academic reorganization · kinaesthetic thinking · self care · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: I Dance Therefore I Am

The famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine once said, “I don’t want dancers who want to dance. I want dancers who have to dance.”
I have to dance. I do not think I could manage school, or much of anything else in fact, without dance. Unlike Erin, who calls herself a kinaesthetic thinker, I dance to get away from my thoughts and out of my head. Dance is the only thing I have ever found – except perhaps film – that allows me this reprieve. And as someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism, it is both a welcome and necessary reprieve.

I said I would dance anywhere. That includes near Parliament Hill!

When I talk about dance, unless I am referring specifically to my time inside a studio rehearsing a piece or working on my technique, I am usually speaking about improvisation. Though I enjoy these other aspects of dance, and recognize they are necessary to expanding my control over my body, and consequently, my ability to express myself as limitlessly as possible, I find the most solace in improvisation. Give me a dark room and some music, and my body takes care of the rest.

I will dance just about anywhere – from airports to parking lots, to between bookshelves in the library, in my room, and, of course, at dance studios. When I begin to panic and feel like my world is spiralling out of control, getting up and starting to move, with or without music, in any space, grounds me in my body. As someone whose mind is usually either stuck ruminating on the past, or else is speeding off into the future, dance draws me back into the present. I have been filled by some of the purest joy while dancing, but have also turned to dance when I am too numb to feel anything else. I often process my emotions, or at least allow myself room to feel them, through dance.
Ironically, I have both school and my perfectionism to thank for my years of training. Upon realizing that dance classes were perhaps the only things that would keep me from studying, over time, my parents gradually gave in to more classes, more workshops, and more competitions – anything to get me away from my textbooks. It was even thanks to my grade eight math teacher that I ended up at my high school where I studied dance. My parents were anxious to get his advice during a parent-teacher interview on where I might thrive most after middle school. As the story goes, he ignored their questions about IB and gifted programs, and instead asked if they had considered letting me go to an arts high school for dance. I have felt indebted to him ever since.
I have on occasion attempted to bring my love of dance into the classroom, and not infrequently use it as a frame of reference when trying to grasp new concepts. When we talk about gender roles, my mind inevitably turns to the tradition of ballet, which firmly relegates males and females to different choreographic parts[1]. When we discuss sexualisation, my thoughts turn to the alarming sexualisation of young children – mainly female – at dance competitions. When my sociology of education classes feel hopeless, I try to think back to my experiences of attending an arts high school, and I am reminded that there are alternative ways of approaching education.
I had a field day with my first aesthetics class in philosophy. I leaped at the opportunity to relate every assignment back to dance, which eventually led to me taking on an independent study on the aesthetics of dance. Though I enjoyed the independent study, I quickly realized that dance for me exists outside of the realm of the written word. My professor pointed out that my papers were riddled with unsubstantiated claims – but everyone can dance! We are born dancers! – and I learned that having the privilege to experience dance is enough for me. I do not want to try to capture something so elusive, magical in its nebulousness. Scrutiny can undermine sanctity. 
This summer my psychologist told me to make a list of all of my commitments I had signed up for during the school year. She instructed me to choose three to keep for certain, and to rank the rest in order of how much they would increase my stress and decrease the quality of my work. I tried to argue that my dance classes should not count as one of the three guaranteed commitments, because, like Gillian, who makes time for roller derby despite her packed schedule, dance is a given in my life. I simply don’t function without it. I take as many dance classes as I can, and have taught and choreographed dance for years. When I am asked what I do for fun (the list is scant), I sometimes forget to list dance because it is such an integral part of my life and identity that I do not see it as a hobby.
When I improvise, I feel seen, known, and understood. Improvising leaves no room to premeditate, no time to plan, curate, or refine the image you want to portray. This stands in stark contrast to my imposter syndrome and general insecurity, both of which cause me to feel like I am constantly “faking it”, and have yet to be found out for the (inadequate, terrible) person I really am. Being able to return to my body and know that embedded within it is an authentic version of myself is a blessing. Further, no one has ever been able to figure out why I approach everything in my life but dance with unceasing perfectionism. Somehow I have managed to reserve this one space in which I am allowed to simply be, and to enjoy myself. Though this is not the case for many dancers, especially those attempting to make a professional career out of dance and often those studying ballet, I am thankful to say my dance remains perfectionism-free.

Throwback to high school.
If you read this, and thought to yourself, “I wish I could dance,” please know that you can. Everyone can dance. I truly believe it is only socialized inhibitions, and perhaps in some cases, the limits and abilities of our bodies, that prevent us from dancing as we age. So turn off the lights and turn on your favourite song. And if you have a child and the means to do so, consider enrolling them in a dance class. You never know, you or they might just be someone who has to dance too.
 
My dance playlist is always evolving, but here are some songs that have stuck with me over the years (as well as a few that I am enjoying too much right now not to include).
Caroline Kovesi is a fourth year student at Mount Allison University. She is pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Arts in sociology with a minor in philosophy. She is passionate about de-stigmatizing mental health. Her academic work often focuses on the intersection of mental illness, disability, accessibility, and higher education. She recently started a blog exploring such topics called “for the love of a bear.”


