Thursday, March 28, 2013


I'm in a bind right now because of a missed deadline. Not my own. I'm commenting on a paper at a conference next week, but I only got the paper that I am supposed to respond to a couple of days ago, when I had expected it in mid-February. Under different circumstances, I might be able to produce a 10 minute talk with a week's notice. And, truth be told, under these circumstances I have to, whether I like it or not. But this particular week I also have to teach, return papers, sit on a candidacy exam, finish another presentation for the same conference, prepare a final assignment, go to a doctor's appointment, pack and get ready to leave and the rest of the usual stuff. 

And did I mention that it's a long weekend? Before my son was in daycare, a long weekend was just that, a longer than usual break from responding to email, or having to schedule meetings. But now a long weekend means no daycare on Friday or Monday - the two days I had anticipated, and needed, to finish all this work. 

Such is life and I will get the talk finished. In this particular instance, it was difficult to prepare the talk in advance -- given that it is supposed to be a response to the other paper. So I doubt that it will be the most thoughtful, well-researched piece of work I have ever produced. But, truth be told, I see little reason in being angry or frustrated given that, at this point, I can't change the situation. 

This situation is also far from the first missed deadline I've encountered in academia. I'm not strict with my students about deadlines: for major assignments I tell them that, within reason, so long as they contact me in advance of the deadline I will consider an extension. And in every class I have ever taught, even with that flexible policy, at least one student has missed a deadline.

The most egregious missed deadlines I've encountered have been when editing journals, issues, or books. Chasing down peer reviewers and revisions are the main reasons I can see, why there can be long delays in works seeing the published light of day. The most frustrating situation I found myself in was when I accepted a series of abstracts for a special issue of a journal and then the deadline for the completed paper came and went, with two of the seven contributors submitting nothing. I tried to contact each author repeatedly but never even got the courtesy of a response. 

And I'm far from innocent in all of this. I have missed deadlines because I misjudged how much work I was taking on; because of circumstances beyond my control (such as when I had my work computer stolen); or because I felt that it was worth taking extra time to complete something. 

What have I learned from all these missed deadlines? 

1) Remind students / contributors / colleagues that things are coming due. Repeat.

2) Don't miss deadlines. It throws everything off and reflects poorly on you. Sometimes it is more important that you show up then that you be the most brilliant belle at the ball. 

3) If you have to miss a deadline, contact the person to whom the work is due and let them know that you are going to be late and give them a realistic alternate deadline. And then don't beat yourself up about it. Sh** happens. 

On that note, I have a talk I have to go prepare. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hotel Living

Dateline: Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, DC, USA

Friends, I write to you from hotel-world. I'm in DC for the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association national conference. I got here yesterday afternoon. I have discovered that the conference program is over 400 pages long, and also that Langston Hughes used to work here as a busboy, and got his poems into the hands of a poet in the dining room of the restaurant here.

So it's not like home, that's for sure.

I wrote last spring around this time about the annual ritual of academic travel, and here I am back on the topic. Today I'm thinking about hotel living.

When I was a little kid, hotels meant elevators, long carpeted hallways for running silently down, restaurant meals, and having to share a bed with my sister while my dad watched the hockey game in the dark. Then I went a long time without staying in hotels because I didn't go anywhere, and once I did (backpacking through France) I was staying in hostels. Once I started travelling for conferences in my PhD, hotels were a daunting expense, a source of worry, a rare treat: could I stay somewhere off site, more cheaply? Would I find some one to room with? Should I alter my flights for fewer nights of stay? How would we split the bill? When I started working as an assistant professor, I had a real salary but a tiny travel allowance--I could afford to stay in hotels, but since my then-fiancé wasn't ever travelling with me, it felt like taking money from our household, since it all mostly got paid out of pocket.

Now, praise the funding gods, I have a grant. And my life is different too: with a kid and a cat and a dog and an executive faculty association position and graduate students to supervise and more intense teaching, now that I have the money, I often don't feel like I have the time to spare for a conference trip in March.

Hotels mean something different now again. I'm still tempted to run down the long hallways, and it is nice that the rooms are so very big, compared to what I'm used to. But what I'm most focused on lately is the desk. It turns out that what I do when I go to hotels now is get an awful lot of work done. Course prep, grading, catch up on my email, clean out my inbox, some research, a lot of service work, etc. It's very likely I'll get my grading backlog cleared up here in DC, 400 page conference program or not.

