appreciation · balance · conferences

Leaning into the weight and being off balance

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This is me giving a conference paper in Paris a few years ago. That’s my daughter in the baby wrap thing. Those are her little legs sticking out. She had  fallen asleep right before my panel. We had just survived our first trans-Atlantic flight together. I was SO tired. I know she was too. Once she fell asleep, that was it. I was not going to disturb that nap no matter what. So I gave my paper with the lights dimmed and reveling in the white noise of the projector. I whispered. The whole time. The room was hot. I am pretty sure everyone in the room was asleep by the time I was done.

Not the greatest conference paper of my career. For sure. But I got through. And the whole thing seems very funny now.

I’ve been thinking about this moment again. There’s always a lot of talk about work-life balance and how hard it is to strike that balance. I would be the first to agree. But I’m also starting to think that, sometimes, it’s ok for things to be kind of totally unbalanced. Maybe you’re a new parent. Maybe you have to care for a parent. Maybe your partner needs you a lot all of a sudden and you need to be there for them.

When I look at this picture, I can feel how heavy my baby was. I can feel the straps cutting into my shoulders and the heat of her little head against my chest. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was a kind of sweetness in that weight too and I want to hang on to that.

Let’s keep talking and staying with each other about all the craziness of this thing called work-life balance, about whether to lean in or lean out.  I don’t have a lot of grand thoughts about any of that except to say that, sometimes, things just won’t be in balance. You will try. And you will let that be good enough. And, sometimes, you will lean into the weight of the things that throw you off balance. You’ll feel it in your shoulders and your in your chest and it will probably be exhausting. Lean into that too. It’s ok.

appreciation · best laid plans · change

Getting’ Out of Dodge: In Praise of Wee Adventures

Well, readers, at the risk of stating the obvious: it is May. Forget April showers; if you were anywhere near where I live this spring the snowbanks are only just starting to melt and we’ve all broken down and started talking to the crocuses. Suffice to say it has been a challenging winter.

In academic spheres May brings more than just flowers. Chances are, if you were teaching this semester you are finishing up grading or thanking the powers that be for having already finished your grading. You might be looking for work, preparing to write your MA thesis, scrambling to prepare for spring courses, or, in some cases, still finishing up semesters that were lengthened due to job action. Given that I’m based in the Maritimes and you *know* what kind of winter we’ve had, I’m willing to bet that whatever you’re doing, there’s a good chance you’re doing it with with the promise of spring outside your window.

But here’s the thing: as we have confessed time and again the end of the regular school term can bring exhaustion, apathy, disorientation, and tristesse for all sorts of good reasons. You don’t have to be a Nova Scotian survivor of the horrible weather, devastating budget, and introduction of Bill 100 to be feeling, well, done.

So let me give you a little bit of unsolicited advice: get out of dodge. Seriously, if you can manage it for a day or two (or three!) put an automatic reply on your email, leave your computer at home, and go. Where? Anywhere.

Last week, at the end of our ropes for all the reasons and more, my partner and I packed the dog into the truck and drove out to the shore. The weather was awful–rain, sleet, snow, wild winds–and our escape was perfect. We visited his mom at her home which perches by the sea. We sat by the fire and read, and the dog and I battled the elements to take walks by the ocean. Three days later we came back to Halifax refreshed. A change of scenery, a step away from social media, and some restorative and wonderful conversation with family; all of these things made the difference. And yes, it was basically a trip home. Nothing exotic or expensive, just a little adventure. The break allowed us, upon return to the everyday, to remember why so much of the quotidian is really very good.

