Thursday, December 15, 2016

Planning for the Holidays, Holidays for Planning


I'm seven working days away from my first vacation in a year and a half. All of my time off from work in 2016 was used to go to the MLA, teach at DHSI, and finish and defend my dissertation. All good things, but none of them a vacation. And I'm tired. Bring on the holidays.

But I'm also mad and scared and sad. I'm not terribly good at being mad and scared and sad. I grew up in a family with only two emotional temperatures--everything is great, or nuclear. I love my family dearly, but being raised by them has left me with, as Hermione Granger would say,  the emotional range of a teaspoon when it comes to the less cheery feelings. And so my natural tendency is to shy away from strong negative feelings because my body and mind don't quite know how to distinguish between "kinda, and justifiably, angry" and the nuclear option of my childhood and adolescence. But I'm learning. (Guts' new "In the Cards: Ask a Feelings-Witch" column was super on point this week--subject: anger--and super helpful). I'm furious about a lot, including how little the Canadian government is doing, diplomatically and otherwise, to intervene in Syria, and so I spent last night in a righteous rage, calling and tweeting and pulling out my credit card. It turns out that I'm pretty okay with being angry when the alternative is feeling impotent and helpless

What does all of this have to do with the holidays, you might ask? I love a good plan--see, as evidence, the fact that I never go anywhere without my Hobonichi Techo planner, or my way over-the-top first week post-PhD schedule--and while I'm planning for the holidays, I'm also going to use my holidays for planning. I've got a long list of things I want to do, for fun and self-care. I want to finish reading all of the Miss Fisher novels. I want to work on my novel every day. I want to go shopping in Kensington Market and cook an amazing anniversary dinner with my partner. I want to finally figure out what the hell to do with that stupid corner cabinet in the kitchen. I want to finish crocheting the giant blanket I've been working on. I want to go to the movies. I want to take my godson on his first trip to the art gallery. I want to spend time feeding and hugging and listening to my people. I want to sit in front of the fire.

But I also want to use my holidays to do some research and learning and planning toward a more sustainable approach to anger and advocacy next year. I'm pretty sure--Rebecca Solnit's hope for a miracle aside--that 2017 is going to be a crappy, crappy year. It's going to be full of all of that fear and rage and sadness that I'm working hard to get good at. And I need to figure out the most useful and sensible ways to channel those feelings into sustainable, mindful, planned action. And so I'm going spend part of my holidays planning for 2017. What local organizations can I get involved or more involved in that support the work of intersectional feminist joy-killing, combatting climate change, helping refugees? What organizations, local and international, most deserve my money and do the most impactful work with donations? What and who should I add to my reading list to help me be a better advocate and ally? What's the contact information for the most powerful and responsive people in local, provincial, and federal governments? How can I better connect and collaborate with the amazing people in my life who share my concerns and goals? What does sustainable activism--a steady blaze, not a flash fire--look like for me, in good balance with work, research, creative, and family life?

Obviously, I'm not going to be able to do all of things I want to over the holidays, but in planning for both self-care and activism, I'm hoping to head into 2017 feeling recharged and ready to keep working and fighting. This is likely our last post of 2016 on Hook & Eye, and so from all of us, wishing you a restful and rage-filled winter break. Let's burn down the worst parts of the world and make s'mores while we're at it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Take care, take time

Radical thought, oh my academic friends: take at least a week off this holiday break. Like, off off: don't check your work email, don't work on your syllabus, don't try to revise that article. If you are someone's supervisor or someone's boss, for goodness sake, be explicit that you hope those who report to you do not work or check email or 'get ahead' or 'work on a project' over the break.

I hear the howls of protest already: but I'm so behind! It's my only chance to not be interrupted! I need to get ahead! I have all these loose ends! Everything is on fire!  But I like working every day of the year!

No. I mean, let me try to be empathetic here: I know you feel a lot of pressure, but working straight through the holiday is only going to make it worse. Worse right away because you will feel lousy and exhausted and exploited. Worse later because people will expect you to be always working. Worse for everyone else who would really like work life balance because you are setting a precedent for not needing it. So, no.

Are you tired? Has the term been tough? Have you studied / taught / researched / served with all your might, juggled too many things at once, set lofty goals and not quite reached them, dropped a couple of things? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, soften, rest.

Do you have a big term coming up at the start of January? Writing deadlines, new prep, admissions season, lofty goals you're not quite sure you can reach? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, build up a little cushion of restedness to be ready to tackle January when it comes.

The longer I do this the more I understand the values of boundaries. This job will take any amount of time you throw at it, and ask for more, and the work will still never be done. So I set boundaries: this amount of time for course prep and no more. A dedicated writing appointment every time for 60 minutes. No work emails after 5 pm (and if I write them after that, I wait until morning to send them). Take the weekends off (unless I am overcome by an urge to write). This makes me more productive and more relaxed--it's true.

