balance · summer

Big Summer Plans

The end of April usually looks something like this:

  • finish grading 
  • send plagiarism cases to the department for investigation
  • submit grades 
  • hold breath to see if students will petition grades and require follow up 
  • breathe a sigh of relief that term is over 
  • start madly writing conference papers and packing lists
  • plan my impossible summer to-do list whilst simultaneously panicking about not being able to get it all done before Labour Day rolls around

This year, I said no to all of that, or at least to the parts that come after “breathe a sigh of relief.” Yes, I’m still going to Congress and DHSI like always. Yes, I’ve still got an academic summer to-do list. I’m going to finish up a couple of articles that I’ve had on the back-burner for awhile, write as much of my dissertation as I can, see about pitching some more book reviews (since it turns out that we need more reviews by and about women, I love reviewing and I’m good at it), and start planning the course I’m teaching in the fall.

But you know what? That list isn’t the really important one. Because I’ve spent too many summers sitting in my office, the library, or an archive in a city that I don’t really want to be in. Long days of work that stretch longer as the sun stays out, wishing I was out enjoying my city and the light. So this year, the important list of things I want to do with my summer looks like this:

  • take my books and my notebook to the beach as many days as I can possibly manage and soak up the sounds of water while I work in the sun
  • play in my garden
  • play in my kitchen, ideally with things I’ve grown in the garden
  • spend long evenings on patios surrounded by folks I like
  • explore the whole half of my city that I tend to forget is there
  • say no to work-related trips that aren’t absolutely necessary so I don’t have to spend time wishing I was home
  • read books that have nothing to do with work but that make me excited about language
  • write things that have nothing to do with work but that make me excited about language
  • watch terrible summer action movies on the big screen, sometimes at dinnertime so that I can pretend that popcorn is totally an appropriate meal for a grown woman
  • watch pickup baseball games in the park with a picnic
  • continue to perfect my (already pretty perfect) homemade ice cream recipe

What I hope will happen is that I roll into Labour Day tanned, relaxed, and feeling like, in the words of Anne Wilkinson, I’ve “peel[ed] the skin of summer/ With [my] teeth/ And suck[ed] its marrow from a kiss.” And you know what? I’ll probably get more, and better, work done this summer than I do when it’s all about push and panic. Isn’t that always the way?

So tell me, dear readers: what are your big summer plans, academic and otherwise? How do you approach work-life balance over the summer?

academic work · empowerment · serious · silly

Notes from the conference circuit

‘Tis the season…for conferences. This week it’s the 2013 John Douglas Taylor Conference at McMaster University – “You Can’t be Serious.”

This afternoon, I attended a Round Table Discussion on “The Engaged University” where the panelists considered the “possibilities for ethical encounters through university practices of community engagement.” Edward Bartlett and Katia Hildebrandt, both of University of Regina offered an intriguing discussion of our serious and silly sides in the academy. Drawing upon Erving Goffman, they argue that, as participants in the university, we all select masks related to our serious and silly selves. Whether or not we select a serious mask depends upon the situation and our role within it. They note that professors are accorded serious masks in their roles as respected authorities, but may of course also choose a silly mask when appropriate. In contrast, undergraduate students have more freedom to wear their silly masks. Ever sit at the back of a lecture hall? See all of those laptops open to facebook – that’s the silly mask.

The crucial point that Bartlett and Hildebrant make is that graduate students experience a more challenging hybrid identity. A graduate student might where their “silly” student mask in the classroom in the morning, and then re-enter that space in the afternoon wearing their “serious” mask as a university instructor.

When I think about many of the professional development challenges that I experienced throughout my PhD, I think this articulation of the dual-identity really captures well the confusions, frustrations, and marginalities of the graduate student position. Being at times a student and at others a member of staff renders interactions with other students and staff complicated.

My personal inclination is that, as apprenticing academics, graduate students should be accorded more seriousness. If graduate students are expected to mentor undergraduates through running tutorials and working as sessional instructors, then they should be treated as serious contributors to the education process.