It's amazing but what happens is this: first, I get enough sleep; second, I have no chores; third, I get lonely. At home, the period between 6am and 9am is chaos, and when it's over, sometimes I feel like I need a nap. Then, I work all day (and my husband works all day, and my kid learns all day, and the cat and dog sleep all day, and something in the old house hits its final moments and konks out), and when we come home around 5:30, it's another 3 hours of chaos before I can sit on the couch with my love for a nice chat before I go to bed.

So if I remove the chaos from 6:00-9:00am, and the chaos from 5:30-8:30pm, I've just cleared up pretty much a whole work day worth of time and an incalculable amount of fuss and dashing and negotiating and cooking and dog-walking and calling the plumber. Last night, here at the hotel, I got three hours of work done after supper. Already this morning, I've been at it for over an hour. 

At this stage of the game, then, hotel living for me means a kind of work retreat. Like a meditation retreat, completely away from the world, refilling the tank, finding inner peace ... but with a lot more talking and typing.

What does hotel living mean to you?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dismantling Rape Culture

Last week, I was approached by a Globe and Mail books section editor to contribute reviews of three books that delve into rape culture from a feminist perspective. This invitation was spurred by the recent Steubenville rape case. The Ms. Foundation circulated this infographic last week that sums up much of the media coverage:

In the interest of responding to and fighting rape culture through media, it's important to create and circulate resources for folks to draw upon--resources that debunk myths about rape, offer sex-positive feminist perspectives on sex and sexualities, and link interpersonal and state/institutional violences.  

I’ve included the short reviews, here, for those interested in further reading. The original version is in the March 23 print edition of the Globe.

Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, eds. Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power
            and a World Without Rape. Forward by Margaret Cho. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008.

This collection of essays responds to rape culture by advocating for women’s rights to joyful sexual lives. The essays dismantle the victim-blaming discourses of rape culture and the notion that it’s women’s responsibility to not get raped, and instead advocate for holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. Readers will find essays, grouped thematically, that promote healthy sexual identities for youth; critique institutions regulate and violate women’s sexual autonomy; analyze the impact of rape culture on people of colour; and explore what sexual consent really means. The collection looks at male sexuality and presents queer-positive perspectives that reject sexual shaming. Written from a perspective that honours sexual healing and survival.

Jane Doe The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2005.

A woman known as Jane Doe tells her story of surviving rape and the high-profile battle she fought when suing the Toronto police for failing to alert the public of a serial rapist in her neighbourhood. This failure, Doe successfully argued in court, essentially used her as “bait” to attract the rapist. Doe uses her story to respond to and debunk common myths about rape and rape survivors. Doe satirizes the list of things that women are told to do to prevent being raped (e.g. don’t walk alone at night), arguing that these messages reinforce the myth that women who don’t act “perfectly” are responsible for their own rapes.

Andrea Smith Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Forward by Winona
            LaDuke. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005.

Women of colour are disproportionately targeted by sexual violence. Smith explores the links between interpersonal violence and state violence. She argues that we need to understand rape as a tool of not only patriarchal control, but also of racism and colonialism. Smith focuses on the effects of rape culture on native women and connects rape culture with the colonialist histories of residential schools and medical experimentation. The final part of the book focuses on alternative, community-based anti-violence strategies.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt--also the reason why I couldn't formulate a blog post last week--passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don't think I'm prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because "I practiced it a lot." She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that "we only become good at something if we practice it a lot." I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that's how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being "good at it" doesn't guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today's world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I'm not doing at home? I suppose it's critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to "think big!" "be creative!" "change the world!" but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous "paying the bills" "buying food," and "getting rid of that student debt"?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we--teachers, adults, educators, parents--empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn't solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

It's spring (and job hunting season)

Yesterday marked the first day of spring. As the snow continues to pile up around southern Ontario, and many other parts of the country are still experiencing winter storms, it probably isn't that obvious to most observers that spring is indeed upon us. Fortunately, I don't need flowers, or rain showers, or even calendars to know that spring is here. I know it, most of all, because the spring round of job postings are starting to seep out onto the listservs.

While the norm still seems to be for schools to post in the fall, the schools where I would most like to work tend to post jobs in the spring. I already know this, and so I have been watching carefully, waiting for the perfect job to pop up. They're like daffodils. Terrifying, anxiety inspiring daffodils. Okay, they aren't anything like daffodils.

