mental health · resolution

Maintaining Momentum in … Serenity

You know that moment when you’re on vacation and it finally sinks in that you can relax, that life is not so bad, that, whatever happens around you and outside of your control, you’ve still got your health, your relationships, your friends, your family, your something or other? I know I’m making huge assumptions and generalizations here, and those things I’ve just enumerated and taken for granted amount to an enormous privilege, but–and it’s a big “but”–they’re not unheard of, nor impossible. Yes, that moment is what I want to think about more: perspective, serenity, optimism. How do you hang on to them if you’ve been so lucky to achieve them?

Anger at the current situation, righteous indignation at inflammatory rhetoric, and the chaos of regular work life: we’ve experienced them, exposed them, talked about them at length. They are productive affects for a period of time, but can we live with them in perpetuity? I know I can’t. I almost buckled under them and the pressures of a long, unrelenting Edmonton winter. Then I was lucky enough to go on vacation, where I managed to avoid email (gasp), shun Facebook (yes, it can be done), and circumvent Twitter (not a peep). And then came a day–the third one, more precisely–when I was completely and utterly happy, serene, and optimistic. I had it: perspective! And that was the peak, because the very next day? I began to worry. It was a meta-worry at first: a worry that anxiety will eventually begin to pile up again, take hold of my chest and constrict my airways. Needless to say, the fourth day was not the best. I lurched on Facebook, checked my email, and looked on Twitter. Not a good idea. That’s when the question struck me: how do I bottle the feeling of being at peace that I experienced on that third day, and bring it back with me? Hold on to it? Feed it, take care of it, and grow it?

I’ve heard–mostly in advertisements–that people make resolutions for new years. I make them on vacation, and they’re always the same: to maintain the momentum of my serenity; to remember to indulge in the unconditional love of my family; to keep in mind the important things, and to rejoice in their existence; to revel in optimism, in spite of its occasional cruelty. To breathe.

If you’re not like me, you can probably keep your perspective on you while immersed in your regular activities. Me? Routine kills my perspective. What I mean by “routine” is not really doing the same thing day after day, but staying in the same place, going to work, taking the kids to daycare and back. In brief: the daily grind. I need literal distance to gain perspective, and not just metaphorical one. But that literal distance is not always achievable, and not by everybody. So, how do you gain metaphorical distance? Or better yet, how do you maintain perspective, serenity, or whatever you want to call it, at the same time as living through the daily grind?

Some time ago, I had decided that I cannot live with in-betweenness for protracted periods of time. So, when I undertook to do my PhD, I decided that I will regard it as my job. Work at it more or less as a Monday-to-Friday nine-to-five occupation. It will be something I do, not who I am. As we were driving back home on Tuesday night on a sleepy and darkened Edmonton highway, kids asleep in their carseats, I realized I need to do the same for being on the job market. People say being on the job market is a full-time job, and they are right. So I will treat it as a job. I have been gaining experience, too, and that makes it easier. I will perform the tasks associated with applications as part of my duties, as part of my job, and hopefully it will make it easier. More detached. More serene.


Boast Post!

You might be surprised to know that one of our top ten all-time posts here at Hook & Eye is the original Boast Post, from November of 2010. In fact, it pretty steadily makes the top five list on a weekly basis. More than a hundred people have clicked through to it in the last week. I’m a little mystified, but reminded that we had thought at the time of making it a monthly feature.


To be honest with you, I wanted to write a post today complaining about some one damn thing or another. I’m overworked. Late on stuff. Stuck in a stupid budget sequester airline snafu and flying in the middle of the night. Grading. Meetings. Glasses don’t fit right. Tree falling down. Blah, blah, blah. This morning, my husband told me my hair looked nice and I responded with, “Yeah, until we get outside and the rain and wind wrecks it all.”

Man, I’m a negative Nellie lately. Well, I can’t change the world, only how I react to it. So I’m going to react more positively. Starting with a boast post, and I hope you will join me in boasting in your turn.

Remember how it works: you have to boast about yourself, without apologizing or cringing. Did you get some awesome teaching evals? Submit an article? Finish a dissertation chapter? Give an awesome conference presentation? Get an unexpected but meaningful compliment? Tell the world! Or at least, that chunk of the world that reads this blog.

I’ve got two things!

First, I got the highest possible merit score for my service to the university this year. I’m really super proud! I did feel like I did an awful lot of service work, and some of it well, even, and it really means a lot to me to have that effort/accomplishment recognized. It was the highest score I’d got on anything in nine years here, and it floored me.