[1] There are, though, some pretty fantastic ballet troupes beginning to play with gender bending, like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Check this video out.
academic reorganization · guest post · kinaesthetic thinking · play · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: Daily Affirmation

I thought I was going to use this much appreciated opportunity to write out some kind of overarching argument for the importance of the intersection between athletics and academics, particularly for women. But as I’ve thought about this issue over the last month, it turns out I can’t in good conscience make this argument at all as women still, by far, undertake the majority of both service work in the university workplace and caretaking at home, a dreary and undebatable fact that means I’d be truly wrapped up in my own privilege if I were to say, “hey all you women, you really need to try training for something on top of all the other duties and responsibilities and drains on your time! I mean, it’s really great and you’ll feel good about yourself!”

It is great. And it does make you feel good about yourself. But the time I’ve spent as a competitive cyclist and now runner/occasional triathlete have shown me how the barriers to participation, let alone access, are still very high. I’ll return to this point toward the end of my post but to explain how I’ve come to this point, I’m afraid I need to indulge in some autobiography about my history as an athlete.

I’ve always been active and in love with running around and doing things, whether kicking or catching a ball, riding my bike on dirt or on roads, running around a track, or running on trails. But I always did this activities without any support network, with no understanding of training or technique or even nutrition, and – with the exception women like Missy Giove that I’d see in glossy magazines – with almost no role models. This isn’t surprising considering I grew up in the 70s and 80s, on what was then the isolated world of Vancouver Island. Still, I had this lurking belief I could be good at sport – that I was capable and strong, even if there was no real evidence for this belief.

Maybe it’s no coincidence my history as an academic followed a similar path, guided by my belief that maybe I could do this thing even if no one else around me thought one way or the other. So, after a few nerve-wracking years as a perpetually insecure, workaholic PhD student, I decided I’d try to build up my self-confidence from having almost none to, hopefully, at least having some. I started by coming up with an arbitrary amount of body fat I wanted to get down to at the local gym (incredibly, my personal life remained completely divorced from the work by Susan Bordo I was teaching at the same time), moved on to trying to do a sprint triathlon, and then – when we moved to Boulder, Colorado – trying what was for me the most intimidating of all: road bike racing.

I threw myself into training and racing road bikes for five years and, for those years, the sport gave me everything I was missing in the academic workplace. I wanted community, friends and connection and I found these things in spades, especially as a beginning Cat 4 racer. These women I trained and raced with, week in and week out for months at a time, were incredible – we pushed each other harder than we thought was possible; we learned together; we cheered each other on; we suffered together. It was a remarkable experience, especially compared to the profoundly isolationist and individualistic culture of academia.

Those years racing and training also made me a more interesting person, one who became capable of talking with lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, marketing managers, and sales associates. Not only did I learn about and engage with communities outside of academia but I also developed a more expanded sense of where exactly I stood in relation to my local and global community. It’s such an obvious revelation, that existing only in a university environment makes one uni-dimensional. It’s also obvious one cannot and should not work as many hours a day and days a week as one can hack. But somehow, academia – largely made up of type-A personalities who cannot stop striving seven days a week because of the lack of clear work-life boundaries – makes access to these obvious revelations very difficult.

I quit training and racing road bikes a couple years ago when I realized I’d achieved the goal I’d set out for myself (all I wanted was to become a Cat 2 racer, because somehow, narrowly, I thought that would mean I could finally tell myself I was “good” at this sport) and I was finding the 15 hours of training a week onerous rather than empowering. But still, the act of training taught me one lesson in particular that still hasn’t left me: the value of having clear and bounded goals coupled with an acceptance of what I have today, who I am today, instead of who I could be or would like to be or should be.

Instead of the quiet but ever-present pressure in academia to continually work and produce, without rest and very often without end and without any clear indication of success (when is our work ever done? If you work for five years or longer to write a book and then wait a year and a half, sometimes two years, for the book to come out and be read by so few people, where is the triumph?), bike training presented me with the daily challenge to complete this set task, in this particular manner, in this set amount of time. Daily I’d ask myself, “Can I do this thing? Even though I’m tired? Even though I don’t feel great and even though I don’t have a lot of time? Can I push my body that hard? Can I finish the workout?” And very often the answer turned out to be “Yes, I can show up only with what I have to give today and yes, I can do this thing!”

Eventually, the tiny, daily acknowledgements of what I had to give, given the circumstances of the day, turned into tiny, daily triumphs and then these triumphs came to influence both the way I go about my work as an academic and the way I think about my worth. Eventually, I came to ask myself, “Can I write 500 words today? Can I teach my classes with the knowledge and the energy I have today, rather than what I would like to have? Can I do this work in this two hours I have, before I spend time with my husband or my friends, rather than the eight hours I wish I had?”

All I have to offer here are my personal revelations about why my personal and professional life would be so much less if it weren’t for sport. I especially can only speak for myself here, as I’m reminded of the day I showed up for my first cat 2 race and I saw only women who were either professional bike racers or women who were retired or women whose children were now in college or women who were fortunate enough not to have to work at all. It’s a tremendous privilege to have the time and the resources I have to train, to hire a coach, to travel to races, to set goal race times and so on.

The Author!

I know countless women who are tremendously gifted athletes but who cannot possibly add training to their already nearly impossible schedules involving work, committee meetings, student supervision/mentoring, not to mention their own childcare and housework responsibilities. I only wish we could find a way not so much to say, “You can do it! You can train for that event and compete in that race!” but rather, “We value your health, happiness, and sense of well-being! We support a shorter work week and after-school child care! We support a more even distribution of childcare and service responsibilities across genders!” 

