Monday, October 31, 2016

Guest post: An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals

Last winter, I took graduate level seminar Public Intellectuals in Canada: Their Essays, Talks, and with Dr. Joel Deshaye at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it got me all riled up. 

Considering the academy is churning out so-called intellectuals without even recognizing the status, or implications of the term, I wrote "Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals.”

Why? Because manifestos harness imaginative power.

Manifestos intervene. Manifestos are excessive. Manifestos are relentless. Manifestos interrupt. Manifestos persuade. At their core, manifestos are public declarations, often pushing political, social or artistic motion.

While elitism is defined as a select part of a group that is superior to rest in terms of ability or qualities, to truly be successful as a Canadian Public Intellectual one needs to speak to an audience, and appeal to a broad range of voices. One voice can’t speak for the whole, but many voices can create a chorus. A manifesto is a critical poetic choir of sorts.

As a poet and journalist, I’ve written several manifestos. In my opinion, the manifesto acts as a conversation between private and public thought. In my tenure as Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence, I wrote “An Incomplete Manifestofor Canadian Women In Literary Arts,” in 2014, though it wasn’t the first time I was drawn to the manifesto as a genre. I’ve also written a “Modern Day Riot Grrrl Manifesta,” in 2011 for International Girl Gang Underground zine, and “A Fragmented Manifesto,” for GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose published in 2009.

I am drawn to manifestos. They exist somewhere between poetry and criticism.

According to Mary Ann Caw, who edited Manifesto: A Century of Isms, “Originally, a manifesto was a piece of evidence in a court of law, or put on a show to catch the eye. The manifesto is: “a public declaration by a sovereign prince or state, or by an individual or body of individuals whose proceedings are of public importance, making past actions announced as a forthcoming.”

Manifestos articulate specific plans for action, and can discuss the intersections of feminism and social justice. Unlike the essay, which is quieter, more textual, manifestos are loud. Manifestos are messy. Manifestos elicit. Manifestos ignite. Caw notes, “The manifesto is an act of the démesure, going past what is thought of as proper, sane and literary.”

I didn’t intend to write to convince or convert, only to consider. This “Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals” is an invitation, an offering.  Hopefully, I’m not coming across as a one trick pony. I’m only taking Atwood’s advice to “think pink, and pack black.”

An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals
By Shannon Webb-Campbell

BECAUSE we need to acknowledge the land where we gather

BECAUSE this is unceded and unsurrendered Mi’kmaq and Beothuk territory

BECAUSE Indigenous communities of Newfoundland and Labrador have always existed despite what was declared in 1949

BECAUSE we relate to the characteristics of this country now called “Canada”

BECAUSE private actions can have public impact

BECAUSE public is a relationship among strangers

BECAUSE we have a responsibility as publics

BECAUSE we are involved in the affairs of a community

BECAUSE not all communities are recognized as publics

BECAUSE we must examine

BECAUSE we want to discuss poetry’s potential in public

BECAUSE Michael Warner notes, the diary can’t have an imagined public

BECAUSE public sphere is purely imaginary

BECAUSE publics are internalized as humanity

BECAUSE an image of writing should be the ghost of freedom

BECAUSE there are all kinds of knowledge transfers

BECAUSE public language addresses a public as a social entity

BECAUSE Daniel Rigney believes capitalist ideology is the main type of anti-intellectualism

BECAUSE paradox is the elitism of intellect and progressive ideals

BECAUSE mass media is a manufactured product

BECAUSE we are of the public, by the public, and for the public

BECAUSE of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message

BECAUSE personal and social consequences of any medium is an extension of ourselves

BECAUSE new technology eliminates jobs

BECAUSE fragmentation is the essence of machine technology

BECAUSE electric light is pure information

BECAUSE it’s a medium without a message

BECAUSE Glenn Gould reminds us, you can’t forget to pay homage to the source where all creative ideas come

BECAUSE we don’t have to duplicate the eccentricity of experience

BECAUSE we must discover how high our tolerance is for the questions we ask of ourselves

BECAUSE questions extend the vision of our world

BECAUSE this is a performance of the self

BECAUSE self-reflection means you always question yourself

BECAUSE questions paralyze the imagination

BECAUSE there is a new kind of listener

BECAUSE there was two hundred thousand “so-called” Indians in what became Canada

BECAUSE most of Canada clings to the attitude of a dominion

BECAUSE we’ve been watching from a ring seat, waiting for our time

BECAUSE Conrad Black deliberately had absolutely no contact, direct or indirect with anyone