Second, I was at a conference in North Carolina this past weekend, and at the first coffee break, a lovely woman walked up to introduce herself to me. She said, “Hello! You’re famous in my department! We all read your blog!” and then she mentioned one particular post she quite liked! Hello there, Katja from UBC! You made my whole day! And your paper on Theresa Spence and the genre of the “hunger strike” was fascinating and timely.

OMG, it was really really hard to just write those down. I want to go back and cut one out (too boastful!) or sneak in some self-deprecation to undermine myself (find the stealth deprecation above and win a prize!). So I know you don’t want to do it either. But do it! I’ll totally applaud you, and you’ll get a spring in your step!

academic reorganization

Do the Work

It is spring, and as Margrit noted on Friday this translates to exhaustion more often than not. Indeed, prompted by her post I looked back over my April posts for the last two years. I have written about women’s hesitation to speak publicly, racial and gender inequities in higher learning, and avoiding end of term sadness several times. While old T.S. Eliot’s ubiquitous claims about April may well be true, I maintain that the adrenaline and pure determination and bull-headedness required to get through February, March, and April almost unfailingly leave me with enough energy to lie on the floor under my desk and feel sorry for myself. Avoiding the post-term tristesse is challenging for all kinds of reasons. Yes, winter is hard. Yes, the work we do in the Academy is demanding. Yes, it never ends. Yes, finding — or forging — balance is work in and of itself. Yes, all of the research plans for summer must be made. These are but a few of the myriad legitimate reasons to simply want to close the office door and take a nap.

But as I find myself once again seeking ways to work through the end of term emotional and physical exhaustion this year, I find I am changing my strategies. Rather than fully succumb to the ennui that inevitably finds me at this time of year, I find I am looking for ways to become excited about work again. That’s right: I am looking for ways to reengage with work. Stay with me.

As a precariously employed contract worker whose fields of research are in Canadian cultural production and feminist theory I am invigorated by the work that is happening in my fields. I am also reminded how necessary and vital this work is both inside and outside the Academy proper. And as we well know, if you find yourself working and living in spaces that are outside the dominant discourses you must continually do the work to keep those spaces from being erased or effaced. Yes, this is exhausting, but it is also wonderfully exciting. And right now there are several ways I am reinvigorating myself with work that both is and feels vital. You can too.

Here are a few ways I am going to do the work in order to remind myself why I love this work (even when the conditions of employment don’t love me or so many of my friends and colleagues):

I am going to donate to the Canadian Women in the Literary Art’s (CWILA) fundraising event. Last year CWILA was launched as a means of addressing and changing the inequitable critical culture of reviews in Canada. It was — and still 99% is — run entirely on volunteer labour by people who have multiple demands on their time. CWILA is doing the work because it is vital and necessary. Here‘s where you can help, if you so choose.

I am going to have my students participate in the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In #GWWI. The organizers of the write-in have noted that there is a dearth of critically sophisticated entries on women and especially women of colour on Wikipedia. Rather than point it out and lament this fact, they are organizing to do something about it. Check out their site for fantastic ways to do the work in a manner that fits with your time.

Life as an academic worker is bizarre. It is simultaneously an incredible privilege, and, so often, misunderstood and denigrated. I find these experiences to be even more strange and hard as someone who consistently frets about when and if I will have to leave the academy. Yet, working with CWILA, participating in events like the GWWI, and writing for Hook & Eye remind me that in some ways whether or not the institutions will make space for me is irrelevant. I believe in the work, and so I will continue to do it. And that realization, friends, is energizing.

Oh, and it helps that it is sunny in the Maritimes today as well.

after the LTA · job notes · work

Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

Since I completed my PhD last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-academic work opportunities for people like me. I’ve discussed the kinds of work I might be interested in with a range of successful, gainfully employed friends and colleagues. When I describe the work that I did as part of my PhD with friends who work in the private sector, they are usually optimistic that my skills and knowledge sets would serve me well on the job market. And yet, in speaking with my post-doctoral colleagues, many of us have struggled to find appropriate non-academic job opportunities. When we do find something to apply for, it seems our resumes simply drift out into the abyss, never to be heard from again.

There is a very clear disconnection between how we articulate our academic skills and the kinds of work experience that are privileged in the private sector workforce. Yet, rationally, it seems that we should be qualified for many jobs. Indeed, when I have participated on committees and special contracts in the private and public sector, I felt that my academic training allowed me to excel in these positions.

The problem, I believe, is one that Aimée Morrison cleverly touched upon a couple of years ago. Her post “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD” really struck me when I read it. To summarize, Morrison argues that the PhD should be treated as a job, not as a path that leads to a job. The PhD is too long a distraction from life and career building if we use it as a time-out, rather than a career stage. This is important advice (seriously, go back and read her article!).