When I look back on my experiences as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, the negative moments that stand out for me are all of the instances where I felt vulnerable or marginalized in relation to my undergraduate students and the department, and consequently over-reacted (defensively) in order to reinforce my serious mask. I was seeking power, not because I derived pleasure from power, but because I felt utterly powerless in my role as an instructor.

How do you balance your serious and silly identities in the classroom?

academy · research

Clarity for interdisciplinarity

Do you know anyone who doesn’t do interdisciplinary research? I don’t, but my acquaintance may be self-selective. As the buzz-word of at least the last decade, interdisciplinarity should be not only supported, but built-in at every level. If that’s the truth of your situation, I envy you, because in my world, I have to pragmatically acknowledge the barriers every single day, and take strategic decisions. Far from an idealized goal, interdisciplinarity constitutes many academics’ lived reality, yet research infrastructure still clings to the old disciplinary boundaries. For better or for worse. I think we should do more to explain our disciplinary assumptions, and to bring down those boundaries through clarity. You know, not in a “but I do important work, too,” defensive manner, but by doing what we know best: education.

The Better: Publication Expectations
Sometimes those boundaries are put in place to protect, rather than hinder academics. Case in point: publication output when it comes to funding. We all know that nowadays, *cough, cough* quantity rules. However, expectations regarding quantity differ wildly from one discipline to another. I follow people on Twitter who seem to be submitting another article every fortnight. In English, publishing the equivalent of one peer-reviewed article a year is the unspoken norm or median. Sure, there are exceptionally productive people whose output makes everyone else wonder about that person’s brush with divinity or his/her sleeping allotment. There are also people who publish less. And even though I’ve put this topic under the header of the “better,” there is a problem with the secrecy and disavowal of actual “expectations.” I’ve gone out on a limb to say this is the expectation, but it is a tacit one that I’ve heard of spoken in hushed tones in the hallways. No one, in my experience, puts it in the English Graduate Studies manual, unfortunately. This lack of transparency contributes to the culture of anxiety and fear, that ultimately works in favour of the neoliberal system by pitting us against one another. Clarity, people, clarity!

The Better: Methodologies
You do what? And you call it research? Well, fortunately, nobody has said anything like that to my face, but, especially for the humanities, our methodologies may seem rather murky to outsiders, and, dare I say it, even to ourselves. I don’t want to generalize, but I do wish we’d be more clear on what methodologies we work with, and how and why they are as rigorous as empirical studies. For our benefit as well as of people unfamiliar with scholarly practice, this is the best time to explain ourselves in a clear way. Start from scratch and lay out assumptions. You know, like we do in our introductory courses. If politicians or the general public seem to be at a loss as to what we research and how we do it, why don’t we educate them? Strike two for clarity.

For Worse: Lack of mobility
We can view these categories used to create benchmarks and standards as a pharmakon or, to make correct gramatical agreement, pharmaka. The same criteria that make one’s fellow discipline-dwellers acknowledge one’s research profile hinders others from conferring the validating nod. In the absence of clarity and education, someone from the social sciences would read even a prolific English Literature researcher’s CV as a study in slackerdom. You’ve published how much? And you’re still employed? By a university?

I know we *know* these issues. They’re part of the mythology of the university, right? The problem is with who “we” are. Academics become enraged, and with good reason, when political posturing targets them, with dire material results–as in stringent budget cuts–or when bureaucrats decide how research “excellence” is to be judged, more often quantitatively than not. So, can we find a way to educate the general public on what our standards are? Can we do more outreach? Can we bridge the gap that “inter-” leaves? What do you think?

