration of triumph somewhat awkward and fake. By the time a publisher or an editor responds to my essay submission, I have moved on to work on another five projects. And then, when s/he does respond, it is probably to ask for some form of revision, a response to which entails another period of waiting, too long for any creature to hold her breath. So, at what point exactly in this protracted process am I supposed to rejoice and celebrate? When I first hear of the "revise and resubmit"? When the acceptance arrives in my inbox? When the publication actually happens? When my friends 'like' my status update announcing it? Don't get me wrong: I'm happy with every little one of these acknowledgements. But am I happy enough to do a happy dance? Out in the open? Nope. Nah. No-oh.

Is it the nature of the profession, or is just my irrational fear to not "disturb the universe"? Yes, I do have this fear that too much joy will bring in return an equal measure of unhappiness to restore the equilibrium. (You will tell me, dear Reader, will you not, if you think I should seek professional help?) And what of personal celebrations, you ask? Surely, those do not follow the same protracted process as academia? Well, no, but see professional habits become ingrained. So, yes, I was ecstatic both times I found out I was pregnant, and the hormones were probably a big help. But, you know how it is: wait until the first trimester is over to share the news, because you never know. When the kids were actually born? Again, ecstatic, and again, the hormones were a big help. But right afterwards, also, they're at their most vulnerable. Then, by their first birthday (one of whose I have yet to reach, soon), I'm just too sleep-deprived to do the happy dance. So I just let them do it for me.

And yet, I'm not a grinch, and I really like being happy, contented, and even ecstatic. I manage the former two most of the time. But I probably like these emotions more as processes than as states and moments one can point to. It's mostly the pointing out of the exact time as an aid to memorialization that I object to. You know, that "the first time you lifted yourself up on your own, it was 2:43 pm on a rainy September day, and we all cheered for your prowess and precocity" moment that becomes scrapbooked, and retold, and reconsidered, and reinvented with each iteration.

However, I want to get the triumphing right (oh, I'm such a keener). Triumphing and happy-dancing are distinct from merely being positive, which can be so oppressive, while also productive for capitalism, as Barbara Ehrenreich showed in Bright-Sided. And you know what my plan is? Be more childish, and indulge myself in my emotions; take a cue from my kids, in other words, who don't know anything about the universe, or its potential disturbance, or of academic publishing and its rigours.

Because the other important thing I think we should learn from toddlers? Screaming until our needs are met. Toddlers, with their live-in-the-moment-I'm-hungry-right-now-and-I-will-yell-your-head-off-until-you-feed-me behaviour, are experts at demanding and obtaining their rights. So, why not throw a metaphorical tantrum now and then?

So, remember when I said at the beginning of this post that I did a "mental happy dance"? Next time, I'll do an actual one that involves my limbs, too. Will you join me, or do you have your happy dance down pat already?


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Veep: or, can you be a netizen and move up the ladder at the same time?

We've lost Heather. You haven't seen her blogging here since last year, when she took up her post as Vice Dean, and worried about how to be in administration and on the Internet at the same time. And it turns out that that is a dance that no one has yet really mapped the steps to, Heather included. I miss her in direct proportion to the pride I feel for her in her new role.

We're recruiting new bloggers, and the response has been really wonderful, but from the field in view in front of us, Heather noted: "Aimee, you are the old lady blogger now!"

Well, shit. This old lady blogger just took on an administrative post, too.

July 1st, I became Vice President of our Faculty Association here at UW. How this happened I'm not quite sure. I remember putting my name in to be on the Board, after a friend and colleague whose service to this organization I have greatly admired and appreciated asked me to, but this veep thing snuck up on me.

I mean, I did say last year that I'm in the sweet spot to be cranky, by which I meant, having secured tenure without completely burning out or embittering myself on either academic inquiry or collegial governance, I ought to use my (however limited) powers for good. These are weird times. Exciting and full of possibilities, but also worries and scarcity. It's hard to know where universities are headed. We have a systemic, continent-wide jobs and employment crisis. We are all being asked to do more with less: more research with less granting agency funding, more teaching with fewer professors, more graduate training with fewer academic jobs, more knowledge mobilization with no less academic publishing, more enrolments with less infrastructure renewal, etc.