If we take the degree as a job, then we need to learn how to articulate our time in the degree as time spent working at a job. (We also need to change the way the private sector perceives time spent in graduate school – I’ve started working on this little problem here).

But let’s talk about our skills shall we? Where do all of those little jobs that we have been doing go on a normal resume? The thing about a resume is it is short and to the point. The list of skills that we provide at the top needs to somehow be reinforced by our work experience, which takes up the bulk of the resume. The problem is, a list of TA-ships and sessional positions doesn’t really account for the design, management and completion of a major research project, the dissemination of multiple, peer-reviewed research papers, the mentoring of undergraduates, the committee work, the grant applications, the EVERYTHING that we have done over the past 5-10 years of our lives.

How do we translate academic into non-academic? Here are a list of things that I recommend doing. It is incomplete. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have done some research… 😉

1) Find a way to incorporate all of the things that you have accomplished over your graduate career into the Work Experience section of your CV. Employers want to see evidence of your skills. Listing “research design” as a skill, then showing an exclusively teaching-based work experience does not convince anyone of this skill. Key terms for describing the dissertation as a job include: researched and wrote; identified research problem; developed evaluation criteria; developed a timeline; public dissemination; public speaking.

2) Frame your experience according to skills, rather than knowledge. What did you actually do? Also, in describing teaching experience, focus less on what you taught and more on skills such as training, scheduling, mentoring, coaching. Get your private sector speak on. Other terms include: delegate; coordinate; manage groups; provide performance feedback; supervision of research team; professional communication; writing; editing.

3) Give it a name! Every research contract or project that you worked on needs to read on your resume like a job. Jobs have titles, duration, responsibilities, employers and supervisors. Research assistant for some professor they’ve never heard of is not a sufficient description. The project needs a tittle, it needs to be compelling, and the actual work you did (not the knowledge that you helped create) must be described in detail.

4) Translate your skills. Read the non-academic job posting carefully and repeat key terms from it in your application (you know, like the way that undergrads repeat the exam question in their answers on final exams). This is especially important for electronic applications which are increasingly fed through a software application which searches for these keywords. If your resume and cover letter do not have them, they will be trashed without over being seen by an actual human. Also, a resume is only two pages (max) and a cover letter is one.

Look, I’m as angry as everyone else is about the corporatization of the university and the steady neo-liberal creep that is deteriorating independent scholarship and forcing precarious labour conditions on ever greater numbers of teaching faculty. I’m not saying go do public relations for an oil company intent on destroying a vital ecosystem. But for what you get paid as a sessional, couldn’t you offer your superior research, communication, and mentoring skills to a non-profit or local company whose mandate or product you happen to agree with? Not only that, but if your job actually involves research, you may actually continue publishing in academic journals – something that sessionals and LTAs often don’t have time to do which then almost guarantees they will never be back on the tenure-track.

You know that if that small business, non-profit, government department, big tech company, etc hired you with your many years of carefully honed skills – your advanced research, writing, and editing abilities – that that organization would benefit profoundly. But you need to get in the door to prove it. Getting them to give you a chance means making sure that your education, the greatest investment you have ever made in yourself, doesn’t count against you. This means communicating your wealth of skills and experience in a language that they actually value and understand. It may be obvious to us why someone with our skill set would be a valuable addition to their company, but this is big picture stuff. The manager interviewing applicants probably doesn’t have that kind of long-term, strategic plan in mind. They’re just looking to check off boxes in a list of required skills and previous work experience, then make sure you aren’t unbearable to work with during your interview. So, don’t be argumentative – outside of the academy, most people find this to be anti-social behaviour. Don’t expect your obvious intelligence to be the key to getting a job. Skills, work experience, and your ability to play well with others are what most organizations are really looking for.

Here are a few of resources I found for translating your academic work experience for the private-sector:

Any readers have experience going from the academic to the non-academic track? How did you articulate your skills?

being undone · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · good things · saving my sanity · video

Academic Spring

When the weather turned nice, briefly, this week, I dragged a colleague out to grab a cup of tea on campus, and instead of taking the tunnels and our coats, we walked outside. I breathed in the smell of melting snow and wet earth and dry sand and warm sun.

“Spring is my least favourite season,” I blurted out. “It just makes me so anxious!”

I surprised myself saying it, but it’s true! Since high school, I’ve associated this time of year with fast approaching deadlines for materials I’d been wildly procrastinating on for month. Spring is not new beginning for scholars: it’s a time of reckoning. I did my BA at York, which has eight-month courses, so spring was the culmination of everything, and that usually meant desperation, panic, and last-minute calculation of possible grade outcomes. Ugh. Of course, every April also meant packing up all my worldly belongings and moving back to Kirkland Lake for the summer: not really an awesome prospect. Deadlines and impending uprooting! Spring! What’s not to love! Similar angst accompanied my MA and PhD coursework years: constant apartment moving, and lots of deadlines, and waiting for results from SSHRC!

