Thursday, February 28, 2013

Income inequalities


Back at the beginning of February, my least favourite newspaper reported on UBC’s decision to give all tenure-track, female faculty members a 2 per cent raise. Part of the rationale in extending the raise to all women, and not only those identified as underpaid, was to streamline what would have been an otherwise time-consuming process of identifying individual cases of income inequity. It also, intentionally, makes a strong statement about persistent gender income inequity in academia. By applying the increase across the board, UBC effectively said that this is an issue about gender and about women, rather than reducing it to individual circumstance. 


This is an important statement to make given that the article appeared just days before a report published by the Conference Board of Canada, looking at “How Canada Performs: Society.” While Canada achieved a B grade overall, one of the key areas with only a C grade was the gender income gap. Here Canada ranked 11th out of 17 “peer countries,” and, although the gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, the C grade has remained steady since the 1980s. 

What was most striking to my eye in the Conference Board report was the chart near the bottom of the page detailing relative earnings of women and men by occupation. The data for this chart comes from 2010 and the discussion notes, “Unfortunately, the 2011 census did not gather data on income differences by gender and education.” I assume that this was a casualty of the Harper government’s decision to do away with the long-form census in 2011 but I don’t know this for certain (and I would welcome being corrected or confirmed in the comments). Such a move would be entirely consistent with the Harper government’s track record on gender and equality. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate out academic from other occupations, given the manner in which the information is presented. Nevertheless, I assume that professors come under the category of that includes education, placing us in a category that earns, on average, 70% of our male counterparts (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). 

Certainly, there is only so much that one can do with the data as presented here. For instance, I’m not going to assume that I’m only earning 70% of what the men in my department, at my rank, earn. That said this report does demonstrate that for as much as I would like to think that I am being paid equitably relative to my male counterparts, I might not be. More importantly, other women certainly are not. So where do the persistent gender-based income inequities come from? 


In my recent experience, it is abundantly clear to me the role that childbirth and parental leave (as they are termed here) directly affect women’s income at the U of A. I would very much welcome other examples because it doesn’t help to simply equate women’s experiences in academia with the choice of having children (women do not equal mothers). Obviously, gender inequity is not simply about this subcategory of women. 

Nevertheless, how does childbirth and parental leave translate into gender-based income inequality at the UofA? If you are a tenure-track faculty member, each year you have to submit a report detailing your research, teaching, and service work from July 1 to June 30. This annual report is then used as the basis to determine how much of a merit increase you will receive, over and above any across the board increases negotiated by our faculty association. I’m going to spare you the incredibly boring details of our increment process, suffice it to say that it’s a 3 point scale (but as far as I know, no one ever gets a 3), if you get 0s or a string of 0.5s, you’re in trouble, especially pre-tenure. So you aim for 1s or higher. 

Merit increments that you get early on in your career have the longest potential impact, therefore for women who go on childbirth leave (most of whom do so earlier in their career) if their merit increment in that year suffers, their salary over their career suffers with it. And it makes a difference when you are a woman giving birth. The period for which your pay is topped up is 15 weeks for childbirth leave, 10 weeks for parental leave. Each parent is eligible for parental leave and each parent is also eligible for additional unpaid leave (up to one year total) although in this time you only get EI, which if you have a mortgage or another child in daycare, is a recipe for financial disaster. But what all this means is that women giving birth to children, unsurprisingly, go on more leave than their partners and as a result are more likely to not teach in any given year, have limited service commitments (because much service work in a department or university is a year or longer commitment), or have less research output. Meaning they have less to report on come year-end. 

One response to this, still frequently articulated (as was seen in responses to the recent federal court decision regarding childcare) is that women and men who have children are making a choice, and if this choice means that they are not producing as much, then that is the penalty they pay for the choice that they have made. But this response fails to take into account that these people are still working, just as hard as their colleagues, for the portion of the year when they are not on leave. Yet, it becomes more difficult to quantify this work in the absence of clear service and teaching commitments. People bearing children should not be penalized for the fact that service and teaching commitments operate on a schedule that is rarely accommodating to the uncertainties of pregnancy and childbirth (e.g. premature babies, medical emergencies). I was permanently removed (without consultation) from a service position when I went on leave after the birth of my son, rather than simply having a colleague stand in for me to deal with the handful of responsibilities that had to be completed in the months I was on leave. I have colleagues who have been awarded 0 or 0.5 for work completed in a year when they were on maternity or parental leave, due in part to limited teaching or service work in the reporting years. 

There are ways in which our evaluation process attempts to accommodate this issue. If you are on leave for less than 6 months of the year, your performance for the year as a whole is extrapolated based on what you did in the time you were working. It’s crude math, but if you got x amount of work done in 6 months, that work is multiplied by 2 to provide a basis for evaluation for the year as a whole. This means of accommodating the issues created by leave does work for some women. 

But – and here’s one rub – if you’re on leave for more than 6 months in any given reporting year, there is no formula for extrapolation. In this case, you’re conceivably better off slacking off at work for the time that you are back, because there’s little to no assurance that you will be appropriately rewarded for what effort you do put in. Ultimately though, each year when you are awarded a 0 or a 0.5 translates into thousands of dollars less income then if you were awarded a 1, in the course of a 30-year career. 