What are your personal experience with interdisciplinarity and what do you think should be done about the obstacles?

being undone · community

When the Well Runs Dry…

I wasn’t able to post over the last month: the tank was empty. The well ran dry. I was feeling pretty burnt out with end-of-semester fatigue.
I’ve felt this way before.
So, what does one do? You fill the well back up again, but not with work. You fill it with as much play as your schedule will allow.
These instruments fill my well.
I love playing old-time Appalachian-style stringband music. I started playing the fiddle as an adult, while I was writing my dissertation. I’ve been at it for about five years. I think it’s one of the things that helped me finish my PhD. For one thing, learning the fiddle broadened my social circle beyond other graduate students; while having a supportive group of grad student friends was also really important in helping me finish, interacting with folks outside of academia (or meeting musicians who were also academics) gave me some healthy perspective on what I was doing in graduate school. I met people who showed me that it’s possible to have a life and be an academic, although not always all the time… it gets harder to maintain that balance at end-of-semester crunch time, and I’m not sure “balance” is even a reasonable goal to have at the end of term. At the end of a semester, survival is the only goal.
While I love the tunes themselves, I also love how this music is played. The fiddles all play the melody more-or-less in unison over and over again. It’s meditative. There’s a basic melody line, but there’s some room for colouring outside the lines, as well. It can be a very forgiving genre. This can make the music a little boring to listen to, but very fun to play. I was once on the Montreal-Toronto train listening to a Bob Carlin CD (old-time fiddle and banjo music). Strangely, the sound didn’t seem to be coming through my headphones, so I had to crank up the volume on my laptop. After about 20 minutes, I heard a voice a couple of rows back say, “Excuse me, but could you please turn your music down?” I had that sinking, “Is this about me?” feeling and took the headphones out of my ears. My CD was blaring away for the entire train to hear. I turned down the volume and said, “Sorry. I didn’t realize” and the lady across the aisle said, “Yeah. It was just the same thing over and over and over again.”
The bumper sticker that I once saw at a music festival is true: “Old-time music. It’s better than it sounds.”
I also really love that I learned the fiddle as an adult. It reminds me that I can still learn new things. It also means that I will never be a virtuoso. I love having that off the table as an expectation for myself. It just makes this activity an ongoing project done for pleasure and love of the music.
Playing old-time music is “real time” activity, as a friend of mine calls it; when you’re doing it, you’re fully immersed. I can’t do anything else. I’m not thinking about deadlines or the many list of things I “should” do.
So, readers, what fills your tank back up when it’s feeling empty? What are your “real time” activities?

solidarity · women · you're awesome

Hot Topic: Solidarity and Shout-outs

Remember that song “Hot Topic” by Le Tigre? I sure do. The first time I heard it was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the Cat’s Cradle. I was just about to finish my undergraduate degree. Kathleen Hanna was jumping up and down and shouting out the names of women who have been of the utmost influence in her life. Behind her, JD Samson and Johanna Fateman were rocking out and adding names of their own. It was one of the last shows I saw before I left North Carolina and moved back to Canada, and I think of it often. Hearing Le Tigre give shout-outs to women was revelatory for me. Here were women celebrating other women. Here was a joyful and empowering naming of names, a series of affirmations and citations bound together with a refrain of “Don’t stop! Please don’t stop! I can’t live if you stop!”

I have had “Hot Topic” on my mind a great deal for a few reasons in the last few weeks. First, it is nearing the one-year anniversary of the founding of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. A cause for both reflection and celebration, the nearing anniversary has come with several mentions in the news. In some cases, those mentions are positive. In other cases, they come with an undercurrent of dismissal towards CWILA’s mandate. I find myself thinking through the reasons for these multifaceted reactions to the crucial volunteer work being done by CWILA members.

I also think of “Hot Topic” and the importance of giving shout-outs and solidarity to women who speak out in public forums. Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound is currently fundraising for a prize for the best piece of critical writing by a woman. Recently, Lemon Hound published Zoe Whittall’s poemUnequal To Me,” a poem that calls attention to  the ways in which men review women’s book. It went viral. That same week Jon Paul Fiorentino wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on sexism and silence in the Canadian literary scene. I am still thinking through my response to the reason Fiorentino needed to write the post, but what I do know is that solidarity matters, and being vocally supportive in public matters. So much.

