animals · chaos · empowerment · enter the confessional

Facing the wind

It’s mid-semester and the accumulated unfinished business of weeks 1 through 6 have piled up as the same time that the end-crush of anticipated grading for semester’s end looms. As graduate officer, right now is possibly the worst time of year, work-wise: I’ve got more than a hundred applications to review, as well as four or five separate funding competitions to adjudicate with the committee. I just went away to Michigan to give a talk and attend an incredibly exiting one day seminar squarely lined up with exactly what I’m working on. Then I took my daughter to Florida (for three days) to see my parents. I have another talk, in Pennsylvania, in less than three weeks. There’s a dissertation on my desk from a committee I’m on, and two of my students have proposals in front of me.

The weather is cold, and dark, and damp and, along with all the piles of work, cues “hibernation.”

This is the time of year I tend to panic, freak out, and go into denial. But I’m going to try something different this year. Check out this Royal Tern, which I snapped in Everglades National Park last week:

I have an awesome hairdo.

The guide on the tour told us that Royal Terns always face into the wind. And as we looked around we could see them all on posts, pointing their beaks right into the headwind.

Look, this storm I’m in now is just kind of situation normal in this job. Panicking, hiding, and hibernating are not going to solve my piles-of-work problem. I’m going to try pointing my beak into the wind and just braving it.
For me, that looks like writing down a to-do item every time I have a panicked thought, or a deadline I forgot bubbles up to the surface. I carry my notebook with me EVERYWHERE and jotting stuff down as I think of it both concretizes and organizes the work I have to do. Everywhere:
To-do list and Margarita scale distorted for comic effect

I’m making lists of things I need to grade. Lists of assessment criteria for admissions. Lists of committee meeting dates and times. Lists of travel arrangements that need making. Facing into the headwind of a rapidly advancing semester.

How do you keep from collapsing at mid-semester? Is some kind of hibernation strategy useful to you? (I put my pyjamas on the minute I get home from work: that helps.) Or do you face the wind straight on?

academic work · animals · appreciation · best laid plans

Animal Magnetism

I want to write something about being a university administrator in an time when the ills of the university are being blamed, almost solely, on the bloatedness and the bad decision making of the administrative ranks. I can’t, just yet. I haven’t figured out how to write it in a way that accurately reflects the inherent contradiction of simultaneously being a graduate student, one critical of the administration, and one of the very administrators of which I have so long been critical. I also haven’t figured out how to write about that contradiction in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’m risking my professional stability and credibility. So instead, I’m writing about pets. Give me time. 


Collectively, the ladies of Hook and Eye have quite the menagerie of furry companions. Erin has her two gorgeous rescue pups, Felix and Marley. Aimee shares her lap with a cat named Lulu and a whippet named Buddy. Boyda has sweet marmalade Theo. And I have this handsome guy. His name, for reasons of size, sweetness, shyness, and my partner’s unaccountable love of terrible teenage dance movies, is Moose.

I didn’t think I wanted a cat. When we rescued Moose just more than a year ago, the deal was that I’d get a Greyhound rescue and my partner Alex would get a cat. As we waited for the Greyhound organization we had chosen to schedule a pickup run to an American racetrack, we went looking for a feline friend. I don’t know what it was about Moose’s adoption listing, but it caught me despite (or perhaps because of) its open acknowledgement of his shyness and anxiety. We went to visit the home where Moose had been fostered for the last year, for a whole year after being abandoned, and didn’t get to meet him. He wouldn’t come out from under the sofa. And yet I still knew he was the one for us. His foster mother dropped him off, on trial, and then we didn’t see him for a month. I still don’t know where he was hiding. But one day he decided to relocate to the office, amidst my binders of comp notes. He soon decided that the sofa was his spot. And then the living room armchair. And then our laps. A year later he’s friendly to strangers, chatty and cuddly, and absolutely essential to my mental health.

One of the first things I said about Moose after we got him, and after he decided that it was safe to come out of hiding, was that I wished I had known I was a cat person before I started my PhD. On those days when I studied or wrote alone (and there were lots of them), having him around could have made a world of difference to my working days. It certainly does now. Between a full-time job, a dissertation, a handful of other ongoing academic projects, and a couple of blogging gigs, I spend a good number of my evenings and long stretches of my weekends glued to the computer. I used to get more frustrated with that, more resentful, than I do now. I used to be less productive, or at least less painlessly productive. And Moose has lots to do with that. Instead of being greeted by a glaring to-do list when I get home, I’m greeted by the thud-thud-thud-thud of Moose running down the stairs to say his very vocal hellos. I never have to eat dinner alone, because the Mooster is usually crouched over his kibble bowl just outside the dining room. And when it comes to starting work and sticking with it, I don’t usually have a choice. Moose likes to herd people, and so he herds me up to my computer and then he sits on me. It’s hard to argue with being forced to sit and work–and even harder to get up and do something else, like raid the fridge for no good reason–when the creature doing the forcing is twelve pounds of adorable fuzz who is soundly asleep and dreaming of mice.