This spring, there are jobs. There are even a few jobs in my research area. My intent was to work on an application this week, but somehow I wasn't able to bring myself to start writing. As much as I have been looking forward to this round of job postings, it is also a very anxious time. Co-blogger Margrit Talpalaru very eloquently wrote about this issue in her post last november, The cruelty of job applications. Job applications are indeed cruel. I remember the first perfect job I ever applied for. I spent countless hours looking over my application, the department webpage, the city map, the MLS listings, the jogging trails...everything. I believed that I could live and work in that place. As Margrit said last fall, "I simply have to be excited for a job that I apply for, not only for the mercenary reason of conveying it in a letter, but for the reality of having to move my family to a new location. I have to be able to imagine my kids growing up in that place, and I have to love it for this possibility."

Which brings me to this season's job applications. You see, I have gone and done something that is pretty much impossible to reconcile with academic life. It goes against every recommendation I have ever received and radically diminishes the likelihood that I will end up with one of those very few, very special, tenure track jobs. I've decided where I am going to live. I live here now. My partner has a good job. We're buying a house (a real fixer-upper). My employment status (and employability) may be precarious, but my daily existence will not. I refuse. I'm drawing a line in the sand. Well, actually, it's an imaginary line around a region on a map where I think I could work. The thing is, the "will go anywhere for work" model might be reasonable if you finish your PhD super young, have no partner or children, and get a job immediately upon completion, but if you're a straggler or, god forbid, actually have a family and responsibilities that can't just be moved across the country, or can't stand the thought of wandering from teaching contract to teaching contract - well what then?

I will apply for those jobs. I will try as hard as I can to make myself appear relevant, interesting, and above all else, the best candidate for the position. It really would be wonderful to get the job, but I know the odds are stacked firmly against me. Sometimes, job or no job, you have to just keep on living your life.

Here's to another job hunting season. May your applications be electronic more often than not, your reference letters glowing and on time, and your "perfect fit" just around the corner.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


It's very early Wednesday morning. My husband and daughter and I just came home yesterday evening from a funeral in North Bay. We found out on Friday that my husband's aunt had died, and hurriedly made arrangements to get there for the funeral. Parts of Friday were spent in making these arrangements: my husband secured permission from his boss to be out of the office on Monday and Tuesday, reset his voicemail and email away message, called family, organized a cat sitter. I called our daughter's school to let them know she wouldn't be there, got some luggage out of the attic, arranged for us to stay with my parents, arranged for the the dog to stay with my sister in Mississauga and how he and he crate were going to get there. I was going to miss my graduate class--I contacted them to let them know what to do in my absence. I emailed my chair and the graduate chair, to let them know I would be absent, and when I would be back. I tried to get out in front of my email. I booked extra office hours for my return.

Did I mention we were already committed to go to an out-of-town baby shower on Saturday? In Oshawa?

Beyond stress and grief, the last four days have been marked by a 14 to 17 hours in the car, packing and unpacking, scheduling and rescheduling, gassing up, packing snacks, charging the iPad, phoning people and being phoned and getting directions and ironing shirts and trying to remember names and sleeping in someone else's bed.

But it's today, Wednesday, in my bathrobe with my cup of coffee and my computer in front of me, that I'm going to burst into tears.

Compassionate leave and bereavement leave are wonderful. They are humane. But when you're gone, the work does not get done in your absence. When I am gone, my grad class meets without me, and when I come back to check my calendar, I see I can't hold all the office hours I want because I'm booked in a lot of meetings. And I can't catch up on my grading because those meetings have briefing notes, or I'm going to be leading them and need to prepare the meeting notes. And we have no food in the house, and my daughter's homework is not done, and I'm running out of underwear, and I have carrying $800 worth of insurance and honorarium cheques in the back pocket of my jeans for long enough that they're both stained blue because I can't get to the bank, and now the toilet seems to be leaking. And who is going to write this blog post? Grading! Prep! My new passport is at the postal outlet and I can't get there! What the hell are we going to have for supper tonight?

There's nothing particularly remarkable about my situation. There's nothing, really, that's even a little remarkable about it. We all have births and deaths in our families. We all have households (even if they just consist of ourselves) to maintain and to care for. We all have work to do, work that gets interrupted by everything else. And my husband and I are so lucky to have access to paid leave, lucky that my parents live where we were unexpectedly having to travel to, that they could do a lot of childcare this weekend and make our daughter feel like she was on a special vacation. We are not just completely ordinary, but luckier than most in our ordinariness. But the particular person who is me, right now, in my family and in my work, is overwhelmed. Even if this situation is perfectly ordinary, it feels perfectly unmanageable from my particular place in the universe, today.

We all feel like this, more or less, at the end of term, or in the middle of an unexpected life event. I don't know what to do about it, other than take some deep breaths, and try to tackle what needs doing with a little bit of patience and grace, as I write out yet more apologetic emails, as I race from meeting to meeting across the four corners of campus, as I lock the dog up in his crate again, rush my girl to the bus stop, dump half my coffee down the sink undrunk. I'll catch up, eventually, right?