And here’s the other rub: this problem has been recognized at the UofA for quite some time and a solution has even been proposed and apparently been approved by various levels of governance at the university (although not those that ultimately matter). That solution, from what I understand, is to give anyone on childbirth leave an automatic 1. Certainly, it would not solve the problem of gender-based income inequality in academia, as bearing children is not the only factor at work. But it is one factor at work. And an automatic 1 in our reporting system to recognize the inequities produced by childbirth leave is no more blunt an instrument than a 2% raise for all female faculty members.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The 11th hour of the 11th hour ...

In the humanities, especially, it's pretty easy to consider the academic life as an essentially solo act, punctuated by meetings we often don't want to go to, and classes we fuss over as our main chance to interact with human beings. But we're actually pretty deeply intertwingled with one another, and the fiction we tell ourselves otherwise can generate some pretty rotten effects.

Recently, I did a pretty rotten thing. I was on a committee of three people who'd portioned out a fraction of a load of work to each member, to be collated into the One Thing before the meeting. Well, the meeting was in the afternoon of the day chosen to consider the One Thing, and I did my part in the late morning. This was the 11th hour, if you will. But what I was thinking was: "I've still got 90 minutes before the meeting starts, and I'm done!"

Except I had to send my part to someone else to collate before the meeting, and he had asked to have it the day before. So what happened was my 11th hour () became the 11th hour of the 11th hour for the committee member who had to integrate my work into the whole. The third member of our group had got his work done in plenty of time, so at least it was just me who was pushing the edge, but still: while I was happily eating lunch congratulating myself on my timely completion of an onerous task, I had dropped a big last-minute job on someone else, who hadn't been expecting to use that 90 minutes to add my work into the group project.

By seeing myself as a solo agent, I conveniently forgot that nearly everything I do requires someone else, at some point, to help me out.

Consider these cases.

Have you ever been in the photocopier room on the first day of class? If your department is like any of those I've ever been a member of, there will be a steady parade of increasingly frazzled teachers photocopying enough copies of their syllabus to hand out in ... 30 minutes, two hours, tonight, 10 minutes. There will be a lineup. Tempers will fray. Paper will jam. People will be running their hands through their hair fairly violently while passive-aggressively harrumphing. But you see, the photocopier is a shared resource and even if my syllabus is technically done "in time" for the first class, it's hardly fair to expect sole use of the photocopier!

What about filling in those forms that your department might send, about naming which courses you want to teach, and roughly when and where? If I hand that back at the 11th hour, or, as is sometimes the case, beyond it, it probably means that scheduling officer, either a faculty member or staff, is going to have to stay at the office very very late, or work a weekend--because you can be sure I'm not the only one that left it until the very last possible moment. And what if I've inadvertently double-booked myself, or too many people have tried to get the same room at the same time? Is the deadline now impossible to make, unless someone exerts a heroic effort on my behalf?

Or those copy-edits I was meant to turn my attention to? Maybe I'll only be one day late on handing those in, but have I considered that the collection editors have their own deadline with the press that I've just made it harder for them to meet without panic or overtime? I know when I was working on the handbook I edit, once it left me it went to an editor, then back to me, then to a copy editor, then back to me, then to a proofreader, then back to me, then into production. It really became clear to me that there were a lot of people each counting on all of the others to get each part done in a timely way, or everyone else would have their own time compressed, then compressing further the time of the next person in the process, and so on.

There's a lot more of this going on in the academy than we realize.

The grant application has to be signed by your chair, and your dean, and the research office before it gets submitted. The administrative assistant has to check to completeness and the documentation of the yearly expense claims before forwarding them by a university-imposed deadline. A collaborator had booked a specific day our of her week to incorporate her material into your shared bibliography. The committee can't deliberate until every member has done their prep work.

I am, and you are, probably, a pretty serious procrastinator. I procrastinate on getting my syllabus finalized because I want the class to remain in the ideal state it can only occupy in my mind. I procrastinate on my writing because I find it terrifying. I procrastinate writing letters or peer reviews and answering complicated emails because they are a lot of work. I used to think the only person who was made to suffer under my last-minute regime was me. But that's not true at all: the admin staff get frazzled, my students are left confused, academic authors are made to wait for decisions on their manuscripts, my colleagues have their time wasted waiting for me.

I used to think, that is, that my not-optimal time management was my own problem, and if I could live with it, then, there's no problem. That's just not true. Not true at all.

I'm going to be thinking a lot harder about this problem of the 11th hour of the 11th hour, and change my own practices accordingly. Do you have any strategies? Do you have any more examples of the way the 11th hour problem can create a cascade of stress and panic?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On Rejection


Yesterday, I got a rejection letter.

Now, everyone on the academic job market gets rejection letters on a pretty regular basis. I’ve gotten my fair share. I used to save them, thinking that the pile I was amassing would be an instructive stack I could share with some protégé in my future tenure-track position, while saying things like, “see, I applied for lots of jobs and research funding I didn’t get, but, in the end, all that hard work paid off. You’ll make it, too; just stick with it.”

I stopped doing that a little while ago. Currently, I put my rejection letters straight into the paper shredder. I now prefer that immediate catharsis. I think it may have something to do with the fact that I’m starting to wonder if my fantasy T-T position will simply remain just that: a fantasy. There are a lot of wonderfully talented and smart folks out in the world looking for academic jobs… and those jobs are just not so easy to come by anymore. I don’t write this from a position of cynicism; clearly, this is a reality for the vast majority of early career academics, some of who are struggling to find academic work of any kind. This leads into a broader discussion of whether on not PhD programs can or should be revised to reflect this “new normal” that I’m not going to delve into more deeply, here, but feel free, readers, to comment.

