balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

backlash · faster feminism · race

"Merit," Casual Racism, Gender Balance, and Snow Days

I guess the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign takes as dim a view of the dangers of wind chill as does the University of Waterloo. Students there complained much as students did here, only a significant number of UIUC students organized themselves into racist, sexist Twitter campaign under the hashtag “#fuckphyllis,” Phyllis M. Wise being the Chancellor who made the decision in question. Scott Jaschik reports on this in Inside Higher Ed; you can look up the hashtag yourself if you want but I’m not going to link it. Buzzfeed has screencapped some, and put together an overview.

I’m appalled but not surprised that the perhaps legitimate beef about the closure rapidly turned to to gender- and race-based expressions of hate. I’d like to compartmentalize that feeling and direct it at “American schools,” nice and far away from me, but I can’t. Because Waterloo has its own casual racism problem, it’s own casual sexism problem.

Did you know that a common nickname for my instutition among students is “Waterwoo”? I’ve had teenagers as well as adults reply with a laugh when I tell them where I work: “Oh! You’re at Waterwoo?” Har har. It’s got an entry in the Urban Dictionary. There is hashtag activity on Instagram, and on Twitter. This has mostly flown under the radar, but we could easily have a UIUC social media blowup on our hands, and in any case, shouldn’t we call this out as the structural issue it is, rather than wait for a crisis to tut-tut about, where we can satisfy ourselves by disciplining the more egregious outliers?

We should probably talk about “Waterwoo.”

There’s some complicated intersectionality at play: gender imbalance, racial sorting, privileging of some fields of study over others. Waterloo is considered to be a STEM powerhouse: mostly, math, computer science, engineering. These fields draw a lot of really smart kids, kids who work very hard all through high school. This includes many Canadian-born and international “Asian” kids whose parents place a premium on academic achievement, and particularly in these fields. The entrance grades are very high: “Asian students” are more likely to earn these kinds of grades. These fields, too, are more likely to draw male students, which also leads to the well-known fact that Waterloo is among the very few Canadian universities where male undergraduates outnumber female undergraduates

You can see all these elements bubbling around the edges of a controversial piece by Macleans a few years ago. Originally titled “Too Asian?” but renamed “The enrolment controversy” after heavy social media panicking, this piece describes white, Canadian-born high school students picking their universities on  grounds both explicitly and implicitly about race: lower entry requirements, better parties, which some come out and say means fewer hard-studying Asian students. Waterloo features prominently in the Macleans “Too Asian” article–indeed, we have a dour and studious reputation among our own students, who both mock the more fun-loving (and white) university 500m down the road from us, and try to attend their parties. They made a video. Then the engineers made a video. Our public relations department also made a video, responding to prominent PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, an engineer who chose Queens over Waterloo, because it had more women. For him to date, presumably, rather than to provide a more diverse and concomitantly richer set of study partners. The Macleans article references American conversations about high grades and the “model minority”–see also this article from Inside Higher Ed about how white subjects in one research study tie themselves into knots to maintain their own privilege in merit-based admission.

This usually simmers below the surface: the videos get respectable numbers of views but don’t go viral; the hashtags stay in use but never trend; the magazine retreats from actually having the conversation it started; coded language reframes issues of race around “study habits” or “party schools.”

How can we talk about this, taking everything into account? I’m not sure.

I wrote a piece about the no-win situation for women in engineering. That piece addressed gender and field of study, but not race. We have more serious issues of threatened violence against women as well, that Shannon Dea wrote about here. And in the fall I also wrote about the constant stream of men whose reasearch was featured on the university home page. I did again make explicit that they were all in the engineering, comp-sci and math fields. I didn’t note that they were mostly of Asian or South-east Asian descent. The preponderance of STEM research is what struck me as salient, while the race issue totally did not. But of course, it’s all linked in one messy intersectional soup: the neighbourhood where I live is overwhelmingly white, while campus is much more racially, ethnically, and culturally divers in ways I appreciate, but which are probably owing to our STEM dominance as much as our proximity to major immigrant diasporas in Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton paricularly. What the (white) students complain about are inflated entry averages and a too-studious atmosphere and “accented” teachers they link to race. I am concerned about the humanities being devalued, and about the gender imbalances. It’s hard, ultimately, to tease all these issues apart.

