Monday, December 14, 2015

Self-Care As Radical Feminist Praxis

Self-care as self-preservation. That's how Audre Lorde cast her own fierce fidelity to caring for herself, her feelings, and her thinking in the face of racism, misogyny, and, in her own body, cancer.

Self-care as feminism. That's how Sara Ahmed thinks through Audre Lorde's writing to address and give voice to the ways in which systemic oppressions act on bodies, accrete in spirits, and chip away at the soul. 

Self-care as feminism and community building. That's Ahmed thinking through Lorde, too. Self-care not as a kind of selfishness or self-obsession, but as a voicing and spacing; as a forging of voice and space for those voices that are delegitimized, devalued, effaced, and drowned out by racism, misogyny, and the isolationism of our neoliberal moment.

Self-care as radical feminist praxis. That's how I read Ahmed reading Lorde. Self-care as a drawing in, as a meditation, as a looking to yourself and, when you have time and room and are refueled, a looking to others; and attending. A being present.

Self-care not as narcissism, but as affirmation: I deserve to be in this world, this country, this city, this community, this institution, this classroom, this legislature, this street. 

Self-care as reorientation, of my own attention and my ability to attend to others.

Self-care as breath, writes Aimée, on the first of a series of posts we will be writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education's Vitae.

Self-care as radical feminist generosity. Self-care as world-making. Self-care as a crucial step in solidarity. 

Take care, readers. Take time. Take it in. Regroup. Gather, find or forge warmth. Be generous with yourselves and with others. There is so much feminist work to be done.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Planning for the Rest of the Winter


December, I'm okay with. Early January even. We've got the mad rush to the end of term, a few weeks to work from home in our pyjamas, the holidays, and then the dreaded (or beloved) January conference season. There's stuff to do, parties to go to, and the anticipation (at least for me) of the rituals of Christmas and of spending time with my family.

But the rest of the winter? Kind of dreading it already--the lack of light, everyone's general malaise, no big bright spot on the horizon to look forward to and plan toward, and a distinct lack of long weekends (although thank goodness for Family Day). Knowing that the post-holiday slump is on the horizon (we've got a series called "the January blues" for a reason), I'm making plans now that I'm hoping will make my winter less woeful. This is partly my Canadian take on the Danish concept of hygge, and partly an attempt to give myself  a reason to love, rather than tolerate, the winter. Here's what I'm planning, and some ideas for making this your very own winter wonderland:

  • cheap tickets to the ballet: there's not a bad seat in the theatre, and I love a good excuse to get dressed up, compare my own lack of coordination to the dancers', and drink champagne at intermission
  • snowshoeing in the city: Toronto Adventures organizes a whole bunch of outdoor activities in the city and around Southern Ontario that you don't need a car for (which is great, since we don't drive!)
  • hiking the ravine: as long as the stairs aren't iced over, I'm refusing to give up one of the biggest advantages of living where I do, which is being ten minutes from a massive network of ravine trails that make you feel like you're in the middle of the country
  • holiday movies at the local theatre: yes, I've seen Love, Actually a thousand times, but not on the big screen in plush seats with friends
  • skating!: I'm not a good skater (see lack of coordination above) but I love it anyway, and Toronto has a zillion free indoor and outdoor rinks
  • making better use of my library card: if I'm going to be stuck inside when the weather is bad, I'm going to use the time to best my last year's reading list. And it's even easier to do now that the library has an extensive collection of ebooks
  • actually using our fireplace: we've got a wee, formerly coal-burning, fireplace in our living room, and some winters I light it up maybe twice. While I'm not super comfortable with the implications for trees or the air of regularly building fires, the occasional one can't help but make me feel cozy and warm, and watching the flames is great meditative entertainment
  • dressing for the season: I'm thankful to no longer be a fourteen year old who privileges cool over being bloody cold. I love and feel good in all of my winter gear, which is great because I'll be walking the thirty minutes to and from work in all weathers. And at home, I've got a giant fleece robe, classic men's pyjamas, and fuzzy slippers that make me feel glad it's not July. 
  • perfecting my slow-cooker recipes: I've long been a slow-cooker skeptic, but two recent successes have made me reconsider. It was a total lifesaver to come home to a giant pot of chana masala on Tuesday night, and I'm going to try to keep the ball rolling with adaptations of some favourite meals, like beet bourguignon, pulled jackfruit sandwiches, and misr wot
What about you, dear readers? How do you make your winter days merry and bright? 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Certain slants of light: pre-solstice end of term magic

We renovated the back third of our house last year, and one of the main design drivers was "more / bigger / better windows." I'm keen on windows because I'm keen on natural light, as much of it as I can get, and then some. I'm prone to seasonal moodiness and sluggishness and self-medicate with sunshine.

We moved back home in the spring time, and as the hours of daylight grew longer, and the sun strode ever higher across the sky, I watched where the light landed, where it lingered, where it stayed. As spring moved in to summer, summer into fall, and now fall into winter, I've had to reacquaint myself with the light each time. This is a daily delight, a joy hard to express.

Emily Dickinson was a great watcher of light as well, writing "There's a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons-- / That oppresses like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes" and while in the past, I have tended to agree, I've changed my mind.

Summer light pounds straight down from the sky, creates a tiny patch of hot brilliance on the thresholds and the sills. Heat radiates out into the room; the light blinds. Winter light, diffuse and a little watery, reaches deep into my house, touching all those corners and angles that never seen direct sunlight from March to November.  There's something incredibly hopeful about a long sideways sunbeam reaching 20 feet past my kitchen door, stretching all the way into the dining, a patch of light long enough for me and the dog and the cat to lie down in, if we want. Warm but not hot, bright but not blinding.

So, dear Hook & Eye readers, as the night stretches ever further into the daytime, as your piles of grading get higher and your deadlines shorter, as your jackets get puffier and your gaze more inward, remember the winter light--not as strong or as strident, maybe, as it was in September, but softer, reaching more insistently but kindly into our rooms, gently warming, bright.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Thoughts On the Day After

What happens the day after we publicly remember? After the social media reminders and the public declarations, how do we continue to remember?

How does memory get turned into action?

How do acts of remembering, naming, and publicly declaring those names and memories reverberate into other days, thoughts, and actions?

Here's what I think about today: I think about what it might have felt like in 1989 to wake up to a world that said, in no uncertain terms, women are not people, that young women do not belonging classrooms.

I think about the women who have been murdered or disappeared.

I think about the lengths to which media will go to sustain the "lone shooter" fiction.

I think about empty desks in classrooms.

I think about them as I write my syllabi and work for inclusivity and diversity.

I think about them as I stand at the front of the classroom.

I think of them as I speak publicly about gender equity.

I think of them as I listen to other women speak and write and sing.

