academic work · balance · being undone · feminist health · kinaesthetic thinking · mindfulness · Uncategorized

Ready to sit

Usually, when we say we do ‘yoga,’ we mean asana, the physical limb of the larger practice, the yoga of happy baby and triangle and, if you’re feeling ambitious, bird of paradise. Less known is that the goal of this physical practice is to prepare the body for the rigors of meditation–asana, that is, is essentially the warmup routine for the main event, which is sitting down.

Yoga students often reverse this thinking, focusing more on the physical practice as an end in itself. Sometimes, we don’t really get to the sitting part at all, except in brief centring exercises, or the more passive release of savasana.

Academic life, by contrast, seems often to be nothing but sitting. But we’ve done no prep work for it. We probably should.

Many are the days that I am startled out of a slumped reverie by my Fitbit’s inactivity alarm. I often ignore this bip-bip, for hours: it’s the life of the mind, dammit, and cannot be counted by footfalls! When I eventually have to drag myself out of my chair, I usually experience some unpleasant sort of bodily creaking and discomfort. Sometimes an uncomfortable pressure on my bladder. Or I’m dizzy, or I discover one of my feet has fallen asleep. A headache makes itself known. I reflexively arch my back and lift my arms in a stretch. Every time I get up, I realize how borked up I am: is it even possible to produce good work in this state? And then I sit back down, feeling guilty for the interruption.

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Jasper, as always, setting a good example of embracing embodiment

You probably have similar habits, where your day is organized to get through the things that keep you out of your chair as fast as you can. Just as an example, the goal for me, working at home this morning, was to roll out of bed, get a cup of tea and breakfast, quickly tidy my morning mess and get into my chair as fast as possible, with the goal of remaining there all day.

But what if academic sitting is like meditation sitting: what if we thought of it as a kind of physical as well as mental trial, one that needed us to prepare in a more thoroughgoing way?

Quick question: what parts of you are uncomfortable right now? Neck at a funny angle? Weird deep sorta-cramp in one thigh? Ankle tucked under you funny? Contact lenses feeling a bit dried out and strainy? All of these little distortions and discomforts pile up, I think. They pick at the edges of our focus, our energy, our health. But I’ll bet you have no intention of getting up, taking a little walk around, doing some stretches: frivolous, inefficient, distracting. We let ourselves be reduced to brains on sticks, which seems efficient, but is a lie.

Feminist theory and feminist praxis have long interrogated the distinction of the life of the mind from the more material mundanities of embodied life. Standpoint epistemology or feminist materialism or intersectional theory remind us that ideas are attached to viewpoints that are constructed by our embodiments and our relations. But what if in a more immediate sense, the life of the mind–all that sitting!–is un-divorce-able from our embodied selves. Maybe it’s a new kind of feminist praxis not just to write about the materialities of ideas, to insist on textually embodying ourselves in our work, but also to allow ourselves the space to experience the life of the mind and its work itself as embodied. What if we allowed ourselves to get ready to sit–what if we considered the morning walk to the coffee shop, trudging through the slush and half-blinded by the diffuse daylight bouncing off all the snow, our rapid breathing, as an essential part of the work the life of the mind? We would start to insist on windows, maybe, or interrupt our own 3 hour seminars to get students to look out those windows at the farthest point they can see, while twinkling their fingers. We would stand up when we became aware–because we allow ourselves this awareness, as a gift rather than as a distraction–that our brains were fogging up and our ankles were getting crunchy, even if we just had 50 more words to write. Maybe.

This morning, I couldn’t seem to make myself sit. So I did a little yoga (and yeah, I mean asana)–sun breaths, forward folds, twisting sun breaths, a couple of balances to stretch out my quads, rolled my shoulders and my hips, standing pigeon. And I felt so strong! And so awake! Literally five minutes of gentle movements, standing on one small patch of carpet, in jeans and socks and a hoodie. I felt … alive. This post popped into my head. I looked out the window, felt my irises radiate in and out, took a breath. And started writing. I feel good.