I wanted to mark these issues, here and now, on the hook of an American controvery, before something blows up here. Maybe we can have a conversation oriented to structural, simmering resentments, exclusions, and stereotypes in a more programmatic and wide-ranging way. Before something goes viral, before something terrible happens.

Facebook · fast feminism · social media

The Politics of Facebook

It’s no secret: I spend a lot of time on Facebook. One friend recently told me that I am “the world’s most facebook-active woman,” which I know is untrue, considering the posting rates of, well, some other people I know (which I use as a moderating compass).  Recently a friend posted on my fb wall a link to an article making the rounds on the interwebs arguing that women with short hair are deranged and masculine, with the comment that she “knows I like infuriating posts.” This is also true, to an extent–I like getting enraged about stupid things people say about feminism, and then sharing in the hopes that other people get riled up as well. Sometimes that process backfires, and friends seem to fall into more of a state of existential despair; I get comments like “I-am-so-angry-why-did-you-post-this??” (<paraphrased, in response to a clip about a new book arguing that America is declining because there are fewer manly men in leadership roles. I will not provide a link.). The last thing I would want is to foster apathy or powerlessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In truth, it tends to be relatives or old friends who tend to follow my Facebook postings the most closely, and often my more overtly feminist or political posts are aimed at those outside an academic setting who may not otherwise have the same exposure to those ideas. Sometimes, in my sheltered academic world, I forget how non-ubiquitous feminism is. Recently I mentioned to a 30-something friend-of-a-friend who was visiting New York that I am now a writer for a Canadian feminist blog, and she stopped me a few sentences later to ask “I noticed you said you write for…a feminist blog?’re a feminist? What…does that even mean?” Almost choking on my chicken paillard, I tried to explain that, you know, there’s still a myth that feminists are man-haters, but really we’re just aware of and trying to address ongoing structural inequalities in the world. I had a similar conversation with a guy in the hotel industry whom I encountered at a party last year, who actually laughed in my face when I said I’m a feminist. This word still has a sting, despite attempts to rid feminism of its stigma (though I have problems with such simplified equations as well, as I don’t think feminism should equate to passive belief in some abstract notion of “equality,” a fraught term in itself).

So, call me a slacktivist if you will, but in my limited sphere as I pick away at my dissertation, Facebook has become an outlet for advancing my own political agenda while remaining receptive to the responses and positions of others (and of course striking is far preferable, hurrah Erin!). Sometimes my timeline simply blows up with debate, which I both love and fear (SMAD is a real thing, people, and I think I have it!).

But how emotional or extreme should our posts be? Should we all be social media provocateurs? Obviously, the answer to that question would differ according to the person and situation–I know plenty of activist-artists who seek to raise raucous, and good on ’em. But I worry about my own more emotional posts that often dive right over logic or rational discussion in their expression of outrage. Aren’t I just lowering myself to the same level as these ludicrous pockets of culture when I post inflammatory articles, adding an equally inflammatory comment to the top, with the intention of eliciting other extreme responses? And, in reposting offensive beliefs, isn’t there a chance that someone will step in and counter with “hey, but this guy has a point! Feminine men are ruining America!” I’m not sure a further polarization of issues is really what we want, but neither is avoidance; it’s important that we don’t remain ignorant of or (worse) become desensitized to the dangerous hogwash that emerges from the likes of Fox News.