BECAUSE in the past he’s known the prime minister

BECAUSE like Phyllis Webb, all our desire goes out to the impossibly beautiful

BECAUSE the glass castle is an image for the mind

BECAUSE we claim the five gods of reality to bless and keep us sane

BECAUSE a place of solitude is not where I choose to live

BECAUSE I prefer a suite of lies

BECAUSE Thomas King knows the truth about stories

BECAUSE stories is all we are

BECAUSE I’m not the Indian you had in mind

BECAUSE you are beginning to wonder if there is a point to this

BECAUSE you can’t say you would have lived differently years down the road if only you’d heard this story

BECAUSE we’ve heard it

BECAUSE George Eliot Clarke is parliamentary poet laureate

BECAUSE journalists turn facts into jazz

BECAUSE we have all the public fun

BECAUSE revolution is the orgasm of history

BECAUSE you really want to be prime minister

BECAUSE we have the privilege of academic freedom

BECAUSE poetry begins where lying ends

BECAUSE when I tweeted that last Clarke quote, Sina Queyras responded: if only

BECAUSE publicness can’t be underestimated (especially for women)

BECAUSE to think publically takes great risk and vulnerability

BECAUSE women’s work and criticism is still under-represented

BECAUSE we’re taught not to take up space

BECAUSE we are rarely invited to speak

BECAUSE there isn’t one way to write or think about anything

BECAUSE women are prevented from evolving in public

BECAUSE poetry makes its own mouth

BECAUSE the public doesn’t read

BECAUSE poetry repeatedly enacts its own construction and deconstruction

BECAUSE David Suzuki doesn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass

BECAUSE he doesn’t have to mask truth that comes from his heart

BECAUSE if you want everyone to like you, you are not gonna stand for anything

BECAUSE there will always be people that object

BECAUSE the greatest need we have is for clean air

BECAUSE we owe it to mother earth to take care of her

BECAUSE Margaret Atwood knows she is omnipresent and omniscient 

BECAUSE those are two attributes of the divine

BECAUSE the issues of responsibility are legal, moral and societal

BECAUSE intimacy builds worlds

BECAUSE we need to run the marathon

BECAUSE speaking in public still makes me sick

BECAUSE we must think pink, pack black

BECAUSE Atwood’s done her job

BECAUSE we’ve yet to do ours

Shannon Webb-Campbell is a Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and critic. Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, and is a board member.

Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies and teaches English Literature at Memorial University. Her work is anthologized in IMPACT: Colonialism in Canada (Manitoba First Nation Education Resource, 2017), Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), and others.

She curated “Screening the Offshore” at The Rooms Provincial Museum, Art Gallery and Archives, and worked as a curatorial assistant at Eastern Edge Gallery. Shannon is poetry editor at Plenitude Magazine.

Her play Neither Love Letters Nor Moonlight, premieres at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland February 2017. She is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

From Dissertation to Book - Part I: The Break

It's been about a month since I submitted the final, revised version of my dissertation, and I haven't looked at it since. My committee and I talked a lot about what my plans were for the dissertation prior to the defence: what presses I should think about pitching it to, if I should go trade or academic, who we know at the various presses and how that might be an advantage in crafting a proposal. But since submission? Nada. My cursor hasn't even strayed toward the file.

I've done plenty else in the meantime. As Catherine Ayres notes, at the bottom of the PhD cliff lies all the stuff you've been putting off in the dash to submission, and oh man is that true. I've submitted the manuscript for a book of poetry I'm editing, started laying the groundwork for a new advice column series for another publication, ordered new business cards with my new title on them, and registered for CAGS. I've taken off the dissertation blinders and made a looooong list of all of the projects I've been putting off that are going to keep me busy this winter around our very old and very high-maintenance house.

After five years of thinking and writing about a single project every day, purposefully ignoring my dissertation feels wrong. It is, however, precisely the right thing to do right now. I have zero chill when it comes to my dissertation. I am both its biggest cheerleader and its biggest critic. Neither of those perspectives are conducive to frankly and honestly assessing its flaws and strengths with an aim to revision, nor are they useful for doing the kind of strategic assessment that is necessary in order to convince a press that this is a book they want to publish because it fills a market need, might make them some money, and will help burnish their reputation.