Then imagine what women could accomplish.



Lori Emerson is amateur runner, cyclist, and fresh air lover in Boulder, Colorado. She is also an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab

day in the life · kinaesthetic thinking · women · writing

Women, Academia, Sport: Easing In, Easing Out

My alarm usually goes off somewhere around 5:15 am, and I ease myself out of bed and into the kitchen. The kettle goes on, I feed the cat, and I quietly try to empty the dishwasher while the coffee brews. Mug in hand, I walk upstairs to my desk and start to write. There aren’t all that many pages left now, and the pencilled in defence date in my calendar will be ready to be inked soon. The sun comes up as I work, and it is bright in the sky by the time I manage to drag myself away from the computer and back into the kitchen for breakfast. Moving from writing to getting ready for work never gets any easier, and I almost always want just a few more minutes at the computer. It usually results in me scarfing breakfast with one eye on the clock and resigning myself to still having cat hair on me somewhere, lint roller be damned.

I step out my door at 8:30, and for the next thirty minutes, I’m neither here nor there, neither Melissa the researcher nor Melissa the research administrator. I’m Melissa in motion, just me and my backpack and my feet. I ease into my working day. I walk along Harbord Street, inhaling the sweet, yeasty smell of challah and danish from Harbord Bakery, the heady whiff of chlorine from the university pool. I watch students playing soccer on the back field, listen to the Tower Road bells playing carols and hymns and show tunes. I cross the hustle of Queen’s Park Circle into Queen’s Park, and listen to the sudden hush once I step away from the traffic. I watch the fat squirrels and dogs and runners, admire the snow covered statues and black-barked trees. I always look up to marvel at the gold tiles on the roof of the government buildings on Wellesley, the last quiet spot before I step into the middle of the people and cars and noise and energy at College and Bay. I look out for the man reading while he walks past the pink elephant, also known as the McMurtry-Scott Building. One more block, and I’m through the doors and inside my office.

On days when I’ve had the hardest time walking away from my computer, from my writing, you’ll find me talking through my ideas as I walk to work. With my headset in and voice recorder on, you’d think I was leaving someone a long voicemail. And I am–only that someone is myself. I talk myself, walk myself, through the ideas and connections that come to me as I stride through the city. I get to go back to my writing, back to my thinking. I don’t have to snip the threads of my thoughts quite so soon, and I get to set the stage for doing it all again tomorrow. I do some of my best thinking during those thirty minutes, even better than when I’m running, and by the time I’ve gotten to the office, I’ve talked myself out and I’m ready to move on to the very different work that is my day job.

On the way home, I do the same walk in reverse — from busy to quiet, work to home, shedding stress and responsibility as I walk. Some days I stop in at the bakery for a loaf of that fragrant bread and a tub of ruby beets, or pick up a bunch of tulips at the corner. I walk into the house footloose and fancy free, ready to be home, be relaxed, be productive in different ways. I feed the cat, put the kettle back on. Later, I’ll ease back into bed, and I sleep like a stone. Work waits for me, but I’m home and it stays there. My walk that does that, and so much more.

academic reorganization · guest post · kinaesthetic thinking · play · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: Academia On Wheels

                                                       Academia on Wheels
 
The Author! Photo credit: Martyn Boston
“What are you going to do to reduce the stress in your life?” the doctor asked me in September 2012 after I described the shooting head pains I’d been having for five months. We’d also discussed my middle-of-the-night hospitalization in July for chest pains the day before I submitted the manuscript for my second monograph.
My response to the doctor’s question? I laughed. My teaching term was beginning in two weeks. I couldn’t conceive of anything it was in my power to do, bar quitting my job, that would effect any sort of meaningful stress reduction.
But I did do something in the fall of 2012 that took me a while to connect to what the doctor had asked me: I went to a roller derby recruitment event. I had figure skated as a child, but I knew nothing about roller derby. A friend of mine had recently become involved (another academic, who is now a fantastic roller derby referee), however, and encouraged me to do the same. I watched Whip It!and was confused (turns out it’s not terribly representative of the actual sport). But the recruitment event was held down the road from my house, I was curious, and I had nothing to lose.
For those who don’t know (and/or have been equally confused by Whip It!), roller derby is a contact sport played on quad roller skates. Although men play it, too (both on men’s and co-ed teams), roller derby, in its current incarnation, is a twenty-first-century phenomenon initially devised for women. Its much-vaunted ethos of “by the skaters, for the skaters” has the effect of bolstering a sense of community both on- and off-track. While individual skaters may have different senses of themselves in relation to feminism, on the whole I would say that roller derby constitutes an empowering, feminist space.
What a difference, then, to the oftentimes explicit misogyny of the academic workplace. And while I often get asked about the risk of injury in roller derby—“Isn’t it really violent?”—I can’t help but think of myself in that doctor’s office, as she tried to point out what my body was telling me three years ago: it had had enough of what my job was putting me through.
“When do you have time?” I’m also asked, given my commitments not only as a skater on both A and B squads, but also, currently, a member of our training committee. When I started roller derby, I skated in the evening of my heaviest teaching day of the week, when the last thing I could do was keep working, and the only thing I could do, it seemed, was skate.
Gradually, I realised that roller derby was helping to save me. My acupuncturist, whom I consulted about those mysterious shooting head pains, told me I should think about my feet. It occurred to me that skating ensured I was thinking about my feet: certainly, to think about work in the middle of a contact sport would have been foolish. My feet enabled me to give my head a break.
When I was lying in the hospital bed in July 2012, I caught myself worrying about whether I would die before my book came out. My chest pains, thankfully, turned out to have a muscular, rather than cardiac, source, brought on by a six-week cough and the toll on my body of the final push towards my manuscript deadline. I was discharged in the morning.
But I was determined, as an academic working in the UK system structured not only by a lack of tenure (abolished, surprise surprise, by Thatcher) but also by “Research Excellence Framework” imperatives, never again to let myself think about my mortality as a publication record problem. I was determined to reclaim something resembling a life, and a healthy one at that.
It may seem paradoxical to think about a contact sport as a form of self-care, but roller derby has almost certainly played that role for me. And while my academic career is likely to last longer than my roller derby career, I am convinced that I am only able to keep going in the former because of powerful lessons taught to me by the latter.
Gillian Roberts is an Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at Nottingham University. Her focus is on Canadian cultural texts and their circulation and celebration examines how the boundaries of ‘Canadianness’ are constructed and reconstructed according to opportunities for Canada to accrue cultural power. Her work consistently returns to hospitality discourse both in its engagement with immigrant and hyphenate Canadian writers who become internationally celebrated and in my interest in the Canada-US border: in both these areas, she is interested in how a ‘Canadian host position’ is constructed, as well as in the discrepancy between Canada’s projection of itself as hospitable and the exclusivity with which ‘Canadianness’ is often defined. Her second monograph, Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border, has recently been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2015).