But here's the main challenge I'm feeling: a lot of this work is confidential. Confidentially, Internet, just between us, I've never been very good at "confidential." I've always considered "confidential" with its cousins "unsayable," "private," and "taboo" and the repercussions of decorous silence and discretion, I feel, have not been particularly empowering to lots of people. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I say. However, I'm now receiving memos headed "confidential" and reports labelled "draft -- not for circulation" and I'm bound by those rules. And in some ways I really do understand the value of closed-door work on some issue. On other issues? I think this "discretion" is misplaced and old-fashioned.

In any case, I'm not sure what to say about issues where I know more than I'm supposed to let on. Should I preface all of my writing here by saying, "I have no real knowledge about any of this, from an administrative point of view, which means I'm allowed to write about it"? Because that seems like a good dodge, but also maybe counterproductive, in the long run. I'm pretty sure that this new role is meant to capitalize on my passions, my talents, and my mouthiness, rather than to lock them up in small committee rooms away from the people I care to talk with, but I'm not sure how to manage that. I don't think the idea now is that I should restrict myself to blog posts about academic haircuts and other such institutionally inconsequential topics.

And perhaps I've already said too much.

So where I'm sitting now, I'm feel a little bit pinched between getting what feels like a good deal more institutional agency and the feeling I might be expected to shut up a bit more on the inter tubes, to manifest the discretion and compartmentalization that's been blasted to bits by services like Twitter, for example.

This is a generational issue. Probably Heather and I are at the vanguard of a generation of academics who are either digital natives or skilled early immigrants to Weblandia, moving up the ladder, where the sorts of cultural change we're expected to deal with in our undergraduate teaching hasn't really penetrated.

The mismatch extends beyond administration and into the ranks, of course. Five years from now, how is anyone going to find a tenure referee who is both in the candidate's field, and completely arm's length? Aren't we already beginning to see the kinds of networking and interconnection that social media offer us as normative? Won't it actually mark you as an outsider if everyone who's anyone isn't on your Twitter feed? And there's the question of knowledge mobilization as well: to what extent should academics be for seeking out opportunities to break their research results out of the academy and into the bigger world, or at least out from behind the Elsevier paywall and into open access repositories. What about when a social media upstart collates retraction data to ferret out and publicize academic chicanery, in full view of the public, but the institution's processes (often for very good reason) take place over longer duration and behind closed doors?

I like blogging and tweeting and posting photos and asking hard questions and making embarrassing disclosures, all in the name of working continually to improve this great big academy we all love so much (well, sometimes ... and in some ways ...). Can I still do that? How hard should I push? When should I back off? If I am a change agent, what things am I actually trying to change as I go to more and more meetings where attendees are accompanied by their assistants?

I have no idea. But I'm going to try to work it all out here, in public, with you.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stealing Time: How I am Finally Developing a Sustainable Practice

Writing -- and frankly not writing -- occupies an incredible amount of my mental and emotional energy. I seem to find time to do almost everything else but write. Direct the Canadian Studies Programme? Check. Teach? Check. Co-host a conference in the first month of term? Check. Supervise honours and graduate students? Check. Walk the dogs? Cook? Go to yoga? Check, check, check. Write a long-form project? Writing regularly? *crickets*

For those of you who have been reading here for awhile it will come as no surprise that I fret about my writing practice. I have written about it -- or the lack of it -- in terms of DIY Academia, in terms of collaboration and community, and I have written a lot about my anxieties around writing a book. Indeed, writing practice takes up a great deal of mental space here at Hook & Eye. In addition to my fretting, some of Aimée's posts have addressed strategy (the 30-minute miracle) and reality (how writing can be unnervingly selfish).

It was beginning to seem as though it didn't matter how much I worried about writing, I simply could not find the time to develop a sustainable practice. Now, this doesn't mean I haven't been writing. Not at all. This year alone I have written and presented six conference papers and I have written a few things for publication that are under review or in various stages of the broken system that is scholarly publishing. But my writing practice? Well, it looked something like this. Happily, something has changed.

This August I had the distinct privilege to attend the Banff Research in Culture Retreat. In addition to going to seminars, hearing public talks, and meeting amazing people, there was a great deal of time to simply work. We were assigned studios that we could access at any time of the day or night, and there were few expectations on us save for the expectation that we would be spending our time in meaningful ways. One does not waste an opportunity like this, right? In addition to attending the seminars, I was there for two reasons: to work with my collaborator on a writing project, and to write a book proposal of my own. Frankly, I assumed I would get the collaborative project finished (peer pressure!) and work on the solo project on my own time when I returned home. But that isn't quite how things worked out. Between the complete break from my own life, the stimulating discussions, and the space to take work seriously I managed to leave that time completing both projects and then some. It was exhilarating! I did All of The Things! ... and then it was time to go home...