Having Moose around has been good for me in all sorts of other ways. I’m oodles calmer, and regularly suffused with all of those lovely purring- and fur-stroking-induced endorphins. I’m less prone to anxiety. I’m never lonely when I’m at home alone, which I was sometimes prone to being. I’m less focused on myself because I have no choice but to focus on what this tiny and totally dependent creature needs of me. I am, in a word, happier–and that has done wonders for all aspects of my life, academic and otherwise. There is very much something to be said for the unconditional love and support of a furry friend or two, particularly when the going gets rough. We live in a pet-obsessed culture, where our Facebook feeds are filled with children reading to shelter cats, with grouchy felines, with toddlers and puppies taking daily naps together, and with our friends (guilty!) posting snapshots of their cuddly companions. This does not surprise me. Just as fashion tends to favour flowing fabrics and florals during times of economic and political instability, social media favours photos of felines. Animals, even just on social media, make many of us feel better. Erin and her colleagues on the picket lines in New Brunswick certainly know this, as their Mafa Picket Lines Pets tumblr attests. It’s no surprise that some of the smartest and most effective women I know share their lives with animals. They’re smart and effective because they do, and they do because they’re smart.

What about you, dear readers? Do you have furry friends, and what part do they play in supporting your mental health and happiness?

animals · day in the life · sexist fail

The sexual politics of meat modification

I was just speaking with a colleague earlier today about how there are things that I love about Edmonton and things that I hate about Edmonton. And this applies across the board – whether it has to do with Alberta politics, or local politics; or the character of the city itself; or the weather – you name it.

Feminist politics in the city, for instance, I’ve written about here before. But they go beyond the public library and the naming of city parks. Edmonton’s anti-rape campaign has been widely discussed online as a progressive effort to target rapists and change their behaviour rather than targeting the victims of sexual assault. Nevertheless, this campaign exists in the same city where a teenager is sexually assaulted, and rather than getting support and assistance, is sent to the overcrowded Remand Centre for the weekend. Although she finally did get to a hospital and get some support, she also concluded that she didn’t want to press charges because “How am I going to prove it, with the cops already mad at me, the way they are?” If you follow the link, you’ll see it’s a complicated story, but it nevertheless speaks to a very problematic culture around women and sexual assault – one that, at the very least, demands progressive campaigns like that noted above.

But my particular example for today is less appalling and tragic, but nevertheless part of Edmonton’s anti-woman urban landscape. For several months now, on Gateway Boulevard (the main drag in the centre of the city when you arrive from the south), there’s been a large billboard using a naked woman in a chef’s hat to advertise Halford’s Hide and Leather company, which appears to offer for sale a range of butcher supplies, leather, fur and craft supplies, and “animal damage control” products. 

This is but one of countless billboards with partially clothed (if the hat counts) women used to advertise a local business. Most advertise bars or restaurants. And while I don’t know how a partially clothed woman is essential to welcome you to “cowboy country” (not to mention that Edmonton is hardly cowboy country, but that’s a whole other matter), the connection drawn here between a naked woman and buying sausage, jerky, and leather making supplies is, on some levels, even more problematic.

Certainly, all I think about every time I drive past is Carol Adam’s Sexual Politics of Meat, and her persuasive argument that the oppression of women and animals is historically shared. While a sympathetic reader of the billboard might argue that the woman is the “professional” shopping for her meat-modification supplies, that seems pretty unlikely, given that no sensible person is going to operate their “Big Easy Infrared Turkey Fryer” or stuff their “Natural Hog Casings (Tubed)” in the nude. At least not if they have any concern for personal safety or sanitation. The lazy interpretation is that naked women draw attention, (it got mine after all, didn’t it – aha!) So it’s a successful ad and we, in our capitalist world, should celebrate the advertising acumen of Halford’s. Well perhaps, except (a) I rarely feel like celebrating capitalism and (b) the billboard wouldn’t work at all if there wasn’t some sense to the connection being drawn between the naked woman and the products for sale. And this sense lies in the, rarely so explicit, linking of women and animals as vulnerable, foolish creatures, each subordinate to men.