academic reorganization · kinaesthetic thinking · movement · play · women

Moving, Thinking, Playful Thinking

Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.
 
That’s Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking. I often think of Solnit’s work as I am walking. Walking to work. Walking the dog. Walking with the baby. Walking to think. Walking to breathe. When I am fortunate enough to be in a new place my favourite way of sketching it into my memory is to move through it at street level.

 

At my childhood home.
I come from a family of walkers. We are somewhat notorious for our devotion to travelling by foot. Indeed, my partner sometimes teases me when we are in the airport, and I head straight for the stairs despite carrying a bag, baby, and dragging a suitcase. Last year, I was seven months pregnant when there was eight inches of ice on the sidewalks and roads in Halifax and it was impossible to walk. I crept along at a snail’s pace, making the dog nervous. I crept along anyway.
I have always been a kinaesthetic thinker. Movement, whether through play, sport, or merely going form one spot to another, thrills me. I’ll go out of my way to make movement happen. When I was going my MA in Montreal, I would set my alarm for the early morning, wrench myself out of bed before the sun was up, and trudge across Parc La Fontaine to go swim laps at the pool. The monotony of the black line at the bottom facilitated all kinds of wonderful thinking. The dull splash splash of the water focused my mind. By the time I returned to my computer to work on my thesis I was, if not inspired, physically tired enough to not fidget.
Mar the Dog. Not amused by my exhortations of “do downward dog!”

 

The much-missed Felix. My first dog and constant walking companion
When I moved to Calgary to begin my PhD I ran, badly. I am not a born runner. Nonetheless, I would lace up my shoes, put the dog on his leash, and head down to the Bow River trail system and galumph my way along the gorgeous river. I tried yoga for the first time that year, too. I remember how hard it was to stand on my rubber mat on one foot. I can remember, too, laughing out loud in front of strangers after falling flat on my face during an attempt at a handstand.
My bike, 5:45 am, outside the yoga studio.
Later, when I moved to the East Coast, I returned to the early morning movement. This time, I set my alarm clock and met a friend, and together we would sleepily make our way to the yoga studio for practice. Have you ever been in a yoga studio at 5:30am on a Monday? Most people aren’t laughing. But for whatever reason M and I were. Always. Often. After we finished our practice I would drop her off and go home to get ready for work. As I sat at my desk through the day I could feel the physicality of what I had done that morning. Is it an exaggeration to say that it fed or facilitated the work I did at school? For me, it isn’t. For me, it did.
M. and me, early, laughing.
I’ve been thinking for a while now about how women — able bodied or differently abled, straight or queer, cis or trans — think about and experience movement in relation to their work in academic settings. Does movement, or sport, or play fit into other academic women’s lives? What might that look like for them? How does movement or sport or play affect their academic work, their sense of self, their sense of fun?
Over the coming weeks, starting tomorrow, there are going to be a series of guest posts under the heading “Women, Academia, Play, Movement, Sport” that offer some snapshots of some ways people have taken up these questions. If you’d like to add your voice please contact me to pitch a post.
Happy last week of February. May you find some play in your day and generative movement in your thoughts.
balance · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · food · time crunch

Sunday Suppers

My relationship to food is a long and deep one. I come from a family that prizes Sunday dinners, at home or at my grandmother’s house, where the twenty-or-so of us would gather at least once a month for birthdays and holidays or just because. We’re a family that spends meals talking about other meals, that shares intel on really good cheeses like state secrets. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family nearly every night. My Valentine’s Day was spent cooking for those people, who all piled into our dining room for dinner despite how unromantic or uncool it might be to spend the day of love with your parents. It was awesome. (If you’re interested, we ate Martha’s mac and cheese, which was SO GOOD, plus a green salad with fennel and lemon, and a beet salad with citrus, pickled onion, olives, and pistachios. Mom brought brownies baked in a heart-shaped pan, Dad brought wine, and Colleen brought the secret cheese.)