I realize not everyone is as lucky as I am to have a partner whose family is so near, and with such a lovely place to escape to, but fear not: you too can take a wee adventure. I promise you’ll feel better for it. If you’re bound to where you are geographically, which is likely for so many reasons, why not choose a weekday as a weekend day? I mean it. What are the benefits of being in the academic sphere if not the flexibility of schedule? The very same 24/7 mentality that has us fretting about doing work all the damn time means that you’re probably able to switch Monday for Saturday. Or, if you’re daring, just take a bloody Monday off. Drink your coffee in bed with a novel. Walk the dog an hour later than usual and then take yourself out for brunch. On a budget? If it is a nice day go to the grocery, get some fruit and a baked good or whatever makes your tum excited and get thee to the park. If it is crummy out, go to your local library or botanical garden or art museum or a matinee. Do it! And then don’t go home and work. Cook dinner for yourself. Heck, invite a friend. Have a Monday-night dinner party! Or watch a movie on Netflix and eat popcorn for dinner. Whatever. Just get out of your normal routine, turn the notifications off, do NOT check your email until the next morning. There will be time enough to get into your routine, make your spring/summer research/work/teaching plans, and time will fly. For now, in this, the Friday-night-and-all-the-weekend-is-ahead-of-you-of-summer, just take a break.

Here at Hook & Eye we are going to try and take our own advice to heart. As we head into conference season (& several other things besides) we’re going to take a different approach to posting. For the month of May I will be pulling gems out of our considerable archive and offer them with a wee preface. Periodically, one of my stellar co-bloggers may be inspired to post, but we’re not going to put too much press on ourselves. There will be fresh material up each week, but not five days a week. We’re trying to take our own advice, you see.

In June I’ll post a collaboratively written year-end round-up and reflection as well as a call for guest posts and suggestions for topics for the coming year. We’re going to go on vacation for July and August, because even though we will undoubtably be working, we’re also trying to foster some of that life balance we talk so much about here.

So here’s to spring, dear readers! And here’s to wee adventures that get you out of dodge (or at least out of a rut or a routine) and ready you for the possibilities that spring and summer can bring. And, here’s a soundtrack to get you in the self-permission-granting mood.

                                         

                        Because come on, who doesn’t need Tracy Chapman on a Monday morning?

appreciation · classrooms · teaching

Persuasive Writing

One of my colleagues, in a workshop for new graduate student teachers, suggested an in class exercise that I’d never heard of. Get your students to draw a picture of their ideal reader, he said, then get them to draw a speech bubble on that reader: ask them what the reader is saying to them about their writing.

Students have so much trouble imagining a real writer, particularly in an academic context where producing an essay often feels like a performance in showing the teacher you read the right number of books and journal articles, and hit the right word count, and used X number of transition words, and underlined your thesis statement. This exercise concretizes the idea of a real reader, and asks students, as well, to think about what they want that reader to come away with after.

I tried it with my first years. They’re writing a short research paper, a persuasive essay where they have to craft an argument for a particular interpretation of one aspect of our contemporary digital lives–I’ve got papers for and against online dating, social media, video game aesthetics, normative sexism and racism online, and more. So far they’ve written a proposal that briefly described their topic and articulated a provisional thesis they were interested in arguing. Then they produced annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Then they wrote a draft of the introductory paragraph of the paper. This week they’ll do a draft editing workshop on a first draft of the full paper. Next week they hand it in.

At the very first, though, when I handed out the Research Paper assignment, I had them do this exercise with the reader and the speech bubble.

The results astonished me. In among the hilariously poorly-drawn stick figure renditions of readers (most of them imagined me as the reader; only one imagined PacMan) and the comic descriptions of writing awards bestowed, most students imagined two kinds of feedback. First, a strong majority asked for substantive feedback on both mechanics and structure. Second, and this was surprising, nearly half of them imagined me saying something along the lines of this:

“I never thought of that before, but you’ve convinced me!”

My students were actually focused on persuading me. On generating new, surprising knowledge. Somehow they’ve actually got the idea that their writing matters, generally, and that it matters to me, particularly, and that they can use their words to meaningfully interact with culture, ideas, and interpretation.

I’m floored.