My colleague has worked as a sessional instructor for a long time: her spring, she notes, is marked usually by enormous piles of grading and total uncertainty as to employment status two weeks hence. Contingent labour in the academy, I imagine, must feel as mixed up about spring as I vestigially do.

We’ve written here before about the marvellous opportunities, the spring-like rebirth that September offers us. Well, I guess April can sometimes be the reverse.

I’ve got no reason to dread spring any more. I own my own home, so I’m not moving anywhere. I have a steady job. I do have a lot of conference paper deadlines, but I get to travel and that always excites me. I just reflexively panic, still, when the snow melts and the trees bud.

You too?

As an antidote to the spring heebie-jeebies, I offer you a video–a lip dub I made with my yoga studio friends and teachers at Queen Street Yoga. It’s full of sunshine and smiles and happy music, and it might make you smile as you grade / write / move / job hunt.

in the news · literature · righteous feminist anger · risky writing · sexist fail

The Finkbeiner Test and What We Say When We Talk About Dead Canadian Writers

By now, it seems that everyone has heard about the almost-laughably sexist New York Times obituary of aeronautical scientist Yvonne Brill. You know, the one that describes her beef stroganoff, her sacrifices for her husband’s career, and her childcare arrangements before it notes that “in the early 1970s [she] invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Douglas Martin, the article’s author, notes that “the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend,” but instead of critiquing the gender bias that prevented Brill from becoming an engineer, uses this circumstance as evidence of her resiliency. Martin, and the newspaper, have been roundly criticized for the article’s sexism, and yet it has been only slightly edited since.

Critiques of Brill’s obituary and mentions of the Finkbeiner Test, designed to avoid gender profiles of female scientists, have started to go hand in hand. To pass the Finkbeiner Test and stand as a profile of a scientist, and not a profile of a woman scientist, the article cannot mention:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…

While the test was designed to assess writing about female scientists, it works just as well for writing about professional women in any field, particularly in those where men outnumber women and women are often held up as trailblazers for their gender. My dissertation work is currently about Canadian poet and academic Jay Macpherson, who died in March 2012. As Cameron Anstee notes, her death was almost entirely ignored by the Canadian literary community, except by people who knew her. When a long and praise-filled obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, albeit nearly six months after Macpherson’s death, I was initially pleased that a major publication had even remembered her. Never mind that it seemingly should have been a given, considering that she was for many years the youngest Governor General’s Award winner for poetry and one of the few Canadian recipients of the prestigious Poetry [Chicago] Levinson Prize. (I later learned that Margaret Atwood, one of Macpherson’s closest and longest friends, convinced the newspaper to run the obituary). But my pleasure largely disappeared when I decided to apply the Finkbeiner Test.

The title of Sandra Martin’s piece was the first red flag: “The nurturing nature of Jay Macpherson.” No mention of her brilliant poetic mind, her many awards, or Martin’s own newspaper’s statement, back in 1957, that Macpherson was Canada’s “finest young poet.” Indeed, no mention of the fact that Macpherson was a poet at all. Despite Macpherson’s choice to remain unmarried and childless, Martin still manages to construct an image of her as maternal which trumps her professional identity, suggesting that her poetic output was small because “she was a ministering angel to waifs and strays, often to the detriment of her own work and health.” Point 4. on the Finkbeiner Test: fail. Points 1 and 7 are spectacular fails in the first paragraph: “After winning the Governor-General’s Literary award for The Boatman in 1957, Jay Macpherson was asked to give a talk about Canadian poetry at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The invitation, which marked the first time the all-male Hart House student union had invited a woman to address its members, provoked such a fuss that women were barred from attending Macpherson’s talk.” And while Macpherson didn’t have a husband to mention, Martin can’t help but credit Macpherson’s success as “a collegial and hard-working member of the Canadian poetic community” to her prominent male mentors: “It didn’t hurt that as a very young poet, she had already attracted the attention of three key mentors and literary scholars: George Johnston, Northrop Frye and Robert Graves.” Let’s consider that a fail on Point 2. Even Macpherson’s work as the founder and sole editor of Emblem Books, which published collections by major Canadian poets including Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy that Anstee argues are “surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century,” is construed as an act of charity rather than of literary labour: “Macpherson put her meagre financial resources into publishing other poets.” I could go on, but I won’t. [Note 1]