But because not doing something I feel like I should be doing is the surest road to amping up my anxiety levels, I've made "take a productive break" the official first step in my dissertation-to-book process. I've also tried to plan a break that is purposeful, productive, and prescribed in length. I'm giving myself a full term, until the end of 2016, and then I'm back at it. I'm also doing things in the meantime to help me move forward in the monograph publishing process even as I don't properly start it, things like:

  • getting to work on another long writing project (fiction this time!) so that I'm maintaining my writing schedule, continuing to refine my style, practicing my ability to write engaging and accessible prose, and continually reinforcing those hard-won pathways in my brain that connect writing and revising with feeling good and accomplished 
  • doing some preliminary market research -- what presses are publishing work similar to mine? what professors are teaching books like mine? Is there a significant non-academic audience? Who do I know who has a BookNet account and can run me sales reports on similar titles? 
  • starting to collect resources on the dissertation-to-book process so that I have a trove of advice at my fingertips whenever I need it 
  • pulling together a bunch of successful book proposals that I've either worked on in my freelance life or have solicited from friends and colleagues so that I have a model to work from when it comes time to write my own
  • reading and rereading books that are similar to what mine will become--Sandra Djwa's Journey with No Maps, Rosemary Sullivan's Stalin's Daughter, Frank Davey's aka bpNichol--so that I can start teasing apart what makes them work and what ideas I can borrow when it comes time to craft a plan for revisions
But mostly I'm doing other things--cooking, running, spending time with my people--in an effort to relax, reset, and get some perspective. It feels good. I'm hopeful that if nothing else, by the end of the year it will have sunk in that I did indeed finish, defend, and submit a dissertation. That would be a good start!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Mental Health Wellness Day

It is, apparently, Mental Health Wellness Day at the University of Waterloo. I found that out from a memo from this morning. We're supposed to be wearing orange but I'm wearing pyjamas because I had an insomnia flareup that kept me awake but exhausted from 2:30-6:30, so I opted to work from home today. For my mental health and wellness.

There is a video, with a kind of folky piano soft singy thing going on, reminding us to remind our students that you are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

Have a look, there's lots of earnest people holding whiteboards earnestly in some picturesque campus locations:

These all seem like lovely people. But this is not what we need. To be clear, it is fantastic that the stigma around disclosing mental illness is beginning to dissipate, and videos like this work toward that goal. That goal is not enough. All the supportive videos in the world don't mean too much when there aren't enough counsellors to see the students who need help. When UW didn't have an Employee Assistance Program until just this summer, and mental health care expenses are capped at just under $600 per year. (That's a little less than five sessions with a therapist. Ask me how I know.)

Videos don't help when they seem to feature a parade of well-looking people performing compassion for a camera. In my work as a faculty member, as a teacher, as a supervisor, as a member of a workplace, I have seen some remarkably caring and empathetic and supportive interactions to support students or staff or faculty with mental illness. I have also seen remarkable gaslighting, dismissal, and resentment.

What do we need?

Make mental illness visible. If "1 in 5" of us suffers from mental illness, how come we never see these people? We people? There are 88 different people in this video: so probably about 17 of those, simply statistically, have a mental health issue now or in the past or in the future? Who? The stigma of disclosure is real and I don't want to discount it, but as long as it's "you" who are ill and "we" who accept you, disability remains invisibilized. And the stigma won't end. I suffer from a mental illness. I take medication daily. I am in therapy. You want a face for high-functioing anxiety, well, here I am.

Stop making things worse. I'm cogitating on a little project in my head. It's a project that seeks to rethink graduate curriculum, moving away from Giant End of Semester Papers in Every Course toward more frequent and smaller and scaffolded assessments, and more regular feedback. There's a reason so many students flame out at the end of term: there's too much to do, too little structure around doing it, too much isolation, and a lot of pressure for major assignments. Just because we've always done it that way, we don't have to keep doing it that way. Can we craft more supportive curricula and teaching structures that won't present such obvious triggers to the anxious, the depressed, the bipolar, and everyone else?

Train staff who deal with students. I run a big grad program. Take that 1-in-5 stat. Extrapolate to my 120 students and imagine that I've arranged more than one medical accommodation over 2+ years. Now ask yourself how much training I received in supporting students in this way? If you guessed "zero zip zilch nada" you would be absolutely correct. I'm winging it. Luckily, I have deep personal expererience with mental illness in myself and many people that I love, but I'm winging it. All these students who need help need it from me first, and I'm trying my damnedest to do right by them, but I'm making it up as I go along. That's ridiculous.