Some rejection letters hurt more than others. The one that I received yesterday hit me harder than usual. I think that when one really invests time and energy and passion into an application, one can’t help but fall in love with the idea of getting that job or that nicely funded research opportunity. Who likes unrequited love? (Answer: nobody.)

An academic rejection letter can feel like the relationship version of the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech. Despite the many times I have been advised, and have given the advice, to not take it personally, academic rejection can still be a tough pill to swallow—and I’m just not sure how useful the advice to not take it personally really is. It feels like one essentially tells another person, “…that way you’re feeling? Yeah, just don’t feel that way.” Thanks!

The fact is, one can know a thing, intellectually (e.g. “I should not take this personally”), but that rarely changes the actual feeling of rejection. I think what does help are the tiny rituals that people develop around their rejection letters. That’s why, in my world, the blades of the paper shredder will be whirling later on today.

How do you deal with rejection? Do you save your letters? Burn them? How do you find catharsis?

Monday, February 25, 2013

On Community

Every Friday at four, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Coffee gets poured, baking gets passed around, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.

Each week, two of us send around a 20-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—law in the Western, English country house novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, Canadian underground comics—we’ve come to know each others' work well over the weeks and months we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize six fresh sets of eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed.

I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. My writing group and I belong to a larger PhD program—my cohort has nine people in it, and that's about average for us—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other--a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help one get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. In a profession where success is measured by both the quality and quantity of our writing, fostering community is positively an advantage.

I’m lucky in this. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate academic community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as an academic and as a person. And I’m very interested in hearing about the communities that you’ve created and entered that have shaped your academic life.

So tell me: what version of academic community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dealing with deadlines

Why, yes, I do have a deadline coming up quite soon. How did you know? Was the title of this post a dead giveaway? So, can you then help me think through dealing with impending deadlines? I'll lay out what I do, and you can share your habits, yes? Let's imagine we're dealing with an article. For publication. Moreover, it's not even from scratch, but you're actually transforming a conference presentation you've made before. So you've basically got half of it written, or at least structured in some way (more power to you if you can just ad-lib the whole thing at a conference, but see how there's a downside when it comes to re-working it? Yeah, we're not perfect. We can't all be.)

6 months before: I got *all* the time in the world. This is going to be the best article in the history of all articles. It's basically already written.

4 months before: Oh, yeah, that deadline is coming up. So is the term. But the latter is closer, and I have syllabi to prep. And assignments. Ooooh, something's up on Twitter. Better get to that. I'll start research soon. Right after the grant applications.

2 months before: Ok, time to get down to work. MLA search. More extended search. Get books from the library. Now I've got reading material, I better start replying to CFPs. How else am I going to write other articles? That one looks interesting. And this conference is in Europe. Yes, but it's Portugal in July. What was I working on again? Oh, yes, the essay topics for tomorrow. Right, no time like the present!

1.5 months before: I'm screwed! I basically found this other article which has the exact same argument I'm making, except it's more cogent, *and* it's already published. What to do? Did I mention how screwed I was? Is it too late to change my argument? Primary text? Topic? Why does this have to happen to me? This is the worst article in the history of all articles!

1 month before: Actually, that article I was moaning about a couple of weeks before? The one that derailed me? Totally not menacing. Not the same argument, not the same paradigm, not the same theory. In fact, no theory at all. Bonus! My take is still valid. And new! I better get to writing. But first, there's this stack of other articles I have to get through. One cannot be thorough enough in one's research. One cannot approach writing without having read everything there is to read on the topic. Isn't new research supposed to bring something new? How am I going to judge whether what I'm bringing is new if I haven't read Every. Single. Publication?

3 weeks before: I think I'm ready to start writing. Better make a list of all tasks still associated with this article first. That way, I can track my progress better, and give myself credit for all the work that goes into research. Because, really, we academics don't give ourselves enough credit, and then we fall into the same neoliberal trap of productivity, in which we measure our accomplishments only by the number of publications, words in a document, etc. Yes, a list should come first. Maybe right after my lesson plans for tomorrow. That way, I can have the whole rest of the day to work on the article. Oh, what's that? Time to get the kids? Already? Oh, well, tomorrow's another day. (Yes, platitudes will definitely get my article written!)

2 weeks before: Should I ask for an extension?

1.5 weeks before: Wow! 10 whole days to get this thing finished! A lifetime, practically! Multiple ones, if you're an ephemeral. What would it be like, to live just for one day? No articles to write, no papers to mark. Bliss. Except for the living for just one day part. Yeah, maybe not.

I totally did not procrasti-bake this vegan chocolate cake

1 week before: Ok, at this point, maybe this article will *not* be the best article in the history of all articles. You know what would is a more realistic wish? An article that is finished. To a certain extent. I mean, articles never feel like they're totally finished, right? But, at some point, you have to let go. It's not unlike a baby. Speaking of which, or whom...

1 day before: Ok, this thing still needs a conclusion. And maybe a better intro. And my thesis is still too wordy. Plus, the Works Cited is still incomplete. Ok, an all-nighter it is! I'm sure I'll be able to be completely lucid at 5 am when it comes time to proof-read. I mean, I'm a parent, so I'm trained to be lucid at all hours.

1 hour before: Of course I can read 6,000 words in one hour. Who couldn't? Especially of my own writing. I basically know this stuff by heart! Damn, I'm good! That turn of phrase! That elegant argumentation. Maybe not the best article in the history of *all* articles, but still: a contender! Actually, you know what? Strike that: the best article ever is the finished article you can submit on time! And... drumroll... send!