I think about things, and these women  on December sixth, and I think of them on December seventh, and on December eighth. I think about them every day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How to have fun at parties

It gets dark just after 4:30; the ground is white with piles of grading. Tis the season--and this season brings with it, for many academics, a big department-sponsored holiday event. It's my favorite event of the year.

This is post is about how to have fun at that party. (But not too much fun.) This post is directed at graduate students, plus-ones, new faculty, or others whose roles have changed. I'm going to assume some of you are nervous about this event, and I'm going to assume you want to know what it would take to "fit in." If you want to stand out, that is your right. Hey, I used to wear ripped fishnets to parties. As a shirt. Still, the holiday party is a social genre with general rules that you might not know. Knowledge is power. Use yours deliberately. Bon courage!

My husband and I were sprawled on the couch last night, drinking wine, looking at the tree, and trying to figure out where we're going to put 73 pairs of wet guest boots next Friday when we figured out I've been to somewhere between 15 and 18 of these shindigs, at three different universities. We have hosted at our house three, or maybe four, times. So I have a witnessed and experienced a lot. And I'm going to share.



Where and when and what?

Many departments have holiday parties. These might be at lunchtime, in the department common room, with two platters of shortbreads from the grocery store, and coffee in an urn. Or it might be a catered lunch at the University Club for faculty members only. The grad students might formally or informally put on a house party or pub crawl. There might be a house party at the home of a faculty member, inviting graduate students and faculty members and staff.

Many of your decisions will be based on what kind of event your department hosts, and you will glean most of this information from the invitation. The invitation will tell you where and when and what. It will tell you how to RSVP. It will tell you if you can bring a plus-one. It will tell you if you are expected to bring food, or alcohol.

But if you're in a new department, the invitation can seem distressingly vague and confusing. The invitation won't tell you what to wear, or if people will be drinking and how much, and how many people usually go, and if grad students are REALLY welcome, or if it's any fun.

Tip for grads: use the whisper network. Ask other, more senior grads about the party. Do people dress up? Is it fun? Am I expected to go to this, or am I expected to politely decline. Extra tip: ask several people, and average their responses. And then RSVP by the required date. This is non-negotiable.

Tip for faculty: put as much information in the invitation as possible, so that new department members can make informed choices. If you really want people to come, reach out more than once, and be actually friendly about it. It matters.

Tip for faculty: be inclusive. Flag your event as family friendly, queer friendly, teetotaller friendly, and multicultural. Reach out to invitees who might not feel, perhaps, vigorously hailed by the invitation and assure them they are welcome and work to make them feel so.


Preparing and Arriving

Arrive well prepared and confident by doing your advance research--knowing what kind of event you're attending will go a long way to helping you decide what to wear and what to bring and how long to stay and how to behave. If you're shy or nervous, arrange to arrive and leave with a buddy.

A department common room party with drop in hours is the most casual. People will appreciate if you arrive near the beginning, because no one ever wants to be the first one there and so the first half hour can be agonizingly empty. Arrange to arrive with a friend or in a group. Be sure to smile and be friendly to the poor sap who had to organize this and who is standing and grinning nervously in front of 700 cookies with no one eating them. Your collegiality will be gratefully remembered.

A lunch or dinner off campus is more formal: you absolutely MUST RSVP for this in advance, and show up precisely on time. There is money involved. Find out if people tend to dress a little nicer for this event, and match that. It will be easier if you don't have to bring 40 pounds of grading in two grocery bags that you have to try to stow under the table, but it is sometimes unavoidable. If there is a coat check, use it.

A house party is both formal and informal. They can be the hardest to gauge. These are evening events, that usually have some catering arranged, and often drinking will be permitted. Arrive as close to the start-time as you can manage, and leave by the stated end time. Again, find out from others how people tend to dress, make your own choices accordingly. Please take off your shoes--bring shoes with you to wear in the house, if it's crucial to your outfit. The "coat check" can be chaotic at house parties. Try not to bring giant or multiple bags of things, and always stuff your hat and mitts and scarf into the sleeve of your coat, because it's going on a pile of 70 other coats in someone's guest room and I can guarantee they don't want to dig through it with you at 11pm because your one green mini glove cannot be found.


What to Bring

Invitations can be very vague. Sometimes, it won't indicate that you have to pay for your own restaurant meal. Sometimes it will be vague on the question of alcohol. Often it will ask you to bring something. Assuage anxiety and avoid embarrassment by resolving any vague details into concrete information. Ask the party organizer, or the department support staff. They will appreciate your desire to do the right thing and happily let you know what's up.

Tip: be a good guest and never arrive empty-handed. The most informal common room events require you to explicitly thank the organizer, and perhaps offer a card to the staff members who've put their time into putting it on. A lunch requires you to pay in advance by the deadline as specified, or to have sufficient funds in the right form (cheque or cash) to kick into the kitty at the event. A potluck requires you to sign up by the deadline, and to bring what you promised, before the start of the party. A catered house party requires very little of you, but you must bring something, as you would to any party: a bottle of wine, a box of shortbreads, something people can share.

Fun story: a bunch of years ago, we hosted the party and were agog at the party's end as one very drunk grad student rifled around on the drinks table, before grabbing an unopened bottle of wine from among the many, many empty ones. "Got it!" they slurred, "It didn't get opened." And they took it. Don't do that. You've clearly drunk whatever everyone else brought, and that unopened wine is what we're probably going to drink tomorrow morning at 6am as we begin a full day of cleaning up the house.


How to Behave

This is a work event, finally. A party is a party, of course, except when it's a work sponsored party, when it's still a party but you have to remember that you are among peers who will write you reference letters. Awkward.

Do: Be friendly and polite. Try to speak to many different people. Ask them about their holiday plans, or what TV shows they watch, or how their grading is going. This is a great opportunity to get to know grad students you pass in the halls, or to get on speaking terms with faculty members you've only seen on the department web page. Aim for light topics, and perhaps a conversation will develop that is more weighty from there, but perhaps people just want to talk about the new Star Wars movie.

Do: Be chill. No one is using the department party as a snare to lure students so that we may harrass them about dissertation chapters or final papers. Please believe me when I say, as a faculty member, that the last thing I want is to talk to you about your revision schedule. I don't want to think about that stuff on Friday night either. Please do not worry that all your profs are judging you and thinking about your last presentation or why your language requirement is not yet complete. We're really, really not.

Don't: Let it all hang out. Perhaps your department persona is a carefully crafted construct, with elbow patches and deference and exquisitely turned phrases. Perhaps once you get home, you shout obscene things at your television while blasting Wagner and nursing grievances against "those idiots in the real world." I suggest to you that the department party is a space more akin to the department than your apartment. Everyone is less formal at parties, as the boundaries and strictures of the workplace loosen. A little. Not all the way.