Treat your bodies with care, friends. Sitting is hard. Embodiment and situatedness and affect aren’t just theories; feel it in your body, and take care. You deserve it.

academic work · research planning · saving my sanity · writing

An hour

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Last Friday I went to the reading room in Special Collections at the university library. When I arrived, I was the only person there save for the librarian. I requested my little trolley of books, wheeled it over to the table near the window, and began to set up my things.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, and it isn’t. Not really. What is significant for me is this: I went to special collections to do research work when I had a little over an hour of time.

I unpacked my laptop and charger, my notebook and pencil, and my dsayplanner. I set the timer on my phone (on vibrate, I’m not a monster). I felt a bit like a parody of that scene from Fleabag when a customer comes in, charges a laptop, a phone, an e-reader, and some headphones, then asks for an extension cord and continues to unfurl gadgets while refusing to purchase anything…except that I was in the library.  This–unpacking and setting up to do my work–this was part of  my job.

I have been putting off a trip to special collection for the better part of a semester. It isn’t that the library is an onerous trip from my office. In fact, it is across the street. Nope, my problem is that I have fallen back into the dangerous (for me) calculus in which writing productivity = time + space10

…which is great, except I don’t really have time + space. Who does, really? As for me, my schedule is I think fairly normal for a full-time professor. I’m doing the usual full load of teaching (which I will forever and always remind myself is 50% less than what I did as a contract worker). I’m on the usual service load of committee work at the departmental and university levels (hello, Senate). I’m supervising three Phd students at various stages of their work, as well as two undergraduate honours students. I’m in the final editorial phase of a collaboratively edited project. And, the I get home I have humans and a dog to whom I want to give my full attention. As it turns out, that’s enough stuff to fill a day (and the day after and the day after that). In short, the expanse of time I think I need to work simply doesn’t exist. So, what to do?

What I did was simple: I went to the library. I didn’t go for long, I didn’t get a great deal done, but there in special collections for one hour and seven minutes on Friday last week I worked in quiet and with full attention. I worked with no email. I worked, and took notes, and sometimes I looked out of the window to process what I had read, and what I was trying to write. Moving my body out of my office into a different space focussed my attention and left me feeling in my project, rather than my usual feeling of hovering above it in a kind of frothy anxiety.

I usually feel as though I need–or want–an expanse of time to really get into a research and writing project. But I am reminded that time rarely exists these days. And so, I will take the hour, or the forty minutes, or the half an hour and I will build them into a method. And that? That feels good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

academic work · emotional labour

Invisibility and its contents

The other day, a colleague stepped into an elevator at the same time that I did. We established that we were headed to same floor and the same meeting. We exchanged some  pleasantries about the new year, the new term, the usual. As the elevator door was about to open, she turned, looked at me very carefully, and asked, “Who are you?

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Image via

I’ve been quietly dining out on this encounter. Even now, I’m savouring it contentedly. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s a joke that makes me laugh even though I’m part of the punchline.

I’ve been a tenured professor at my university for over a decade now. In that time, I have served as the Undergraduate Programme Director for my department, then Chair, and now Associate Dean. This colleague has been a colleague in the graduate programme for my department. We’ve exchanged emails where I’ve asked her to serve on a thesis committee for one of my grad students. I’ve served on committees where I’ve read her syllabi.

I guess I thought I’ve prettyummm, present. 

I am so glad that she didn’t try to fake it. She could just as easily have pretended that she knew exactly who I was and she would have gotten through the whole meeting with no trouble. Indeed, it was one of those meetings where we went around the room and introduced ourselves right at the beginning.

There was something wonderful about being a little invisible.

Even though I am part of scholarly communities that have demanded more visibility for writers of colour, and more presence for thinkers who theorize and engage with differences, I am surprised to realize that my own invisibility at work can have its own contentedness.