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Of course, that never happened to me. Ever. After all, I write every day. Yes, I do. And if it should have happened, it was never funny. Nope. And I always learned from it. So it never happened again. Like, ever. You know?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Violence against women is always someone else's problem

Violence against women is making headlines these days. The recent brutal murder of South African activist Reeva Steenkamp, allegedly at the hands of her famous boyfriend, Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius is currently the sensationalist news story of choice for most mainstream agencies. Notably, these discussions often draw our attention to the problem of systemic violence against women in South Africa, and include calls to rectify this tragic situation. Women in South Africa suffer violence too often at the hands of their partners, with apparently 3 women being murdered by their partners each day. Similar discussions of the problem of systemic violence against women circulated following the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in India. Despite having a mainstream media in which feminist perspectives tend not to be popular, the issue of systemic violence against women has somehow made it into media disocurses and is being acknolwedged as a significant problem that must be addressed.

The problem for me with this state of affairs is that all too often, violence against women is considered a problem that someone else has. Women in India and South Africa face daily violence, and it is those countries that are deemed to have a problem on their hands. I have, when making a feminist argument about systemic inequality to some of my more "worldly" friends, been reminded that I have it pretty good -- I don't actually know what gendered oppression is and Canadian women like me have nothing to complain about. Now, I will acknowledge that I am a very lucky person. I do not face daily violence. I am safe, comfortable, and healthy. I have a good education and a partner who is not violent. I may be lucky, but my experience is definitely not universal amongst Canadian women.

The day before the sensational Oscar Pistorious case hit the headlines, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the long-term, sustained, and systemic violence against aboriginal women in Northern BC at the hands of RCMP officers. This region includes the "Highway of Tears" where 18 women have gone missing since the late 1960s (this is the official number, the actual number of the missing may indeed be much higher). Despite the severity of the allegations -- that the RCMP have, far from simply not protecting the women in BC's north, in fact been participants in the violence that these women face -- this shocking news has not received the same calls for Canada to deal with its own issues of systemic violence against women. I find this frustrating and shocking, though admittedly all I know about media bias renders it also very predictable. I am appalled with how quickly the story about violence against aboriginal women in Canada was pushed from the headlines, to be replaced with an equally tragic, highly sensationalist story from a far away place, that we are perhaps more comfortable scrutinizing. South Africa is a very violent place, we will all willingly admit it. Can we not also open up a conversation about how violent some of the spaces in our own communities actually are, and that perhaps that needs to change as well? Violence against women is a global problem, we must all find ways to stop it, and it is definitely not just someone else's problem.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Drywalling is Good For an Essay

One of the hardest parts of being a student for me is the lack of measurable progress day to day in my work. Sure, the computer file grows larger and the word count at the bottom of the screen is higher  as the days wears on, but nothing seems more frustrating to me than devoting the greater part of my day to reading articles or picking away at my laptop and having nothing tangible to show for it at the end of the day. Don't get me wrong, I am completely satisfied when that final draft of a paper finally is printed, but there is nothing better than the fast and measurable progress of a mindless task.

In other words, I clean my house a lot when I have a paper to write.

Despite being raised in a conservative Mennonite family where the women have clearly defined roles, my parents instilled into me the idea that I was capable of anything and were careful not to label chores or activities as male or female, which I am grateful for.

Which is why, yesterday, I cast aside my laptop, reading and papers and embraced something more measurable, dusty and sweaty than paper crafting - hanging drywall at my sister's new house.


It was only in the realm of enjoyable for a few hours, but I returned to my paper with a dusty face and a clear head. 

Do any of you need to have tangible, measurable progress while you are working on an academic assignment? If so, what is your activity of choice?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Guest post: Academy and / as Activism?


G'morning, readers! We have a treat for you today: Emma Morgan-Thorp has written a guest post!
_________________________________

It seems like February is getting everybody down: technologies are failing, and everyone’s snowed under by both work and weather.  I was feeling tired and grumpy when I arrived at my ‘Indigenous History’ seminar the other week, and wishing I could burrow under my covers with a book instead. This seminar, though, is healing: six women around the table, five first year Masters students and our teacher Paula, talking through Indigenous ethics and methodologies while we tell stories about our families, our work, and the places we come from. And on this particular evening we were graced with a visit by the fabulous Manulani Meyer. As we went around the table introducing ourselves and our projects to her, Manulani challenged us each to explain how our work was making change in the world: What is your academic work giving back to the community you are researching? I was floored – first by the question, and then by the fact that no one had ever asked me that before.

Lately I’ve been struggling with whether I ought to be doing academic work at all: entering an Indigenous Studies department allowed me to sidestep uncomfortable processes of asking permission to learn from Indigenous elders, activists, and communities. I still have no idea how I would even go about making such requests. Working from the sterility of the classroom, no matter how humbly or respectfully, is a far cry from finding ways to educate myself that don’t rely on my membership in an exclusionary colonialist institution.

I’ve been finding myself thinking: I’ll learn about Indigenous Studies – along with my interlocking projects of feminism, performance theory, and theatre studies – this year in the MA, and then take my knowledge out into the world and find ways to work toward substantive change. First theory, then praxis. First I’ll build myself into an educated activist, and then I’ll act. But Manulani and Paula challenged us to do intellectual work that is practical. Academic production that works through ideas and builds strategies for substantive change.

