age · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · having it all · mental health

Time changes / Times change

Time changes.

Every year, around this time, I confront once more my still-surprising inability to create time. My academic travel season is over: my house is a disaster, my kid is manipulating my guilt, my husband is trying to catch up on everything he couldn’t do when I’ve been gone, the puppy has managed to create three new pee stains on the white rug without anyone noticing, and it’s all just generally feeling like a marathon being run at the pace of a sprint, and we’ve all been heading in the wrong direction. Balls are being dropped: appointments missed, noses out of joint, forms go unsigned, tempers flare, no groceries in the house, McDonald’s twice in one week. Ugh.

Every year this happens.

I somehow have the idea that when I’m gone away for a weekend, for three days, for a week, that I can put in all those extra travel and working hours, and that despite my absence, the house and family can maintain themselves. That without going to yoga for a month, I’ll still feel strong and grounded and be able to touch my toes, to sleep well. That my daughter won’t suffer and that my husband and I won’t miss each other.


When I’m gone, 1/3 of the household resources disappear: we’re a three person family, trying to operate with only two people. That’s suboptimal. When I layer all this extra work and travel into my own schedule, my physical and emotional needs don’t get met, and I can’t meet those of my family, either.

Time is zero sum: when I disrupt our standard schedule to travel, everything is out of whack. Jet lagged. This is why it’s the worst right when I step off the airplane: I’m exhausted and mentally in another time zone, my daughter is crazed from the excitement of me coming home, my husband is completely worn out from doing it all by himself. We all need someone to take care of us; none of us is much ready to take care of anyone at all.

I like the idea of flying west: I gain time. I wake up “early” and sleep well at night, and feel pretty good about life. But that time has a cost. There is no cheating time.

It’s going to take us well into July to pay the bills, tend the perennials, fix the clothesline, put the hats and mitts into the attic, fill out reimbursement forms, dig out our respective offices at work, answer those emails. To sit on the couch holding hands long enough to feel like we’re not holding on for dear life.


Times change.

This year, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, I found myself way too frequently saying things like “when I started coming here…” and “DHSI used to …” and “the first several times I taught this course …” You know, I’ve been to DHSI nine times in ten years. I’m actually very, very old in DHSI terms. And every time those phrases started coming out of my mouth, they felt like context and comparison and such, but by the time the sentences finished, I felt … old? Like I was trying to hold onto something that happened a really long time ago, that wasn’t relevant?

Being a professor is weird for this kind of thing: no one really gets their job until they’re 30, so 30 is “young” in this profession. I’m 39 and am often treated like the breath of (brash) fresh air in many contexts, maybe because I work in popular internet media, so can pass for a digital native with a familiarity with millennial mores. Sometimes when I talk my colleagues look at me like I’m from another planet.

But then, because I work in popular internet media, much of what I know rapidly becomes outdated, irrelevant, old. We used to code web pages by hand in Notepad, man! I remember when the www was text only! Blogger didn’t used to be owned by Google and once upon a time … blah blah. Sometimes when I teach my students look at me like I’m from another planet. TL;DR.

So I vacillate on a pretty much daily basis between feeling hopelessly young (Hey, Professor Whipper Snapper, do you think we should make a Web Page Site for our digital? Lol? Did I use that right?) and godawful old (Email? That’s for old people, um, and they made a new version of that software like, three weeks ago? But we all use the open source version, if you don’t want to torrent that one on the sly.)

I don’t often feel like what I know is just right, as I feel like I’m whipsawing between precocity and irrelevance, between too fast and too slow, too much and not enough, from morning to afternoon, context to context.

I’m not sure if I’m having an intellectual middle age crisis, or a teenage growth spurt. I’ve got an inappropriate haircut but that’s par for either course.

In moments of quiet reflection (in short supply; see above) I’m generally happy with my own place in the world, with my knowledge, with my work. But things feel like they’re changing with my own positioning relative to others, and I don’t know why or how or what to think. Times change.

academy · age · appreciation · change · good things · possibility · reflection

University life in all its stages

Time is collapsing all around me.