It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways, but it made me feel weirdly delighted to have been unseen. It made me realize that I am at a point in my work where I am happy to be unknown in person and known by the work only when it matters. And this contentment, I know, only comes because I feel valued and seen and heard when it counts. I didn’t always feel this way — I’m pretty sure there was another time when an encounter like this would have hurt my feelings — and feeling so ok now makes me realize that this is its own career milestone. I didn’t realize that career advancement would come in the form of not being recognized or seen by a senior colleague. But I’ll take the wins when they come and I’m not looking back.

I am just another person running around campus, forgetting her lunch, going to meetings, and making small talk in an elevator.

So, back to work. Nothing to see here.

 

 

academic work · change management · new year new plan · Uncategorized

September is for looking forward

Twenty-two years ago my mom drove me from my summer job at the family business in Ontario to begin my first year of university in North Carolina.

Seventeen years ago I moved from the interior of British Columbia to Quebec to start my Masters at McGill.

Fifteen years ago I moved from Montreal to Calgary to start a PhD.

Ten years ago I moved across the country to start a ten-month contract as Dalhousie.

Nine years ago we began Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe.

Six years ago I started a twelve-month contract at Mount Allison University.

Five years ago I was teaching sessionally and my partner was teaching on contract. We had a five month old infant and no regular child care.

Four years ago I was on an with-month contract at Acadia University.

Three years ago I started a tenure-track position.

So much of my life has been organized around the ebb and flow of an academic timeline.  At times this has felt thrilling. At others, it has been oppressive and scary. Often, it has been something in between, and much of that has been tied to the more-or-less precarious state I’ve been living.

As we enter this new school year I find myself reflecting not only on my own trajectory–warts, roses, and all the rest of it–I find myself thinking about the ways in which communities are made and re-made in the spaces around and in academia. Hook & Eye was imagined as one such possible space.

This year, as we revivify the work we do here, and as we look toward a full decade of feminist academic blogging, I find myself grateful for what has come before, and excited for what is to come.

Welcome. Welcome back. Let’s get to work, and let’s balance that work with the rest of our fulsome lives.

 

 

academic work · best laid plans · faculty · free time · midcareer · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

Well. It’s official. I’m actually on sabbatical now, my first in seven years, a full year. It is an unbelievable privilege of my tenured position that I am able to apply for these periodical paid (85% salary) leaves, and devote time to my research.

I have been looking forward to this sabbatical ever since I learned I would have to forego my earned half-year sabbatical when I became grad chair in 2014. I knew the reward would be that I could accrue enough credits to qualify for the full year, which I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for, otherwise. I looked forward to it as a distant mirage, where my time was my own, where there wouldn’t be so many emails, so many meetings, so much grading, so much teaching. I was basically picturing my year long sabbatical as a dramatic arm sweep that would throw everything off all my desks onto the floor, another gesture ripping the phone cord out of the wall, then tapping out the Nuclear Option away message on my email.

I had, that is, a fundamentally negative view of my long dreamed of sabbatical: things would disappear, things would stop.

Me, a runner, who resolves to write
I’m really serious about writing. So serious I wrote it on a fun run bib and sealed the deal by running 5km in -14C weather on New Years Day. Surely writing a book (or two) is easier than this?

But a sabbatical is for something, as much as it is about against other things–it is for research, and I had plenty of that backlogged and untended.

I both longed for the chance to hit the reset button on my campus life that the sabbatical represented, at the same time as I dreaded thinking about accomplishing a Year of Distraction and Excuse Free Writing That Would Make Me Seem Productive and Valuable As A Scholar. Yeah, I think with initial caps about the things that scare me.