True story. Perhaps you only tolerate your committee through gritted teeth. Your committee members give you contradictory advice, and only six months after getting your draft, and you don't think they are going to help you on the job market because they don't seem to know anybody. Perhaps drunkenly telling this to everyone at the party is not the wise choice, particularly if your entire committee is within six feet of you, and trying to pretend they don't hear you.


How to drink

Moderately. If it's that kind of party. At a restaurant event, see what the hosts and senior people order before you choose what to drink. Model your behaviour on that of the hosts. At a catered event where you are provided with drink tickets, the number of tickets is a clue.

House parties are tougher to navigate. Many of us drink to quell our nerves. And many parties with younger people feature drunken conviviality. Most parties with older people are more characterized by a light buzz. Aim for the latter, at the most, rather than the former. It is a work party, not a rager. Do not pre-party. Do not chug. Do not, dear sweet merciful Celestia, do shots.

Don't: get blind drunk. I have never been to a department event where alcohol was served where there was not a wildly inappropriately drunk student, and sometimes, faculty member. People remember this. We do not trust the professionalism and good judgement of people who get wasted at work events. Academic life features a lot of these supposed to be fun but not THAT fun events with some drinking but not THAT much drinking and it's important that you demonstrate to your colleagues that you can handle these situations.

Don't: quiz other people about what they're drinking. There are a lot of reasons people don't drink alcohol, and none of them are your business. Also don't push alcohol on people who don't want it.

Tip for hosts: Always provide festive, fun, and appealing non-alcoholic drinks and make non-drinkers feel welcome and supported even at events where alcohol is served. If the even is non-alcoholic, make sure everyone knows.

True story: That extremely drunk grad student who fell off the porch at the one party lo these many years ago, and wouldn't get into the cab that concerned fellow students called for them. Many people are still talking about that, years and years and years later, whenever this scholar's name is mentioned. Do not be that scholar.



How to have fun

I used to find these parties really awkward. I didn't know who to talk to, or how long to stay, or if I should drink, or what to wear. Long years of practice mean I'm a lot more comfortable, and I actually have fun. This is a nice opportunity to engage with other students and faculty as human beings. It's nice. I hope you can enjoy it, too.

video


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I am scared, and angry, and here is a scared and angry rant.

I know I probably shouldn't be, but I am scared. When I crossed the border into Canada over American Thanksgiving last week to spend a weekend on the lake with my family, I knew my chances of not dying in a sudden mass shooting motivated by systemic racism and/or sexism increased dramatically. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, so far in 2015 there have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S., already up from 2014's total of 336, and numbering more than one a day. Many of these have been on university campuses, and gun watches and threats are becoming more ubiquitous: some of my Facebook friends have experienced gun threats on their campuses, causing campus closures or the horrible experience of holding class anyway, knowing you shouldn't let domestic terrorism get to you but not quite sure how to unthink those thoughts. As I'm writing this on Mon. Nov. 30, the University of Chicago is shut down due to a gun threat. Grade schools now include mandatory emergency procedure training to prepare for the event of a mass shooting.

The most recent domestic terrorist attack has targeted Planned Parenthood, an essential health care service for low-income women who don't have many options or choices when dealing with their own bodies within an otherwise corrupt, inadequate, and unjust health care system. While this attack stands as the natural extension of right-wing conservative pro-gun and pro-life rhetoric (as this brilliant Facebook post summarizes), tweets like this one still emerge, from Gov. Mike Huckabee, twisting the event around inside itself and somehow positioning the pro-lifers as the victims.

Meanwhile, since the Paris Attacks, Muslims all around the world have been forced to dissociate themselves from the extremist group some are arguing (to little effect, it seems) should be called Daesh, in order to further distance them from the peaceful Islamic majority. Yet as this satirical article observes, Christians are never called upon to account for or divorce their practices from terrorists like Robert Lewis Dear, who regardless of his personal convictions is part of a predominantly white Christian power structure which makes it possible to view women's exercise of agency over their own bodies (sometimes after becoming victimized and raped) as an evil that should be squelched out from the world, perhaps with guns. American white men can be trusted with guns, the reasoning goes, but Muslims cannot, which is one of the reasons we should not let Syrian refugees into the country--because ammunition is too freely available here, and most Muslims are probably terrorists, unlike white Americans who are peaceful and never commit senseless acts of violence. We may as well follow the suggestion of the current frontrunner for Republican presidential candidate, recently featured as the host on America's most popular and longstanding weekly comedy show, and create a database of all Muslims in the country, tracking their movements and banning them from access to guns. There was another time in history when a people-group was tagged and tracked.

To add to all of this domestic terrorism, violent misogyny, and downright fascism by prominent political leaders in the States, student protesters demanding equality and respect for people of all colours on university campuses after a series of overtly bigoted and racist acts--including at my home institution of Fordham University--are being shot at during peaceful protests, again by white supremicists who are most certainly the same kind of people who would vote Trump for President, who laugh when he mocks those with disabilities and shrug off accusations of racism with xenophobic comments about how bad the economic conditions are in this country. Because they are, that is true. And after the Paris attacks, in response to #blacklivesmatter actions continuing to grow around the countries, other high-profile bigots say stuff like this--


--and receive 900 likes and over 700 RTs for an idea that completely obliterates the legitimacy of those who are always already disadvantaged before they step foot on campus, let alone enter the work force. And, back on my home turf, white-power chants are heard in Fordham dormitory housing situated in the low-income, black and Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. And female students whose cab drivers attempt to rape them are denigrated as ungrateful liars and subjected to interrogation about the state of their mental health.

I care so much about all these issues, and I want my students to care too, to be active and step outside the classroom to voice their dissatisfaction within an increasingly terrifying political climate. But I know my students won't all be on the same page as I am (let's not forget those white power chants), and I've witnessed what happens to leftist feminist professors in student evaluations, upon which the future of my academic career depends.

And last week, when I attended a protest at Washington Square Park expressing solidarity with the protestor shootings in Minneapolis and the police killing of unarmed 24-yo Jamar Clark, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of fear for my own safety. Perhaps this is an irrational response, perhaps my chances of being shot in this city of eight million people is infinitesimal, but as we were chanting and waving flags, I was keeping watch over my shoulder, I was jittery.

Photo by author from Nov. 25 Wash Sq Park protest

Terrorism in the United States is working, and while I in no way mean to belittle analogous problems faced by Canada, still sometimes I find myself gazing longingly north...

Monday, November 30, 2015

#inclusivesyllabus

Opening Questions

What would it take to start a movement in which every new course proposal aimed for inclusivity and diversity?

What would it take to have sustained conversations about diversity and inclusivity in course development and delivery?

What would it look like if every required course syllabus was regularly reexamined with an eye for inclusivity and diversity?

What would be possible if suggestions like these weren't met with raised hackles or self-defensive positioning?