I am blessed with revolutionary friends in activist, artistic, care-giving and food-growing communities who challenge my participation in this academic institution regularly. When I was home this winter, my mom gave me Jessica Yee Danforth’s Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism and told me how relieved she was that I had asked for it. A step, we laughed, toward throwing myself off the ‘great white phallus of the ivory tower’.

What Manulani affirmed is that intellectual work – in or out of the academy – can be practical activist work. That it has to be. That there is value in taking time to arm oneself with the lessons needed to do the best work possible, but that revolutionary work doesn’t wait while that happens.

During our mid-seminar break, my friend Erin and I were talking about how lucky we felt to be in such a warm community of women, talking about making change through peace and healing. The vulnerability and strength with which we were sharing our stories and questioning the work we’ve turned our lives toward shook and stabilized me simultaneously. This is, as Erin said to me, how we decolonize academia.

I’m still figuring out how best to work toward change, and certainly still negotiating the spaces I inhabit within academia and within an Indigenous Studies department.  I’ve been carrying with me the blissful energy and the ethical challenges that Manulani brought into our classroom, and as I work through these ideas, I remember what she said to us: “There is only one conversation happening on the planet: how can we love better?”

[Warm thanks to these brilliant women for their friendship and teachings.]

-Emma Morgan-Thorp

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A day at the office: uptime and productivity

Last week, I wrote about how very much work I get done--peacefully! in comfy pants! snuggling the animals!--when I work at home. I made some noises about how it was certainly important to be on campus, and that I was on campus an awful lot, but I did some complaining, really, about how working on campus compares unfavorably to working at home.

That was a little disingenuous, especially the part where I talked about getting interrupted for impromptu 20 minute meetings. The fact of the matter is, it's usually me interrupting other people for impromptu 20 minute meetings. Or chit-chat. And, if we're being perfectly honest, that 'work' is incredibly valuable to me, and I actually think we should all do more of it.

So this post is about the amazing work that gets done on my days in the office. I can break this into three main categories: chance meetings with colleagues; chance meetings with students; and stuff in my office. I'm leaving out the stuff that needs to get done: the scheduled meetings, the teaching. Everybody goes to campus for those things. I'm trying to think about reasons to stay on campus beyond those times, or go in when there's nothing compelling it.

Chance meetings with colleagues: There really is something to be said for the wisdom of the hallway. Since January, I've had chance encounters with colleagues that resulted in me:

  • learning salient facts about our grad program rules
  • figuring out why I'm stalling on developing my online course
  • getting the skinny, off-the-record, on a big initiative on campus
  • giving advice to someone on a classroom management issue
  • informing someone about new copyright rules and making her life easier
  • generally gossiping about our department, the profession, the institution in ways that make me feel connected and informed.
This is all very valuable. These encounters were all very informal and unplanned, but incredibly useful to me in pragmatic as well as psychological ways: I have more information now, and I also feel part of a community in ways I don't when I'm on sabbatical, say. I also feel like a good department citizen when I can help someone out with a bit of information or advice of my own.

Chance meetings with students: Some students just don't come to office hours--they teach or take class during that time, they don't come to campus that day, they just don't think to make the effort. These students are often roaming the halls, or in shared office spaces that front onto the main hallway. When I'm out bringing a form to the office or picking up my printing or grabbing a coffee, I often see these students. And I can initiate an interaction that's useful to both of us--did you find that book? do you need help rewriting that proposal? hey, don't you owe me a chapter? Sometimes the students wander past my open office door and just drop in. I like that. We get things done that might not otherwise get done. Again, because these are informal, unscheduled interactions, they're often perceived as lower stakes by the students, and thus make it easier for me to reach out to everyone in a class. I mostly run into graduate students this way, but I do encounter undergrads as well, particularly the undergrads who don't understand that most profs don't work in their campus offices, and who thus just take a flyer on dropping by. I'm glad when they do.

Stuff in my office: At home, my work gear is contained to one decorative rattan basket that tucks under my Ikea Poang chair. At the office, I've got probably about 50 linear feet of shelving, chock full of books and gear, and three filing cabinets with all my teaching notes, all my receipts, all my article printouts. I've got a printer and two network printers. The forms for travel claims are there. Letterhead. A photocopier. My mail. I also really use the floor of my office, to spread out the pages of a baggy draft, or to make giant piles of sorted research materials, or to collate student papers, or to organize the readings for one class for the entire term. The door locks. I can leave it in half-done disarray if I'm working on something big. Or I can keep it monastically tidy, an oasis with no dishwasher, no dog that needs walking, a Work Zone. (Also, my office has a humongous south-facing window that looks out over a bunch of trees. That's nice, too. Don't dismiss the importance of daylight and green stuff.)

So. There's a lot to be said for working in the office. I guess what makes the office or the house better or worse, finally, is the sense of agency I feel in where my time gets spent: it's about how scheduled I am, ultimately, not really about where I am working. 

This week, for example, I have exactly zero days where I can work at home, and it's making me angry and itchy: Monday is 3 hour grad class; Tuesday is two back to back meetings in my department that ran a little longer than three hours; Wednesday is one meeting, one recruiting event, one student visit; Thursday is office hours and a faculty association meeting; Friday is a job candidate visit. At least on a couple of those days, I have the morning I can keep to myself where I want to work and what I want to do, but most of those days are just bouncing from obligation to obligation. And that, at the end of the day, is the hard part.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On the Problem of Speaking for Others


This week, I had the opportunity to reread Linda Martín Alcoff’s famous essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” The essay, published in 1991 at the height of Identity Politics, is one of the most insightful interventions into the politics of who can speak for whom that I have ever encountered.