So here is the beginning of my shout-outs. In the spirit of Le Tigre I offer the beginning of a list of women who have been and continue to be formative in my life. This is just a start, I’ve limited myself to people I have seen, spoken with, or whose texts I have read in the last month, otherwise I would never finish the list:

Sina Queyras, Gillian Jerome, Jade Ferguson, Heather Zwicker, Susan Bennett, Carrie Dawson, Smaro Kamboureli, Laura Moss, Afua Cooper, Marina Young, Shelley Young, El Jones, Tanis McDonald, Aritha van Herk, Emily Ballantyne, Anne Carson, rita wong, Marie Clements, TL Cowan, Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, Marjorie Stone, Larissa Lai, Tasha Hubbard, Vanessa Lent, Natalie Walschots, Martha Radice, Christl Verduyn, Peggy Phelan, Toni Morrison, Susan Brown, Claire Campbell, Kaarina Mikalson and a million more. As Kathleen Hanna says: don’t stop! Please don’t stop!

Add some more names in the comments!
grad school · guest post · health · kid stuff · slow academy


Today’s post comes from Jana Smith-Elford, PhD Candidate in English at the University of Alberta.

We have reached the end of April. 

My fellow Edmontonians understand that this is serious cause for celebration. A horrible month of snow, snow, and more snow, interspersed with a handful of sunny days of futile hope, followed by several more days of soul-crushing snow is finally over. Goodbye flurries of snow, goodbye horrifically icy roads, goodbye indoors-only playgrounds, goodbye cooped-up, house-bound, over-energetic child. 

This was my view just a couple of days ago:

But two days ago, the first day of May! Sunshine! Somehow, no more snow in my front yard for the first time all winter! My daughter ran around our backyard for the first time in her life! Climbed up the steps of the deck! Chased a ball around the trees! In the matter of a couple of days, temperatures went from the negatives to plus eighteen.

It kind of felt like when the page of the calendar turned to May, someone pressed a giant reset button on the weather.

Lately I’ve found myself wishing I had the ability to press a giant reset button on my life.

I just finished a long, exhausting winter semester: candidacy exams (passed), language requirement courses (completed), and an entry for The Orlando Projectresearched, written, and submitted. I’ve read additional texts suggested by examiners at my candidacy, started writing my introduction, began to explore more deeply the theoretical side of my project. I’ve helped train new research assistants with Orlando, continued testing for a new visualization tool developed by the project, and prepared to attend an upcoming conference on vizualization tools. All good things. 

But I’ve also been sick four times in four months: laryngitis, cold, cough, flu (often multiples at once). My office mate probably feels I should just constantly wear one of these. In the month leading up to the candidacy, my dear daughter had the norovirus twice, and consequently slept through the night only once that entire month. I did a poor job of taking time off after my candidacy. I visited a dear friend in New York sans baby, but brought work along with me. I’ve found the cuts to post-secondary education in Alberta to be demoralizing and unmotivating. I’ve been plugging away for a few months, but I’m tired. 

We’ve talked a lot here about how April is often an exhausting month for women in the academy. Aimée wrote just last week about overcommitting and disastrous ends of term. And Erin wrote an inspiring post about attempting to reengage and reinvorate despite term-end fatigue. But, with an absense of vacation serenity (or with no vacation in sight), how do you maintain or re-gain momentum? After many months of hard and fatigue-inducing work, how do you reset your life?

For me, pushing the reset button has meant: 

1) Not working when I’m sick. It took three-and-a-half separate illnesses, but halfway through this last one I realized that I wasn’t going to get any better by going in to work, and despite how much work I needed to get done, I wasn’t going to do it well if I didn’t take time off. My productivity isn’t helped by plugging away on one cylinder for several weeks; it’s better to turn things off and then restart on all four. Especially at the end of term, when bodies are crashing and illness is rampant.

2) Taking care of myself. I decided to go to the doctor to check out my vitamin levels to make sure I don’t need to up my intake of any nutrients. And I commandeered the car in our one-car household for a week so I could sleep in, leave work early, and take some time to do some personal shopping. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to organize, but in the end it’s important and definitely worth it. After the big push to complete term-projects, we need to take time to do all those things that we’ve been putting off.