I’m going to write, this year, about how I am learning to write on sabbatical. I’ll let you know what it’s like, adjusting to not being on campus, finding my rhythm, saying no to things that aren’t research related, dealing with loneliness maybe, preparing for reentry, finding a way to end on a good note. I hope this will help others who might not be sure what the “right” way to do a sabbatical is. So it will be pitched to faculty, sure, but it strikes me this year I have–a year where I have one book contract to fulfill for sure, and god help me, quite probably another one, too–is a lot like where graduate students land after their proposal pass. Sabbatical is a lot like ABD, all huge expectations, no structure, isolation, and a great big fear of not being able to live up to it.

For now I’ll tell you some early highlights, that I am going to take up in posts this year:

  • full blown meltdown on January 1, the day the sabbatical started
  • spending the six months pre-sabbatical clearing the emotional, mental, and practical decks
  • how much it is possible, and not possible, to write in one day
  • you can’t make up for lost time, and trying makes you miserable
  • how to turn a year into a big picture plan
  • how to turn that big picture plan into a series of monthly, weekly, and daily plans
  • all the things I’m saying “no” to–and how easy it’s turning out to be
  • all the naps I’m saying “yes” to–and why that’s a good thing
  • you can’t do this alone: mad props to my squad, and all they do

Me, I got cold feet the very day I handed in all my Fall grades and concluded my on-campus responsibilities until, ulp, January 2019. This sabbatical is already terrifying, and restful, and busy, and laid-back by turns. Let’s see how this turns out!

academic work · adjuncts · change management · emotional labour · theory and praxis · Uncategorized

Making Small New Habits

I love New Year’s resolutions.

I do. I really love them. I love them so much I write about them in fall and winter and spring. Hurrah for semesters and Solstices!

In fact, I think I have come to appreciate New Years–Eve and all–as a moment of self-inventory, though admittedly New Year’s Eve was (and is) a marker in time I like less. As a younger me New Year’s Eve was a kind of letdown for all its rush and waiting. All outfits and lines and are-the-plans-happening-where-is-the-best-place-to-be-ness of it all. And then, poof, anticlimax. Even now as an adult I can count on one hand the “magic” NYEs I have had. My frustration, I think, is common: it is the pressure put on the moment to make it something other than it is. A moment. But I digress…

I am that person who, on New Year’s Eve will ask about resolutions and memories. What was your most memorable meal of the last year? (My go-to interview dinner conversation question, by the way) What are you hoping to do this year? Yup. That’s me: earnest right up to the chime of the clock.

But it occurs to me that resolutions might be the wrong word. Maybe there’s too much baggage with that word, and as someone who is shifting from a decade working in various degrees of precarity to, well, unprecedented stability, I’m working to shed some emotional baggage. When it comes to putting work and production demands on myself I want to move from this

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Image from PinArt.com

to this

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Image from steamlineluggage.com

I started thinking about shifting my language after reading one of those ubiquitous late-December articles about developing new habits.  The gist of the argument is this: western psychology has tended to frame life change as something that is best understood through willpower. The idea here is that we make a decision to change some aspect of ourselves and then, through sweat and grit and determination, we do it. There are all sorts of obvious problems with this approach, I realize now (what if, as is often the case, “willpower” isn’t enough or even the right thing, for example). Still, when I was reading this in the trough between holidays it struck a chord for me. Rather than building all life change on the necessity of willpower there is a movement gaining more popular traction that suggests willpower is kind of bullsh*t. Okay, that’s not exactly what the article says, but that’s what I gleaned from it. More effective that willpower is repetition. Building in habits. Doing the small daily work of repeating. And if you don’t do it one day, if you “fail,” then you do it again the next day.

Gosh, I needed to be reminded of this.

Some of the new habits I am aiming to form in this first month of 2018 are these:

I would like to write regularly again. For all sorts of reasons I have fallen off that wagon in the last year, moving again to droughts and downpours of writing that, while effective of anxiety-inducing, have not fed me in the ways I need to be fed. In order to write regularly (which for me means 100-300 words in a session, and one session a day is plenty unless there is an impending deadline) I need to build in a regular time to do that writing. So, I’ll be getting out of bed a little earlier this month. I’m looking forward to it.