From the time I was in high school, I was often the one responsible for getting dinner started, and I’ve fed myself–and often other people, roommates and friends and sisters and spouses–almost every night for more than a decade. I’ve kept a food blog, off and on, since 2006. I own somewhere north of a hundred cookbooks, many of which are dog eared and food splattered, plus boxes of cards that record recipes collected from my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my own mom, and the internet. I have a knife callus at the base of my right index finger, and mandoline scars marring the fingerprints on three others. I’m an extremely good cook, mostly because I love to eat good food and I had to learn a long time ago–especially during the dire grad school years, when money was not a thing that we had–to make it for myself. I also really love cooking, the act of turning raw ingredients into something much more than the sum of their parts, of adding a bit of this, and a little more of that, until whatever I’m making tastes exactly like itself. Tastes good. As Tamar Adler would put it, I like exerting my will over a little slice of the chaotic world through cooking.

Cooking is also–and it seems like a cliché to say it, these days–one of my primary forms of emotional labour, of care not only for myself but for the people I feed. And my love of cooking gets in my way when it comes to gender equity at home.

My partner is good at many things, but meal planning and walking into a kitchen and turning what’s in the fridge into a meal is not one of them. He’s a good cook, but because he’s had rather less practice than I have, his repertoire is much more limited, and his ease in the kitchen is less. It seems to me a natural consequence of living in households where women are (expected to be) the primary preparers of food, and because I like doing the thing that keeps us fed, I leave less room than I should to step in and take over. The tension between wanting to cook–to feed us both well–and wanting to create equitable divisions of labour in our family has long nagged at me, especially since cooking is one of the major tasks that make up the second shift, that after-work work that women do rather more of than men. My desire to find different ways of approaching food-labour also has to do with the fact that as much as I love to cook, I hate making weeknight dinners. After all those years starting dinner as the first one home, and because I don’t want to become the human fridge inventory and Magic 8-ball that answers the question of what’s for dinner, the last thing I want to do after walking in the door from work is pull out my knives and light the burners. Too, I work full time, finish my PhD part-time, freelance sometimes, and try do things like sleep and have fun with friends and move my body and watch the new X-Files and have a life that is full but not “busy.”

There is not time to make dinner every night and do all those things.

It’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seemingly found a solution that works for us that does not involve eating avocado toast for dinner every night or resorting to (and resenting) takeout, one that lets me indulge my love of making food, create room for my partner in the kitchen, transfer some of the food-labour to him, and get rid of weeknight dinner making. I call it Sunday suppers, and it is, in essence, a sort of leisurely batch cooking that makes me feel both relaxed and proficient, which is exactly how I want to feel before starting a new week. At some point on Sunday, I put a few things on the stove or in the oven or the slow cooker that will do their thing for awhile, with only a gentle nudge and prod from me as I do other things–read, write, watch Firefly for the thousandth time while I put away my laundry. I pull out my stacks of quart and half-quart takeout containers from the restaurant supply store, a roll of painter’s tape, and a Sharpie. I spend some time turning those simmering, bubbling pots into things that can be at the centre of a meal; this week’s pots of beans and cans of tomatoes became pasta e fagioli, channa masala, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter. There are usually a few pans of roasted vegetables in there, which most often become breakfast with a fried egg on top, or dinner piled onto toast and snowed under with Parmesan cheese, or blended into soup. Sometimes there’s quiche, or a sort of chili-pilaf cross, or Ethiopian lentil stew and greens, or falafel. Later, everything get packed and labelled and stowed in the fridge and freezer. On weeknights, my partner gets to be on assembling and pasta-boiling and salad-making duty, or we do it together because we like being in the kitchen together.

Everyone gets fed. I don’t feel resentful. We eat together, and well. It works, and we both get what we fundamentally want, which is full bellies and time to do the things we love and a marriage that keeps working to break down old barriers and ways of being that don’t work for us anymore.