How do you handle the unforeseen?

Monday, March 18, 2013

On Doubt

Last Monday I didn't write a post. I couldn't. The tank was empty. The well was dry. I had less than nothing to say, and so I said nothing. No big deal, I told myself. It is March. Everyone is busy. Readers will understand a missed post here and there. Your co-bloggers will get it. It is fine. And it is fine. The world doesn't stop if I -- or anyone else -- misses a post from time to time. But here is the thing: I missed a post not because I was tired for the first time. Goodness knows I have been tired for approximately the past five years. No, I missed a post because I am struggling with doubt. And despite my reticence to do so, I want to think through the function of doubt here.

Struggling with doubt over what? You may well ask.

I have written before -- and often -- about the affective bind of precarious employment. Most recently both Margrit and I have framed this feeling of inertia through Lauren Berlant's concept of cruel optimism. Berlant describes cruel optimism as one of the non-purgative affects that gets in the way of one's ability to move forward in a positive and fulfilling manner. It is a state of suspended agency. Indeed, I came to Berlant's notion of cruel optimism after having written a short piece on the importance of hope. My argument in that paper was that hope was crucial for the kinds of perseverance needed to survive precarious academic work.

More recently I wrote a companion piece to the hopeful paper that reframed the necessity for a particular kind of cynicism. Two years after the hopeful paper I found that the naivete of that earlier me had made room for a more critically-minded, still tenacious point of view. Moreover, though I still routinely struggle with the sense that being frank is risky when you're precariously employed, I found I was less swayed by the inner voice that whispered 'just smile and charge ahead.' And so it would make sense that my doubt stems from the impossibility of predicting the job market and my own place in it. And while I am certain that precarity influences my own recent experiences of doubt, I am less certain that it is the central cause.

No, I fear my sense of doubt comes from the larger and more esoteric worry: what if none of this work in the Academy matters? What if? What if?

Doubt is one of those wobbly feelings that can keep your feeling stuck. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It chips away at the foundation of your sense of self until you're left standing on a latticework of lace. Consider one of the final scenes in the 2008 film version of Doubt:

Look at the way Meryl Streep's character collapses under the weight of unknowing. There is a pulling in and away from the context of her work that reminds me of images of controlled demolition: when doubt takes hold the subject implodes, folds in on herself.

Yet, doubt also offers a critical position from which to question the status quo. It is a place from which to strategically position yourself against dominant discourses that flatten over the kinds of work that can -- and often does -- happen in engaged classrooms, ethical and urgent research projects, acts of academic magical thinking, and those gorgeous moments of collaboration. So I suppose I find myself wondering how to reframe the potentially paralyzing experience of doubt (of self doubt, of doubt about the academy and on and on) in a productive and potentially empowering position of careful unknowing. In other words, in a month that has seen (more) massive cuts to education (courage, my Albertan comrades!) and seen the status of women in Canada stagnate to name but a few instances of doubt-inducing events, how can we harness the productive questioning power of doubt without becoming over-wrought, apathetic, or withdrawn?

Strangely enough, as I was thinking about how to answer my own question I thought of Ndidi Onukwulu's version of "Maybe the Last Time." Do you know it? In her pacing, her gestural performance, and her whimsical completion of the song Onukwulu embodies the kind of critical unknowing and questioning that I'm thinking towards:

Thoughts? How do you think through your own experiences of professional doubt?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The sexual politics of meat modification

I was just speaking with a colleague earlier today about how there are things that I love about Edmonton and things that I hate about Edmonton. And this applies across the board – whether it has to do with Alberta politics, or local politics; or the character of the city itself; or the weather – you name it.

Feminist politics in the city, for instance, I’ve written about here before. But they go beyond the public library and the naming of city parks. Edmonton’s anti-rape campaign has been widely discussed online as a progressive effort to target rapists and change their behaviour rather than targeting the victims of sexual assault. Nevertheless, this campaign exists in the same city where a teenager is sexually assaulted, and rather than getting support and assistance, is sent to the overcrowded Remand Centre for the weekend. Although she finally did get to a hospital and get some support, she also concluded that she didn’t want to press charges because “How am I going to prove it, with the cops already mad at me, the way they are?” If you follow the link, you’ll see it’s a complicated story, but it nevertheless speaks to a very problematic culture around women and sexual assault – one that, at the very least, demands progressive campaigns like that noted above.