What would first-year courses look like if each syllabus was designed to deliver introductory content and inclusive and diverse methodologies?

What would department meetings look like if diversity was an agreed-upon requirement and practice for teaching and learning?

What would you change about the syllabi you're teaching this semester, were you to do a gender audit or an accounting for diversity of authors?

Do these seem like impossible questions to answer? Do they seem all too familiar?

The Context

Last week as I was grading procrastinating, I stumbled upon something very exciting happening on Aimée's Facebook wall. An amazing discussion was unfolding about the need for, well, more public discussions about how we teachers replicate our own knowledge, and in so doing, unwittingly replicate our own biases. Without reproducing the discussion in full here, the gist was this: despite it being *shrug, mic drop* 2015, syllabi are, for the most part, remarkably lacking in inclusivity and diversity. Why?

Once we are in a position to be hireable to stand at the front of a classroom and teach, presumably we have developed a degree of expertise. Expertise may be in the content of your research, or in your learned ability to structure compelling lecture-techniques to deliver content. You may be an expert at walking into the room and guiding discussion with no notes. But none of us are wholly expert in all things. That belies the definition of what an expert is. And so we are, as teachers, both able to stand tall in our own areas of expertise and, I should hope, recognize where we each, all of us, have room for improvement. For consultation. For collaboration and learning. Right?

Uh. Maybe not, eh?

Maybe collaborative discussion is happening around learning outcomes and syllabus development in your department, and then again, maybe not so much. Maybe not at all? Certainly, not enough.

As I watched the conversation unfold it became clear that while there may be a deep desire for meaningful and sustained conversations and practices around creating inclusive and diverse syllabi, most of the people involved in the conversation were not seeing that in their own departments. But rather than fall into frustrated silences the people Aimée had a suggestion: why not start a discussion and collaborative brainstorming/resource-sharing movement on Twitter?

This reminds me of another version of Marcia Chatelaine's #FergusonSyllabus, which used Twitter first as a call to action in the classroom, and then as a collaborative brainstorming session about how to facilitate meaningful discussions about racism in America in a variety of learning contexts.

This suggestion also makes me think of the shadow syllabus.

So let's get to it, shall we?

#inclusivesyllabus

This is the hashtag Aimée has devised, and we're getting started today!

If you are interested in thinking through and working to build inclusive and diverse syllabi for your courses next term, search #inclusivesyllabus

If you are an expert in building inclusive and diverse syllabi in your field, share your process #inclusivesyllabus

If you think that your field/period/genre/methodology doesn't allow for inclusivity and diversity, try thinking that through #inclusivesyllabus

See you there!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Did I Not Notice I'd Become a Writer?

As I do every weekday morning, I'm sitting at my little desk tucked into the corner of our spare room, writing. I wake up at 5:30 and write until about 7:45, and then I get ready for work. The soundtrack to my writing is my partner's deep breathing upstairs--he won't wake up for awhile yet--and my cat loudly wondering why I don't come play with him. I don't have to worry about any small people waking up to disrupt me. I just have to worry about getting my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. 

I don't keep track of how many pages I produce per day, but I do keep track of how many days of the week my butt gets in the chair. I'm a religious (albeit very idiosyncratic) bullet journaller, and writing is the first thing on my list every day. And that consistency is really helpful. In the last two weeks, I've submitted a chapter, gotten back (and completed) the revisions on another, and made progress on a third. My committee is really happy with the project, and so am I. I look forward to my writing dates with myself. Despite being entirely happy with my choice to become an academic administrator rather than an academic, I love the two hours a day that I get to be a researcher and a writer. I also love that that time has finite limits, and I think that's what makes the difference. 

I am, you see, the person who is a grad dean's time-to-completion nightmare. I started my PhD in 2008, and I won't be done with it until the spring of 2016. I've been working on it part-time since 2013, yes, but I also finished writing my dissertation proposal in November 2011 and it took me until the spring of 2015 to get halfway done with the actual dissertation. Writing used to be torturous. I must have rewritten the second section of my first chapter fifteen times, easily. Writing was either so slow that I felt like someone was pulling words out of me with pliers, or so dammed up that the words stayed inside where they'd prick and niggle and reduce me to a quavering ball of anxiety and fear. I didn't know how to learn how to write in a new style--as my dissertation is not modelled on others in my field--or for a new audience--for despite repeated warnings not to, I'm writing the book, not just the dissertation--without trying and failing hundreds of times. I almost gave up, so many times. I didn't much mourn the loss of my writing time when my first admin job required hours and hours of overtime. I devoted dozens of pages of writing just to figuring out why I was writing at all. 

I can't tell you exactly when that changed. Finding a different supervisor, one whose approach and interests better match what my research looks like now, helped a lot. Finally getting that second section right, and then knowing how to move forward, made a difference. Figuring out why I was writing, the reasons besides getting a PhD, broke down barriers. Without realizing it, I started to think of myself as a writer. I sit down every day and tell stories about being a woman writer in Canada in the 1950s, about how other people also figured out how to become people who have to sit down and create something out of words every day, and about what happened when they did. They didn't find it easy either. They doubted, and nearly quit, and mourned their lack of community, and assumed that their most recent bout of writer's block would last forever and they would never write again. They also went on to win the big awards and sell thousands of books and change the way we think about writing and the world. I've started to write down ideas for my next project, because these hours at my desk have become precious to me and I won't give them up even once this is done. 

Doing a PhD--deciding to finish the PhD that I started, more accurately--has been one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Not in and of itself, but in how it made me get in my own way until I learned how to get out of it. Somewhere in there, I became a writer. The dark days seem very distant now, and I'm not precisely grateful for them, but it's the best word I can think of. It was hard, but necessary, to stop defining myself as an academic when I decided to move into administration. It felt like giving something up. But I have more, am more, now. I have a job I love, and I became a writer.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They're really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It's dark, they're tired, I get it. It's easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn't really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it's dark, I'm tired, I've been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process--how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill's book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

"Grading done, lesson not done--crowd source!"

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I'm trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There's clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there's something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that's based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It's possible that I could have lectured for three hours--I did know the material, even if I hadn't pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It's a lot easier to say; "Ugh, my students didn't do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!" But it's a lot more productive to say: "You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It's a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?"

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn't do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we're all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we're not ready to do it alone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Boast Post

November is a hard month, no? The lovely fall colours are gone; it's cold and dreary. We're in that tough part of the semester where students' enthusiasm wane as their work loads edge higher, mirrored by our own increasing stacks of grading. Here in Edmonton, despite the shortening days, we usually get a few hours of brilliant sun shining on the crisp bright white snow, but this year, we've gotten a lot of dreary grey. And then there's the utterly devastating state of the world right now, (not to mention the fights we're all having about those world events on Facebook and Twitter). I think I can safely say we're all in need of a little pick-me-up.