I’d like to argue here (with shaky reference to Greek tragedy) that anger can be a useful incitement to heightened awareness of crucial issues facing women and activists today–either online or elsewhere. This week I’ve been reading Bonnie Honig’s Antigone Interrupted for a Fem Theory Reading Group  at Fordham. Honig addresses the politics of lamentation, claiming that we must learn how to mourn without fetishizing or romanticizing the object of mourning, how to call for change without undermining the power of the particular–all part of the “agonistic humanism” that Honig wants to advance. In chapter four, Honig argues that our grief, like Creon’s when he learns of his wife’s suicide as he holds his dead son in his arms, should be both ruptural and concessive: we should allow ourselves to be interrupted by grief, to let ourselves be overtaken by emotion, but also to attempt to reinstate our grief within or against a recognizable political structure. “Lament, as différance, is not a basis for politics but is a sign of the partiality of our codes of grief and of the limited ability of our codes of grief to control or redeem our losses by embedding them in economies of meaning that are supposedly themselves impervious to rupture and interruption” (120). That is to say, lament, though not necessarily political in itself, reveals that the institutionalized structures we have in place for dealing with grief are insufficient in covering it over. Our grief is always partial and singular, but should be put to productive use, while recognizing the limitations of such concessions. Ritualistic burial ceremonies may attempt to harness and contain grief, but lingering ruptures remain that must touch and affect some kind of political system.

So public outcries of sorrow, frustration, suffering, or angst, are okay; sometimes there is a need for the nonerudite and unreasoned in response to shitty things. Antifeminism is awful, and feminists should be allowed to respond in flaying gestures of lamentation, even in the somewhat flimsy sphere of social media; not every act needs to lead to revolution for it to be politically powerful or rejuvenating. But you sometimes have to put up with some pretty shitty responses in return, and you often have to follow up with a more rational explanation of the article or clip you’re posting and the argument you’re advancing against it, to try to prevent alienating or polarizing opinions even further. Social media culture is admittedly a far cry from fifth-century Athens, but today, as I [over-]analyze yet another long debate about feminism that transpired on my wall (this time in response to the response to the article about short hair and derangement, which does deserve a link!), Honig offers me some reassurance that emotional indignation can sometimes be productive.

Similarly, and on a lighter pedagogical note, such expressive possibilities account for why I’m a defender of attention-grabbing ejaculations from texting culture such as emoticons, emojis, and capslock abbreviations (“HAHA WTF I KNOW”), because they can sometimes communicate more effectively than drawn-out, rational discourse. Of course, we need to speak the same language here, and as Honig claims, lamentation should never be in itself the basis for politics. But it can be a starting point.

So I guess I’m offering a defense of inflammatory online posting in certain situations, with many caveats: know and be sensitive to your audience, be ready to explain in cogent language what the limitations of the argument you’re both exposing and attacking are, and sometimes, it may be best to forgo the link. But also, quick tip…there’s a great privacy function on Facebook that allows you to hide certain individuals from your posts. Sometimes, friends, it’s simply not worth it…



On Strike

The faculty at Mount Allison University — my university — are on strike. My colleagues at the University of New Brunswick have been on strike for several weeks now. This means that half the public universities in my new home province are on the picket lines. 

If you read the comments on news sites or sift through Twitter on the matter you’re likely to find a lot of frustration as well as a great deal of misdirected rage and misinformation. I find this disheartening, but also evidence of the importance of demystifying what faculty — by which I mean full-time, part-time, contract, sessional — actually do
For now, I feel it is important to show my solidarity to my union and to the larger issues facing higher education in my province and indeed in this country by taking my place on the virtual picket line as well as the one that is just outside my door. You can find more information about what is happening here and show your solidarity for New Brunswick faculty on Twitter: #MTAStrike #mafa #AUNTB 
#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · parenting · transition

The Damage Done by DWYL

Did you read Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” this week? I bet you did. It seems like everyone in the circles I run in (probably the same circles you run in, if you’re reading this) read her meditation on the damage done by the creed of “do what you love, love what you do.” The article hit me where it hurts (as the best writing does) in making me realize that even after I publicly admitted the damage DWYL did to my psyche, it’s an idea I still cling to. And why?