Now to figure out a better system for the laundry…

accomodation · balance · best laid plans · self care · winter

Sick Days

A few days ago, I went to work sick.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. But I wanted to stay in bed.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get dressed. But I didn’t want to get dressed.
I was not so sick that I did not stay up past midnight the night before finishing my lecture. But I should not have finished it.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t go to work. But I should not have done it.
I can only say that now that I have completely failed to be sensible. Of course, I went to campus. Of course, I delivered my brilliant lecture noting that it was made more brilliant by the halo of rainbows that seemed to wobble in and out of the periphery of each powerpoint slide. Of course, I stayed on campus after teaching and kept all of my appointments.
Of course, I dragged my sorry self home at the end of a long day and wondered why I did that to myself.
You have totally done this too. Don’t even try to pretend otherwise.
I wonder now why I did not take Sheila Heti’s excellent advice. Heti reminds us that it is especially important to take a sick day right before you are really, really sick:
I recommend being sick in bed especially when you are not that sick. When you are seriously knocked out, eyes crusted over, sneezing nonstop, it’s hard to have life-changing epiphanies. The sick days we must take advantage of are those when it’s just a simple cold. The days when, if we pushed ourselves, we could get out of bed; the days when all it would take is a shower to make us feel 70 percent better. Those are exactly the days we should choose to be sick in bed. You still have your brain; you’re not aching all over. You just need to take things slower.
Heti’s recommendations are so gentle, and so right, that you should just, if you have not already done so, read the whole thing yourself. But, for now, let me draw out few things in particular. First, note the reference to life-changing epiphanies in the above passage. For Heti, being sick in bed, ideally, is a chance to pause and arrive at illumination of some kind. It is not just about lying there, buried in tissues, hoping that the meds will kick in soon so that they rest of the day can be spent in sweet oblivion. Although that would be nice too.
I thought about the times when I have been sick in bed. I have never been as wise as Heti. I have only been sick in bed when I have been really, really, really sick. In a hospital. Once, that happened the year before I came up for tenure. I was sick for a while. Months. I came out of that with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the friends who saw me through, but also with a wonderfully recalibrated attitude towards getting tenure. After being very sick, and then no longer being sick, I came to the realization that I was pretty awesome generally, and pretty awesome at my job specifically, and that any tenure and promotion committee would have to be blind not to see that. I also finished my book in four months. I had been sitting on that thing for over four years before that. It took getting sick and forcing myself to only read murder mysteries and trashy magazines for many months to kick my ass in gear. I can say now that I did not do it because I was afraid I would not get tenure. It’s hard to believe, but that honestly was not the motivation. I did it because I had been very sick and then I was not and I realized that I should just finish that thing. Not because it was my life’s work or anything like that. Just because it was something I should do.  
There is no logic to any of this. It’s just how it went down. I’m not even sure it was a life-changing epiphany. It felt much more prosaic.
I think back to that now and I wonder why I put myself through that. Maybe I could have just done it after being a little bit sick?
That is the second thing that I wanted to draw out from Heti’s essay. She suggests that the best sick days are the ones where you are not really all that sick. How hard it is to really take that wisdom to heart, to know to push the pause button just before the full-blown fevered climax. That this is the real trick.
And this trick is connected to the third and final piece of tender wisdom that I want to sit with. “Why,” she asks, “is it so hard to stop doing, to just rest?”
Although Heti connects this question to the need to value unproductivity simply for its own sake, in my case, there is also some unthinking machismo involved. I’m not saying it is like that for you. I am just owning up to the ridiculousness of the way that I man up.
Last fall, I had a bike accident. I flew over the handlebars and my chin bore the brunt of the fall. I was really lucky. There was a lull in traffic so there were no cars around me right at that moment. I had my helmet on. I was not going fast. So I was a bit banged up, and cut my chin up enough to need some stitches, but I was otherwise ok. Still, I couldn’t really open my mouth without pain (hello, stitches). Did I go into class the next day and lecture for two hours? Yep. Did I run my tutorial after, wincing the whole time? Yep? Did I refuse to cancel any of my appointments? Yep. Did anybody make me do that? Nope. Would my teaching or any of the other parts of my job have been compromised if I had just called in sick and stayed in bed, mouth shut, drinking smoothies and reading murder mysteries and trashy magazines? Nope. Was I an idiot? Yep.
Am I writing this right now while still sick? Yep.
Am I ever going to learn? I really hope so. And if I don’t, I hope you do. Do you feel a little sick? Don’t man up. Keep your jammies on. Stay in bed.
careers · flexible academic · grad school · moving

Guest Post: On feeling lonely and homesick

I recently left my steady job in university administration, my lovely flat and my favourite people behind to move across Europe to become the impoverished full-time PhD candidate I had dreamed of becoming ever since I began my doctoral studies. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt content with being by myself. I used to love the weekends alone at home, travelling on my own and spending some quality time at the library with none other than moi. Loneliness wasn’t a concept that made any sense to me.

The last time I can recall that I felt properly overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness was probably when I was eleven years old and begging my mum to take me back home with her instead of dropping me off at summer camp. And there I was sixteen years on. In a room barely furnished smelling of cat pee, a city I had never been to, and worst of all (and this would send anyone over the edge), the Wi-Fi wasn’t working properly.

During these first few days, I felt as if I was floating through space with no sense of time or direction. I saw my entire future laid out in front of me: I’d never have friends again, I’d spend all of my days alone, I’d be constantly freaked out, never finish my thesis and eventually move back home where I’d remain unhappily ever after because of the opportunities I missed out on. It also made scared of the time post PhD – the what-the-hell-have-I-done-I-think-I’m-having-a-heart-attack kind of scared.

This move was supposed to make my life easier and not create a completely new set of paralysing problems. It made me seriously question whether this was a lifestyle I could sustain in the long run and I pictured myself having to go through this process over and over again when all I wanted was to pull the duvet over my head and never face the world again.

Very dramatic, I know. Fast forward: it’s now a few months into my relocation and I don’t spend all of my time alone. While I still struggle occasionally, I feel that I’m going to be just fine.

Here’s a few things that have helped me, and continue to help me:

It’s ok

It’s ok to feel whatever you feel. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, helpless, sad, frustrated, freaked out, scared, worried, angry and out of place. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Accept that your subconscious is complicated and while you think you’re ready, she might need extra time to adjust to the new environment. Be kind to yourself, have a nice meal, take a bubble bath, binge watch Netflix, buy lots of nail polish (guilty!), re-read your favourite book, call your friends and family – whatever floats your boat.