Sooooo: Boast Post! Let's offer each other a little cheer, and cheer each other up!

You all know how it works by now, right? Do you have something that you're proud of, or did right? Did someone offer you a piece of praise? Did you finish a dissertation chapter? Have a conference proposal accepted at a competitive conference? Get through a challenging semester of teaching? Did you submit a ton of postdoc/job applications? Get invited to present your research? Tell us! And tell the world on Twitter with the #boastpost hashtag! It can feel a little weird and awkward, but it also feels great to celebrate our accomplishments, and have others celebrate with us.

I have three things to celebrate over the last semester:

1) I have now finished submitting revisions for two articles and one chapter that are forthcoming in the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, the Victorian Review, and (co-authored with the brilliant Kathryn Holland!) the forthcoming book Reading Modernism with Machines (Palgrave McMillan). It's thrilling to see the work of the last couple of years come to fruition!

2) I finished drafting my Mona Caird Chapter, and have begun writing THE FINAL CHAPTER of my dissertation! This one is on Henrietta Müller, Olive Schreiner, and the Women's Penny Paper. I'm really excited to be writing it!

3) I just finished presenting on a fantastic panel at MSA17 on feminist approaches in DH and Modernism, and it was wonderful connecting with other women who work at the intersection of feminism and DH. I also have an upcoming jointly-organized panel at the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC). Conferences. They're so fun!

Okay folks, true story: I actually had a hard time keeping it to three things here. I'm kinda shocked. I have been feeling super low about my accomplishments over the last little while. November has really gotten me down. Let me tell you: it feels really great to think through what I've accomplished. So: YOUR TURN. Turn off that part of your brain that is telling you it's gauche or shameless, and boast!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Surthrival

Late last week I was chatting with a friend of mine and we asked one another, "how are you?" And then we both giggled. Okay, actually we sent one another ellipses and exclamation points, because we were chatting on Facebook. The hilarity and lack of verbal articulation came from the fact that my friend, who is a single parent, is teaching four classes this term, and I, a co-parent to a six month old, am teaching two classes while my partner teaches three. We have no child care. My friend was up grading papers after teaching three classes, running tutorials, and making sure her own kids were well and fed and getting what they needed. I was awake working on a job application after having driven with my partner two-thirds of the way to New England for a conference at which he was to give a paper the next day. My partner was working on a paper after having taught a class and driving for six hours. Our kiddo, generous being that she is, was asleep in her portable crib in the middle of the hotel room.

How are you?

...!!!???!!!...

Our wordless pause came from this, then: we are both in it up to our eyeballs, my friend and I. We are running from the moment we wake to the moment we drop into bed. We are, neither of us, in stable work, so there's the usual scramble to keep it all afloat. And yet. And yet as my friend and I agreed, the things that keep us grounded--the mornings, when my girl wakes us up singing in her tiny infant voice, the afternoons when my friend steals a moment to write--these things are good. There are roots in our lives, we agreed.

But let's not deny it is hard. Let us not deny the feeling of being eaten alive by bureaucracy, Brazil-like. Let's not ignore the data that suggests that nearly half the people working in higher education exhibit symptoms of psychological distress.

I want a word that means more than "surviving" without losing that hard-scrabble fact of what is really going on. I want a word that defies the isolation that comes with working in the academy, because my work--the job I go and do--can and does bring me joy, even if the conditions of that work cannot. I want a word that acknowledges the emotional labour, the sheer physical labour (you should see how quick I am on my bicycle, zipping to campus and class as soon as my partner gets home from his class to take bébé).

"I hope survival turns to thrival," I wrote to my friend, in an attempt to name our own daily work of making our lives good despite, or in spite, or just in the midst of the long, hard work.

"Here's to surTHRIVEal!" she wrote back, proving once again (let us acknowledge it here) that poets are indeed the legislators of the world.

So here's to surthriving. To the precariate, doing your jobs and keeping your head and your spirits above water: surthrive. Find what lifts you. To the graduate students, filled with fear and anxiety about what is next and what is now: surthrive. You are smart. To the assistant professors, finishing their first terms and finding that the dream is still a f*ckload of work: surthrive. You deserve your job, we need you there. To the associate professors, keeping it all going despite the oft-unacknowledged workload: surthrive. You are in positions of power, don't forget that. To the full professors, wondering, perhaps, what happened to the university you came to at the beginning of your career: surthrive. We need you. To the undergraduate students, facing student debt, facing final exams, trying to keep a social life and likely a job, too: surthrive. Find what lifts you up and hold onto that shining thing and let it light your way. To the administrative staff, keeping us all organized, and keepers of our quiet and not-so-quiet sorrows: surthrive. You keep this whole boat level and moving forward with the band playing.

Here is to surthrival. Here is to refusing to lose the light while acknowledging that the darkness is coming earlier these days. Here is to remembering that there are good moments in each day if we look for them. And here is to refuelling our resolve to make more of the day good, generative, and generous.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#Alt-Ac 101 for Supervisors


While I've never been a supervisor of graduate students, a big part of my job is working with supervisors to give them the resources they need to ensure that their graduate students and postdocs succeed in and out of their research. And supervisors, I see you. I see how hard it is for you to not want for your graduate students what you found, the academic career you were told you were training for when you started graduate school. I see the ways you work to fight against the indoctrination that plagues both you and the people you supervise, that says that an academic life is the only challenging and worthy one. I see you struggle to know what to do, what to say, in the face of numbers like these: that only 18.6% of the people you supervise who finish their degrees will get full-time academic jobs, and about half of the people who start out with you won't finish at all. I see you avoid the topic of non-professorial jobs because you've never had one, and you don't know what one of those might look like or how you might best help your students and postdocs prepare for one.

I don't think that supervisors need to be everything to all people. I don't expect you to be career counsellors as well as brilliant writers, researchers, teachers. I don't expect you to know the ins and outs of every career your students and postdocs might be interested in. I don't expect you to stop doing the work of being a researcher and teacher you're doing. But I do expect you to acknowledge reality, and to do what you can to ensure that all of your students and postdocs succeed, not just those very few who follow in your footsteps. And I've got some practical ideas about how.

1. Talk about all kinds of career paths and valourize none. 


Ask your students where they want to end up. Ensure that they know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements. Encourage them to think about a variety of post-degree career paths. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate non-professorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid, and equally valourous. 

2. Keep track of your graduates, and not just the ones that become professors. 

Know what your supervisees are doing with their PhDs. Be able to point to specific careers when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a PhD in their field could do. Know at least a little about your former students' transition stories, how they got where they are, what they did to get there, and so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-PhD lives. You already know how to help your students prepare to become professors, but learn how to help them to become other things as well. 