I would like to continue reading for pleasure. After my PhD and in many cycles following that I found I couldn’t read for pleasure. For whatever reason what usually was my escape, my habit that nourished me had gone. My voracious desire to read is back. To facilitate this I have shifted my reading habits the same way I have had to shift my writing habits post-bébé: I carry a book with me most all the time, and reading one or two pages (or sentences) at a swoop is enough. Is worth it.

And finally, I would like to only work on academic writing and research that nourishes me and which I really care about. I say hah to the adage that all academic work is a labour of love. It isn’t, especially if you’re a graduate student or a precarious worker or a post doc. Then it is usually a mix of love and (in my limited personal experience) a huge amount of what-will-this-do-for-my-prospects???!!!???*&!

To that I say no more, or at least, I will work towards “no more.” And if I weren’t already convinced that writing (/doing/working on/researching) something that you care about might actually make more than you feel good  (aka “staying in your lane” as I read in a recent profile of the brilliant Vivek Shraya), well, seeing this tweet from poet and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt certainly brought it home for me

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Here is to new habits that nurture networks of care in this complicated, compromising, and often alienating and restrictive space that is academia. One of the books I am reading right now is Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. In the introduction Haraway writes,

We — all of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy–with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killings of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of our learning to live and die well with each other in the thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle the troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

Here’s to rebuilding quiet places in our days with and alongside and against. Here’s to onward and inward. Here is to January. Here is to what is and to what is next.

 

 

academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

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Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

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It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?

 

academic work · emotional labour · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Attend meetings or perish….

The advice one gets about pursuing an academic career is to do as little service as one can manage. As a young scholar, I am advised by colleagues, friends, and mentors time and again that research is everything, and that while teaching counts too, service work means little in one’s tenure file, so I should do the bare minimum and get on with things. With the ethos of “publish or perish” in mind, the scholar’s lament seems to be that time that could be spent conducting research is wasted—wasted—in meetings that go nowhere, and achieve nothing.

The advice I receive about service is also informed by the knowledge that seeming burden of service work most often falls to women. A recent study about emotional labour in academia documents how women drastically outperform men in terms of service work and that this results in a lack of promotion of women that is, because of service women publish less and therefore are less likely to rise through the ranks. And the study was posted and reposted in my social media feeds, with male and female colleagues alike describing strategies to get out of service work, and how to advise their students not to get bogged down. They meant well. They mean well.

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But the trouble with this advice is that service work (not all of it surely, but much of it) needs doing. It is the housework, the reproductive labour, of the university and it is not going to go away because we don’t do it. The problem then, isn’t that women are doing too much service work and therefore don’t have the chance to publish enough, rather it is that some of the most important labour that we do—the work of keeping our departments going–is undervalued. And in its devaluation, it has fallen to women and people of colour, in many of the ways that reproductive labour often does. We need to find ways to distribute this labour without offloading it, downloading it, and disproportionately centering around those already precarious within our institutions.

Service work is critical to the ongoing capacity of universities. And we need to recognize that service is important to some of the most important things that our departments and faculties do—creating spaces for the free exchange of ideas by planning speakers’ series and symposia, building (and challenging) the canons of our disciplines through syllabus committees, representing and standing up for our colleagues as Chairs and Deans, finding ways to expand and diversify through hiring and admissions committees, and so on.

Viewing service work as intrinsically valuable is integral to enable us to continue our work in the university and to move it forward. If you’re in a position to do so, recognize it in colleagues’ tenure and promotion files, on your own CV, and your admissions and hiring committees. Service is critical part of scholarship.

CattapanAlana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a recent visiting researcher at the Brocher Foundation. A longtime feminist researcher and activist, she studies the governance of reproductive health, interest group engagement in public policy making, and biotechnologies, focusing on the Canadian case.