The question of who can, and who should, speak for whom is an enduring one within feminist thought. It comes up in research, teaching, and activist contexts. One of the main things that I take from Alcoff’s work is an attentiveness to a politics of responsibility and accountability. How does one fairly represent a community about which one is writing about, teaching about or with whom you’re doing activist work? This question is important, regardless of whether you claim membership in that community or not, but is particularly salient for identity groups that have seen their histories erased, distorted, or only partially represented within dominant culture.

This question has come up for me repeatedly in my own research on feminist magazines like BUST and Bitch. These are feminist texts, and yet I write in ways that are frequently critical of them. Sometimes, I worry sometimes that my criticism overrides what I see as the value of these texts. One of the challenges of academic work is how to do justice to work that one may be critical of in a way that isn’t dismissive.

Alcoff’s thinking on the topic of speaking of others emphasizes the importance of context. She demonstrates the ways in which a universalized position, such as “it is always a problem to speak for others” or “it is never a problem to speak for others,” is untenable within a framework of feminist ethics.

One of the ways in which Alcoff makes this point is through Foucault’s concept of the “rituals of speaking,” which emphasizes the ways in which speaking and writing always occur within social spaces. Speaking is not simply a matter of autonomous individual choice (this is why people who say, “just speak up if you have something to say!” really irritate me). Rather, the rituals of speaking call our attention to the contexts in which speaking and being heard are made possible.

Alcoff criticizes those who argue that speaking for others is always problematic, suggesting that this “retreat response” abdicates one’s responsibility to addressing injustice. But it is also worth noting that there are contexts in which stepping aside might be appropriate. I think of a panel discussion I attended last year on the Occupy movement, held in a large lecture hall. There were two microphones set up in the aisles for audience members to line up behind to ask questions. Each line had 6-8 people in it. There was one woman in line. When she got to the microphone, she stated that she had observed the gender disparity in who was lining up to speak, and encouraged other women to ask questions. Then, someone yelled from the audience, “and maybe some of the men could step back!” I found this intervention really fascinating, because it makes visible the ways in which these social spaces are shared spaces to which everyone is responsible. It’s not just about telling folks who are silent or quiet to “speak up.” Equally, or perhaps more importantly, social justice work is about creating the conditions that help make listening possible.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Faster Feminist Spotlight: Afua Cooper

It should come as no surprise that I have faith in words. I mean, I teach in a literature department. I have spent the better part of my life learning ways of seeing and being in the world through the written word, the spoken word, the language of bodies on stages or in various states of performance. I know words have power. I know that words spoken through bodies, through the hand holding a pen or the mouth speaking, have incredible and powerful potential. 

And yet. 

And yet I am still amazed, humbled, grateful, and staggered when I have the opportunity to see word artists at work. Afua Cooper is one such artist who makes my heart skip a beat, my mind reel, and my conscience snap to attention.

Dr. Afua Cooper is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, here in Halifax. She is a scholar, a poet, a performer. I first encountered her through her scholarship when I read The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of  Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. This historical biography not only tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave woman who was convicted and killed for the suspected arson that destroyed a large portion of Old Montreal, it tells one story from Canada's history of slavery. Cooper pulls Angelique from the darkness of the archives, and Angelique brings with her a portion of Canadian history that has been all but occluded from cultural memory and dominant historical narratives of the nation.  

Cooper is also an incredible poet. This past week I had the opportunity to see Cooper perform along with Shauntay Grant and Valerie Mason-John. These three women were performing their poetry in celebration of the launch of The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, which is edited by Mason-John and Kevan Anthony Cameron aka Scruffmouth. She performed one poem spoken from the voice of Angelique, and another that again drew from the archive and told of the last request of a former slave to the Governor General asking that he be sent back home to Africa. As Cooper performed the whole room seemed to hold its collective breath. 

Here is a video of Cooper at the 2008 Dub-Poetry Collective International. 




Friday, February 8, 2013

Feminist Flaunt: Celebrating Heather's Triumph

Dear Friends,

Allow me to invite you to celebrate our Editrix Emerita's, Heather Zwicker's, triumph in being named a 3M National Teaching Fellow, the highest undergraduate teaching accolade in Canada. While I haven't been Heather's undergraduate student, I will vouch for her pedagogical prowess and dedication, as former supervisee. All I can say for the 3Ms is that this decision has validated them in my and many of Heather's former and present students' eyes!

Congratulations, Heather!


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mission accomplished?


There has been a lot of media fanfare about the status of women in recent weeks. With the final episode of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, the New York Times featured an article “Tina Fey Signs Off, Broken Barriers Behind Her” in which Alessandra Stanley elaborates on the milestones Fey has reached, and the doors she has opened for other female comedians.
"When ’30 Rock’ had its premiere in 2006 Ms. Fey was that rare thing, a female writer starring in her own prime-time network show." – Alessandra Stanley
In Canada, we have our own little version of women’s liberation supposedly realized, with 5 provinces and 1 territory currently featuring a female Premier, a majority of Canadians are now governed by a women.
Kathleen Wynne
  • Kathleen Wynne (Lib) – Ontario 
  • Alison Redford (PC) – Alberta 
  • Kathy Dunderdale (PC) – Newfoundland and Labrador 
  • Christy Clark (Lib) – British Columbia 
  • Pauline Marois (PQ) – Quebec 
  • Eva Aariak – Nunavut
Politics, like comedy writing/production, has pretty much been a man’s game. So what should we make of the sudden proliferation of female leaders?
           