3. Know where to refer your students when you're out of your depth. 

Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program. It also has a career centre, one that has at least some capacity to support PhDs in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after. There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include: 
  • myGradSkills.ca: online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching & learning
  • Mitacs STEP: one and two day intensive workshops in leadership & management, communication & relationship building, personal & professional management, entrepreneurialism 
  • Lynda.com: over 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and many other Canadian cities.  
4. Give your students and postdocs things to read. 

The number of resources out there for PhD-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped into the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places PhD holders happily end up. Some good resources include: 

Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their PhD as a six year contract job that can pay reasonably well. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don't know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid, and all should be openly acknowledged. But faculty should also be aware that the culture of academia is such that many people who start not wanting to become a professor will end up internalizing that desire by osmosis. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100% of people desperate for the thing that less than 20% will find is a recipe for misery. 

6. Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about. 

Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. They rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing along with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on. Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad, and you owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality (not the fantasy) of doing what you do. PhDs often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like, and I've seen the reality of a professorial career be an unpleasant surprise more than a few times. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The TP Index



Recently, when an intrepid undergraduate, Laura Woodward discovered, as a result of her investigative journalism, that Ryerson has an institutional double standard in terms of access to two-ply toilet paper (not surprisingly, students get single-ply whereas a range of administrative offices seem to be supplied with the cushy stuff), I made a joke on facebook about the TP index as a quick and dirty (sorry) way of measuring administrative bloat (I just can’t seem to help myself) in higher education.

But then I got to thinking about another TP index: the ratio of tuition to presidential salary.

I got to thinking about this because I showed this slide in my first-year course on business and literature (really, it’s not as bad as it sounds):



(Note the particular elegance of the parliamentary formula for prime ministerial compensation where the PM’s salary is exactly double that of the average MP.)

We had been reading Thomas Piketty on income inequality (and the really interesting ways that he uses the literature of Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, and Henry James in order to illustrate the effects of income disparity) and the rise of what he identifies as an era “extreme meritocracy” where executive pay has climbed to new levels. As the 25 September 2015 Times Literary Supplement reports in its review of Piketty’s new book, The Economics of Income Inequality, “Over the past two decades, the ratio of CEO pay to the average pay of their workforce has widened in the USA from 20:1 to 231: 1 (with banks themselves leading the way with a ratio of 500:1).” The AFL-CIO measures the rate of CEO pay in Canada to be approximately 206: 1. In the university community in Canada, we have started to pay more attention to administrative compensation than ever. Perhaps most famously, there was the recent Chakmagate at Western where we find President Amit Chakma apologizing for his $924,000 compensation in 2014 and offering to return half of it. So, well, yes.

But to return to the scene of my undergraduate classroom, there was at first confusion about the guy on the on right. Understandably, we can’t all be expected to know who the president of York University might be or what he might look like and it seems okay that he is somewhat less recognizable than our current prime minister. But after we sorted out the who’s who, we did of course try to figure out craziness of these metrics. How is it that two public servants can be compensated in such a way where the guy who decides if we should go to war is paid much less than the guy who decides what tuition should be? My point here is not that the prime minister should paid more, or even that the president of York is paid too much. I did stress to my students that President Shoukri’s pay is completely in line with that of other university presidents in Ontario and around the country.

However, they were understandably still perplexed by the actual numbers. To be honest, I am too. I don’t really know why or how we have come to these salaries. I am especially confused by the fact that this compensation extends past their tenure as presidents. But this is not a discussion about how Canadian university presidents’ pay has skyrocketed. And I know that we are all confused about where the money goes.

I just want to talk about how my students processed all this information and what we can take from that.

My students immediately talked about way in which they experience university as a financial problem: tuition.

Although I will be the first to resist the narrative of students as consumers, I do think that considering tuition in relation to administrative compensation would offer a useful way to think about the connection between university administrations and students.

For example, high pay + low tuition would mean that this is one of the few times when a high ratio or a significant gap would be welcome.

Of course, the ideal would be low pay + low tuition.

At my university, full-time tuition for most non-professional programs, including compulsory supplemental fees is $7102.

That means that the TP index at York is about 65:1.

At the University of Alberta, the outgoing president, Indira Samarasekera took home $544,00 in salary and just over $1.1 million in total compensation last year. Full-time tuition and fees for most programs comes in at $7068. That means the TP index at the U of A is about: 156:1.

Of course, indexes are just numbers and they are not numbers that tell us the whole story about any story, especially one as complex as one this one where we need to take into account plummeting levels of public investment in higher education and a range of other pressures on the university system as a whole.

But they do help us get to some big picture questions. How can we understand university executive compensation in relation to the other numbers that we have to think about? At my department meeting today, I was told York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (where the English department is housed) is looking at a deficit of $6.6 million in 2015-16. At Faculty Council, I was presented with similarly dire numbers where the bars and arrows on the graphs were all going in the wrong direction. But there were no graphs on executive compensation even though I think we all know which direction those bars and arrows would go.

I’m not that interested in the actual numbers as far as executive compensation goes. But I’m very interested in the relationship between numbers.

In talking about income disparity, the general trend is to talk about executive pay as a ratio of that of the average worker. However, in universities, the vast majority of people who take part in the institution are students, and not employees of the university. To think about their place as indexed to that of the compensation of leader of the institution is to ask us to think about other kinds of disparities.  Here, we can go beyond access to two-ply. We can talk about access to education first and foremost. We can talk about access to having the kind of space for breathing and dreaming that an undergraduate education should enable but which many of my undergraduates do not feel that they can afford because they are terrified of being jobless at the end of their degrees. Last week, in a casual conversation, an associate dean in my faculty mentioned that our students seemed to have a kind of “hope deficit.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My experience of  teaching undergraduate students has generally been one of overwhelming gratitude for the courage and perspectives they bring to my classroom. But I know what this associate dean meant when she talked about a hope deficit. Our students are also often desperately uncertain about their futures and this uncertainty leads to a lack of hope and thus a real fear that studying something that might bring them real joy and pleasure can only come at some kind of terrible unspecified future cost.

And yet, we are in a national moment where even unicorns might be real. Or, at least, where the long-form census, un-muzzled scientists and diplomats, and gender parity in government cabinets are suddenly quiet real.

So, maybe what I want from the TP index is not so much all the outrage about outrageous pay packages (don’t get me wrong, I still care about that!), but rather something that takes up a deficit I really care about: hope. And with that hope a genuine belief that a university education really does, as I believe, make life better.

I’m not asking for unicorns (although I too would like braid their glorious manes.) The TP index is just my way of saying that we need a more profound connection between the president of a university and the students who are at the core of the university’s mission. But I’ll take some unicorns too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Self care and emotional labour

I made it about a block from my house yesterday, walking to the office, before I turned back and got in the car. I didn't want to. It was starting to rain really hard, and was just going to rain harder on my way home, so it was more sensible to drive.