In the abbreviated version of the story of my leaving the tenure track, two important people with interesting takes on DWYL got left out. The first person was my dad. I grew up in a house where DWYL was not, at least for my parents, an idea that had a lot of credence. For one, my parents started working and parenting before they were in their twenties, and DWYL wasn’t a luxury that two newly-marrieds trying to raise a baby (and then two) on a single income could afford. For another, my dad knew what it was to be forced to turn what he loved into a career (souping up cars stops being so fun when you work with cars all day), and see that love transformed into the plain old slog of work. I had a friend when I was a teenager who also loved cars, and I vividly remember my dad telling him to do anything but work with cars. Keep it a hobby and keep the love, he said. If I got the same advice from my dad, I don’t remember. Or I wasn’t listening. But whatever he did or didn’t say to me, I’ll tell you this. I did an English PhD because language is what I love, and while my parents didn’t have the luxury of choosing to DWYL, they made sure that I did. Speaking of love, I can finally use the present tense again, because for a long time, language was not what I loved. It was what made me feel anxious and scared and like a big ol’ failure. Now that reading and writing about books is not what I do for a living, I’m far more attuned to that love than I was when I was supposedly doing what I loved as a job. Dad was totally right.

Nowadays, I share my life with someone is totally anti-DWYL, although for different reasons, and his perspective was incredibly important in my journey to quitting the path to the tenure track. My partner reasons that if what you want to do is make the world a better place, and you don’t believe that work is the best place to do that (and/or you recognize that a job with world-changing potential is a luxury most people aren’t afforded), here’s what you do: get a job that pays the bills, and do what you love, and your world-shaping work, in your off time. As Tokumitsu so devastatingly argues,

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

Ouch, and I hate to admit it, kinda’ true. My partner’s firm “my job is not who I am” stance is pretty much the opposite of the DWYL “non-love labour is meaningless” ethos, and that unhooking of identity and employment was, at first, a bit of a shock. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in DWYL?,” I remember thinking. Why wouldn’t you want to pursue what you’re passionate about full-time? I’ve definitely had to ask him to explain his stance to me more than once. Once I understood where he was coming from, it forced me to rethink what I was doing in academia, what Tokumitsu calls the ultimate land of DWYL:

Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia … There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

I’m not actually sure that academia is the place that DWYL has done the most damage. I’d argue that it’s far more pernicious in current “mommy” culture (the one that expects motherhood to be sunshine and roses and a labour of love without exception) and that DWYL is one of the major factors behind the failure to recognize parenting as legitimate labour worthy of significant recompense. But unquestionably, the doctrine of “do what you love” has done a lot of harm in academe, particularly with regards to issues of labour conditions and fair compensation. In my case, as is true for many academics, the harm was done when the doctrine of DWYL reinforced, over and over, the total alignment of self and occupation under the guise of self-actualization. And when I started realizing that the professoriate was maybe not for me, and falling into the consequent “If I’m not an academic, who am I?” trap, my partner’s critical distance was a balm. There was another way to think about who I am, one that didn’t depend on what I did. And that alternative perspective was in large part what let me finally let go of academe, unhook my identity from my job, and move on.

But still. I find myself in my current role, one I genuinely do like a lot and find fulfilling, falling into the trap of DWYL. “Do I love this?,” I ask myself as I try to wrangle a gaggle of senior faculty into setting up a scholarship adjudication meeting. “Am I living up to my full potential?,” I wonder as I place a catering order for a student event. “Why did I relinquish control over my workday?” I question as I sit in a meeting and watch other people add item upon item to my to-do list. But then I remember: what I do isn’t who I am. Research Officer is my title, not my identity. Unlike when I was a full-time PhD student, work ends at 4:30 and the rest of my time is my own. I am fairly compensated, I have job security, and I belong to a good union that ensures its members are treated fairly. And for the first time in a very long time, I have the luxury to  actually do what I love–read, write, think, cook, craft, spend time with the people and felines I love, do absolutely nothing–on my own terms.