Be relatively organised

If you’re anything like me, you like to plan ahead and organise your life. While this is generally a good idea, because it might give you a sense of agency and security (it did for me), you might also run the risk of feeling completely overwhelmed by the eternity that is your future. Step by step. I tried to come up with a rough plan for the year (dates for chapter submissions, conferences and trips home) but apart from that I’m taking it week by week.

Be active

Force yourself to go outside, to do and see things. Explore your new surroundings, check out art galleries, museums and cafés. Do some exercise; endorphins are not to be underestimated.

Also show an active interest in your colleagues at work. You’re new (which sucks at times), so it’s very much up to to you to take initiative to form new alliances and remind people that you exist. Everyone is busy, so don’t let an apparent lack of interest in your person discourage you from approaching fellow students/staff members. I can’t stress enough how important real life contacts are.

Be realistic

You’re not going to be able to re-create your own life immediately and neither should you feel you have to. Pace yourself and accept that it might take a little while to find people you like hanging out with. In the meantime, cherish these precious first weeks of novelty and find a way to turn them into a generative and productive force for your own work – it might just be the fresh perspective you’ve been waiting for!

Be the light for someone else

I cannot help but think that this is the most important of all of my points. Do your best to move on from your initial feeling of complete and utter instability but don’t forget what it felt like. Let it humble you and make you more understanding of and kind to others who find themselves in similar situations. If you see someone who is new and struggling, offer your help, have a cup of coffee together and you in turn will also be one step closer to building a new social network.

You’ve got this!

Veronika Schuchter is a Visiting Scholar at Nottingham Trent University (UK) where her doctoral research on contemporary women’s writing is supported by the Austrian Ministry of Science. When she’s not busy being a feminist killjoy, she enjoys painting her nails, writing postcards and jumping into puddles.

advice · grad school · supervision

How to Find a Supervisor

As I’ve been tracking graduate student progress through our degrees, it very often happens that students don’t secure a supervisor by the required date. Invariably, when I contact them to ask what’s going on, they admit to embarrassment and confusion about how, exactly, they’re supposed to get someone to agree to be their supervisor.

Hence this post.

Securing a supervisor is hard. And you have to do it on your own, taking charge of a process where you’re asking people, basically, to be in charge of you for a couple of years, but you’re in charge of asking them to do this and so it all feels weird. You may have the sense that you yourself are an unimportant worm. You may feel that profs are unapproachable gods who are too busy and remote to meet with you (some profs may cultivate this feeling, which doesn’t help). You may feel your project is underdeveloped and you have no right to talk to an expert about it since you will be revealed as a fraud. You may be afraid of rejection. You may be afraid of office hours. You may just generally be afraid.

I have a formula for you! Just follow the script and you will be favorably impressing everyone with your professionalism, and you won’t have to wonder if you’re doing it wrong!

Important things to remember:

  • You and the supervisor ultimately choose each other: you both have agency
  • A conversation is not a commitment
  • You will likely have to talk to several potential supervisors before choosing one
  • Begin as you mean to go on: be prepared, take feedback, meet deadlines
What you need to begin:
  • A one-page description of your proposed dissertation project
  • Access to the department web page
  • A dose of courage and self-efficacy
Choosing a supervisor is your first real act as a truly independent researcher: it takes courage to tell the world, or some small portion of your department’s tenured or tenure-track faculty, that you have a book length project to create and you would like their help with it. Acknowledge your nerves as natural, but don’t let them stop you. You will need the description of your project to share with prospective supervisors so that they can get a sense of what you want to do. Bonus: if you get nervous talking with authority figures, a document is a great thing to hold onto with your hands or to let speak on your behalf. You will need access to the department web page in order to scour profiles to drum up the maximum number of people to consider as potential supervisors.
Next, write some emails to ask for a meeting. Here is a template for that email:

Dear Prof. Morrison,

I am a first year PhD student, and I [took a graduate course with you / am taking a graduate course with you / read your profile on the department web page / know your research].  

I am in the process of looking for a dissertation supervisor, and I am trying to meet with faculty members whose research interest intersect with my own. I am proposing a dissertation on the use of fake mustaches as a pre-text for duck-face-making in Instagram selfies among 8-10 year old boys. Your own work on digital autobiography, particularly addressing methodology, seems relevant to my own work. I have attached a one-page description of my project (in very early stages!) if you would find it helpful to understand what kind of work I’m interested in. 

Might you be available to meet with me to discuss my project? 

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request,
Full Name

Please note:
  • This email is short and direct and a little bit formal
  • You can write to profs you’ve already met, as well as those you haven’t
  • You want to be clear you’re not asking them to commit to being your supervisor by return email, but just asking if they’re willing to meet with you to discuss the possibility
  • You want to be specific enough in noting why you’re interested in meeting this professor that she doesn’t feel you’re just emailing everyone.
  • Don’t send more than one page of writing, because nobody has time for that.
I encourage you to write to several professors at the same time. It will take time to arrange meetings, so you just fritter away time meeting everyone sequentially. Do a blitz of all the likely candidates. When you meet with each of them, you should … oh hold on. I’ll make a list.
Discuss this at your meeting:
  • Are they interested in your project?
  • Would they be willing to take on any more students than they have?
  • What kind of working relationships do they tend to have with students? This means:
    • frequency of meeting
    • mentoring support for the degree
    • help with writing as well as research
  • Would they be willing to work with you, as a supervisor or as a committee member?
  • Can they suggest anyone else as a possible supervisor or a committee member?
After you’ve met all the faculty members on your list, as well as any suggested by any of the faculty members you’ve asked, you should have a good sense of who you click with and who you don’t, what their availability might be like, and if they’re willing to work with you. Then you can send another email to the faculty member you’d like to choose as your supervisor:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 

Thank you for meeting with me last week to discuss my proposed dissertation project. Your comments were very helpful. I feel like your expertise is a really good fit with what I want to do: would you be willing to be my supervisor? 