Right now I’m just so grateful to get this little sign that somehow, somewhere, this group of students has had some kind of little spark lit. I’m grateful my colleague taught me this exercise. Yesterday I graded 35 quizzes and 36 intro paragraphs and got to work on 20 SSHRC Departmental Appraisal Letters and assorted other ranking tasks. This was just the reminder I need that there is a purpose beyond just a rank or a grade or a credential. That my teaching, sometimes, matters and makes a difference. That my students can surprise me, that they’re trying and they care.

Have you had any nice surprises lately? Something to help us get through these last few weeks of term?

Honestly, my students this term are the BEST

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?

academic reorganization · academic work · appreciation · empowerment · job notes · solidarity

Who’s your role model?

I’ve been thinking about role models lately. In our graduate professionalization seminar this week, we were talking about issues related to teaching: practical issues like classroom management, broader issues like different pedagogical theories relating to the teaching of writing, but also bigger, structural questions of “What does a career teaching in the academy look like, going forward?”

You probably know from your own experience that most university teachers are passively trained: we pick up a teaching style from being taught, mostly. We then model ourselves consciously or unconsciously to resemble teachers we admired: these are, literally, our role models. This applies to our research and service work as well: we learn how to do library research in a pretty programmatic way, perhaps, but the practices relating to books versus articles, how many submissions per year, what kinds of conferences, how to select and do university service (or avoid doing it), how to comport ourselves in meetings, all of that we kind of … make up as we go along, deliberately or accidentally modeling our behavior on what we’ve seen from others, usually senior to us.

The academy is changing. Fast, and a lot. Bigger classes, more diverse students, online teaching, greater research expectations, expectations related to seeking and securing outside funding, collaborative service work, higher stakes administrative work, politicization and austerity, and globalized classrooms.

It’s possible that some of those more senior scholars we most admire actually work in a version of the academy that doesn’t exist for junior scholars. An academy where teaching loads keep going down, to promote a research agenda. Where all the students speak English as a first language, or you can let someone else deal with that. Where SSHRC actually funds non-targeted research. Where teaching online is a hobby, or something you can do for extra money. Where you can ignore, mostly, the external climate of anti-intellectualism and academy-bashing, because you’ve still got lots of majors and enough government money. Where mentoring PhDs involves writing them reference letters for academic jobs.

Life on the ground in the profession looks different now even than when I started here, almost ten years ago. It’s worlds different from when I started as a student at York, in a first year English seminar, with a cap of 12 students and taught by a senior professor.

I like the academic social media space in part because it allows us to find role models among academics of our own generation: a kind of lateral modelling where we can figure out the structural realities together, as they operate today. We can become colleagues in arms, building horizontal relationships to give context and nuance, maybe, to the vision of the life of the mind we pick up from our traditional role models or mentors, who tend to be senior to us.

Who are your role models? IRL, when I was a grad student, and of course since then as well, my role models have included Heather Zwicker (my dissertation supervisor) and Susan Brown (my MA supervisor). Heather showed me that you can be assertive and sassy and smart and get ahead on your own terms. Susan showed me how to be a feminist and a digital humanist at the same time, in a literature department. And what it might be like to start a family on the tenure track.

I have some new and different role models now. Erin Wunker is teaching me about what it means to be an academic in the new world of LTAs and increasing contingency: a teacher and researcher with incisive smarts and grace, clear-eyed and articulate. Lee Skallerup Bessette is teaching me about loud and proud contingency, about changing research areas without real institutional support, about building community through networking and public writing. Adeline Koh is teaching me about weaving a thorough interrogation of race and gender into digital humanities work, about building alliances and calling bullshit and being thoroughly engaged across scholarly and para-scholarly platforms: this is what integrity looks like. I hope to be learning more from Melissa Dalgleish about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.

I’m trying to cultivate mentors and models from across the ranks, and across the wide range of academic lives: I feel the richer for it, humbled by the various kinds of excellence I am lucky enough to witness. I feel empowered from these examples to continue to learn to be the kind of academic that I can become.