What about you, dear readers? Do you also fall into the DWYL trap? What’s your philosophy about the relationship between work and love?

balance · body · classrooms · learning · openness · teaching · yoga

In which the teacher becomes the student. And it’s weird.

I spent 18 hours of last weekend in stretchy pants, making deliberate contact with various weight-bearing points of myself to a sticky mat, in a big sunny room, with 20 other people, taking notes, touching people with my “magic button” hands, directing their sun salutations, and being quizzed on the broader points of Ayurveda.

I’m in yoga teacher training. And it’s really weird to be a student.

Obviously, I’ve been a yoga student for years already, relinquishing the seat of the teacher to someone up at the front of the room, keeping my eyes on my own mat. Being a yoga student for me was an exercise in letting go of control, of letting someone else direct the show for a while, of keeping my eyes on my own mat and learning to be mindful. Getting into that flow is fairly easy for me. Yoga is a practice, not a perfect: you do it right by showing up, and continuing. Yoga in this way is a lot like writing: a lonely endeavour requiring grit and steady effort, over the long haul, accumulating into strength that manifests in individual ways.

But yoga teacher training is more like class: there are tests, and homework, and other assessments and you’re being taught a body of knowledge you have to master before you’re done.

So I’m that kind of student again, and it’s probably a useful experience for my life as a professor, now that I’m (ulp) fifteen years out of the graduate seminar, and seventeen years away from my undergradute experience. The gulf between my experience of university classrooms and that of my students is growing: I see class more and more as a pure learning space, as an obligation that needs to be regimented, too, if I’m going to get my other work done, as a luxury of dedicated time to be curious and access a subject area expert, as a set of names and stories I have to manage to make a connection, without burning out. I don’t know, really, how my students see class anymore.

But I just spent a weekend in their shoes. (Or bare feet. On a medidation cushion rather than a chair.) I have worried about how I’m going to find time to get the homework done–two hours of home yoga AND two classes a week? That’s hard! I can do the written homework fairly easily … oh and someone made digital flashcards for Sanskrit pose names. When is the courseware package going to be available? I’ve shot up my hand and given the wrong answer in front of 20 other people and been met with, “Yessssss, that’s interesting but no.” And I’ve shot my hand up enough to have my teacher’s eyes slide past me with, “Can we hear from someone who hasn’t given an answer yet?” I’ve been puzzled and I’ve been confident. I even got a little bored and my back hurt and I wanted a nap, at a certain point on Sunday. I’ve done group work, introducing myself awkwardly to strangers, and figuring out a process to take turns pushing on each others’ inner thighs, or leading sun salutations with verbal cues. the whole time I’m wondering if I’m doing it right, and how I would know that. It’s exciting and exhausting and confusing and worrying and fun.

At yoga teacher training, it seems, I’m learning (again) what it’s like to be a student, in a formal learning endeavour with real stakes. It’s humbling and illuminating.

I went back to my own class on Monday–the one I teach–and looked at my 14 sudents with a new kind of perspective. I heard what I was saying to them with a sort of doubled consciousness, like I used to when I was just starting. I could imagine what they felt like as students, even as I continued to occupy my role as teacher. Some of them are more or less curious. More or less prepared. More or less awake, or hungry, or distracted. Some have a burning desire to just graduate and others have a burning desire to learn to use Photoshop and some are too overwhelmed by the bombarbment of new information to desire much except a little respite and maybe a muffin. Just like me.

I am grateful for this unexpected extra benefit from my new training. I guess I forgot how long I’ve been in the classroom just as a professor, and not as a student, and didn’t realize what impact this might have on my teaching and on student learning. As I whipsaw between intellectual and physical/spiritual pursuits, between student and teacher, between satisfying learning and frustrating learning, I’ll keep in mind that that is what it is like to be a student. Any student. And we’ll see where that takes me, and my own students, in our time together.