In contrast, The Globe and Mail just published the obituary of Milton Wilson, who was one of Macpherson’s first publishers and reviewers, as well as one of her doctoral supervisors. Unlike the title of Macpherson’s obituary, Wilson’s foregrounds his professional accomplishment: “Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man.'” The early paragraphs focus not on his gender, as they do in Macpherson’s, but on his accomplishments; his family life doesn’t come in until well toward the end, and his wife is described only as “attractive.” But what bothers me most is that one of the first things he is praised for is his non-sexist hiring practices: “He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.” I find this paragraph problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, I object to the way the author, Judy Stoffman, uses this instance of non-sexism to whitewash the blatant gender-bias he displays elsewhere; this is a snippet of his review of Macpherson’s The Boatman, which was considered by many the signal collection of the 1950s in Canada: “Her palace of art is distinctly feminine, … her apocalyptic imagery, pervasive as it is, remains gratuitous and decorative, [and] her Atlantis is a pink cloud, not a prophecy.” Secondly, I can’t imagine that a female professor would ever be praised for asking nothing about a candidate’s personal life. Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lack of sexism should be a baseline expectation of decent human behaviour, and therefore not worthy of praise, whether it’s 1967 or 2007. [Note 2] As Kelly Williams Brown argues on her cult blog Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 486 Easy(ish) Steps:

Step 277: Do not expect kudos for being decent

Let’s say you are a non-racist, thoughtful-to-LGBTQA folks, non-sexist, bill-paying-on-time, recycling-sorting, never-kicks-puppies kind of person: To you I say, and mean it, congratulations. That is awesome. Take a second and feel nice about yourself. All done? Good. Because those are not things that make you worthy of praise. That shit is standard. Do not expect others to pat you on the back for a lack of assholishness. Pat yourself, and others, on the back when it is merited.

If there’s to be a test for profiles about men like the Finkbeiner Test, it needs to contain the rule that it must not include “How he didn’t discriminate against people with less power and social currency than himself.” As Brown says, “That shit is standard.”

I’m angry a lot about the state of CanLit, and the state of writing in general. There’s lots to get mad about: Brill’s obituary, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s stunning account of the sexism she’s faced as an author and war-photographer, the disparity between what we say when we talk about dead Canadian writers if they’re male or if they’re female. But there’s some to get excited about too: despite the fact that I can predict with near 100 per cent certainty that CWILA‘s national survey of book reviews–now underway, if you want to volunteer–will again reveal that women are seriously underrepresented as both reviewers and the reviewed, at least someone’s doing the counting. Hopefully the numbers will look better than last year:

And at least Brill’s obituary now lists “rocket scientist” before “beef stroganoff.”

What gets you mad about issues of gender in CanLit, or in the arts more generally? What gives you hope? 

Note 1: Sandra Martin’s piece is otherwise well-written, accurate, and positive; she’s also been generous with her time and knowledge in helping me with my own work, for which I’m grateful. I also don’t mean to suggest that her gender-bias is intentional; these sorts of gender profiles are far from rare in the genre, and we need things like the Finkbeiner test to alert us to our own blind spots as readers and writers.

Note 2: It pains me to note that when I raised my issues with a male colleague, I received a brisk dismissal; he did, however, later concede that he understood my point. I read his gaslighting, which I’m sure was unintentional, as a symptom of the normalcy of casual gender-bias. 

academic reorganization · change · race · reflection · solidarity

A New Politics of Loss? A Response to "We Are Not All Jims: The Colour Line and Sadness in the Academy"