What about you? Can you share some of your role models? We’d love to hear about them.

appreciation · balance · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff · teaching

What we teach, what they learn, involving child yoginis and the power of example

My daughter’s been taking yoga lessons for two years: picture a sunny room, with hardwood floors, an abundance of bolsters, pillows, blocks, mats, and five- to eight-year-olds, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what it’s like. And what it’s like is mostly shambolic, often adorable, and sometimes noisy, an exercise in crowd control as much as instruction in meditation, self-respect, and rajakapotasana. I observe from the back of the room, reading my paper and drinking my coffee while Amanda does her best to hold everyone’s attention, help them do headstands, leap around like frogs, stop building towers and forts out of props.

Unexpectedly, I had a lunchtime class at my studio with Amanda the other day, and I knew my daughter would get a kick out of us having the same teacher. She did. But she wanted to know: did Amanda do the noodle test on grownups, too?

For savasana, the ‘corpse pose’ at the end of class, Amanda always wanders softly to each child, doing the ‘noodle test’ to see if they’re relaxed. This involves picking up each limb and giving it a jiggle. The kids get to name which kind of pasta they wish to be. It’s pretty adorable. “No,” I said sadly, “Amanda does not do the noodle test with grownups.”

My girl leapt up, “Mommy, I can do the noodle test for you now, so you can fully relax.” (That’s what she said: fully relax.) I lay myself out straight. My girl waited about thirty seconds, and whispered, “Mom, what kind of pasta do you want to be?”

Fusilli.

She ran her fingers from my shoulder down my arm, picked up my arm from the wrist with her two hands, and swung it gently from side to side. She pulled it a little out from my shoulder, and then laid it down very deliberately and slowly, palm side up. “Yesssss,” she said, “a nice, well-cooked fusilli, hmmmmm.” Her voice had dropped a bit: slower and more breather, but deeper too. She moved around the rest of my limbs. “Yessssss, Mom, you are fulllllllly relaxed, niiiiiiiiiiiice wet pasta.”

Two things struck me. First, she was really good at this: it helped me relax. Second, she’s picked all this up from Amanda, sounded exactly like her. My daughter is seven; she is not a certified yoga teacher. But she held the room for me, she used a soft voice and a gentle but firm touch, gave me, FOR GOD’S SAKE, an adjustment.

Somehow, in the midst of the noisy, inattentive chaos of her yoga class, my girl learned something that neither of us realized she knew: how to touch someone gently and with respect, a generosity of spirit, where your arms and legs should be for savasana, what your muscle tone should be like. Amazing that she sounded like she was mimicking Amanda, but in dead earnest: this is how you do it.

Teaching and learning are mysterious. You never know what sinks in, or what is going in one ear and coming out the other. By dint of practice and repetition and example, surprising leaps are made. You just never know, until one day, you see it happen.