But my particular example for today is less appalling and tragic, but nevertheless part of Edmonton’s anti-woman urban landscape. For several months now, on Gateway Boulevard (the main drag in the centre of the city when you arrive from the south), there’s been a large billboard using a naked woman in a chef’s hat to advertise Halford’s Hide and Leather company, which appears to offer for sale a range of butcher supplies, leather, fur and craft supplies, and “animal damage control” products. 

This is but one of countless billboards with partially clothed (if the hat counts) women used to advertise a local business. Most advertise bars or restaurants. And while I don’t know how a partially clothed woman is essential to welcome you to “cowboy country” (not to mention that Edmonton is hardly cowboy country, but that’s a whole other matter), the connection drawn here between a naked woman and buying sausage, jerky, and leather making supplies is, on some levels, even more problematic.

Certainly, all I think about every time I drive past is Carol Adam’s Sexual Politics of Meat, and her persuasive argument that the oppression of women and animals is historically shared. While a sympathetic reader of the billboard might argue that the woman is the “professional” shopping for her meat-modification supplies, that seems pretty unlikely, given that no sensible person is going to operate their “Big Easy Infrared Turkey Fryer” or stuff their “Natural Hog Casings (Tubed)” in the nude. At least not if they have any concern for personal safety or sanitation. The lazy interpretation is that naked women draw attention, (it got mine after all, didn’t it – aha!) So it’s a successful ad and we, in our capitalist world, should celebrate the advertising acumen of Halford’s. Well perhaps, except (a) I rarely feel like celebrating capitalism and (b) the billboard wouldn’t work at all if there wasn’t some sense to the connection being drawn between the naked woman and the products for sale. And this sense lies in the, rarely so explicit, linking of women and animals as vulnerable, foolish creatures, each subordinate to men.

I can thank Edmonton that it offers me tangible, daily, and ridiculous examples of why I am a feminist. But in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather such billboards not pollute my urban landscape.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Academic Introversion

I was chatting with a friend recently about what I see as “commentary culture.” I think that there is an emerging social imperative to commentate on everything, particularly online. Anyway, I made my friend laugh with the following: “Sometimes, I just want to think about systemic oppression… by myself.”

You see, I am quiet and introverted person.

Last summer, I read the book Quiet. While I’m not into the author holding up people like Bill Gates to say, “Look! Quiet people make great business leaders!”, I do think her history of the shift to an extrovert culture is a useful one, and that her discussion of the ways in which quiet folks bring different skill sets to the table is valuable.

What does it mean to be an introverted academic? While I can usually put on a good show in my lectures, I make decompression time for myself afterwards. This usually means sitting in my office for at least 20 minutes not interacting with others right after class. I need that downtime. Being an introverted academic also means that I might need a little more time than others to make a decision, but that I will likely have a well-thought-out rationale for that decision once it’s been made.

What accommodations, if any, are we making for quiet students? Do we assess participation in ways that acknowledge different ways of being in the classroom? Do we accept that there may be a variety of reasons why students might not wish to speak in a classroom, and that this silence may not be due to a lack of interest in the material?

I’m not advocating for leaving us quiet folks alone, but I also want to complicate the discourse of speaking up and speaking out, of commentating. Are there ways that we can talk about speaking up and out that acknowledge multiple ways of being in the world and that also acknowledge that speaking up and out can be done in a variety of different ways?

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day: Happy?

Happy International Women's Day! How happy is it, really? If my self-selecting Facebook feed is to be believed, not excessively so. 
First, there was this bit of info, shared by my friend A.A. from UFCW:
Then, there was this other news on the gendered wage gap that K.D. posted from CUPE:
Finally, the Alberta budget came down yesterday, with news that higher education is getting a cut of 6.8%, the largest cut of all in this budget, while also resuscitating rhetoric about the need for research to serve industry purposes more closely.

So, a less-than-happy IWD by any standards. I will drown my sorrows by leeching energy from the Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Conference in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Alberta. 

And you? What are your worries this IWD and what do you do about them?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Notes from beyond the university

I have a confession to make: I am not exactly, at this precise moment, engaged with "the university." I raise this point because many of my recent posts have had nothing to do with working as a woman in the academy. This is in large part because I found other, more pressing things to talk about, but also because I don't necessarily feel much like a woman in the academy these days.