Last week my friend and colleague Jade Ferguson wrote a guest post on the colour line and sadness in the university. As she notes, one recent catalyst to her post was a Think Tank that I co-organized with Smaro Kamboureli at the TransCanada Institute. The aim of the Think Tank was to open a frank discursive space for addressing the continual defunding of the university, the ongoing defamation of intellectual work, and – perhaps most pressing for me, initially – the omnipresent experience of anxiety for emergent scholars. The Think Tank was for me an event I am only beginning to work through, for the spaces that were opened there were unprecedented in their genuineness, their affect, and their challenges. I knew going into the weekend that it would be hard, for the room was composed of colleagues in unequal power relations.
While this was part of the organizational point, I was nervous. But then, I live with a certain kind of anxiety that I have naturalized. I am increasingly used to performing my own experiences of occupational precarity as a means of both dealing with and drawing attention to but a few of the systematic and structural problems of the Academy. Indeed, as I stated in my portion of the opening remarks, I approached Smaro Kamboureli in a moment of profound sadness and anxiety. Sadness cleared the way for me to risk approaching a senior colleague. Sadness made me momentarily brave. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the multifaceted and unequal experiences of sadness that constellated in that room over the space of thirty-six hours. My own unpreparedness underscores two emergent issues that Jade addresses: the colour line and what Jade terms “the public feeling of sadness in the academy.”
I was one of the nine emerging scholars. The term “emerging” in this case acts an umbrella term that covers the vastly different subject-experiences of part-time/contingent/contract/postdoctoral/ and newly tenure-track faculty. As we each framed our thinking about and experiences of “shared precarity” in either position or response papers multiple tensions came to the fore. As Jade notes, four of the five newly tenure-track faculty members were people of colour. The two contract workers – of which I was one – were white, and the two people in postdoctoral fellowships were also white. It became quickly and viscerally apparent that there were multiple experiences of “emergence.” Conversant but dissimilar questions surfaced: How do conditions of austerity reify and ossify extant colour lines? How – and can – one tell one’s own story of on-going precarity when one has the tenure-track job? How are stories of academic precarity participating in a recapitulation of racism in the Academy? How many years can one be on the job market and be an emergent scholar? How are public feelings of sadness gendered and aged? While we could all recognize the interconnectedness of these questions, we did not all understand and experience them. And this made us sad, albeit in different ways.
Employing Ann Cvetkovitch’s work on public feeling, Jade writes that our varied and difficult discussion revealed “the emotional colour line” that separates (her) black sadness from (my) white sadness. She uses the term “incommensurable” to articulate the emotional gulf between one form of sadness – for example my anxiety around my own labour precarity that I experience in my white body – and another – her experience of racism, alienation, and disenfranchisement as a tenure-track black scholar. These experiences are incommensurate because of the vastly different scales of historical experience that are marked on our bodies.
If the hard conversations we had opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (Cvetkovitch 117) as Jade suggests, then I see part of my responsibility as attempting to dwell in the uncomfortable spaces of uncertainty and difficulty; to think through the emotional colour line, rather than to attend immediately to concrete political action that might address the lived experiences of precarity we had gathered to discuss. In other words, I want to dwell in sadness, to ask, as Sara Ahmed does, what happiness does when it becomes “a measure of progress – a performance indicator – as well as a criterion for making decisions about resources” (“The Happiness Turn” 7). The neoliberal discourse informing the Academy’s actions is predicated on instrumentalizing happiness as a measurement of progress. What this means is that happiness – that “stupid” form of optimism, according to Lauren Berlant – becomes a regulatory structure that both informs how we operate and how we identify one another. “Happiness” exposes assumptions about who gets to be happy, and whether or not happiness is ever possible in the current social structure. Moreover, “happiness” becomes a normalizing regulatory structure that attempts to level nuanced forms of inequity. As Ahmed suggests, “the face of happiness, at least in this description, looks very much like the face of privilege” (“The Happiness Turn” 9). I fear that without a sustained and careful discussion of what happiness in the Academy means resisting the neoliberalization of intellectual work will recapitulate those deep-seated inequities that are at the heart of politics as usual. That I may uncritically be participating in a reification of the emotional colour line makes me more than sad. It makes me melancholic, and that might not be a bad thing.
In The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief Anne Anlin Cheng suggests that viewing race through a framework of melancholia might productively reveal its instability and “indebtedness to the dis-identity it is also claiming” (24). Its those double-binds and dis-identifications that need attending to if we who affiliate our labour with the Academy wish to embark on a new politics of loss that does not reinstate old and pernicious inequities. After all, it was a while ago that Adam Smith observed the affective sleight of hand employed by capitalism: it moves us from “miserable equality” to “happy inequality” (Wealth of Nations). As Sara Ahmed notes, Smith’s “nineteenth-century utilitarianism involves an explicit refutation … in which inequality because the measure of advancement and happiness” (“The Happiness Turn” 9).
In the last week I have found myself wondering whether melancholia, which I would frame as unresolved grief, might offer a productive framework for addressing the multiple tensions at work in the public feeling(s) of sadness in the academy. That (s) I have added onto feeling is important. It seems to me that one of the risks that resurfaced in the Think Tank was that risk of unintentionally flattening experience in the name of solidarity. My sadness is not another’s, regardless of the similarity or simultaneity of our experiences. And yet, with Jade I too want to think through how we – by which I mean those of use labouring inside/outside/on the margins of the Academy – can form temporary and productive coalitions that do not flatten out our variegated experiences of loss, sadness, and disenfranchisement.


Happy end of term!

It’s been a little quiet on Hook & Eye this week, and that’s how you know it’s the end of term in Canadian academia. You know, between the marking, the neverending winter, the budget cuts and threat to academic integrity, we’re having a bit of trouble finding our bearings. Many people I talk to confess to fatigue, but the reasons differ only to a point. Obviously, my interlocutors tend to be from among my friends and my colleagues, but the refrain stands, and something’s gotta give in the name of self-care and sanity. When I started thinking about this post, I thought I’d tackle my own reason for fatigue, which, at the moment, resides in identifying the best strategy for my eldest’s school placement. I was going to connect it with how difficult it is–STILL–to be a working parent, and how you have to pretend you are having it ALL, because, after all, you CHOSE to have kids (I am purposefully not linking to that article here), even if we sometimes have to hide our families to get a job.

