DIY · empowerment

Avoiding the Empathy Trap 1: I Do Research

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?

7 thoughts on “Avoiding the Empathy Trap 1: I Do Research

  1. Erin! I love hearing about what you're working on, and I hope you'll tell us more.

    As someone who is jobbed, but in a role that neither requires nor leaves much time for my primary research in Canadian modernism, can I include myself here? In terms of career transition, this was and continues to be an ongoing point of tension and questioning. Being jobbed in the role that I'm in, which is roughly what I want to continue doing, what's the rationale for continuing my research? How do I conceive of my research in ways that have value to my employer/contribute to my professional goals? How do I think about reshaping my research on order to better align my professional and research lives and reduce some of that tension? It's stuff I'm still working out, and that I imagine you are too.

    Some questions are slowly resolving themselves. I'm down to two major research projects, one of which is very much in the area of my job, and I've also begun transitioning my conferencing into that area so that I can double up on professional/research credit (and not have to take vacation time to conference). My literary research is a labour of love, and considering that I spend much of my time at work evaluating research, the ability to demonstrate that I'm a good researcher is not insignificant. But I imagine my questions, and the answers to them, would be very different were I not in an alt-ac position. Those answers were much less clear cut when I wasn't sure where I would end up in my jobbed life, and because the professional benefits of continuing with my non-job research are hypothetical at best, my motivation for carving out time and energy for that project needs regular reinforcement.

    Fundamentally, I think what it comes down to is that I'm not willing to give up my identity as a researcher, whatever research area I end up spending most of my time in, whatever job I have. And that's an important thing to know about myself. I do research, and I will continue to, however I'm jobbed. Knowing that made transitioning easier, I think–we'll never stop being academics, and changing jobs doesn't have to mean changing that part of us that always seeks to know, to explore.


  2. Thanks Erin! I think one of the other challenges is people assuming they know what your research is based on what you've been publicly writing about (and often teaching) versus what your research is ACTUALLY about. I teach (ok, taught) rhetoric and composition because that's how I paid the bills. I've learned a lot about it and have published a bit in it. But my passion remains Canadian literature (and how do you do that when you're in the States and when you tell people you do Canadian literature, they laugh and say, Canada *has* literature? haha), and it's hard on a heavy course load that has nothing to do with your research to find time to do the research that matters to you, that lead you to academia to begin with.

    Now that I'm transitioning into an alt-ac position, one that values my work in pedagogy, I wonder how I'll be able to continue in my research. Thankfully, “DH” broadly understood is part of my job, so at least I can keep going within my new position. It's a tough road. When I was unemployed, which would have been a perfect time to do “more research”, I didn't do any because I was so despondent about my job prospects. I actually toyed with the idea of getting rid of all of my Can Lit books, because they felt like unnecessary dead-weight. Like I was holding on to a past that would never help my future.

    But now, I've got two projects on the go (and another that I'm just waiting and waiting and waiting to hear back on). I don't know what I'm trying to say in this rambling comment. Hang in there? Thank you? This is an important conversation that we're not having?



  3. Slightly off topic: you STILL haven't heard back, Lee? Not cool. Not cool at all. And I'm extremely interested in hearing how you continue to negotiate and renegotiate your relationship to your CanLit research in your new job. Can't wait to hear how your first weeks go.


  4. Hi Erin! Long-time reader, first-time commenter. Like Sherbygirl, I teach writing because it's what has paid the bills during my first year on the academic job market. Despite the challenges of living on sessional wages, this form of marginal employment has made research a necessary and logical part of my daily routine. I was on the academic job market. Building a strong research profile was essential. Imagining a 5 year research plan was also essential, not only for the Cover Letters and Statements of Research Plans and Objectives, but because I was envisioning what the future would look like. Now that I'm not sure a second year on the job market is desirable or possible, how do I decide what to do with those plans? Whether I transition into a teaching-only position or a career that is entirely non-academic, I have to figure out how I feel about continuing with research as unpaid labour. I love my research, and I'm proud of it, but I also feel exploited by a system that asks me to give freely of my time and intellect just because. The cynical (realistic?) part of me tells myself that our willingness to do this is what makes the unjust system work. In more optimistic (idealistic?) moments, I remember the pleasure and energy that engaging in research gives me, regardless of whether or not it's part of my job. It's an emotional, a practical, and an ethical conundrum for me.


  5. Erin – this is wonderfully open-hearted and smart. I like your phrasing – working “in the service of what might be.” I think that's crucial, for all scholars, and what under-employment and precarity makes so very difficult. Glad you are maintaining the possibilities.


  6. Melissa: YES! You put your finger on something I hadn't quite articulated for myself. I am a researcher. I am working with a methodology of critical inquiry, exploration, and articulation. Is research a means of creating public discourse? I think so. And is it hard to keep the both/and identities when we find ourselves on the margins of academic work? Again, I think so.

    As you say, Lee, I think this is another facet of the conversation of the future of humanities work that we're not having. This isn't *just* a contract academic faculty issue, this is part of the larger challenge of the changing university. It is a conversation we need to be having.

    Mmg: Welcome! You're so right: things shift as you move into the second year on the market. Partly–hopefully–the contract teaching becomes more manageable (as in more familiar, more amenable to a routine)–and then there's the imagining yourself for the job market as your own identity shifts. Research as unpaid labour, oh YES! I too juggle those cynical/realist vs. optimistic/idealistic perspectives.

    Stephen: I wasn't kidding when I said your writing and your way of being in the world is a genuine inspiration.


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