Is it time to be cautiously optimistic that talented women are not just breaking barriers, but changing the industries in which they work, permanently opening them up to a broader spectrum of participants? Is this it for the boys’ club?

While Stanley admits that other female comedians have also made it in the past (Lucille Ball, Carole Burnett, Roseanne Barr), she suggests that there is something different about the impact that Fey has had, having paved the way for other comedians like Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Whitney Cummings (Whitney; Two Broke Girls).

Has Tina Fey really broken the glass ceiling in television production, or is she just this generation’s Roseanne Barr? Maybe every generation gets one female performer that makes it through into a position of relative power. Overall numbers of women in comedy remain low (don’t believe me, go to a comedy club tonight and count them), so a handful of successful female comedians on television is perhaps proportional to their overall participation in the industry. In that case, until numbers increase overall, not much will change, no matter how successful individuals like Fey become.
Michaelle Jean

David Johnston

And what of our female politicians? There is a precedent in Canadian politics for women to be handed parties when they are imploding – for example, Kim Campbell for the post-Mulroney Progressive Conservatives. The argument could certainly be made that Kathleen Wynne has been handed a hopeless case.

I worry is that this random moment in which women happen to hold powerful positions will be taken as a sign of mission accomplished. We might believe equality has been won, even if in the coming years, overall numbers of women in positions of power don’t actually improve all that much. This week, as John Kerry took up the position of Secretary of State in the US (formerly held by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton), he joked that the question on everyone’s mind is “Can a man do this job?” We might have said the same thing a few years ago about Canada’s Governor General after both Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean proved very capable and popular in the position, but then current GG David Johnston looks a lot like every other accomplished, grey-haired, white-man to hold the position prior to 1999. 

Are we really going places fast? Is Clinton the next President? Or was this just a blip on the gender equality radar? Will it be back to business as usual?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A day at home: downtime as worktime

Greetings, internauts! I write to you from my white leather IKEA Poang chair, be-Croc'ed feet up on the footstool, cosy in my Waterloo track pants, my Lululemon thinking hoodie, and a big mug of tea. It's 5pm as I write this; I've been sitting here pretty much all day, except for that chunk of time I was reading on the couch so the dog could warm my feet up.

I've had just the most amazing day, frankly, and I wanted to share it:

  • 6:45-8:20: shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, roust child and animals
  • 8:20-9:05: take kid to bus, take dog for walk
  • 9:05-10:30: write conference proposal, reorganize 30 open Safari windows
  • 10:30-10:50: dancing break (Violent Femmes), empty dishwasher, call husband
  • 10:50-12:00: read intensely and rapidly through materials for summer workshop
  • 12:00-12:20: lunch, make latte
  • 12:20-2:00: read opening two chapters of new book in my exact area
  • 2:00-2:20: play piano
  • 2:20-4:00: intense blitz of organizing research notes and web clippings for project
  • 4:00-4:30: goof around with the dog, eat apple, make tea
  • 4:30-5:00: write research blog post for other blog
  • 5:00-now : work on this blog post
What's amazing is the kind of sustained focus I've been able to bring to a variety of important but awful tasks: reading, writing, databasing, etc. And how even though I've worked way hard on these really intense tasks, I don't feel burnt out. I am looking forward to my family coming home. I'm ready to talk to people again.

There's something really important about these days where I don't have to go to campus, that many of you probably feel, too. This is probably only the second or third day since new year's where I have not had at least one on-campus obligation to attend to. Being on campus every day, day in and day out, can be very productive in a lot of ways, but it's really unproductive in others. You know I hate the getting dressed and putting makeup on and doing the commute and trying to pack a lunch or find something edible on campus. And people see me and suddenly I have students lined up at my door, or someone pops in with something that wasn't urgent but since I'm around do I have twenty minutes? Then I have to commute home again. The clothes are itchy. I don't have a good reading chair.

I hear that it sounds whiny. But believe me, I am on campus a lot and for a lot more meetings than many people--I am a VP on our Faculty Association, and there's a LOT of meetings associated with that. I'm not complaining about that. What I want to do is stress the importance of the at-home days.

It's not really down time. It's a different, essential kind of work time.

My sister jokes about me working in my pyjamas. And essentially, I am. But it doesn't mean I'm not working hard. Arguably, the kinds of work I got done in my pyjamas are much more efficiently and competently accomplished in that attire and in this location than they would be at the office in my heels.

I guess that's what I want to say. In this era of professor accountability, and "room optimization" scheduling software that sees non-teaching days as a kind of luxury professors ought to count themselves lucky to have any of during the week, I strike out a blow for home work. Working at home means that I can intersperse really intense, exhausting brain work with a bit of downtime I really enjoy. I am physically comfortable, and I am psychically comfortable. I have my fridge and my dog and my cat. My latte machine. There are no students here, and no administrators. I have the freedom to give it 110% for 45 or 90 minutes at a time, then lie down on the floor with my feet up on the couch doing yoga breathing.

It matters. Without intense kinds of downtime there is no intense kind of worktime. Without my track pants, there is no book project. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dealing with February

I don't know about you, but I am getting pretty tired of winter.

 I know that it is important to muster up the courage to try to enjoy the cold, the frozen fingers, the stiff cars, but as a commuter, the horrible road conditions and slippery parking lots are an extra cause of anxiety and frustration as I tend to arrive later to things that I plan. I am not outside as much, and you better believe I have not been on top of taking my Vitamin D. Like many others, I feel my resolve to become a better, stronger, smarter, more engaged and interesting person slip by the wayside as I feel my way through the fog of winter.