Embodied learning: feet truly parallel, and active

balance · best laid plans · failure · grad school · having it all · parenting

Parenting in the PhD

Two weeks ago today, I wrote about setting myself up for what I hoped would be a productive and successful semester. I laid out some key strategies that have worked well for me in the past, and added to those an additional goal that I figured would work well to keep my work/life on track.

Two weeks later, you might guess I’d just be getting into the swing of things, finding my rhythm, hitting my stride.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Instead, I’ve most definitely dropped the ball. Last week, my well-laid plans had a big wrench thrown into them in the form of a poor sweet two-year-old, and a particularly nasty week-long bout of the flu.

Two days with my Writing Group? Try two hours!

Teaching prep only on teaching days? I suppose if we’re not counting the wee hours of the morning…

Family Time? Well, I think I nailed that one, if you can count time cuddling my feverish lethargic little girl and don’t count my partner, who I barely saw as we alternated primary caregiver duties in an attempt to manage our disparate work-related responsibilities.

This week, fortunately, my daughter is back to her normal, bouncy, enthusiastic self, and things have settled down a little bit. I’m still catching up on the work I missed, but I managed to attend a full day of writing group yesterday, and actually spent that time writing. My lecture magically wrote itself today (not true, I wrote it), and I even managed to dash off some emails.

But the harrowing trial of last week, among other things, has me thinking a lot about how very very difficult it is to be a graduate student and a parent.

Sometimes, in an attempt to justify my choice to be a parent, I’ve found myself waxing poetic about how fortunate I’ve been to have had such an easy baby who slept through the night at seven weeks, who learned to sit at six months and didn’t crawl until eleven months, who generally has had a very happy, contented disposition and in many countless ways has made it incredibly easy to become a parent. I’ve mentioned to several people how “lucky” I feel to live in Canada, where, as a SSHRC-award holder, I qualified for and was granted a four-month paid parental leave and a stop in my program to care for my newborn daughter. I feel very grateful for the fact that I never had to worry about paying for the healthcare-related costs of pregnancy and childbirth, for pumping space at my university, and for the provincial grant that made it possible for my partner and I to afford childcare when we were both cash-strapped students.

What I don’t mention are the countless nights with so little sleep that my short-term memory couldn’t properly store and process information (sometimes babies sleep through the night . . . and then they don’t), the hours I wrestled with my (4) breast-pump(s), trying to coax out an extra ounce, the weeks and weeks I’ve spent hunched over a kleenex box and computer in a cloudy haze, dashing out words on the page while attempting to ignore the latest illness my petri-dish-daughter transmitted to me. I usually don’t talk about how I lost my university library privileges while on parental leave, or how many times I’ve had to “remind” the university of my parental leave and stop in my program and what that means (answer: more than 3), or the fact that I really really wish I could have taken more official time off but couldn’t because there was no part-time option. I don’t tend to talk about my difficult pregnancy: how many months I spent nearly completely incapacitated by nausea and vomiting (answer: 4), or the crazy migraines that landed me in the hospital, the weeks and weeks of perinatal appointments to monitor my daughter’s development, umbilical cord, kidneys, heart, amniotic fluid, the induction, childbirth… the countless and uncounted hours I spent in a kind of labour that is unacknowledged by the academy.

My point? Doing a PhD and becoming a parent is HARD. It is incredibly difficult. For some people, it is impossible, and this is not their fault.

Sometimes, I think that out of some obligation to our feminist foremothers we tend to gloss our difficulties, as though in order somehow to acknowledge the gains we’ve achieved, we have to forget where we still need to go.

But I think it’s important to suggest that perhaps a PhD and a baby is darn-difficult if not impossible for some women, and there are structural reasons for this impossibility. Perhaps women can’t have it all, and perhaps instead of trying to justify our choices we should work towards addressing the roots of those systemic inequalities and advocating for the changes we know we need to see.