I need to walk on Tuesday, because Tuesday is the day I have my open office hours.

As you now, I detest email and phone calls and have been trying to set some boundaries around the care work involved in being grad chair. The strategy I landed on is a two and a half hour block of time on Tuesday I call my "open office hours" where I agree to solve any and all problems, from the trivial to the immense, for anyone who shows up. It's intense, with lineups sometimes from the minute I pull my key out of my purse to the moment I race out to meet my daughter's bus back home, but at least it has a clear beginning and an end.

Only, I discover, it doesn't. Open office hours call upon all my talents: rule-enforcing, help-finding, recruitment, retention, firm talking-to, conflict management, bureaucracy-explaining, book-sharing, draft-reading, truth-telling, accommodation-finding. Sometimes professors and staff come to my open office hours, and I shift gears to help them as well. Many people enter upset and leave calm. Other people enter calm and leave upset. I have to make sure to have a cup of coffee in my hand when I arrive because I almost never have time to put up my "Back in Five!" sticky note on the door and go buy myself a cup.

For each student, I try to figure out the emotional temperature so I can adjust my affect. This might involve burying my own frustration to appear friendly. Or it might involve hiding my sadness. Or it might involve restraining myself from talking too much because the student needs the space to articulate her ideas and I am just supposed to listen. It might seem to students that I use my office hours to issue edicts and enforce my will on everyone, but most of the time, I'm really busy orienting the interaction to what I think the student needs.

God, this is as exhausting as it is necessary. I am so honoured to do it, but it is so, so draining. It's hard work for me to sublimate myself and pay attention to everyone's feelings at the same time that I am enacting authority, and care, and support. It is also both an honour and a burden to carry the emotional weight of these interactions. People laugh, people cry, people are angry, people are vulnerable--it runs the whole gamut. And these feelings attach to me, and I carry them in my body on Tuesdays.

It is an honour. The work is necessary. I truly am glad to do it.

But. I find that Tuesday nights I put my pyjamas on when I get home at 4 in the afternoon. I have a glass of wine. I go to bed at 9. I've tried this fall to develop more active and energetically replenishing  ways to find my equanimity on Tuesdays. If I walk to school, I feel fresh when I start, and if I walk home, the fresh air and the exercise helps reset my mood and blows the cobwebs out. Failing a walking commute, I go for a late afternoon run--I push myself hard, and I run outside, and the combination of tired quads and expanding lungs, along with sunshine and birdsong, really, really helps.

Only now it's cold, and it's dark. I'll need a new self-care strategy moving into the winter, and in the absence of one yesterday, I'm feeling a little off, a little depleted.

What are your self-care strategies for the more emotionally demanding parts of your role in the academy?

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Shadow Syllabus

Do you ever find yourself revising your syllabus as you move through the semester? I don't mean small things like shifting a due date or adding or subtracting a reading. I mean have you ever realized part way through the term that while you are technically teaching what you proposed in reality there is something else, something subversive, something exciting happening that is not on the syllabus? 

I have. In fact, I am experiencing this in a class right now.  

There is some context: I hadn't really planned to teach this fall. When classes started our daughter was three months old. And so when the opportunity to teach two courses came up in late August (#precarity) I launched into syllabus writing mode so quickly I might well have looked like a superhero or a bedevilled scribe. As I scrambled to order texts and build online learning sites I also fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with my syllabi. One class in particular was brand new for me: writing in the digital age. After consulting with a number of digital humanities friends and colleagues, attending an online workshop on digital and collaborative teaching (thank you, FemTechNet), and reading an astonishing amount of material in an equally astonishingly short time, I built a syllabus I was proud of. And now I am subverting it. 

Here's what I mean: the syllabus I built is strong. I feel good about it, colleagues who also work in the field were complimentary of it. But what I could't have expected at the time was the need to work in contemporary issues on the fly. That's the thing about teaching the contemporary field: things happen as the semester progresses. So, we have worked into our classroom opportunities to close read the performative politics of the election, for example, which in turn has had us thinking through the politics and poetics of the performance of self in everyday digital life, which in turn has become a conversation about the ethics and politics of power in our digital lives. 

What we are building, my students and I, is a shadow syllabus. 

I first heard the term when I came across Sonya Huber's wonderful writing where she poetically outlines the intersectional politics and affects that structure any classroom. It was last week, though, that I came across the term again and thought about it in relation to my own present and future classrooms.

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marcia Chatelain--who is an incredible speaker-- give a talk on teaching in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. Chatelain, who is the brains behind #FergusonSyllabus, spoke to the audience about how she used Twitter to develop a national and international teach-in. Our role in the university is to assess what is going on in the world, make it accessible, and mobilize discussions in communities, she told the audience. Creating the #FergusonSyllabus was a practical and politically engaged call to discuss the events of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain challenged colleagues to talk about the events--and the systemic inequity and racism that made them possible--in their classrooms on the first day of school. 

The shadow syllabus, she explained, emerged as a tactic for working in how to talk about meaningful and vital current events that may not meet institutional approval. For, as Dr. Chatelain related, in some elementary and high schools teachers were not allowed to talk to their students about the events. 

Enter the shadow syllabus.

A shadow syllabus is shrewd. It allows you to meet course and learning objectives while simultaneously working in the contemporary, the political, and, according to my students, the vital.  You want to teach students about systemic racism but can't because you're under a gag order? No problem. Teach them about housing policy in the municipality in question! You want to teach first year students about the corporatization of learning? Use the university's mission statement and the twitter feeds of Provosts as texts for close reading. The shadow syllabus emerges as a practical application of Huber's poetic thinking. And it is, I wager, both a means of working in what the institution does not recognize, and a way to work organically as a class. 

While my class and I are not developing a shadow syllabus as a means of working around a gag order, in the way that some of Dr. Chatelain's colleagues were, we are working with the contemporary field as it happens, and that? That is exciting. It is hard and exciting. It is learning. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Because It's 2015

Photo credit: cc//Rt. Hon. R.B. Bennett, Prime Minister of Canada, surrounded by members of the Cabinet (1931), Library and Archives Canada


Inuit girls throat singing, and giggling, at the swearing in.


A cabinet "family photo" with fifteen women in it. And people of all kinds of races and ethnicities. And people with disabilities. And gay people.


A First Nations woman as Minister of Justice and Attorney General.


The reinstatement of the Minister of Science position, and the assignment of that position to a woman. With a PhD.


A female Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.


A Minister of the Status of Women who was, until her election last month, the head of Thunder Bay's largest homeless shelter.


The reinstatement of the long-form census, and of the ability to collect data that will allow us to accurately count vulnerable women and girls, conduct gender-based analysis of programs and policies, and evaluate the impact of programs and policies on the status of women.


A promise to immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.