appreciation · faster feminism · spotlight

On the Problem of Speaking for Others

This week, I had the opportunity to reread Linda Martín Alcoff’s famous essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” The essay, published in 1991 at the height of Identity Politics, is one of the most insightful interventions into the politics of who can speak for whom that I have ever encountered.
The question of who can, and who should, speak for whom is an enduring one within feminist thought. It comes up in research, teaching, and activist contexts. One of the main things that I take from Alcoff’s work is an attentiveness to a politics of responsibility and accountability. How does one fairly represent a community about which one is writing about, teaching about or with whom you’re doing activist work? This question is important, regardless of whether you claim membership in that community or not, but is particularly salient for identity groups that have seen their histories erased, distorted, or only partially represented within dominant culture.
This question has come up for me repeatedly in my own research on feminist magazines like BUST and Bitch. These are feminist texts, and yet I write in ways that are frequently critical of them. Sometimes, I worry sometimes that my criticism overrides what I see as the value of these texts. One of the challenges of academic work is how to do justice to work that one may be critical of in a way that isn’t dismissive.
Alcoff’s thinking on the topic of speaking of others emphasizes the importance of context. She demonstrates the ways in which a universalized position, such as “it is always a problem to speak for others” or “it is never a problem to speak for others,” is untenable within a framework of feminist ethics.
One of the ways in which Alcoff makes this point is through Foucault’s concept of the “rituals of speaking,” which emphasizes the ways in which speaking and writing always occur within social spaces. Speaking is not simply a matter of autonomous individual choice (this is why people who say, “just speak up if you have something to say!” really irritate me). Rather, the rituals of speaking call our attention to the contexts in which speaking and being heard are made possible.
Alcoff criticizes those who argue that speaking for others is always problematic, suggesting that this “retreat response” abdicates one’s responsibility to addressing injustice. But it is also worth noting that there are contexts in which stepping aside might be appropriate. I think of a panel discussion I attended last year on the Occupy movement, held in a large lecture hall. There were two microphones set up in the aisles for audience members to line up behind to ask questions. Each line had 6-8 people in it. There was one woman in line. When she got to the microphone, she stated that she had observed the gender disparity in who was lining up to speak, and encouraged other women to ask questions. Then, someone yelled from the audience, “and maybe some of the men could step back!” I found this intervention really fascinating, because it makes visible the ways in which these social spaces are shared spaces to which everyone is responsible. It’s not just about telling folks who are silent or quiet to “speak up.” Equally, or perhaps more importantly, social justice work is about creating the conditions that help make listening possible.  

appreciation · change · heavy-handed metaphors · literature

Things I’ve Learned from P.K. Page

I have just finished reading Sandra Djwa‘s biography of P.K. Page, which bears the title Journey With No Maps. While I am not generally a fan of biography — I mean, how can you convey a life? — I surprised myself by being profoundly moved by this book. Indeed, after I moved past the scholarly appreciation for the meticulous research, and my frustration over the necessarily arm’s-length tone of the biography as a genre, I discovered I was riveted by the life of a woman I had only met on the pages of Canadian Literature anthologies.

Page is a foundational Canadian poet. She was born in England, a child in Alberta and the Maritimes, a young woman during the Second World War, and came of age in Montreal just in time to play a key  role in developing an important literary magazine. She travelled the world. She struggled with depression. She loved, lost, carried on, and wondered. Above all, she was an artist who made her work her friend. It would seem, in short, that she lived a full, rich, and inspired life. At a time of year in which my own anxieties, uncertainties, and frustrations about the future feel very much like unmapped and impossible terrain, I find that I’ve learned a few helpful things from the inimitable P.K. Page. Here’s a selection:

1) Fall in love with your work:

Page began writing poetry as a young woman, and she ultimately published more than two dozen books. When she found that she couldn’t write, she turned to other mediums. She was a prolific and well-respected painter. She studied an immense variety of techniques, from oil painting, to water colour, to etching and working with gold leaf. Djwa’s biography notes that Page had periods of profound loneliness in her life. Yet, if she could, Page would work to immerse herself in her craft as a way of creating a path through the loneliness. Several times she describes her work as a consistent and ever-evolving relationship.

2) Cast your net wide:

Page’s husband Arthur Irwin was a Canadian diplomat, and they lived internationally for many years. While she initially felt lonely and isolated upon moving, Page eventually threw herself into her work and into developing her relationships with her new and old communities. She befriended painters, artists, diplomats, and housewives. She wrote letters. She threw parties. She had a pet monkey. It seems to me that Page had an incredibly diverse and rich network of people across the world.