You see, as the very clever Aimée Morrison once put it, I am "between academic positions" at the moment. I am still doing research and writing like crazy, but I'm not teaching, not employed by an academic institution, not part of a research centre - I'm mostly just writing from home and quilting (seriously, there has been SO MUCH quilting...).

my latest hand sewn quilt top (48" x 60")
While I respect the mandate of Hook and Eye immensely (that is, to "write about the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system"), I've been struggling to come up with interesting things about academic life to discuss. I simply feel very disconnected from it right now. I'm not, strictly speaking, a woman "working in the Canadian university system."

I'm not complaining. Come month's end, I will have 0 essays to grade, and in mid-April I will actually celebrate my birthday rather than frantically read final exams. I'm lucky to have this time away. Its like a sabbatical, only it is a consequence of the precarious labour environment for sessional instructors, rather than a deserved research leave from a great job.

I'm struggling because my life has been defined by the university for a very long time. I went straight into university from high school, straight into a MA from undergrad, straight into a PhD from my MA, and now here I am - out. I haven't actually celebrated my birthday on (or near) my actual birthday for years! I mean, who has time for a birthday in mid-April!?!?

The issue is that grad students are socialized - by institutions, supervisors, and each other - to define themselves by their academic affiliations. There is no world outside of your academic world. If we don't have an institutional prospect in the form of a postdoc or a tenure track position waiting for us post-defense, we panic. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to write under my name right now?
                                          Danielle J. Deveau, PhD
                                          Amateur Lady Scholar and Quilt-Maker

Really and truly, I'm not complaining. My quilt is looking pretty awesome and I cook all the time. I have sent two articles off for review this term and have a couple more that I am diligently working on and hope to finish by the summer.

I'm getting some good work done.

I'm enjoying myself.

BUT... I do think that as fewer and fewer PhDs leave school and move directly into academic track jobs, we need to have a better strategy in place to bestow some kind of identity that is not grounded in our ability to acquire university letterhead.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The obviousness problem

Have you ever worked on a research project long enough and hard enough and deeply enough that you began to lose all perspective on it? It can happen with coursework papers, but normally most of us first experience the full weight of Research Vertigo when we write our dissertations. Research Vertigo can take several forms, but the one I'm thinking of right now is what I call "the obviousness problem."

What happens, usually, is this: you become the world's leading expert on (let's just use my own case) personal computer advertisements from the period 1981-1986. You spend a couple of years tracking down the canon of texts, and reading every scholarly book even minimally related to personal computing, or computing, or the 1980s. You hone the knife-edge of your critical capacity by reviewing all of postmodern and most of poststructuralist theory, with a special eye to feminist materialism. If you're like me, you probably put off writing the actual dissertation text in favor of excruciatingly detailed notes. When you get to the actual writing, you get stuck, because by this point it all seems ... sooooo .... obviouuuuussssss.

When I finally sat down to write the Real Dissertation, I pretty easily produced a couple of hundred pages, then nearly a hundred more. It was drafty and prolix, sure, but that's the way of all drafts, I think. I had so many ideas I wanted to disseminate. But then I started to edit.

It was about that time that I was struck by the obviousness problem. So immersed was I in the research, that everything I was writing began to seem ... obvious to me. It was naive. Unsophisticated. Not interesting. And then, like a late-stage hypothermia patient who in the very throes of freezing to death begins to take her clothes off because she feels too hot, I started cutting. Ugh--this insight is just obvious. Cut! This whole reading of Short Circuit is just so evident in the movie itself. Cut! Yuck--this bit about kitchen settings for personal computer ads is not even worth reminding people about. Cut!

I was in despair, and my dissertation was shrinking at an alarming rate. Luckily, my supervisor is the kind who will read many chapter drafts--Heather (Zwicker! Founding editrix and 3M Teaching Fellow!), to my amazement and consternation, kept telling me I was going too fast, that I needed to explain.

"But that's all so obvious!" I replied, doubtful, "I don't want to bore anyone by rehashing all that stuff that everyone already knows."

Eventually she brought me around to this: Just because it's obvious to me, doesn't mean it's obvious to anyone else.

Researching involves becoming the expert in what you want to write about. At the end you will probably know more about the topic than anyone. Since that's the case, you have to, as they say in Grade 1 math homework, "show your work."

So in this month of looming coursework deadlines and end-of-term dissertation writing milestones and the time of the making of detailed summer plans of research, let's take a pause to chant quietly to ourselves;

  • Just because it's obvious to me, doesn't mean it's obvious to anyone else
  • Remember to show my work.

Good? Have you ever fallen prey to the obviousness problem?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Exits Should Be as Classy as Entrances

I am in the process of quitting my job that I have worked at throughout university. It has been a fun little job with opportunities to travel, sharpen my skills and spend some time with like-minded people. The truth is, I was ready to quit. I was feeling cramped with the idea that I knew everything about my role and there wasn't much more I could do in the way of professional betterment for the role. And then a greater opportunity came up.