Instead, I decided to say what I am doing for self-care, and to invite you to share what you are or would like to be doing to relax, feel good, achieve a modicum of balance, and renew yourself.
– exercise: I went back to running. Actually, it’s more like running and walking, but I am getting outside  (just like the nice palaeontologist, Dr. Scott, from Dinosaur Train advises us)
– watch stuff I like, even if it feels like wasting time: right now, I still have one more episode from the 2008 BBC Little Dorrit, which is available on Netflix. When I’m done, I’m sure I’ll find something else.
– be more laid back about parenting: not every moment has to be an educational moment. In fact, the best education might happen when we just fling ourselves on the floor, and let the kids go to town on us. Mine offered me a back rub. While I was somewhat depleted of hair at the end of it (should have put it up, but didn’t think of it), it was about 10 minutes (an eternity for the toddler-preschool set) of me just lying down!

As a result, I’m hoping to go from

to something more like
However, I’ll probably need your help in getting more ideas on what to do. Here’s to a happy weekend, and a relaxing end of term!
academic reorganization · race · solidarity

Guest Post: We are not all Jims: the Colour Line and Sadness in the University

Today’s guest post is the first in an at least two-part conversation around the challenges — old and new — of the Academy. Next week I will post a response to Jade Ferguson’s piece that continues the conversation.


A recent Think Tank brought scholars from across Canada to the TransCanada Institute to discuss the continuous defunding of the university, the increasing denigration of intellectual work, and the anxiety-ridden conditions faced by emerging scholars.* Some of the critiques of the neoliberal devaluation of post-secondary education were notable for their deployment of the discourse of race struggle. The embedding of market-logic and corporate-style management into the academy was likened to the degraded conditions of a “plantation economy.” This was not my first time hearing senior faculty describe management as “overseers.” Jo-Anne Wallace’s “wishful allegory of university administration” employs Leslie Fiedler’s well-known and controversial reading of the racial relationship between Huck and Jim (18). She writes, “it is we [faculty] who are the dreamers, the Jims, who call out … I won’t say to ‘our oppressors’ … to come back to the raft again, come back to the breast, to the dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (18). I want to take up the issue of race in the struggle against the corporatization of the university by examining “the problem of the color line” (W.E.B. Du Bois’s pithy formulation for discussing race relations in the early twentieth century) and the public feeling of sadness in the academy.

One of the central objectives of the Think Tank was to devise some concrete means that may help provide mentorship and sustainability for recent doctoral graduates. Nine emerging scholars (4 part-time/contingent/contract faculty and 5 full-time/tenure- track faculty, all of whom teach and do research on Canadian literature) bravely provided stories about their precarious existence in the university. These stories outlined the pervasive conditions of unprotected work and invisible exploitation faced by recent graduates. Despite this “shared precariousness,” an underlying tension quickly emerged: 4 of the 5 tenure track faculty were people of colour and all 4 contract faculty were white. Rather than reducing this racial division to happenstance, this local instantiation of the colour line reflects in part the new racialized conditions of emerging scholars in the Canadian academy. In contrast to the anxiety-ridden conditions of the job market described by white emerging scholars (at the Think Tank and on blogs such as Hook & Eye), it often appears as if people of colour are “the beneficiary of policies that provide jobs, fellowships, and other support” (Cvetkovich 124). Like the other junior faculty of colour, I was hired ABD. I did not experience a long and arduous struggle for employment. However, as Ann Cvetkovich astutely notes, “what often goes invisible in the polite world of bureaucratic culture are the casual forms of racism or lack of understanding that make this condition of so-called privilege one that is also pervaded by anxiety and stress” (124).

The four faculty of colour each expressed their own complex affective stories about what racism in the academy feels like. My ongoing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement as a black scholar has made it impossible for any easy sense of belonging in the academy, and the burden of this untenable existence has created an inconsolable sadness that affects all levels of my everyday experience. However, I was not the only one who was sad. The university-in-crisis is an emotional catalyst for sadness on both sides of the divide. Erin Wunker uses Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism” to describe the “affective bind of precarious employment,” but “suspended agency” is perhaps most affectively accompanied by forms of sadness that descend “when the belief that one should be happy or protected turns out to be wrong and when a privileged form of hopefulness that has so often been entirely foreclosed for black people is punctured” (Wunker, Cvetkovich 116). While listening to their stories, I found myself unwilling to fully attend to the depth of this white sadness; after all, I told myself, “their forms of sadness were incommensurable with those of the historically disenfranchised, an incommensurability that is lived affectively as alienation and hopelessness” (120). The difficult discussion chillingly revealed “the emotional color line” that separates (my) black sadness and (their) white sadness (116).

