Thursday, June 26, 2014

Avoiding the Empathy Trap 2: Frank Talk About Moving

Today, I'm packing up my office. Soon, we'll have to start packing up our home. My partner and I have calculated that if we combine our individual moves since finishing high school this will be move number fifty-one for us. FIFTY-ONE. I have spent the last forty-five minutes culling books from my collection, because this time I am moving without a moving allowance (though luckily my partner has one with his new position). I have taken all the art off my office walls and piled it up on a filing cabinet. I can't even begin to tackle the paper that has accumulated over the last twelve months. Despite my best efforts at organization and downsizing it can't be denied: I have a lot of work-related stuff. And it has to go in boxes. All of it. Again.

Packing makes me angry. Moving makes me tired. What does any of this have to do with avoiding the empathy trap? Plenty. If you are an early career scholar, or a contract academic faculty member the imperative--both to pay the bills and to keep a foot in the door of academia--you probably have to move for work. You definitely have to think about moving and weigh whether or not you will move.

Let's not mince words: moving is hard work. It takes physical energy (are there boxes? Can we actually lift this thing? How do we tell the anxious dog it will be ok? Where the hell is the modem return place?) Moving also takes emotional energy, and that's the part people tend to forget when addressing work-related moves. There is a real desire to pass over the hard parts of moving and focus on new beginnings. And new beginnings are great, but newness doesn't always go hand in hand with ease and excitement and a clear path into what's next. Academics--especially early career academics-- aren't the only ones who move, but as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes, perpetual movement is the modern academic condition. That, friends, is worth pausing to think about for a moment.

One of the many things that I have written about over the years is moving. Four years ago, fresh off my move from Alberta to Nova Scotia, I wrote this post about the implicit imperative for graduate students to move for each degree. I realize now that when I wrote it I was writing from a position of a kind of myopia. I moved for all three of my degrees, and I did so because I wanted to move. I was able to move between countries, provinces, and landscapes with relative ease. Yes, it meant building new communities each time, yes, it meant haunting the liquor store for packing boxes over and over again. Ultimately, though, it was my choice and my privilege to move. I wasn't tied to a place, I am an only child, my parents were willing and able to visit me wherever. Was I privileged? Sure. Has moving a zillion times taught me some things? Yes. I know I can make a life wherever I go. I know I can pack a house in three days flat. I know how to forge routines until they feel like home. But the imperative to move, move, move has cost me too. I wasn't tied -- rooted -- to a place. I wager it has cost a lot of us, and I suspect it costs communities and universities a lot more that the institutions realize.

Over the last few years I have become more and more grounded in a particular place, a particular region of Canada. I have also met more and more people for whom place is sacred. I mean really, truly sacred. Moving from a place means severing daily ties to family (both blood and chosen), community, and the land. It means having to leave your home. It means having to leave your home.

Take a minute and think about the implications of that statement. Be careful not to misread it.

The imperative of moving for work is not a new one. I won't forget the first time I flew from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. It was a red eye flight and it stopped in Halifax before heading on to St. John's. It was full of people who were going home on furlough after working in Fort MacMurray on the rigs or on the Tar Sands. The woman next to me asked where I was from and when I hedged she asked why I was going to Nova Scotia. "For work," I said. I won't forget what she said next: you're lucky, she said. We're all working out west so that we can come home. There are a million different versions and experiences of people having to move for work. There are many ways in which moving can be good, can be positive, can be exciting, and, more simply, can be a way of paying the bills. But in academia--and especially in my disciplines that are in the Humanities--I wonder how well we are doing in thinking through what it means to reproduce a move-for-subsistence model.

So what's the take-away in this second post on avoiding the empty trap? It is this: on the quotidian level let's acknowledge that the nomadic imperative in academia means different things at different stages of the career. Moving as a guest lecturer or visiting professor does not mean the same thing as moving for a sustainable paycheque. Is it hard to change a system? Sure. But it won't happen if we don't talk about full range of issues.

Now, who wants to come over and help me pack?

3 comments:

  1. This is a perfectly timed post for me as I gear up for my own forthcoming move (only my twelfth since high school, so I've got nothing on you guys) and once again try to tell myself that this time I will do the kind of settling that I keep putting off... because what am I putting it off FOR? Being constantly on the go means never being able to rest, or nest -- it isn't worth investing in furniture when you're going to have to ship it all over the country -- and, in my case at least, consistently living in less-than-ideal circumstances because it just doesn't seem worth the effort and expense of living somewhere nice when you'll be there 1-2 years max.

    Living in Edmonton now I'm surrounded by people in similar, if not much more exacerbated, situations, people far from home who identify as diasporic because they cannot attain any kind of permanency here. But I also have some dear friends who arrived as nomadically as I did and have made the decision to make Edmonton their home, and I do feel some envy toward those people, toward the ease that must accompany saying "no more" to moving. My mobility is a privilege and a choice, not something that has been done to me in any meaningful way, which means that it will also be my choice to one day say my own "no more." And with every move that day seems to edge a little closer.

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  2. Cynthia Sau-Ling Wong once wrote that there are two types of contemporary nomads who move across borders: the elite and the very underprivileged. I used to have a job where I helped women in violent situations move to new lives...and I was always sad to move like 4 garbage bags of stuff. They were always moving, and not because they wanted to.

    I live between two places, and it's not because I want to...but I'm elite so I get to do that. It makes me appreciate where I live and its "placeness" even more. The hardest thing isn't packing: its the relationships I am always making and leaving behind. The older I get, the more difficult that is.

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  3. Moving is ranked up with divorce and the death of a loved one as the most stressful of human experiences. It's not a trivial thing. When I have nightmares, they are all about moving. I root hard wherever I hit the ground, and I find it incredibly emotionally taxing to uproot.

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