How do you keep up a sustainable writing practice when you return from mountain paradise -- replete with your collaborator, a wonderful built-in community, and a buffet where the grapefruit is already peeled -- to the many quotidian things that steal time from your already busy day? I was worried. But, I've managed to keep up writing on a five-day-a-week basis since I have been home and back to Real Life. Here's how:

1) Gain momentum: I left the retreat with real, tangible writing momentum. Projects had been completed. That felt amazing ... and it made me want more.

2) Make a plan, and make that plan public: I know myself. My best-laid writing plans get thrown down over the puddle so that all the other things that need doing can walk over them and keep their feet dry. I needed help, I needed someone or something to keep me honest. So I asked my collaborator, who is also a trusted friend and colleague for help, and together we came up with a plan. We both have long-term projects that are easily put aside. The deal is this: we write one page of our own projects Monday-Friday. On Saturday we ship the writing off to the other person. See? Proof. I did it! We check in on each other, encourage one another to make the time to write, and we remind each other that it is both important and valuable to take our own work seriously enough to make time for it.

3) Check in: Whether you're able to find a friend or form a group, if you're aiming to develop a sustainable writing practice make sure you establish contingency plans. What happens if you miss a day (and you will)? What happens when you need to do more research, or you're in the editing phase? Things will come up. Knowing how you're going to deal with blips in the routine means you aren't as prone to getting derailed and disheartened.

4) Do it: The most sustainable practice I have in my life thus far is my yoga practice. There was a time where the idea of getting out of bed at 5:30am was not only inconceivable to me, it was laughable. Now I do it five days a week because it keeps me level-headed. Sure, it takes sacrifice and dedication from me, and from my partner who has shifted his schedule to match mine a bit more. And it is not always fun. Some mornings I can hardly face the idea of dragging myself out of bed to get to the studio, but when I do it usually feels fantastic. Even when practice is horrible, there is the fact that I've done it. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (the main teacher of the style of yoga I practice) was often quoted saying, "Do your practice, all is coming." Writing, I am finally learning, is like that too.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Early-career Academics, unite! Or, a plug for social media


Hello Readers! My name is Margrit Talpalaru. I am a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, and an early-career researcher on my own time. I am delighted and honoured to join the regular cast of H&E writers.

Being a PhD graduate without an immediate permanent prospect can feel alienating. After all, in a system which thrives on categorization and taxonomy, you’re suddenly in limbo. For me it felt abrupt, like I no longer belonged to the clear nomenclature of my department [where do I even heat my lunch now that I’ve graduated from the grad lounge?]. My OneCard was trying to persuade me I was “staff,” but then it turned cruel on me, and suspended my library privileges for getting pregnant and not having a teaching contract. Don’t get me wrong, my department didn’t quite let me fend for myself: PhD graduates are given two years of part-time teaching (2+2 courses). But the trick of the part-time status is that you don’t qualify for parental leave. Basically, it felt like my department was ready for me to spread my wings and go out into the world, but the latter would have none of it or of me.

So, I took Erin’s advice to find my own community, and I found a very supportive one on Twitter. After lurking there for a few months, in which I was convincing myself Twitter was a procrastination tool for reading the news—international and academic alike—I started interacting with people. Timidly, at first. What would I have to say to people who had never heard of me? Why would they—seasoned academics, twitterers, bloggers, journalists—want to talk to me? It turns out some of them do, and most are welcoming, generous, and engaging conversationalists. After years of lurking on favourite blogs, I was dumbfounded: so that’s why people come back, that’s why they write, that’s why they bare it (all). Sure, there are also the broadcasters, disinterested in engaging or measuring their self-esteem by the numbers in the “followers” section. The important thing I discovered, though? You can find your community, too.

I know social media inveterates do a face-palm right now. To them I say, please avert your eyes for a second, or just bear with me, because I can bet there are many other PhD students and early-career researchers out there feeling as lost as I was, and thinking they’re the only ones experiencing it. Well, I’m not here to tell them what to do, but just to point out that it worked for me. That I had no idea Twitter, whom we academics all like to bash [“140 characters? Only a chipmunk would find that satisfactory! I prefer to express my complex thoughts in 5,000-word essays, thank you!”=134 characters!] can be such a supportive environment, if you only spent time to discover the innards of chats and hashtags. Between #PhDchat, #PhDadvice, #ECRchat, #acwri, #ECRbook, #FYCchat, and many others, I’m sure you can find something to alleviate that dreaded prisoner-in-the-ivory-tower feeling.