The Think Tank opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (117), which our ideas for possible concrete political action in the concluding session were woefully unable to address. The turn to immediate concrete political action seemed to circumscribe the call for political uncertainty that had previously been expressed. Engaging with David Eng and Shin Hee Han’s suggestion that “melancholy’s negativity might in fact be a productive corrective to a naïve politics of hope,” Cvetkovich argues that “tending to feelings means the disruption of politics as usual” (117). Central to this work, she argues, is a “sense that we might not know what politics is,” and thus, we “need to slow down in order to see what these feelings might be” (117). The challenge left before us is to explore “the full measure” of this public feeling of sadness “without seeking immediate redemption…[or] giving up a hopefulness that remains stubbornly faithful for no good reason in the midst of despair” (117). I abruptly left the concluding session of the Think Tank because I was unable to tell my colleagues, without collapsing in tears, that despite the chasm of mis/understanding I still had hope. In our struggle to preserve the “dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (Wallace 18), a more nuanced coalitional politics and political rhetoric must emerge. We are not all Jims.

Jade Ferguson, University of Guelph 

* I sincerely thank Smaro Kamboureli and Erin Wunker for organizing the TransCanada Think Tank Session on “Sustainability, Mentorship, and Intellectual Production: The Present and Future of Emerging Scholars in Canadian Literary Studies” (April 5-6, 2013), and all the scholars who openly and generously participated in the difficult and necessary discussions. My response to the Think Tank is inspired by the dialogue and struggle that occurred at the TransCanada Institute. While I have tried to capture the spirit of the event, my response is limited to my own perspective, and thus any faults in the response lie with me.

Works Cited

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!” English Studies in Canada 37.3-4 (Sept/Dec 2011): 17-20. Print.

Wunker, Erin. “On Doubt.” Hook & Eye. 18 March 2013. Web. 7 April 2013.

community · empowerment · learning · mental health · teaching

A Community of Care

The end of term brings about inevitable musings on the cyclical nature of the academic life. What else is procrastination from marking good for? I would like to think more about what the end of term brings as a way of understanding why everyone I talk to–myself included (why, yes, I do talk to myself, don’t you?)–seems to be exhausted. Things clicked last night when I was talking to students, and the answer comes back, once again, to emotional labour, and the duty we have to care for one another in order to have a community. The reverse is also true: we cannot have a community without care. At the end of the fall term, I contextualized that care as the need to pay attention to students’ mental health. Today, I’m looking at care in the context of post-secondary education in Alberta. If you’re tired of hearing about the budget cuts higher education in Alberta is facing, you might as well click away right not, but you’ll also miss an example of community care that creative people have organized in response.

Katherine Binhammer and Diane Chisholm, professors in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, organized a teach-in in response to the Alberta Government’s Draft Letter of Expectation for UAlberta. More specifically, they have rounded up a panel of faculty from the department to showcase why humanities research, critical thinking, and creativity are not only relevant, but indeed crucial to our life (and I’m not shy of universalizing this point). Alongside Katherine and Diane, Julie Rak, Michael O’Driscoll, Mark Simpson, Cecily Devereux, Eddy Kent, Jaimie Baron, and Nat Hurley took turns using different literary studies methodologies to pinpoint the problems with the language, the rhetoric, and the very real implications of this draft letter. And they did in front of a full HC L-1, which is the largest lecture hall in the Humanities Centre.

It was a moment of pride, of solidarity, of empowerment. Most of all, it was a moment of building a community of care; a moment of jolting us out of our neoliberal-enforced solitary labour, especially at this busy point in the term; a moment of doing our jobs. It was also a brilliant demystification of the “ivory tower” argument that props up so much political rhetoric about the irrelevance of the humanities.  To use the poshest of buzz-words, it was knowledge mobilization at its best.

Why do I link it to care? Because, the most frequent argument used to belittle humanities research–and, it has to be said, which we use ourselves–is that “it’s not going to cure cancer.” No, humanities research is not visibly health care. But it is care! And it even is *health* care. It’s the best form of health care because it’s the preventive kind. This teach-in says we know what ails us as a community, and here is the answer: more human care, more mental health care through solidarity, more coming together. So, join us as we take care of our community!*

Watch the CBC Edmonton coverage of the Teach-In, but whatever you do, don’t read the comments.

*Come march with us from the UAlberta quad to the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday, 10 April, at 4 pm.