I admit, despite knowing I was ready, it was not and still continues to not be as smooth as I hoped it would be. By my very nature, I am a people-pleaser. I would rather make myself uncomfortable than impose on somebody else. I recently shared this with a friend and she quickly responded "That is because you are a female."

Because I am a female?

Society seems to celebrate this people-pleasing feature in females, and it would seem, young females.
One of the more memorable things a university professor ever said to me was to finish my sentences firmly, without lilting or raising it in a questioning tone that allows for people to assume that you have no idea what you are talking about and in some way, worth less.

I still battle with untangling my dreams and goals from the expectations of other people, but I can confidently say that it is not because I am female but because I am having these experiences for the first time. Disappointing people never gets easier, but when I think it is possible to focus less on that and more on what is necessary for you as a person.

I am more confident as I head into my new position that I will be more focused on what is necessary for me to feel balanced and when it comes to an end, not be apologetic, but grateful for opportunity.

What have your experiences been in leaving a job?
Any other people pleasers out there? What have you learned to assert what you need in a situation?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Unplugging: A Reading Week Retrospective

It is the first Monday back after reading week here on the East Coast, and this year something feels a bit different. This year -- for the first time since I was an undergraduate student -- I took a bit of a vacation. Moreover, not only did I get out of the country, out of my quotidian routines and stresses, and out of what has thus far proven to be an emotionally stressful and immensely busy winter term, I also got out of my technology habits. And the best part? I was travelling with my dear, dear girlfriend M. So on this grey Monday, the first Monday of the madness of March, and the Monday of International Women's Week, let me offer some reflections on unplugging and getting away with my best friend.

Step 1: Realizing I too deserve a break.

The first difficulty for me is always giving myself permissions to step away from work. We know that academic work is a treadmill, that it is on-going, that the profession rewards relentless labour. Indeed, I have written about how difficult I find it to even admit my own exhaustion given that I am in a limited term contract position, on the job market, and feeling the constant need to Do All The Things Perfectly! With A Smile! Or At Least A Sassy And Witty Retort! Never mind that I know balance is necessary. Never mind that I will preach the importance of taking time for yourself, or at least finding fifteen minutes a day to do something special that is just for you (even if it is eating a pretty sandwich). Nope. I know all these things are necessary and yet I have the most difficult time allowing myself to do them. So when a colleague mentioned to me that she was planning to take a vacation for reading week my first reaction was to congratulate her and then cringe, thinking of all the grading I was going to have to accomplish whilst huddling in cold, grey Halifax.

But then a little voice said "you could do that. You could go away too, you know." And so, I telephoned my bestie M., asked her if she would be willing to go with me, and lo, a few weeks later we had booked flights that would take us from Halifax to a beach in Cuba.

Step 2: Realizing that Cuba means no Internet. Realizing that the world goes on without needing the Internet.

When we decided to go to Cuba we did so for three simple reasons. 1) It was affordable 2) It was going to be hot 3) There are direct flights from Halifax. I immediately imagined reading for classes and research on the beach, doing all the yoga, and grading papers by the pool in the evening before dinner. I would spend time corresponding and researching when it was rainy. It was going to be great.

And then I realized that was foolish, because there is not easy or swift access to the Internet.

Now, though I am loath to admit it, I panicked. Just a bit. I mean, I feel I am super efficient because I am plugged in all the time. I have almost three hundred students this semester. I am coordinating a programme. I am on the job market (ie. am seeking job ads). I try to keep an active and informative online presence. HOW WOULD I SURVIVE WITHOUT THE INTERNET?!

Surely I would wither and die.

Or worse! Surely I would vanish. If I wasn't emailing and posting and tweeting and corresponding, then surely I would fall out of orbit.

I was wrong. So wrong. While I certainly went through a period of email and -- harder! -- texting withdrawal, ultimately I settled into myself with a sense of contentment and presence that was eroding before I left. I posted a vacation message, bought some writing paper, and wrote several letters. All of my conversations were either epistolary or embodied. And friends, I read an immense amount. Heck, I even graded papers. Eighty!

Step 3: Spend time with your women friends.

Cuba was hot. I wrote many letters. I accomplished many things. However, the best past of the entire trip was stealing a week of quality time to spend with my pal M.