I can thank Edmonton that it offers me tangible, daily, and ridiculous examples of why I am a feminist. But in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather such billboards not pollute my urban landscape.
animals · learning · media · popular culture · random · teaching

Unexpected Lessons (Ikea Monkey)

I’ll be honest: I’m on a short break right now between end of classes and exams and all I want to do is relax. Fast Feminism. Slow Academe? Try, Fast Nothing. Slow Liz.
So, when I sat down to write this post, the only thing that I felt like sharing was Ikea Monkey.
Ikea Monkey has been bringing a smile to my face. And I’m not the only one. Ikea Monkey has gone viral, at least in Toronto. I’ve talked about IM with multiple people and overheard others in restaurants discussing IM, which has become an Internet meme.
Anyway, (and here comes my somewhat tenuous connection to Hook and Eye content), it’s got me thinking about what kinds of stories and ideas get picked up and circulated—the stories that spark something, that make people want to talk about them and share with others.
When I’ve taught a class and I can hear my students still talking about a particular topic as they’re leaving, I feel that I’ve done a good job as an instructor. I want to have Ikea Monkey moments in my classes.
Most of the teaching advice I’ve been given, when it comes to lecturing, centers around this basic principle: if you just try to get one or two key ideas across in a class, it’s much more likely that those one or two key ideas will stick with students.
So, I ask you, readers, now that we’re reaching the end of a semester: what are the most important things you want to achieve by the end of a course (either as an instructor or as a student)? Does it relate to course content, a style of thinking, or a set of theoretical concepts? Looking back on courses that you have taught or taken, what has stuck with you? Have you ever taught or taken courses with unexpected learning outcomes? Can we “meme” our students?

academic reorganization · animals · day in the life · emotional labour

Four Legs Good! In praise of Companion Species

In The Companion Species Manifesto Donna Haraway asks what might happen if we started taking relationships with animals seriously. She asks this in part as a way to (re)consider history.  This feminist manifesto differs from the earlier (and I’d say more anthologized) Cyborg Manifesto in that the companion species is a precursor to the function the cyborg has in that earlier text. Here’s what I mean: she’s traded the slogan “Cyborgs for Earthly Survival,” for the pithier “Run fast; bite hard.” Upon reading Haraway I was immediately reminded of the tagline of my blogging cyber-mentor Sina Queyras‘s Lemon Hound: “More bark than bite since 2005.” I wondered what our academic relationships with animals may tell us. Sure, not everyone is an animal lover and not everyone can–or wants–to live with an animal, but I am constantly surprised by how many academics–and how many female academics–I know who are dog, cat, or other animal-crazy. What’s up with academics generally (feminists specifically) and animals?

I found myself mulling this question over again when I was standing in my dear friend M.’s office earlier this week. While we were chatting I noticed a poster above her desk. It read “behind every productive woman there is a rather remarkable cat.” Indeed! I thought, but why?

Granted, my companion species is a rather remarkable dog by the name of Felix (though I’ve had fine cats in my life) but the point is that animals seem to be absolutely necessary in the lives of many academics I know. In my department alone Chai, Tusket, Finnegan, Sam, Obie, Sage, Rosie, Duchess, Herbie, Tink, Brock, Ollie, Cobaka, and Waldo provide unquantifiable amounts of anecdotes. Those of us who live with animals seem to flock together in the halls to share the most recent story of our four-legged friends. 

I have always loved animals. I got my first pet–a hamster named Hammy–after I passed the goldfish test when I was about five. Tippy the Beagle came to live with us when I was about eight. Sam came later, and Wallace the cross-eyed, soft-hearted, fancy-stepping deer hound still lives with my parents, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I really developed companionship with a four-legged friend. Felix and I have lived together for eight years. He came home with me when he was a wee pup and we were both in Montreal. He, in a pen waiting to be adopted; me, writing my MA thesis. I was one of only two people in my cohort who chose to write a thesis, and it was lonely work. While I think it prepared me for the solitariness that is (often) scholarly research at the time I was surprised by how lonely I felt. Walking with Felix got me out of my head and out of the house.

Since 2004 Felix has been my constant companion. We moved from Montreal to Calgary together. He has seen me through immense changes in my personal life as well as in my career. He sits beside me when I grade papers. He sits beside me when I read. He wakes up with me when I can’t sleep because of some anxiety or another, and he leans on me when I have a cry (often that cry is my first response to peer review. There, I said it). But perhaps what my relationship with Felix reinforces on a regular basis is something that Haraway calls significant otherness. Animals–dogs, for Haraway–are “partners in the crime of human evolution.” They tell us much about ourselves, and they tell us much about the way we as treat others. Oh yes, and they have wonderful senses of humor.

Do you have an animal in your life?