A female Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs who has publicly committed to the principle of "nothing about us without us," and who has indicated that consultations with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people about the inquiry will begin immediately.


A Prime Minister who doesn't care that his commitment to gender parity in cabinet resulted in a 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet.


A Prime Minister who answers the question of why he was so committed to having a cabinet that was at least 50% women with a shrug and the answer "because it's 2015."


As Aimée says, we don't have binders full of women in Canada. We have cabinets full of women.


It's 2015. And for the first time since 2006, as a Canadian woman, I have hope for this country.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mid-week Montreal: self-care on fast trips

Last week, I was in Montréal from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon. I was very kindly invited by the English Studies Department to present my research on Facebook as an auto/biographical technology. There are a lot of reasons to say "yes" to such invitations. The opportunity to share research and receive feedback is chief among them of course, but there are other inducements. My friend Heather was doing the asking--and I hadn't seen her since she was doing her MA and I was starting my PhD at the U of A. Um, Montréal in October. And never underestimate the lure of two nights in a quiet hotel, with no cooking, no office hours, no family demands, and an away message on my email. A break in the semester.

Of course the main reason to say "no" to an invitation like this is that who can take a break mid-semester? Teaching! Office hours! Meetings! Email! And, ugh, airports. Since I wouldn't miss any teaching, and the paper was already written and the slides carefully crafted, I pushed these qualms aside. I'm pleased to say the visit went very well, and although I did come back to a LOT of email, I think I'm getting competent at mid-week travel.

Here's how I manage fast trips during the semester. All this advice applies equally to campus interviews as to invited talks, in my experience.

1. Be realistic when you book the travel part. I was originally planning just an overnight stay, because I didn't want to get behind at the office, but my husband reminded me I'm usually just a terrible grump, and very stressed and resentful, when I do that. If you go on a trip, just commit to the trip. I wouldn't have had time to do much more than arrive, sleep, give the talk, and leave. That's hardly time to see the host department, or notice what city you're in. A two night stay, which my host originally offered me, was much more humane and reasonable.

2. Be realistic when you book the travel part, part 2. It has taken me many years to know that it is a false economy for me to fiddle the margins by flying very early in the morning, or later in the evening. When I fly in the morning, I'm exhausted from a poor sleep the night before, and have to commute the hour to the airport during rush hour, which then becomes 90 minutes. When I fly at night, I'm already burnt out and sleepy and have no patience left when I arrive home to my family. I have learned the hard way, over and over, that I like to fly mid-day. Maybe I'm technically "wasting" time that way, but exhaustion, insomnia, and bitchiness are just not worth it to me to get there three hours earlier, or leave three hours later. It's no loss to me to arrive somewhere at 5pm, well-rested and even tempered.

3. Have a packing strategy. I try to balance being careful about weather conditions with knowing what I need to bring with me every time and how it will all fit in my bag. I keep travel toiletries always packed and ready, and I know how to stuff my running gear into my shoes and my shoes into my bag. I know I need warm pyjamas, and I will be unhappy without fuzzy socks, too. I know just how much I can fit in my carry on. It usually only takes me 20 minutes to pack for a few-days trip, which cuts a lot of burdensome nonsense out of the planning. I know which clothes won't wrinkle and which pair of pants can go with three tops to make three outfits. I have been known to purchase footwear because it will work with both a dress and with pants, so that I can travel with only one pair of shoes. I also have a travel purse that has a laptop sleeve and I keep a folder with all the travel documents in it. Everything is the same every time I travel, so I don't have to worry about it. This saves a lot of worrying, so I basically don't have to think about the trip at all until it's an hour before I have to leave for the airport and I get my bag out of the attic. Erin has some good tips about this.

4. Don't write on the plane. Look, travelling is awful enough. Do you really want the added stress of not having your talk or your slides prepared? If you are counting on having access to wifi at the airport to finish your talk, and the traffic on the way there means you lose that time, or you open your laptop and realize all the relevant files are on the other computer, at home, inaccessible, or your hotel doesn't have a printer and you have to find a Staples and a flash drive somehow before you present, well, that makes things was more tense and unpleasant than I like them to be. Look, working while travelling and on trips can often be very pleasant. I often write on the plane--but I'm writing something other than the talk I'm supposed to give. Don't cut it so close, is all I'm saying. To myself. Because otherwise I'm miserable.

5. Go easy on yourself. Flying in to give a talk somewhere is intense. You are the centre of attention. There is a poster with your face on it. People are arranging meals with you. Grad students may want to meet you. The Q+A at the end of such talks can last 20 minutes or more, and the questions are usually really good. I'm a very sociable person, and I don't get stage fright or anything like that but I'll be honest: I find these things emotionally very taxing. Being at my smartest and most pleasant and trying to remember names and wearing tights and a dress for hours in a row is hard. The way I do it is by being easy on myself the morning of the talk, being alone and being quiet and reading and getting ready in a really gradual way, or going for a run first or doing yoga. Reading the newspaper, reading a book, drinking my coffee in my own damn time as I go over my paper one last time, so I can be confident everything will go well. So I'm fresh for the event. And afterward, I give myself a pass for the rest of the day--many campus visitors will tell you they have deep and satisfying naps between their talks and the supper. This is an excellent idea. Last week, in Montréal, I was going to take a long walk but it was pouring rain so I went to the Fine Arts Museum for a few hours, and it was exactly what I needed. I find twentieth century art incredibly soothing and soul-expanding. Then I had a nap and went out to supper with my host. Wonderful.

6. Be open to the experience. At my talk, I met several scholars whose work intersects with my own in ways none of us had imagined. I saw their eyes light up, and mine did too. There was much scribbling of new ideas and contact info, which for me is one of the prime benefits of this kind of trip. Because I was in Montréal, I had a chance to speak almost exclusively in French for several days. That was a nice brain teaser, and lots of fun, and got me thinking of all the different ways English and French are different and a number of other little fizzy little things of ideas that I was at leisure to indulge while eating lunch on my own after a long walk. The fine arts museum was a revelation--there was a special exhibit that completely knocked my socks off and I immediately saw a completely out of the blue connection to some work I'm doing on digital photography ... in a set of 1920s oil paintings. I had to sit down and type out some notes on my phone. What I'm saying basically is: a new context produces new connections and new thinking. Be ready for this by leaving your real life at home and focusing on being in the now of the time of the trip. I would have missed out on a lot if I'd spent all the first night feverishly finishing my paper, and the second afternoon locked in my room grading or answering emails.

Travel is a chore and travel is a privilege. Sharing research is terrifying and sharing research is exciting. Meeting new people is scary and meeting new people is enriching. Academic lives of routine are often punctuated by short trips, and me, I'm seizing the opportunity by the horns, in ways that I'm trying to optimize so I can stay happy and productive. If you have any tips for self-care on such trips, I'd love to hear them~