3) Spirituality comes in many forms, and happiness is work:

While she was not religious, Page developed a life-long spiritual practice. She was introduced to the teachings of Sufism in her mid-life and quickly developed a Sufism study group. She continually refined her affective and emotional sensibilities, and to apply her knowledge to her sense of self, her relationships, and her craft. Here is an excerpt that details her growing consciousness and approach to work (where “work” means the development of your own consciousness)”

                    It’s very difficult to explain. [A fellow learner] gave me a totally new concept of love
                    as is I have never understood the definition before; she made me understand “waiting” —
                    that nothing can happen outside its own time (and I mean understand emotionally — I
                    had understood intellectually before). And she made me understand that one aspect of the  
                    work is being happy — not apparently happy — but happy. That you cannot “work” from
                    unhappiness. (203)

4) Don’t ever say “I’m too old for…”:

Page began painting in mid-life, she constantly learned new forms of poetry, and her studies of Sufism were constant; she worked up until her death in 2010. A dear friend of mine, EB, had the profound experience of helping to pack up Page’s house. When she was in the kitchen she noticed that Page had magnetic poetry on her refrigerator, and there were several poems clinging to the door. Imagine!

Djwa’s biography of this remarkable woman has not alleviated my stress and anxiousness around employment, nor has it provided me a map, but reading about P.K. Page’s life has reminded me that there are no maps. The journey is the thing entire.

appreciation · going public · possibility

Academic Travel

It’s that time of year when I begin to look longingly at the delicate contrails in the skies, and at the collapsible toothbrushes at Shoppers. It’s that time of year when this academic’s fancy turns to travel. I’ve got a conference at the University of Maryland in six weeks, and then six weeks after that I’ll be in Victoria. I might be going to England, but that wouldn’t be until October. I’m just beginning to buy plane tickets and book hotel rooms and organize to meet friends and colleagues. I’m getting nostalgic for the 10 Minute Manicure booth at Pearson’s Terminal Two. I can’t wait to get back to Rebar in Victoria, or have the wonderful bartender at UVic’s Faculty club make me my once-a-year martini, enjoyed with digital humanists and turtles on the patio. And, oh, the hotel rooms. Those blank, anonymous, heavy-blanketed, blackout-curtained, TV-in-bed, all-to-myself havens of quiet and solitude. I am looking forward to the hotel rooms.

Oh, and I guess I’m excited, too, about sharing my research about Facebook, about computer keyboards, about social media and the role of design in academic practice. I’ll write papers and curricula and it certainly always happens that the intellectual work of this travel both pushes me to produce something in the face of a real deadline and prompts a lot of new ideas in all the interaction. But honestly, I’m mostly thinking about the travel right now.

For me, this wanderlust is cyclical. It builds from the late winter and peaks in early summer. I do most of my traveling, and sometimes quite a lot of traveling, in the period between early March and early July. Last year, I did six trips in the eight weeks in that timeframe. When I got back, I swore that I was never getting on another plane ever again. (My husband made a similar vow, after a heroic run of solo-parenting while working his own full-time, demanding job. And then, don’t you know, all three of us made an unexpected family trip to Edmonton the very next month.) I was seriously jet lagged, feeling gross from travel food, had had my luggage lost once, had stayed in a terrible hotel during a children’s hockey tournament (tip! Don’t do that!), and flown through some gruesome weather. I missed my family a lot, my routines, our routines. My bed.

But those memories have receded now. And I’m looking forward to laying out outfits on the bed in the guest room, trying to game the weather while packing enough variety to give me stylish options that will, nevertheless, all fit in a carry-on (cf earlier discussion of lost luggage. I’m looking at you, Air Canada). I’m buying this year’s collapsible toothbrush, and sample sizes of my favourite Aveda hair products. My trusty Samsonite roly-bag is coming down from the attic, with my travel yoga mat already folded neatly within it. I’m cheerfully booking airport shuttles in other countries, and checking the exchange rates. It’s going to be great: I head out in the world by myself, my purse and my carry-on and my ideas, on an adventure to share my research and learn from others and eat the kinds of foods I like when I feel like eating them. I miss my family, really I do, when I’m gone, but it’s so nice to have these brief interludes of only thinking of myself. Of throwing myself right into it. Seeing old friends and making new ones. Learning stuff.

