Today, I’m packing up my office. Soon, we’ll have to start packing up our home. My partner and I have calculated that if we combine our individual moves since finishing high school this will be move number fifty-one for us. FIFTY-ONE. I have spent the last forty-five minutes culling books from my collection, because this time I am moving without a moving allowance (though luckily my partner has one with his new position). I have taken all the art off my office walls and piled it up on a filing cabinet. I can’t even begin to tackle the paper that has accumulated over the last twelve months. Despite my best efforts at organization and downsizing it can’t be denied: I have a lot of work-related stuff. And it has to go in boxes. All of it. Again.
Packing makes me angry. Moving makes me tired. What does any of this have to do with avoiding the empathy trap? Plenty. If you are an early career scholar, or a contract academic faculty member the imperative–both to pay the bills and to keep a foot in the door of academia–you probably have to move for work. You definitely have to think about moving and weigh whether or not you will move.
Let’s not mince words: moving is hard work. It takes physical energy (are there boxes? Can we actually lift this thing? How do we tell the anxious dog it will be ok? Where the hell is the modem return place?) Moving also takes emotional energy, and that’s the part people tend to forget when addressing work-related moves. There is a real desire to pass over the hard parts of moving and focus on new beginnings. And new beginnings are great, but newness doesn’t always go hand in hand with ease and excitement and a clear path into what’s next. Academics–especially early career academics– aren’t the only ones who move, but as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes, perpetual movement is the modern academic condition. That, friends, is worth pausing to think about for a moment.
One of the many things that I have written about over the years is moving. Four years ago, fresh off my move from Alberta to Nova Scotia, I wrote this post about the implicit imperative for graduate students to move for each degree. I realize now that when I wrote it I was writing from a position of a kind of myopia. I moved for all three of my degrees, and I did so because I wanted to move. I was able to move between countries, provinces, and landscapes with relative ease. Yes, it meant building new communities each time, yes, it meant haunting the liquor store for packing boxes over and over again. Ultimately, though, it was my choice and my privilege to move. I wasn’t tied to a place, I am an only child, my parents were willing and able to visit me wherever. Was I privileged? Sure. Has moving a zillion times taught me some things? Yes. I know I can make a life wherever I go. I know I can pack a house in three days flat. I know how to forge routines until they feel like home. But the imperative to move, move, move has cost me too. I wasn’t tied — rooted — to a place. I wager it has cost a lot of us, and I suspect it costs communities and universities a lot more that the institutions realize.
Over the last few years I have become more and more grounded in a particular place, a particular region of Canada. I have also met more and more people for whom place is sacred. I mean really, truly sacred. Moving from a place means severing daily ties to family (both blood and chosen), community, and the land. It means having to leave your home. It means having to leave your home.
Take a minute and think about the implications of that statement. Be careful not to misread it.
The imperative of moving for work is not a new one. I won’t forget the first time I flew from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. It was a red eye flight and it stopped in Halifax before heading on to St. John’s. It was full of people who were going home on furlough after working in Fort MacMurray on the rigs or on the Tar Sands. The woman next to me asked where I was from and when I hedged she asked why I was going to Nova Scotia. “For work,” I said. I won’t forget what she said next: you’re lucky, she said. We’re all working out west so that we can come home. There are a million different versions and experiences of people having to move for work. There are many ways in which moving can be good, can be positive, can be exciting, and, more simply, can be a way of paying the bills. But in academia–and especially in my disciplines that are in the Humanities–I wonder how well we are doing in thinking through what it means to reproduce a move-for-subsistence model.
So what’s the take-away in this second post on avoiding the empty trap? It is this: on the quotidian level let’s acknowledge that the nomadic imperative in academia means different things at different stages of the career. Moving as a guest lecturer or visiting professor does not mean the same thing as moving for a sustainable paycheque. Is it hard to change a system? Sure. But it won’t happen if we don’t talk about full range of issues.
Now, who wants to come over and help me pack?
I gave my very first keynote lecture, two weeks ago, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), in Victoria. It was in a giant lecture hall, that was too small, so there was also an overflow space in the foyer, with a live feed. In all, there were several hundred people listening.
Holy shit, that was scary!
|That’s only the middle third. Holy crap. Add two wings and an overflow room.|
It was scary because, well, that’s a lot of people. But it wasn’t really the size of the crowd that had me insomniac for several weeks before the event. What was really scaring me was that I suspected that doing a keynote was not like doing a longer conference paper for a bigger group of people, but something entirely different. Something I didn’t know how to do, and that I couldn’t find rules for. Ultimately, I asked advice from some people who had done keynotes before, and mostly I just reverse engineered keynotes that I liked and ones I didn’t to try to determine the patterns.