This is where I try to work out a system to keep my resolutions for 2013 fresh, interesting and achievable. On a wickedly cold night over the Christmas holidays, I sat myself down and crafted a vision board of what I wanted 2013 to look like. Some things on my list is to finally learn how to use the fancy camera I received a couple Christmas's ago, to read more for pleasure, to run a marathon, etc.
A little patch of my board - the rip was caused by my car accident over the holidays and I felt compelled to leave it there to leave a dark overcast of possible doom looming over my plans. 
As I enter the second month of resolutions, I found I needed to make them quantifiable. Each month, I take a brief look at what I have done and make a plan for what I want to accomplish in February. Harnessing my slightly OCD compulsion for organization, I make a list of what I want to be done by the end of each month. [Nothing like self made homework].

Regardless, setting a system in place to achieve my goals helps me deal with winter monotony and reminds me that warmer months are ahead.

What are you doing to keep your goals in sight?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Faster Feminist Spotlight: M. Jacqui Alexander

It is February, and to my mind the best thing about this month -- a month my poetry professor once called the month with rue at its heart -- is the fact that a spotlight is cast upon the history, culture, and achievements of Black Canadians.* And while I am compelled by arguments made by scholars like Cecil Foster, who has stated that in a truly multicultural nation there would not be a need to single out individual cultures (because all cultures would be equally valued and celebrated) I want to cast a spotlight on some of the amazing and brilliant Black feminist thinkers in Canada who have fundamentally shifted my own thinking and research. Think of this as an opening; it is by no means a comprehensive list.

Today I want to cast the faster feminist spotlight on Professor M. Jacqui Alexander. I was first introduced to Alexander's work when I saw her speak at the Not Drowning But Waving: Women, Feminism, and the liberal arts conference at the University of Alberta. Of course, Alexander has been working much longer than I have been aware of her. Alexander is a foundational feminist researcher and writer in the field of transnational feminism. Her work brings together issues of race, gender, and class and thinks about how regulatory practices such as heteronormativity are brought to bear on marginalized communities. One of the things I find thrilling about her work is its ability to be positive and generative while simultaneously unflinching in its analysis of the functions and failures of the modern nation-state. Here is an example from her essay "Not Just Any (Body) Can Be a Citizen":

Why has the state marked these sexual inscriptions on my body? Why has the state focussed such a repressive and regressive gaze on me and people like me? These are some of the questions I seek to understand in this paper. I wish to use this moment to look back at the state, to reverse, subvert, and ultimately demystify that gaze by taking apart these racialized legislative gestures that have naturalized heterosexuality by criminalizing lesbian and other forms of non-procreative sex. It is crucial for us as feminists to understand the ways in which the state deploys power in this domain and the kinds of symbolic boundaries it draws around sexual difference, for these are the very boundaries around which its power coheres (Hall, 1994).

This short excerpt exemplifies what I love about Alexander's writing, and what was so formative for me as I began to read her work: it is that collective pronoun "us." For, while I do not share Alexander's experiences I am a feminist, and as such it is my responsibility to work with her to understand the forces that are brought to bear on her gendered, sexed, and racialized experience. And that -- responsibility to witness, work with, in solidarity with, and in collaboration with other humans -- is one of the responsibilities and privileges of working and living as a feminist, isn't it? Thank you, Dr. Alexander.
_____________
*It is also Black History month in the United States and the United Kingdom. I'm simply narrowing the focus to my own national context.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Enjoying winter

The windchill this week has been hovering around -35 C on average. People from other, warmer places, have been asking "Ok, but what's the real temperature? The one on the actual thermometer?" To which, honestly, I have been letting my inner bitch respond along the lines of "Why? 'Cause you want to make a statistic? The windchill *is* the real temperature. It shows that, upon exposure, your skin freezes in the same amount of time it would if in an environment with -35C temperature on the 'actual thermometer', but without any wind or humidity." Yeah, I'm not that proud of myself, either.

However, the irony is my craving to spend time outside. Maybe it's the forbidden fruit. Maybe I've lost all maturity. Maybe [gasp] I'm starting to like Edmonton winters. You know, even with the abysmal temperatures, which, truth be told, only happen on a handful of days (ok, maybe two handfuls; three, if it's a really bad winter), when the sun is shining, life is good. When the sun's not shining? Well, why don't we leave that topic for a summer day, ok?

The trick is, from I've been told and been able to ascertain myself, to get out often. In two ways: get out of the house and get out of town. While the latter might be a luxury, the former really holds the secret. Get out of the house. Properly dressed, of course. When you think you've put on enough clothes, put one more layer, and take an extra pair of mitts in your pockets. Take that touque, too, it's on the house.
Edmonton on a crisp sunny day in January

Why am I rambling on and on about the winter in Edmonton? I guess because enjoying winter in Edmonton is yet another version of making lemonade. (no, no, no, it's totally not because I'm obsessed with getting away from #yeg #winter). Winter, even of the bitterly cold variety, is still enjoyable when you have a good SAD lamp the time and the opportunity to get outside as much as possible. I envy people who ski, and I promise to turn that negative emotion into lemonade, by learning how to ski myself. Soon. Maybe next year when, you know, both kids would be able to stand on skis. And then I'll just envy them for picking it up in no time, while I waddle along, and take a gazillion falls. 

What's your version of middle-of-the-winter lemonade?