When I was a single graduate student, travel felt different. It felt like a brief entrée into a world of adulthood: wearing suits and eating in restaurants and explaining my work to customs agents as though I were a professional of some sort. Now it feels different, almost like a return to something less “grown-up,” freer, with fewer and more-focused responsibilities.

But always, from my staying in dorm days to the quiet hotel rooms now, the travel has been one of the perks of being an academic. I love it, this shift into new places with new people and new routines. (It’s always the same coffee and inedible honeydew melon slices, though …) What about you? How do you feel about academic travel?

appreciation · balance · good things · grad school · making friends · networking

Coats on the floor, the wine’s over there: Department parties

By the time Friday afternoon landed on my lap, the party had 60 or so confirmed attendees. The department holiday party. At my house. And from my rough estimation–necessarily rough because some people, sighted by my husband in our very living room, came and went without me ever pushing through the crush to get to them–it seems like they all came.

I love the department holiday party. I have always loved these affairs, from the very first one I attended nervously as a Masters student, to the first one I attended nervously as a PhD student, to the first one I attended nervously as a new Assistant Professor, all the way to the ones I now (nervously, natch) host.

The tally:

  • 24 empty bottles of wine
  • 18 empty bottles of beer
  • 5 king cans, hidden under the dining room table
  • 4 bags of ice
  • 2 trays of sushi
  • 2 vegetable platter
  • 1 tray of sweets
  • 1 cheese platter
  • 2 boxes of Carr’s water crackers
  • 4 bowls of cheesies
  • 3 ramekins of homemade nuts-and-bolts
  • 1 Christmas cactus
  • 1 pointsettia
  • 2 hostess gifts of cookies
  • 1 daughter in a taffeta dress offering one cheesie to each incoming guest
  • 0 edible leftovers of any kind
  • untold amounts of shortbread ground into the floor
  • vast amounts of wine spilled: on the walls of three rooms, the kitchen cupboards, the floor
  • 15 guests shooed out after midnight
  • 3 leftover mittens
  • 1 lost bicycle light

No Mad Men-style debauch (and thank God) but no stilted junior high school church social either, the holiday party as manifested around here is a real mixer: staff, and faculty, graduate students from all levels and years of study, locals, out-of-towners. Spouses, kids, kids’ friends. (Only one sessional instructor this year, though.)

It’s the kind of thing, actually, that makes me think about the general segregations of everyday life. About how narrow my own life is, in general, and how much like sticks to like. In playing host to so many different people, I’m aware of doing some … stretching to make everyone feel at ease, and this reflects on the insularity of my own life rather than on anyone else’s awkwardness. I’ll find some toys for the two year old, and then, across the room, all of a sudden, a Master’s student I taught a required undergraduate course to several years ago. Asking a former chair about his European adventures over the last decade and a half and then joining a conversation among twenty-somethings about long-distance relationships. I’m at a place in my life where I know what daycare costs, what constitutes a good mortgage rate, how to distinguish gins in blind tastings, what it feels like to get older, how to be “appropriate” in company, what’s happening in the New York Times and The Guardian. I don’t know which are / if there are any good live music venues here. Do people go out dancing? Where? Good, cheap ethnic food? Dunno. Used bookstores? What? What happens after 8pm around this town? I have no idea. What do apartments cost? Bus routes to the grocery store? So parties can lead into new conversations, for everyone. Even meeting colleagues in this context can lead in new directions than might usually be traversed: you experience different conversation prompts while trying to wipe soy sauce off the wall than you do around the committee table waiting for the meeting chair to show up.

One of the great things about a really good party is mixing socially with people who are not exactly like me, and in situations that are not the norm. (I say not exactly, because we were averaging about two degrees in English apiece.) Candles and students and spouses and everyone in their socks and sparkly things / nicer pants.

Long live the holiday party, I say, a bit of fun and magic in a mostly routinized term.