Maybe you’ve never done a keynote before, and you don’t know the rules either. Maybe you do lots of keynotes, and you have it all figured out and are itching for a venue in which to share this information. I’ll lay out my ideas here, and you can take or add as you wish.
Do not go over time.
This is crucial. I mean, no presentation should ever go over time, but there’s something that’s the absolute WORST about a long lecture to a big group of people that seems like it’s not going to end. And if there’s no time for questions, people get mad, and rightly so. My time slot was 50 minutes long. I calculated 10 minutes for two sets of introductions, and tried to make my talk 35 minutes long, leaving five minutes for questions. My talk came right before an open bar reception, so you’d better believe I knew that everyone had their eyes on the clock. As it happens, I talked for 38 minutes, and we started a couple of minutes late, so we had exactly one minute for questions, but we walked out the door on time, dammit.
Rift in the space-time continuum.
The bigger the crowd, the slower you have to talk. That is, the more people there are in the room, the fewer words you can say. This is true. There’s something about the bigness of the room, and the amplified shuffle-in-seats, doing-Twitter-backchannel, occasional-cough background noise just makes speaking more slowly imperative. So if you can get through 2500 words in a 15 minute conference paper, for a 35 minute keynote, don’t go over 5000. Where did the extra five minutes go? Cough, tweet, shuffle, fuzz of amplification through big speakers.
One great keynote I saw laid it out at the beginning: “I’m going to talk for 40 minutes. There are three topics. Here they are: the first two give the context, and they’re pretty short. The last one is the argument and it’s a bit longer, but there’re lots of pictures.” And he did exactly that. It was soooooo easy to follow as a result and I also didn’t get restless because by giving us the blueprints, the speaker allowed the audience to build the mental memory house into which to slot everything we heard as we heard it. I just totally stole that idea and used it. It also helps people live tweet, I see from the backchannel transcript of my talk.
Be yourself, no matter what group invites you
Some keynotes flub it because they try to write the paper that they think the inviting group would produce, if they were writing it. But you’ve been invited because of the work that you do. Don’t try to master someone else’s field and give a keynote on that. Because a) you’re not going to master it and b) as a result it’s kind of simplistic and insulting. But also c) they invited you to talk about what you’re an expert in. So do that. I got totally balled up on this DHSI keynote for MONTHS because I was trapped in the ontological weeds: what is DH? Do I do DH? I need to write something for all the different kinds of DH that will be there! Oh God, I’m a fraud. Ultimately, I made the case for my own book project as a kind of DH. The best feedback I got was from this researcher who does computer stylistics (pretty much the opposite of what I do)–he told me he was listening and was like, “nope, nope, nope … oh, wait, hold one … that’s right … yes … huh! I didn’t think of that … cool!” We still do radically different things, but now he understands what I do, and we can talk about it.
Be yourself, though, for that goup
Like using fewer words for a bigger crowd, consider how to frame your ideas at a higher or more accessible level for a keynote crowd. You might give conference papers to an audience of the only eight people in the world who’ve read everything you’ve written, and vice versa. The keynote group is not that crowd. Include everyone by pitching to the kind of experts described in the conference theme or call: the DHSI group knows about some field in the humanities, and they use digital tools. In my paper I gave a solid gloss of affordance theory and applied it to interface design / self-narration problem. I did NOT go into the internal debates in the field on that theory, but I could’ve if it came up in questions. Which it didn’t. Would’ve framed the same part of the talk very differently for a design studies conference, or for a literary studies audience.
A keynote is more of a performance than a conversation. And it’s more theatre than film: be bigger and broader, generally. I used a remote to run the slides so I could stand in the middle of speaking area at the glass podium instead of hiding in the corner behind the computer. I gesticulated. I marked in the text where to look up at the audience. I marked in the text where to slow down to deliver the punchlines to maximum effect. (This also allows people to live tweet better; they’re better able to quote you correctly.) When people laughed, I waited for them to stop, and I smiled at them. I also managed my slides in the same way I’ve done for years, but which many people on Twitter stopped to remark on: I show blank/black slides in between content-laden slides. I don’t know about you but when there’s a slide and someone talking, I compulsively try to relate the image to the talking. So if I just want people to focus on what I’m saying, and there’s nothing I need them to look at, I just black out the screen. Pictures when relevant, blank when not. Apparently, not a lot of people have thought of this, and it was very popular.