We had such a fine time simply enjoying one another's company. We spent quiet time together. We took turns making space for the other to have alone time. We spent an inordinate amount of time cackling with glee -- and mostly we were gleeful at the fact of hanging out! We had serious conversations. We had ridiculous conversations. Once, when I was feeling extraordinarily sad (it has been a challenging winter for me) I stepped out onto our porch to have a quite and -- I thought -- secret weep. Wrong. After about ten minutes of sniffling alone M. came onto the porch, held my hand, and commenced reading to me about the history of asparagus cultivation. Then she painted my nails gold, gave me a hug, and asked "good to go?" And I was.

The most important things I realized over this vacation were these: I am worth taking care of, and I shall do it more often. And, my friendships are absolutely precious. My work defines a large part of who I am, but at the end of the day it is the people in my life who are the most important. I am grateful to M., and I am grateful to all of you, and I am so grateful to say that I have the good fortune of having many many many inspiring and wonderful and brilliant women in my life.

Now: bring it on, Monday.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: the pros and cons of self-reflexivity

Do you know that '80s hit from The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go? No. Well, indulge me. I swear I have a point, and it's coming up right after this musical break:

In the chorus, The Clash moan: "If I stay there will be trouble/If I go there will be double." What can I say, commitment is hard, you guys. However, I'm not here to dispense any relationship advice. Goodness help you if I start doing that! Instead, I want to talk about how hard it is to balance a healthy self-awareness with turning the self-reflexivity button off when it comes to writing.

A while ago, during one of our weekly Shut Up and Write! sessions my friends and I were talking about how important self-reflexivity is when it comes to writing. What do I mean by this awareness? Well, understanding what the writing process entails for one, and knowing what works for you personally. Things like:
- What helps you start writing (raise your hand if you've never despaired in front of the blank page or document. What's that? Crickets? I'm shocked!);
-What keeps you going, especially for larger projects;
- What helps you structure your project or map out components, issues, methods, etc.;
- How do you best keep track of research sources;
- What keeps you sane? Is it binge-writing? Is it a routine? Is it a combination? What's your balance?
- When do you write best? Morning, mid-afternoon, evening, night?
- What stars have to align for you to get in the zone? (23.2 degrees centigrade, 63.9 % humidity, and the like?)

Ideally, to be a professional writer, whether you're a student (under-/graduate), an academic, a freelancer, etc., you have to have answers to at least a few of those questions. If you do, you become a more efficient writer, and possibly a saner one. When you know what works for you, and what your ideal process is, you can also be flexible. Sometimes, I have to be at my desk at home. Especially when I start a project, I need the safety of my most familiar surroundings to map out the unknown (I also need a certain proximity to my refrigerator, but we'll leave those issues out of this, yes?). Other times, when I get stuck, I need to take my writing somewhere else.

On Tuesday, for example, I wrote in three different places: I started out at home, where I did one successful pomodoro, then started dilly-dallying and had lunch at 11 am. When the second pomodoro attempt produced nothing but the glazing of my eyes, I packed up and went to the library. I was good for one pomodoro there, but then two people decided to have a conversation (in a quiet room!), and that threw me off completely. I packed up again, and went to a coffee shop, where it turned out that what I needed was not silence, but the white noise of multiple conversations (some more annoying than others, especially when two young nurses talk about how they don't like addicts and alcoholics) and coffee machines and the like. On the bright side, I got my article written and sent! On the other side (I wouldn't really call it dark), I am aware of my own privilege: I can move around, have money for coffee shops, have access to a library, etc.

All this is nice and good: it's awesome to be brimming with self-awareness. However, and it's a big HOWEVER, self-awareness can and does kill my writing sometimes. Why did I have to move around so much on Tuesday? It's because I was constantly checking in on myself. The internal editor suddenly turned into Bob Costas, commenting on my progress in a most annoying way. Here I was, writing an innocent sentence, when suddenly, I'd hear--in my head--"And here she goes, ladies and gentlemen, another sentence written, another sentence closer to the bringing this whole thing home. Take a closer look at that turn of phrase: it's gotta be nearing the Olympic record for pretentiousness and obscurity. If nothing else, this one will certainly bring us into overtime."

Actually, I don't watch too much sports (yes, I know, one shocker after another, eh?), but that incessant checking in due to the anxiety of the impending deadline was sabotaging my productivity in a major way. And here is where The Clash come in: too much meta-analysis can paralyze, rather than benefit your writing process. Too many questions--especially while writing--can definitely impede it, bringing with them, even more anxiety, which throws us into a circle so vicious, it can be traumatic to the point of endless repetition. Writing as trauma. I think it's been said before.

So, where's the balance? Should I stay or should I go? What do you think?