And I'm setting boundaries not just on a daily or a weekly basis: I'm setting semester boundaries. This means, particularly between Fall and Winter semesters, when my family celebrates Christmas, I take a break. Don't work. Sleep in. Read novels. Go sledding. Drink mimosas at 10am. Hit the Boxing Day sales. Hang out with friends and family.

The best part is digging out my office keys on the first day back, walking down the hallway to my office, and seeing everything with fresh eyes. It feels like I've been away. It's fresh, a little strange. I'm ready to go.

Everyone deserves this feeling.

When I was a grad student I used to fly home for the holiday with half a suitcase full of books. I never read them. They were heavy to carry. I felt an ambient looming guilt over not reading them when I was out walking in the snow or sipping egg nog. I felt regret when I dragged them all back to Edmonton unread, starting the semester feeling like a failure.

As as prof, I'm very, very careful to not give my own students anything to do over the break. No really late paper submission deadlines so that they write all through the holiday, no pre-semester reading list or assignments. No chapter revisions for my supervisees. Nothing.

You need a break. I need a break. I assure that I myself take one every year at this time and I'm still employed and relatively successful. And happy.

So my holiday wish for you is: visions of sugarplums, and not Zizek, dancing in your head, for at least a week. You can do it. You deserve it.


Monday, December 12, 2016

My radically sexist father

Disclaimer: this is a very personal post, and sort of breaks with our normal format here at Hook & Eye. Trying out something new before breaking for the holidays. Hopefully you'll get something out of it anyway. Thanks for reading! xx

Anyone who knows me well knows that I had a very complicated relationship with my father, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2006. Memories of him have been resurfacing for me recently, partly because of Trump (more on that below), partly because the holiday season often has me sorting through old papers and feeling nostalgic. A text conversation prompted me to search for his name through the Fordham library databases website, and the articles that produced were like slaps in the face, serving as stark reminders of the childhood he had made so difficult for me. 

From Alberta Report, Nov. 22, 1999


I had posted these on Facebook but removed them after becoming frustrated at the expressions of sympathy in response, which seemed so inadequately linked with the complicated reality of my memories. How could people know, without any context, what these fragments really represent? 

My dad was a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist, and fought for a number of important local causes, such as clean air and sacred land rights. But he also believed that all of Alberta was going to be wiped out in a flash flood originating from the Bennett Dam a few hours northwest in British Columbia, and his conviction that the oil & gas industry in Alberta was destroying the local ecosystem transcended peaceful protest and dissent. He would charge into my junior high school and remove me from class because he'd determined that the local oil & gas flare was particularly bad that day. He routinely posted signs on our lawn expressing incendiary statements in support of Wiebo Ludwig, the cultish local rabblerouser who was associated with vandalizing oil rigs and on whose property the sixteen-year-old girl mentioned in the article was killed. Dad had a fierce case of bipolar I disorder which he refused to treat, and would stay up all hours of the night sending alarmist faxes about pressing but sometimes invented environmental issues to local, provincial, and federal politicians and allies. The small, rural community where I'm from did not like his inflammatory rhetoric and the affiliation with the Ludwigs which he actively maintained (as seen above: "Long Live the Ludwigs!"), and on two different occasions, strangers threw rocks through our windows, once above the bed where my younger sister was sleeping. In response, he boarded up the windows of our house, rendering ever more visible the divide between our family and our town, and consequently spurring more fear and distrust from both sides. That was a horrible year for me, in 9th grade and thirteen years old, dealing with the aftereffects of puberty and just starting out on teenage life--and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year. My schoolmates were acutely aware that my dad didn't like their dads' occupations, and were sometimes not allowed to spend time with me. 

Dad was a source of humiliation and shame for so much of my childhood, and his sudden departure one morning in the spring of 2000, ostensibly as a result of growing antipathy between him and the community, had a positive impact on my family. My mom, with whom he had not slept in the same room for years, seemed to grow younger over the next six months.

I didn't see him too often over the final few years of his life. My attitude toward him in those years oscillated between pity and revulsion: penniless and destitute, he had retreated into the forest as is befitting someone who devoted twenty years of his life to environmentalist causes, living out of a Boler trailer on his friend's property. Rarely he would call, more frequently he would mail me conspiratorial articles from questionable publications with scrawled notes at the bottom. Once he resigned himself to the fact that I was pursuing an English degree in university rather than physics or engineering, he gifted me a charming copy of W.W. Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language which he must have picked up at some local thrift store. During this time I could see him reaching out in what can be understood as oblique acts of affection to close relatives (such as me and my sister, and children from his first wife) whom he hadn't treated well when it really mattered. Yet his paranoid interventions occasionally resurfaced: during my first year in college, when I played piano on the worship team for a local church, my dad replicated his old routine of showing up to organizations I was a part of and dragging me out of them, humiliating me further by accusing the youth pastor of having an inappropriately intimate relationship with me. 