So, I’m just going to throw it out there: what do we need to change in the academy to make things better? When PhD students elect to have children, how can we ensure that they aren’t punished for their decisions?

reflection · righteous feminist anger

Sinister Patterns: Women and the Knowledge Massacre

Is it just me, or does the Harper Government seem to hate women and knowledge?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but one that I found myself thinking about again this weekend as I edited a letter written to Ministers involved with the knowledge massacre and the ongoing cutting of women’s programs.

The current government is and has been attacking women’s rights. Don’t forget, for example, that in 2010 the government strategically cut out the crucial and groundbreaking work of Sisters in Spirit. Don’t forget that in that same year Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told the spokespeople of several women’s groups to “shut the f-k up about the abortion issue” unless they wanted more backlash from the government. 

And in case you’ve missed it, there is a corollary attack on knowledge going on in this country. National and international media platforms are referring to the burning of archives as libricide. As a literary and cultural studies scholar I teach my students to look for patterns in a given text, to consider the material and historical conditions of that text’s construction, and to make critical observations and analyses about how those things are all working together. The systematic disenfranchisement of women’s groups and the destruction of archives is a pattern, and a sinister one at that.

A pattern that I didn’t expect was this: virtually none of the ministries whose libraries have been closed of cut are led by a man. What can we make of this? Understanding how ideologies work is part of the process of breaking them down. How do we understand the correlation between these devastating policies and the ways in which women, women’s knowledge, gendered identity, racial identity, the diversity of knowledge production, and the lands on which knowledges are produced are systematically being shut down?

A few days ago I was talking on the telephone with a dear friend of mine who survived his trip to the MLA. We were chatting about that same “pervasive emotional buzz of desperation” that Melissa unpacked last week. We talked about our similar experiences of being on the job market long term, of the ways that the market has changed even in the years we’ve been on it, and we teased out (again) some of the emotional effects of the current state of affairs. And then he said this: “I always felt as though education — at the university level and outside the university — would lead to some kind of proactive community. I felt as though if workers — let’s say miners — were to go on strike then we would have created enough knowledge of how ideology and material reality work that we would all join them in solidarity.” What worried us then, and worries me now, is this: what is it going to take to get us out in the streets literally or figuratively?

Reader, what are your thoughts? Is old-school protest the way to go, or is the a more effective mode you’ve found?        


Dropping the ball

A welcome addition to my commute, daylight has started featuring on my way to and from work. Edmonton has phenomenal skies: in the summer, with no cloud to serve as milestone, the sky stretches endlessly. When clouds do appear, they hang low, with clear, bounded shapes: Simpsons clouds, really. No matter the season, dawns and dusks put on quite a show, if only we’d stop and look at it. So this morning, I’m sitting in my car trying to glimpse the yellowing horizon in-between the commuting cars, and it hits me: it’s the third week in January, and I’ve already dropped the ball on writing a post for today.

After a week replete with sick kid and sick self, general January business and busy-ness, last night I decided that I did not have it in me to turn my draft post into an actual thing that will go on the internet. I found it too personal, but not in that “maybe people will relate to what I’m going through” kind of a way. Instead, it was of the “look-at-me,” navel-gazing, non-sequitur genre, and I’d like to avoid those if at all possible. However, I just could not come up with a decent replacement, and I opted instead to veg out on the couch and catch up on House of Cards (especially given the second season is coming soon). Did you hear the thunk? Ball totally dropped.

My wonderful friend and former office mate Sue declared on Facebook that one of her 2014 resolutions is to say “no” every once in a while. I made no such resolutions, but I think we could all do with saying “no” more often, especially to non-essential stuff, and even more especially, when saying “yes” would deplete already-precarious resources, thus skewing our delicate dance of keeping afloat at this time of year. Jeez, dropping balls *and* mixing metaphors. I better stop.