3) Booking a weekend away at the end of term. I think sometimes a real break is necessary–a break without work. It took me a few weeks to realize, but I think it’s difficult to get a real reset without being away from my work, my house, and my child. My partner and I recently decided to leave our daughter with her grandparents and spend a few days in Jasper. Yay! Now to hold things together for the two weeks until we leave…

How do you reset after the end of term?

deadlines · enter the confessional · grading · research · writing

The road to hell is paved with deadlines

Margrit has perspective! Serenity! A new resolve! Go read her post: I tried to breathe it right off the screen and into my soul. Tonight, Tuesday, five days after she published it because that’s how long it took me to get around to reading it.

I am burning in the fires of hell. Because I am late with everything.

Late: getting SSHRC Insight Development Grant application assessments to Program Chair. Late: getting my DHSI coursepack done. Late: getting my graduate class grades finalized. Late: making Congress travel and hotel arrangements. Late: answering probably 20 urgent and important emails. Late: one supervisee’s latest writing languishing unread in my inbox. Late: dealing with some design milestone on some pilot materials for my online course. Late: RSVP’ing to some committee meetings with dodgy schedules. Late: getting PhD area exam masters to the graduate committee for their approval. Late: making my conference paper slides on the airplane, printing my paper at the hotel.

It might look like I’m running downhill–wind at my back, hair flying, arms outstretched in full embrace of the momentum of life! Actually, I’m falling, but with my legs moving–trying to dig my heels into something solid, looking for a safe place to just fall over, or something to grab to arrest my pitching headlong forward. It’s all moving too fast; it’s out of control.

Extra miserable? The terrible hypocrisy! I preach the gospel of peer review just doesn’t take that long. Of making the most of every 30 minute chunk of time. Of the importance of an active, high-contact relationship with graduate students. Of how I want to get my email under control. Of how conference papers need to be done so much earlier so that they can be practiced and perfected.

So what happened? How did I get into this state?

1. I say yes to too many things. I shouldn’t have gone to that conference in mid-April, which coincided with SSHRC assessment season, and grading time, and my DHSI deadline. I had to prepare new work for it, and it took a long time. Or maybe I should’ve said no to doing the SSHRC assessments. That was easily 40 or 50 hours of work at the worst possible time of year.

2. I’m scared. My grad class this year was awesome, but I did some wild and crazy things with the participation component, and I’m scared to find out if it all worked or not. (It worked. Procrastination on dealing with it, though, didn’t help.) I’m scared of my brand new DHSI course: I’ve never taught this topic before, and putting together the coursepack might expose me for a fool. (So far, no. Should’ve not put off starting that either.) I’m scared to write my book proposal. Scared means don’t start. Don’t start + deadline = no sleeping.

3. Life. You know how they say when you do a big renovation, of your kitchen, say, and you want to spend $30,000 on it–we’re imagining, so let’s pretend we live on HGTV, okay?–you should have a 10-15% contingency fund? Because of the inevitable Dodgy Plumbing Behind the Walls, or Sudden Need to Upgrade to Viking Range? I think the academic life is like that. Perhaps if everything ran absolutely perfectly, I might’ve managed it. But we had two snow days in April, then I got stuck in the FAA sequester nonsense, and then my daughter got a stomach bug and missed two more days of school, then the furnace conked out, and then the car had to go in for emergency detailing owing to the gastro bug and projectile car vomiting. I don’t think anyone in my house has put in a five day week at the office in the last six weeks.

Ugh. The self-loathing is strong in me this week. I did this to myself by overcommitting! Then I did it to myself again by under performing! Then I made everything worse by having a terribly messy personal life! And compounded the problem further by hiding in a hole and not letting anyone know what a crunch I’m in.

So, internet, let me confess. I’ll need another week to dig myself out of this mess. Forgiving myself will take longer. And finding some balance in what I say yes to–challenging and scary enough to help me create new ideas and connections, but not so much or so hard that I make it nearly impossible for myself to succeed–is going to take longer still, I imagine.

Do any of you suffer similar problems? Or am I terrible, terrible outlier? If the latter, can you tell me how you do it? Because I obviously need the help.

At least I got my blog post done on time.