I am grading first year papers, and as I sometimes do, I dug out one of my papers from first year–from, holy crap, 1992! And I read it. And was transported back into that smart aleck self I was then, all piss and vinegar and not much knowledge at all. It was a paper on “To His Coy Mistress” wherein I expressed surprise that literature could be witty. (Yeah. I was that kid. Let me just apologize to all my teachers …) The paper both sounded like me and did not sound like me … and was in Courier font, because my prof didn’t like computers. When I put the paper down and blinked up at the sunshine in my campus office I was totally discombobulated. The shift from 1992 to 2011 happened in that glance up from the paper. How did this happen to me?

We are hiring a new junior colleague in my field (digital media studies! Please apply!) and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I am not, actually, junior any more. I’ve been here seven and a half years; I got my PhD in 2004. I was imagining that we would be hiring … I don’t know, someone from my cohort? But I won’t even be a generational peer of my new colleague. I’m not the fresh thinking any more; I am one of those who will benefit from the infusion of someone else’s fresh blood into the body of the department. Amazing!

In my digital life writing class, my grad students have all had to produce personal blogs. As I read through those, the lives they articulate are both startlingly familiar and achingly remote. Grad student experiences are eternal and timeless, and while those experiences are part of my experiences, my history, it’s not really my story any more. I’m mostly through my existential crises, my big moves to new cities, my basement apartments and groaning bookshelves whose tomes were assigned to me by others. How did 1998 get so far away from me without my really knowing it? Most of my friends are closer to 50 than they are to 30.

My oldest nephew is in grade 11: his mother and I are taking him back to our alma mater this weekend, for campus day. He spent the first two years of his life on that campus. We’re going to retrace our steps, only this time instead of handing him in his slippery nylon snowsuit back and forth as we try to find a spot to eat that’s not in the smoking section, he’ll be busy fending off the hugs of my five year old daughter while his mother and I can’t stop remarking on the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t. My nephew is full of excitement, amazed to discover that university classes don’t run every day, from 9:00 until 3:00, and that he gets to pick them all himself. That there will be classes with hundreds of people in them. The freedom and the responsibility.

One of my colleagues is retiring. There’s going to be a party, with speeches. His kids have moved away, and he and his wife have sold their big old house with the beautiful gardens and the pocket doors and are renting something, until they figure out what they want to do next. He seems quite happy to be walking away. Amazing.

This is my twentieth year in university. More and more of my life is anchored to these places, these schedules, these routines. Orange and brown decor, brutalist architecture, the rhythms of academic semesters. Meal plans, parking woes, and backpacks. Thousands of 18 year olds, bookshelves everywhere, and hyper-literate conversation. This has all stayed mostly the same, but I guess I’ve been changing all along, right?

This is not a lament, no. I’m happier now and here than, really, I’ve ever been. I guess it’s just that circumstances lately have brought home to me that even if I’m not going anywhere, everything is still moving forward. Amazing.

age · having it all

Guest Post: Aging in the Academy – it gets (somewhat) better

I’ve been thinking about writing a guest blog for Hook and Eye and anticipated turning my hand to it next term. But Leah MacLaren’s Dec. 3rd Globe and Mail column – “Boomers’ bodies are breaking down? Cry me a liver spot” – spurred me to action, especially since it seemed to follow so quickly upon Claire Campbell’s Nov. 16th guest blog, “An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers.” Claire’s post begins “Please, when the time comes, retire” though, citing as it does folks “in their fifties and sixties,” it’s not altogether clear when “the time” is meant to be. At the traditional retirement age of 65? or maybe 55? or even 50? Leah MacLaren resents hearing baby boomers talk (and write) about the difficulties of aging, and says “When we are young, we’re not preoccupied by the physiological minutiae of youth.” Well, actually, Leah, you are. You just can’t see it. Take your column about jogging in London and being told you have a “nice butt.” Fast forward thirty years. Get it?

It’s not that you won’t have a nice butt. It’s just that your butt, and everything attached to it, will be invisible. It’s really true what they say. Middle-aged (and older) women are invisibled, including in the academy. What they don’t tell you is … that’s not always such a bad thing. You don’t have to worry about whether or not to wear glasses or power suits. Having a bad hair day? Who cares! No one can see your hair anyway. And who hasn’t always wanted an invisibility cloak? It can be pretty hilarious to sit in a high-powered meeting (say, a selection committee for a very senior administrative position), offer an opinion, and have the chair of the committee look startled. As he squints in the general direction of your voice you can see the cogs laboriously turning. Where’d she come from? Is she on this committee? Wish I could remember her name. All this in spite of the many senior positions you have yourself held, your hard work in and on behalf of the university.