I have always been very impressed when the keynote at a conference has been around and participating in the whole conference, and making an effort to connect with people. I am way less impressed when they fly in two hours beforehand, talk, and then go to dinner with the big wigs or their friends from grad school before flying home. I’m no bigwig but it is now the case that I’m senior to a lot of people, and that many people want to meet me. So I walked around with a smile all week and made a special effort to meet at least five people every day that I didn’t know before. Some days I met ten. It was a weird thing to see people get weirdly tongue-tied and nervous and talk too fast when they come up to me. I know what it’s like to BE that person who’s nervous, not be addressed by that person, so I’m learning how to be very friendly and engaging and not scary for people. I’ve met such nice people!
|Keynote selfie in a keynote about selfies. #metaselfie #humourme|
I will be a lot less scared and nervous and anxious and insomniac if I ever get asked to do another keynote. As it turns out, it really was the fear of the unknown genre that was making it all so stressful. I hope these notes might be useful to you for YOUR first keynote. And of course, if you are a keynote habituée, please add any further advice in the comments below!
Hey all. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted. I know you’ve missed me dearly.
Life post-research trip has been fairly hectic and social-filled, in really very good ways, and I have been making strong progress on chapter one and heading back to the UK very soon (spoiled this year!) and feeling pretty okay about everything. Yet in the tumult of summer I have struggled to brew up a post, and even today the ingredients are looking a little scarce. I hope you’ve all been following Erin’s excellent Empathy Trap entries, and who knows what lies in store over the next few weeks.
Today I just want to repost an excellent, important, smart, compelling article on, yes, the rising phenomenon of the adjunct, or adjunctivitis (a name which to me still sounds pretty silly but oh well), that just came out in the fantastic Guernica Magazine (thanks to my pal Ali for drawing my attention to this!). Perhaps you’ve already seen it. Here CUNY adjunct Rachel Riederer discusses the contradictions inherent in being an underpaid and undersupported worker in the still ostensibly middle-class and even, in some senses, “sacred” job of university teaching. Some instructors have been facing backlash for including statements regarding the material realities of adjuncting in their syllabi; a common approach is to urge students not to call them “professor,” since the term remains hallowed and obscures the actual conditions of labor that the human beings responsible for educating future generations often face. Riederer cites a fellow adjunct:
“The conditions of labor must always be obscured,” she said. “Work is good, work is noble, work is disciplining, work is what gives you social meaning in your life, so you can’t say, ‘Oh, this job is killing me.’ And they certainly don’t ever want you to talk to other people and realize this is structural, this is planned, we are the effects of other people’s choices and perhaps we should have a bigger voice here.”
‘How can we complain about our work?,’ some may ask. Adjuncts may get paid less than managers at McDonald’s, but that does not mean they are not more fulfilled. Our jobs as educators on pleasant university campuses are by many accounts very good, no matter the material conditions of being there. But, as Riederer claims, “of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.” (or, I love this: “A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.”)
There’s so much more to this article, but I’ll leave you to experience it on your own, and I’ll get back to conference-paper-drafting. Oh, and here’s a video of a parrot talking with a stuffed rabbit, which if you can get past the awful clickbaity title, is pretty great. Because animals.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the empathy trap and it was the most read post I have ever written. If you missed it you can read it here. It was a hard post to write, and it is a hard post to follow up. I have been thinking about how to productively respond to my own public thinking. This is what I have come up with: In the next few weeks I aim to write a few posts on how to avoid the empathy trap. Some posts will be in conversation towards those who are in positions of relative power, by which I mean jobbed positions–be they tenured or un- — and some will be directed towards people who find themselves to be unemployed. It is important to note that I think I have been in both positions, if marginally. As a person who has held multiple contract academic faculty positions I have been in relative positions of power. As someone who is unemployed despite my best efforts, and who still has research projects on the go, I am most definitely outside the academy in some ways. In other ways, though, I am positioned to be more inside the research track than I ever could have been as a teaching-heavy contract academic faculty member.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I am thrilled, happy, or even used to being unemployed. What I am trying to track here in the next few weeks are the ways in which I will maintain my research identity as a trained scholar of Canadian literature and culture while shifting into the first summer … and then fall…in which I am not prepping classes and ordering books and writing lectures.
Here goes nothing.