If yes, I have a form for you to sign, for my file. If no, thank you very much for your time in meeting with me. 

Best wishes,
Full Name

Please note: no one is going to be heartbroken if you meet with them, but choose a different supervisor. Many of us know very well when your project is a better fit with someone else. Many of us already have a ton of students and aren’t pinning all our dreams of supervisory fulfillment on you. Really, it’s totally okay. No one is going to take this personally. They will be impressed by your professionalism, and probably ready to serve as a committee member on down the line.

So there you go. It’s a formula, and it’s got form letters. Get used to being in charge: you’ve got a whole dissertation to write, that you’re going to have to take the lead on everyday. Securing a supervisor is the first step: put your best foot forward. You can do it!

teaching · women

On Rereading Nicole Brossard

I have this distinct memory of reading an essay by Nicole Brossard back when I was a graduate student. The essay, “Writing as Trajectory of Desire and Consciousness,” outlines some of Brossard’s key terms. Her title, she tells the reader, contains some of the words to which she returns and returns. These words — writing, trajectory, desire, consciousness — contain everything that gives meaning to her life. For Brossard, whose multiple subject positions are central to her decades-long career, writing is a “wager of presence.” For her, writing — from the position of woman, of lesbian, of feminist, of French speaker, of mother, of friend — is a risk one takes in the presence, as a means of quite literally bodying forth the future you wish to inhabit.

I love this idea. When I read it as a graduate student it absolutely cracked my world open. Here was a writer who could name her different identities, and then talk about how writing and talking and thinking about those different identities was an actual, proactive means of pushing against oppression.
I returned to this essay last week, when I was feeling the physical weight of misogyny in Canada, in academia, in everyday life. I returned to Brossard’s essay on Monday, when Jian Ghomeshi’s trial began and when I heard the news from my colleagues down the road that the administration had gutted their Women and Gender Studies Program. I returned to Brossard, as I return to Audre LordeSara AhmedMaggie NelsonSachiko MurakamiDionne BrandEl Jones, (and the list goes on) because she articulates so clearly her own way through the tangled and oppressive inequities  we each live through in our own bodies. She articulates her own privilege, and her own outsider status. She writes about how hard it is to name abuse, or misogyny, or racism, and then she continues writing.
The physical weight I was feeling last week hasn’t dissipated. Every time I go on social media, which I seem to do obsessively, I encounter either innumerable headlines violently questioning the testimony of witness #1 and Lucy de Coutere, or I encounter brilliant, but also unavoidably heavy accounts of women who have also had their experiences of gender based violences questioned. I feel the weight of my own responsibility to witness the hurt of others, and to use my training as a teacher and a writer and a reader of culture to try to articulate why we need to trust victims even when their way of surviving doesn’t look like what we have been taught to demand of them. I feel the weight of my own experiences of gender based violences — big and small, physical and emotional. It’s heavy.
Brossard talks about that bodily experience of heaviness. She calls it an effect of “ritual with shock”
 
…the necessity of ritual with shock is especially linked to a discomfort, a profound   
dissatisfaction, a revolt against the monolithic patriarchal sense which seems to shatter fervour, aspirations, memory, and women’s identity. In your head words crash into each other: the word, woman, is thrown against Man, the word insanity against reason, the word passivity against violence, the word intuition against logic. Ritual with shock translates a conflict of values, repeatedly bumping into the binary, antagonistic, and hierarchical structure of misogyny and patriarchal sense. 
Constantly bruising against the systematic oppressions of patriarchal culture actually changes how we move through the world. For Brossard, that realization is shocking. Turning the shock of recognition into self-sustaining and world-making energy is where the ritual comes in. She writes
When a woman invests a word with all her anger, energy, determination, imagination, this word crashes violently into the same word, the one invested with masculine experience. The shock that follows has the effect of making the word burst….Thus the word regard can change into vision, woman into lesbian, love into identity.
 
Remembering that Brossard wrote this in French allows us read more into that word “regard,” which in the French means “to look” and in English means “consider or think of.” Brossard carries that bruised language to another place and transforms it into the means by which women and others left outside the strictures of patriarchal culture can see and consider one another. What a thing, isn’t it? What a thing, to be able to carry language through to another place. What a thing to have been taught to read this way. I wouldn’t have learned to read this way without classes in feminist theory…
Here is what Brossard’s writing reminds me: It reminds me that we need to learn how to read context into events, and that language is itself an event. Take, for example, they ways in which many mainstream media outlets are questioning the testimonies of women. Take, for example, the way an administration guts a women and gender studies program without a thought to anything more than a budget line (or worse, that they did). Take, for example, the fact that we still don’t seem to have a public language to speak the nuances of experiencing gender based violence. Learning to read Brossard and other writers like her has given me some tools to name the micro- and macro-aggressions of living in a patriarchal culture.
It has given me the language to try and help my students learn to read context for themselves.