Moving to New York has gotten me away from this past in many ways. Ten years after his death, I have enough distance to begin to see him more as a flawed, bitter man who led a complicated and sometimes destructive life, and whose primary mistake may have been his persistent refusal to medicate his serious mental disease. His life and his legacy are becoming important for me to process from a more distanced stance-- in this post-election world, it seems more important than ever to think through what it means to espouse radical beliefs in a healthy, productive way, rather than a way that incites fear and violence from all sides. I'm haunted by the thought that the #noDAPL protests at Standing Rock are very much in line with much of what he stood for, but my father would also, in all likelihood, have greatly admired and celebrated the rise of Donald Trump. 

Indeed, the two men are not unlike each other. Like Trump, my dad was a man of contradictions--a performer, trained in provocation and wild bandying about of contradictory ideas, an "entertainer" as the article above claims. He believed the world was rigged against him, a product of his deeply ingrained victim complex. He sometimes displayed horrifying racism and applauded Wiebo for shaving his daughters' and wives' heads as a visible sign of their inferiority  (though, to his credit, he did try to convert my sister and I to his causes and encourage us to follow 'manly' career paths). He liked to lord his power over people close to him, to make incendiary remarks based on negligible evidence, to recklessly ally himself with anyone who was nice to him and uncritically reject anyone who wasn't. He probably would have seen in Trump someone who stands up to the respectable decorum of the political establishment, isn't afraid to speak his mind, and caters to populist concerns. My dad didn't care about business ventures or money-making, but devoted himself to overturning existing structures and stirring shit up. 

Perhaps my reflections on his story have no place in an academic blog. All I know is that for a long time, academia helped me get away from anything that reminded me of him, and now I'm becoming pushed back, through the ghosts stirred up by the election and the ensuing environmental catastrophe it might engender, and the dire current need for as many modes of anti-Trump activism as possible. So I guess I'm here to reassert my dedication to activism, to environmentalism, but also to feminism and other anti-oppression -isms--to the things my dad fought for as well as the things he couldn't see his patriarchal ideology was working to unravel.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

#altac 101: Building New Professional Communities

One of the scariest parts of choosing to pursue a non-faculty career was the idea of leaving behind my academic communities. I spent my PhD immersed in engaged, supportive, and mind-opening communities, ones that formed on the picket line at York, in my long-running writing group, and through a national digital humanities consortium that brought together Canadianists from all over the country. Those people made me and my work better, and even as I knew that some of the friendships engendered by those academic working relationships would change when I stopped being a full-time academic, I really hoped that my existing communities would continue to sustain me even as I moved into a new career.

Inevitably, what I'd hoped would happen both has and hasn't. The people who meant the most to me in my academic communities are still in my life in meaningful ways, and I love how our relationships have deepened and changed. But now that I'm in my fourth year of my academic administrative career, and especially now that I'm done my PhD, those communities aren't sustaining me professionally the way they once did. Networking with other humanities academics isn't going to help me further my career goals in the way I need to, and these aren't the people any more with whom I need to talk and share about current research, trends, and best practices.

Happily, however, I've managed to find and build a new professional community that meets my new needs as someone who works in graduate professional development and research administration. It took a little work, a little digging, and a little waiting for the community to build itself up around a fairly new career path, but I've now got an awesome group of people in my corner, and my inbox, who make me feel supported in my work, who help me be better at my job, and with whom I'm excited to collaborate. If you're also embarking on a non-faculty career, or you're someone considering it but fearful of giving up the kind of community you found and built as an academic, I've got some advice:

1) If there's a career, there is probably a professional society for it, although figuring out which one is the best fit for your need and goals can take a bit of work. In my case, it took asking colleagues, talking to people in similar positions, and keeping an eye in the agendas of upcoming events. In the end, I figured out that if I need to talk graduate funding administration, I go to the Ontario Universities Graduate Awards Forum. If I want to connect with my fellow postdoc coordinators, I go to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators conference. Grad professional development? That happens at the annual meetings of the Graduate Career Consortium and the Canadian Consortium of Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators (CCGSPDA). These are the places where my people are now, and those people and places are awesome.

2) If there isn't a professional society, you can make one happen. The CCGSPDA used to be just a small group of people who did graduate and postdoctoral professional development and had a LinkedIn group and semi-regular web calls. But then we got a name, and a Listserv, and an annual meeting, and official recognition by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, and an official mandate, and a whole bunch of new members. We're a proper professional association now, and the CCGSPDA has become the primary place where I network, share ideas, learn about what's new and find collaborators.

3) Find the people like you outside of formal contexts. I run a centre called the Research Training Centre within a hospital-based research institute, at which about 1,200 graduate students and postdocs work, and there are at least a half-dozen research institutes in Toronto alone. And guess what? Almost all of them have some version of my Centre, and some version of me. We've all recently connected for the first time, and we're going to start meeting in the new year to collaborate, share ideas, and trade war stories.

4) Don't forget about Twitter, and find your hashtags. If you can find the accounts and hashtags people in your profession use, you've tapped into a broad and useful professional community that extends beyond the walls of your organization. Via hashtags like #altac, #postac, #withaphd, I can tap into a North America-wide community of people interested in graduate professional and career development in all kinds of contexts, and that diversity of ideas and perspectives makes me so much better at my job.