I do research. This is a fact that is easily forgotten when one is teaching an overload and constantly refashioning the old CV in an attempt to shift it towards one job advertisement or another. Or, if not forgotten, it is a fact that can be left unexplored and under-discussed. (Side note: I know that it is difficult to fit a research agenda into a tenure-track and even tenured position, but theoretically these positions are paid to do that work. At they very least, these positions get paid over the summer months) So here is my question for myself and others who don’t identify as employed: how and how often do you talk about your research? I mean how often do you talk about the research work you do? If I really tried to be honest the answer would be not that often.
My research interests have always focussed on the ways in which women and people of colour have used textual and performance art to intervene in the hegemonic narratives of gender, race, and nation. One of my favourite ways of thinking about these generative and subversive interventions came from my friend and colleague Stephen Collis‘s writing about the commons. In an incredible essay Stephen talks about the blackberry (fruit, not phone) as a model of subversive intervention. You should read it. Collis’s idea is inspiring to me because it is one voice among many (though you have to search for them) that articulates a means of working within what is in the service of what might be. I have been thinking and writing–in my MA thesis, my doctoral dissertation, and the articles I have published thus far–about the ways in which archives work to silo experimental writing as much as they work to preserve it. In my more recent work I am trying to bring together my public writing and organization work with my literary and cultural analysis.
Here are the projects I have on the go. This is some of the research I am going to try to do over the next year as I work to find work. I’m excited, because theoretically I have time. I am nervous, of course, because that time is unpaid time.
I am working on articles about Sachiko Murakami‘s work, Gail Scott’s novel The Obituary, and Sina Queyrays‘s lyric conceptualism. I also have two articles that have been sitting on the back burner for a while. I’m going to return to these and think about whether they are worth the time and effort to substantially revise.
I have two manuscripts under contract. One of them is about the poetics of collapse, which considers the ways in which contemporary Canadian cultural producers are working to create generative if ephemeral texts out of narratives of utter devastation. The other is an edited collection of poetry by a contemporary Canadian poet.
I am also the chair of the board of CWILA, and we are working towards our third annual launch of the Count. I see this work as research, writing, and public discourse. We’re working to make this our biggest launch yet (and believe me, in terms of the numbers of reviews our volunteers have counted it is the biggest!). Look for it in mid-September when we launch the numbers and essays along with a funding and membership drive.
I am also presenting papers at Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals (where I am also on the organizing committee), Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and the MLA.
That is a lot of stuff, isn’t it? My aim for this week is to use Julie Rak‘s brilliant five-year research plan to map out what I have to do…and then try and adapt that for the fact that, without a contract position or a tenure-track position that five-year plan may well be a ten-to-twelve month plan that also involves career transitioning.
What about y’all? How do those of you who are under or un-epmployed manage, articulate, and conceive of your research?
My career has broken up with me, or at least it feels that way.
For five years I have managed to line up limited term contract after limited term contract. The workload has at times been enormous, but I kept telling myself that I was doing the work I’d been trained to do. In the process of doing the work I’d been trained to do I learned that I love teaching. Indeed, I learned that I love teaching enough to talk about it in public over and over again. I’ve learned to worry about the conditions that structure the profession I fell in love with in 1997 when I took my first undergraduate poetry class at the University of North Carolina. I’ve learned though experience to fret publicly about the ways in which the shift to a corporate model affects students, teachers, the academic mission, and, yes, the future. And now, for the first time in five years I am unemployed.
I have been struggling with how to write this post for a few weeks. Indeed, I haven’t been able to figure out how to write it. Part of the struggle comes from not knowing what I want to say, exactly. Part of it comes from not knowing how to articulate the struggle itself. And the biggest struggle has come from fear. Fear of reprisal, fear of making myself and my own experience too public, fear of becoming an object of pity rather than an active agent in the process of positive change. After all, there are things one can say in a public forum, there are things one should say in a public forum, and then there are those things that fall under the category of the unspeakable. Guess which category this post falls under?
Each time I struggle with writing a blog post I find myself remembering a piece of advice I received a few years ago from my colleague Rohan Maitzen, who is herself an incredibly accomplished blogger. I had posted a kind of passive-aggressive “why do I even do this” message on Facebook–like y’do when you want to have reassurance but don’t have the guts to just ask for it straight up–and Rohan wrote “sounds like its time for a meta-post on why blogging matters.” She was right.
So, I’m going to try and take Rohan’s advice and think a bit in public about how to manage disappointment in the academic sphere, even though it feels both risky and self-indulgent.