So, in the interest of sanity, and with a plea that we all just take a break when we need it, I am just proposing we drop the ball sometimes this year. I think we’ll all survive.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · transition

Being Alt-Ac at the MLA

Due to my excellent negotiation skills, I got most of last week off to go hang out at the 2014 Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago, an experience that was rather different from the last time I attended. (Hot tip: administrative jobs sometimes have major vacation restrictions. I’m technically prohibited from taking any time off between mid-August and March. Also, the apartment I stayed in last time didn’t flood. January really can be the Monday of months.) I was still considering the tenure-track the last time I attended, and I spent most of my time at panels on literature and theory. The chair of my panel was interviewing, and it was hard not to pick up on what Karen Kelsky calls “the pervasive emotional buzz of desperation.” I went to the same mock interview session that Kelsky critiques here, and started to realize just how much I never wanted to do an academic interview. (I think it was the trick questions designed to ferret out if you ever intended to procreate that squicked me out the most. My uterus is none of your damn business! And also, yes, because admitting a desire to have a kid doesn’t make me a bad alt/academic.)

This time around, I happily spent my time at panels and workshops on graduate reform/professional development/careers, which the MLA convention arguably does better than it does literary studies. (It is, at times, painfully obvious that many of the non-job seeking presenters write their papers on the plane, or are too busy catching up with old friends to contribute much to the intellectual success of the conference.) While the AHA is arguably doing the best job of addressing these issues head on (“No More Plan B,” anyone?), the issues facing graduate students (and post-docs, and adjuncts) were front and centre at the MLA, as was the acknowledgement that pretending everything is hunky dory just doesn’t cut it. Some examples:

  • Russell Berman’s panel on PhD reform was alternately heartening and disappointing, with some programs doing exciting things with comp structure, others creating new PhD programs that sound like the same old. 
  • The report on the AHA’s post-PhD tracking data means that we now better know where PhDs are ending up, and therefore what they might need as students, and we have a sense of the wide alumni networks that we need to figure out how to access. 
  • Conversely, the continued drive to open new PhD programs (and the refusal to reduce enrollment targets, either on the part of universities, or in the case of my province, on the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities) means that the vast gap between number of PhDs graduating and the number of academic jobs isn’t closing anytime soon. The debate over this issue was one of the most interesting of the conference.
  • The advice provided to PhDs interested in post- and alt-ac career options was sage, practical, and heartening. (The session didn’t get its own hashtag, but Katina Rogers’ tweets from January 10 provide a nice summary. [Update: the panel Storify can be found here.]) And I’m at a point where I’m okay with going up to people and telling them that they should talk to me about being a speaker at their next event. MLA 2015, anyone?
  • The panel that I spoke on and that my friend Daniel organized about dissertations beyond the proto-monograph was really well attended, particularly for a grad student only panel. And despite some of us saying fairly radical things (Let’s write comic books instead of dissertations! Let’s scrap the dissertation altogether!), those in attendance–which included members of the MLA task-force on doctoral reform–were willing to entertain all sorts of suggestions in the name of making the dissertation useful beyond the tenure-track and more adaptable to the vagaries of our individual projects.  

My takeaways from the MLA, while many, centred on two things. One, it’s heartening that despite the assumption that large and influential organizations like the MLA tend to be slow and reluctant to change, the MLA as an organization (if not always its individual members) is actively recognizing, and working to address, the issues facing its graduate members both before and after defending. Two, despite my worries that I was distancing myself from my academic persona by taking an alt-ac job, and despite my concern that I’d feel as though the MLA (and academic conferences more generally) were no longer for me, that turned out not to be the case. I can be both alternate and academic, often at the same time. As academe continues to wisen up to the fact that it is made up of a far more diverse group of people than just academics, it makes room for those of us occupying liminal, or multiple, positions. And that, as someone who loves academic inquiry but not the idea of being an academic, is a welcome realization.