Train staff who deal with staff. It's amazing to me how many people will wear an orange shirt for mental health awareness day, and then stigmatize or isolate colleagues who secure workplace accommodations. Maybe that person who "gets to" start work at 10 am every day has a sleep disorder and can only cobble together five hours of total sleep in the twelve hours between 8pm and 8am. Maybe the person who has a private and unshared office needs a safe place to recover from panic attacks. Maybe that person who holds meetings with another staff member always present has a trauma they're dealing with. You don't know the why of it. And you have no right to know. If you want to support the mental health of your colleagues be gracious enough to assume that if something looks "special" it's because they need it.

Refine "accommodation"; make university more accessible to all. Students who suffer depressive episodes and fail their courses can petition to have the grades removed. Students with anxiety can write exams in private rooms. But how do you accommodate mental health issues beyond coursework? How do you create an accommodation plan for a student writing a dissertation? Usually, the answer is "give more time" but that is expensive to the student and doesn't solve the main problem. A graduate student suffering acute mental illness can go "inactive" in my program -- but they give up all their funding for the duration, and may be kicked out of university housing. So of course they don't do this. We need short term disability insurance for graduate students. We need ways to support undergraduate students who have to do reduced course loads but lose privileges as a result. Accommodations are not always as simple as "longer exam time" or "peer note taker." Some of these fixes are expensive, and structural.

Less spin class, more sadness. I had to dig around to find the website for this. You can order a t-shirt! You can attend a spin class in the student centre for mental health! Um, you know who's not going to do any of this? People suffering actively from mental illness. God, it all seems so chirpy. There is a post-secret wall, which is good: post a thought anonymously that you'd like others to know. You know what else would be great? Tables with members of support groups. A quiet room for people to come sit in and be sad, and accepted. On the spot academic advising. Puppies. Some programming that would serve those 1s-in-5s (us 1s-in-5s), make us feel that space has been made for us, to feel how we feel, to support and offer help right now. I mean, the Wellness Day website has a bunch of links for gear and spin class, and only two links to services for students. Oh wait, that's just one link, repeated in two adjacent bullet points. Look, I want to know why there's literally 12 different links I can click to register for a spin class, but exactly zero links I can click to register for a counselling session. Ask yourself about priorities, people.

That's what I can think of right now as my own contribution to mental health and wellness day. Ideas, stories, comments, hacks, and accommodation plans welcome!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Repost: The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

It's hard to believe I've been writing for Hook & Eye for well over two and a half years now, having joined the team in January of 2014. Sometimes I go back through my old posts and, shockingly enough, find inspiration from them. I say to myself: you're pretty wise, past me! Tonight, after having enjoyed a semi-proper weekend doing weekend things (the extravagance!), including taking a long hike in the woods up the Hudson river with my partner, and now sitting at home facing a large stack of neglected papers and experiencing the dawning realization that a job app is due tomorrow...pulling out an old rant about the cult of perpetual productivity seems apropos.

Taken today, Oct. 23 2016, from the George Washington Bridge connecting NYC and NJ.

(originally posted March 11, 2014:)

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a follow-up to Jana's repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to "take the time for self-care." The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive "culture of acceptance" that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I'm concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I'm now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I'm finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive. Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to "this chocolate bar with help me work, right?" Or reminders that breaks are important because they'll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do--even the breaks we take--have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can't we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for its own sake? How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

 Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)--at the Armory Show 2014 

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marveled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

I guess I still don't have answers to these questions, but think them important to raise. Readers, do you find yourselves struggling to enjoy allotted time off? Do you have advisors who indeed encourage and enable this kind of thinking? Please, share your stories. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university:, We memorized each other's weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name "Aimee Morrison" attached to the email address That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: worked, but so did People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won't check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won't use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we're useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You're 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn't get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don't even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can't we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn't have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn't speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I'm going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there's got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

Monday, October 17, 2016

From the Archives: The Good Enough Professor

It is mid-October. Energy? It's lagging, maybe. Stress? Creeping up, probably, if we are frank. So it seems like a really good time to bring back Lily Cho's post on being good enough. It seems relevant that she wrote this almost a year ago to the day.

Guess what? You're good enough:

Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interview with Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me. 

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough. 

The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin's incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true. 

So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me. 

But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think. 

First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties. 

So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 

We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries. 

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy. 

How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor? 

Lily Cho
York University