And, how about you, Reader? Are you on Twitter? Do you have an online community? Care to share?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Least important person in the room

Have you read the advice? The one for the start-of-year mixers, the meets-and-greets, the orientation events for undergraduates and graduate students? The one for faculty events, and conferences? You know, the advice that encourages everyone to seek out the least important person in the room to talk to?

Of course, no one is really "unimportant." Obviously. But the idea is that those with less ... power? cultural capital? who are new to the area/program/position? have a hard time breaking into social circles or even conversation at these kinds of events. And it is the duty of the better established to ease the path of social inclusion with chit chat about home towns or yoga or how to get a photocopier password.

I'll bet that what you're thinking right now is: but that's me! I'm always the loner off to the side, wishing I was at home watching Community on Netflix in my pyjamas with my dog and a scotch launching witticisms into  the friendly atmosphere of Facebook!

I know that that's my problem. I go to faculty events, for example, and what I want to do is, first, make a beeline for the bar to muster my courage. (Hey, I'm just being honest. It's that or the cheese tray and the gin has fewer calories and a better effect on my wit.) Second, I want to find someone I already know just so that I have somewhere to purposefully walk to, and thus can avoid standing alone fruitlessly scanning the room, chin aloft, face anxiously expectant. Shudder. Third, I want to catch up with that someone, because I probably haven't seen them for awhile. Or if I have seen them recently, they're probably a close friend, and there's always something fun to talk about with my close friends. What we'll probably talk about is how awkward we feel at this social event: we will commiserate about our loner-misfititude or some such. What I am always trying to do is grab a lifeline out of a sea of sharklike social awkwardnesses: standing by myself while drinking, trying to make eye contact with anyone, aiming to insinuate myself into a conversations that's already going strong between two people who aren't looking at me. Oh god. The awful. But is it?

I'm going to also bet that, actually, the social disaster of cringing shyness you see in your head was you a couple of years ago, and that you've got more power than you think. Not least the power to make that social event a little less awkward for someone newer / younger / more tenuous / completely lost than you are.

It has recently occurred to me that what this looks like to others is that I am ensconced in a group of people with tenure, laughing loudly at in-jokes about department happenings from five years ago, blasting an aura of belonging and exclusion. Or when I'm at DHSI, it looks like all the instructors forming a closed circle, because we stopped accepting new friends around the time the semantic web became Web 2.0. Or when I'm at a national conference, it's the clique from my graduate program hanging tight.  I mean, I feel like Cady Heron, but I look like Regina George. Uh-oh.

It turns out that lots of people are surrounded by many more sharks than I am. And it turns out that sometimes I am the lifeline. I mean, by this point, I actually do know a lot of people most places I go. These things shouldn't scare me so much: I mean, it's not 1997--I've been doing these things for 15 years, if you want to count from that first faculty / student mixer in my MA year. So even though I still feel just as insecure and adrift in that shark-filled sea as I ever did, I'm forcing myself to leap off the lifeboat of friends and peers, into the ocean of strangers.

Am I getting salt water up my nose? Yes. I say dumb things. I bore some people. I make unsuccessful attempts to introduce two people to one another. I forget names. I repeat stories. Some of my jokes fall flat. But my swimming is also getting stronger: I ask questions to draw people out, I remember what they tell me when we meet again, I offer words of encouragement to those who need them, and I laugh at everyone's jokes.

I'm not going to lie to you: I still find it a lot easier to talk to people I already know, and that is probably always going to be my inclination whenever I walk into a room full of people standing up and wearing name tags. But with practice, this kinds of mingling gets easier. I'm meeting really nice people, and, bonus, they sometimes look really glad that I've come over to talk to them. And that's pretty much the payoff for me: making someone else's experience of these kind of events a little more pleasant, a little less scary.

How about you? Do you skip these events? Relish them? Are you the shark or the bait? What are your coping strategies?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Calling all aspiring feminist bloggers!

Hook and Eye is looking to add to our team of regularly scheduled writers, and you might be just the person for the job!

What it requires: A commitment to write 2-4 blog posts per month in collaboration with us.

Who we're looking for: We don't know for certain, but ideally we'd like to have more geographic, age, identity, and disciplinary representation.

What you need to do: Send us an email at editrixes (at) hookandeye (dot) ca letting us know who you are and why you'd like to write with us.

We are looking forward to meeting you!