Disappointment is something I have been learning to metabolize for years now. Yes, I get that this sounds petulant, and in a way it is. Bear with me. Academia is a combination of incredible affirmations and small and big disappointments. Indeed, I think that recognizing the affirmations and privilege are as important as learning how to deal with disappointment. Some of that disappointment metabolizing is good and necessary work. Didn’t get that grant? Didn’t get the job? Didn’t get the paper accepted to the journal? Didn’t get into the conference? All of these things happen, and to an extent they are simply part of the system built on peer review and other gatekeeping that is intended to ensure excellent work. But what happens when disappointment becomes the status quo? When you do everything right, when you are the recommended candidate, or the Dean who speaks up, and the structures that are supposedly in place to protect you fail? Do you take it as a sign that your work–or you–aren’t right for the job/journal/granting system? Do you move on? Do you get stuck?
The questions I’m really interested in talking about right now are less about the broken system of academia and more about how others manage public disappointment. Let me be brutally direct: one of the things I have tried to do on this blog over the last several years is write frankly about my own experience as a contract worker on the job market. The results of this experience have been mixed. On the one hand, I have had the great privilege of building community. I have heard from people who share similar experiences, and that shared experience is comforting. There is a kind of strength in numbers.
On the other hand I find that I am myself most guilty of talking not about the work I’m doing but of the work of trying to secure work. While frank conversation about the job market is necessary it is also costly in ways I couldn’t have predicted. It is a funny thing to be known for your work on getting work rather than the “real” work you do (wait, what do I do again?)
It is an equally funny thing finding yourself in the empathy trap. Now that I am facing unemployment and the necessity to shift to a plan B be it DIY Academia or an alt-ac position or who knows what I also have to consider how to manage my emotions when people offer empathy. I have publicly written myself into a place where my search for stable work is part of my public praxis, and I have done that deliberately (perhaps, as it turns out, to my detriment. Silly me). I think it is important to demonstrate the challenges (to put it mildly) of doing the work while applying to do the work. But I wonder now about the efficacy of my decisions. Writing my struggles–emotional, physical, psychological–has been my decision, but I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t actually added to the problem. I mean really, what responses are left when faced with someone you ostensibly respect who hasn’t found a place in the system? You tell them they matter. The work they do matters. You tell them that it stinks that they don’t have stable work and that it is unfair. And probably it is unfair, but there you are, face-to-face, at a stalemate. If you’re jobbed and you care then you’re inevitably in a position of empathy. You are in a position of relative privilege. If you’re not jobbed and you care, then you’re in the position of needing to tell the caring person you’re ok. You’ll manage. Because honestly, it is the system, it isn’t them. This, friends, is the empathy trap. It is a real thing and we are all, one way or another bound up in it, be we jobbed, not jobbed, or somewhere in between.
Now that I am not jobbed at all, now that I have experienced what others before me have since this long recession began, now that I have been let down by the system so dramatically that I am having a hard time getting out of bed sometimes I wonder: what does empathy really do? Is empathy a means of avoiding anger? Shouldn’t we all be angry?
Last week I was working on my conference paper for ACCUTE, and while it felt ridiculous and futile to be putting a paper together when I have no work lined up writing this paper, giving it, and thinking in public is what I have been trained to do. This careful thinking is what Canadian taxpayers have paid me to do, moreover. So I’ll do some of that here as a means of getting to what I mean by the empathy trap. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion Sara Ahmed writes about the necessity of anger for the feminist movement. Further, anger is a necessity for a future-oriented hope:
If anger is a form of ‘against-ness,’ then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against….The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading? (175)
Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing and Audre Lorde specifically to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes
My fear of anger taught me nothing…. Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification….Anger is loaded with information and energy. (Sister/Outsider 124, 127)
Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a “response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; and as being loaded with information and energy” (175). Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past, it is an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is without forgetting what was. “If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subject to ‘read’ and ‘move’ from anger into a different bodily world” (175).
My question, then, is this: how do we move beyond the empathy trap in small and big ways? How do we acknowledge what is and get angry about it in ways that will move us into a future that is more generative and generous? (and by ‘us’ I mean people working in academia, because working on the margins and the outside always already makes you more vulnerable). I think that the ACCUTE CAF Best Practices sheet, which offers suggestions for how departments can support contingent faculty members, may be one way, and I hope that conversations here are another way. Certainly, the work that my blogging colleagues are doing each week is helping me nuance my thinking. But these alone are not enough. Once you read a blog post and get angry or empathetic, what do you do? What other ways are you cultivating for managing the disappointments that stem from a broken system?