So why do I say that being an older woman in the academy is not such a bad thing? Three words: you know stuff. Knowing stuff gives you confidence. It can give you the courage to take positions on tough issues. It fine-tunes your bullshit barometer. The stuff you know can make you a formidable opponent … or proponent. You want to change the curriculum, introduce anti-harassment or equity policies, find money for a new scholarship or visiting professor program? No problem! The (other) old women I know have done all this and more. Believe me, you want old people, and especially old women, on your side. Which is not to say that senior administrators are always happy to hold on to their elders. We really have seen it all before and we’re a little leery of bandwagons.

A few more good things about being older in the academy: your kids are grown up and most of them have turned out to be kind, smart, and interesting people; undergraduate students are revealed as the very young and vulnerable people they are; your research and teaching get even more interesting and rewarding. Best of all, your brains do not go flying out the window when you turn fifty. They stick around. A little more accommodating. A little less anxious.

Jo-Ann Wallace
University of Alberta

age · clothes · style matters

Looks good, looks "professor-y"

I waited in the doorway at the optician’s, waiting for my dear friend (a colleague) to catch up to me, to see my new glasses.

“Oh!” she said, “I like them!” She considered, and then added, approvingly, “They’re very professor-y, they make you look older.”

She was smiling, so I know it was a compliment, and when she popped into my office to say hello the next morning, noticed them again, and said, “I really like those on you!”

Later that morning, another dear friend and colleague took a good look at them: “They’re great,” she said, “very nerdy.”

Older. Professor-y. Nerdy. You know, that’s what I thought of them, too. (Except maybe the older part. I’m 37; I am no longer really trying to look any older than I am, thankyouverymuch.) Anyhow, it’s not too much to say I picked a pair of glasses that made me look more like a professor.

I know very few academics who have perfect vision. Most of us wear glasses. And many of us make some kind of statement with those glasses. I wear contacts as well as glasses, so when I wear my glasses on any given day, it’s a choice: maybe I’m too lazy to do the full eye makeup thing that unadorned eyes require, or maybe my eyes feel too tired for them, but usually when I wear my glasses to work, it’s because I’m trying to up the ‘professor’ quotient on my self-presentation.

For example, on the first day of class, I used to wear my glasses, so students would know I’m a Serious, Qualified Person. However, increasingly I find that I walk and talk and dress like a serious, qualified person (erect bearing and controlled movements, speech in paragraphs with complicated clauses, wool pants and architecturally clever sweaters) and that I might need to tone it down a bit. I mean, the other day, I was out for coffee in jeans and a sweatshirt, and struck up a conversation with a new mom next to me–she ultimately asked me if I was an English professor, because I used the word ‘ambulatory’. The Force is strong in me, I guess. Anyways. Now I wear contacts on the first day to look less like an ancient and alienating grammar robot.

But you’re damn right I wear the glasses when half the class turns in their assignment late and I’m going to Address the Issue in class. And I wear my glasses to proctor exams. I often wear them when I’m on a hiring committee, because lately I’m always the junior person and we’ve been interviewing senior candidates and sometimes they ignore me.

I guess where I’m going with this is that I wear my glasses to look and feel more powerful in the world; I take them off when I want to hide or diminish my power. I don’t mind that they make me look older or more serious–I mean, in general, I now wear my glasses a lot more frequently than I wear my contacts–and this surprises me, because the prevailing cultural narrative (you might be familiar with this) is that women are supposed to always try to look younger and … softer? I guess ‘sexually approachable’ is what I mean. But 90% of the time, I’m more likely to be deliberately keying my self-presentation to a scale of authority rather than a mass-mediated attractiveness. Unlike the ‘sexy librarian’ who reveals her inner hotness by dropping the bun and tearing off the glasses, I actually really think I’m really my best, most attractive self in the wool pants and the glasses.

What about you? Do you count yourself among the legion of book-addled myopics? How do you choose to correct your vision? Do you deploy your glasses or contacts as props in the performance of self?