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Fine Balance

Ah, September, we meet again.

In years past I have found myself greeting September with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Excitement is a natural response to this first fall month: school starts, the weather begins to change, the trees put on their best colours, and the sun takes on a kind of nostalgic hue. Everything seems to be moving at a slightly more urgent pace, but that urgency is good. It seems as though everyone feels slightly more important in September. The possibilities are endless and the immense stress is still hovering at the edges of things rather than sitting on your shoulder like a parrot squawking in your ear. The trepidation I feel has tended to be towards the unknown: a new job, a new suite of classes, a new phase. Indeed, as I have suggested here September feels more like New Years than does January, for me.

This year though, I am feeling a bit differently about September. Sure, the excitement is still there. I love teaching! My research is genuinely going well and steadily! I like my colleagues and I am looking forward to seeing them more regularly! But this September marks the beginning of my fifth year on the job market, and while that is neither an immense amount of time, nor a particularly significant number it is nonetheless a full hand of fingers. It feels meaningful, though I am not entirely sure what it means. Moreover, I feel ever so slightly ashamed of this number. Sure, I know the job market has changed. Yes, I know five years is not the end of the world. And yeah, I have been pretty well situated for the last three years and this year looks good as well. But from here I can see the end date of my contract looming, and I will be honest just in case there are others out there who can relate: it feels a little like a best before date. So this post is for the precariously employed among you, dear readers. I think it is alright to feel both excitement and a different kind of trepidation.

A friend of mine has a lovely and deceptively simple motto for his life: strength and balance. As he puts it, the one needs the other. You have to have strength to maintain balance, but balance requires that you let go a little. My aim for this year -- call it a resolution -- is to attempt to channel that trepidation into productive urgency. I have blocked out a bit of time to write each day, I have blocked out a bit of time each week to scour academic and non-academic job lists, and most importantly, I am once again going to work on being kinder to myself on a daily basis. For today, that translates into extremely practical terms. I will be making these beauties for my lunches.

Happy September, y'all.

This is Felix. He knows all about strength, balance, and annoying tricks his human thinks are hilarious.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Welcome back: a back to school list

3 - 20 pound bags of dog food
3 - 40 pound boxes of cat litter
2 - 15 pound bags of cat food
4 - bottles each of econo-size shampoo and conditioner
6 - toothbrushes, adult and child
4 - tubes of toothpaste
3 - bottles of foaming hand soap
96 - loads of laundry we now have enough soap for
100 - pounds of salt for the water softener
10 - bars of Allenbury's soap (for sensitive skin, natch)
18 - razors (five blades apiece! Lookout, leg hair!)
5 - pairs of new shoes, for three people
1 - batch of raspberry bran muffins
8 - little baggies of cut up red pepper and cucumber
3 - bottles of autumn-themed scent for the Lampe Berger
48 - unsweetened applesauce cups
8 - frozen single-serve microwave lunches (on sale!)
2 - batches of homemade soup stock, frozen
1- great big bag of size 8 kid clothes from Bonnie Togs

From where I'm standing (or, right now, sitting, exhausted) back-to-school is an all-out war on my peace of mind. My sabbatical is over, and I'm embarking on a new journey: a semester where instead of teaching, I'm preparing an online version of one of our core courses. And I'm now vice-president of our faculty association, which entails way more meetings than I thought it could. My daughter is starting first grade tomorrow morning, and she's a little anxious. My husband, among many other tasks, is the guy who manages everyone's SSHRC applications, so  this is the start of his INSANE BUSY SEASON.

Here's how I cope.

I make lists. Then I run errands.

The idea is to lay in stock from all those far-flung big box stores I hate to have to drive to, so that we don't have to drive there again until January. The heavy stuff, the annoying stuff, the essential stuff, the expensive stuff. The pet store. The softener salt. The heavy personal care items that prompt a crisis when you run out. The way I figure, we're all going to be busy and stressed out enough without having to dash out on an hour-long back-and-forth to buy toilet paper.

I'm prepared for academic armageddon, whether it come in the form of elementary school crisis or administrative brouhaha or massive pedagogical/technical snafu. No matter what happens, we'll have fresh sheets and enough toothbrushes. We'll sleep well and smell good, at least.

I hope.

Other than all that reading and course prep and new pencil business, how do you gird your loins (metaphorically speaking) for the back to school crush? Or is the return to regular academic programming, perhaps, the end rather than the beginning of chaos in your year?

Welcome back, readers -- let's get this party started.