accident · accomodation · bad news · balance · being undone · best laid plans · Uncategorized

Hustle and no

I broke my foot. The doctor’s office phoned at lunch yesterday to confirm Monday afternoon’s x-ray: I broke my foot.

I broke my foot about 10 days ago, actually, in Nova Scotia, falling down some dew-covered stairs in the dark. At the time, it hurt so much I nearly threw up, and when I stood I was incredibly dizzy and disoriented, but I really had to go pee and I was all alone in the dark on the grass so I kept walking another 200 meters or so to the camp bathroom. And when I got back to my cabin it hurt to even have the pressure of the lightweight sleeping back on it, so I stuck my foot out into the open air, and gritted my teeth for the hour or so until the pain subsided enough for me to sleep. I mean, people were sleeping, what was there to be done? The next day I clocked about 8500 steps. I let my friend Megan carry my luggage for me, out to the camp bus, and up and down the stairs at her house. My foot was comically swollen. I walked to Erin’s house and back. (WORTH IT–BISOUS BISOUS TO THE WONDERFUL ERIN WUNKER.) The next day, I walked around two airports, took the dog around the block. The day after that, I taught all day, on my feet, walking around the room to every student, every group work laptop, writing all over the boards. Later that week I walked to and from campus. Yeah, my foot hurt, and was weird colours and was swollen, but there were things to do, you know?

My partner and my sister eventually convinced me to go the doctor on Monday, after I’d insisted on a 5km walk on Sunday to clear my head: my toes bruised solid purple and the top of my foot turned an alarming green.

I should have sought medical attention the night I hurt my foot.

I didn’t, and probably, you wouldn’t, either. People kept suggesting it and I was like, but what’s the point? I can walk, I’m fine. I don’t have time for the appointment itself, let alone whatever nonsense convalescence anyone is going to recommend to me. Rest. Elevate. I laughed out loud when the doctor murmured rest-and-elevate, stay-off-your-fee, a big mean guffaw: BUT WHEN? I demanded, HOW? There’s a dog, and I teach, and what about the groceries, and my kid’s pickups and her lessons, and all the rest of it. I have an incredibly supportive partner, and the blessing of a sister in town, but I was really like, meh, I’ll just muscle through it.

There’s something in that, something about the contemporary academy and contemporary woman- or mother-hood. There’s no slack in the system: we break our feet and we keep walking, because we feel we have to, just to keep the system moving forward, but also, and importantly, because we just don’t want to be a bother to anyone.

We break our feet and keep walking.

There’s something in me that doesn’t want to listen to my own body: I wanted to start the term strong, teach my classes, keep my writing days, be the prof I want to be. The life of the mind, the knowledge professions, can be intensely alienating: our bodies are impediments that we appease in order to keep thinking, seamlessly, frictionless. There was no room in this narrative for a broken foot and so I edited that part out. My partner already does at least half of the child care and the house work and the emotional labour and I don’t want to burden him, so I carried my own weight. My sister has a family of her own and a demanding job: she doesn’t need to come walk my dog at lunch everyday so I hold the leash in my other hand and pretend that makes things easier. My own pigheadedness and refusal to acknowledge my own body’s reality is pretty impressive. My denial game is STRONG.

We break our feet and keep walking.

I’ve emailed my chair and department administrator and the occupational health and safety officer to let them know about my foot, and ask about parking accommodations. I’ve canceled my on-campus meetings today so I can stay home and type with my foot up high on the desk beside me. I’ve taken off my fitbit and put it in a drawer. My sister is coming at lunch. I feel really awful about asking for and accepting this help, this help I would gladly and unhesistatingly extend to friends and colleagues.

So I ask you, dear readers, beyond pig-headedness and heavy responsibilities and maybe some guilt, why, why, why do we keep on walking, alone, when our feet are broken? And how can we stop.

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Yeah, that’s me in my grad class, 8pm, teaching with my foot on the desk. IN DENIAL.
being undone · emotional labour · goals · hope · ideas for change · Uncategorized

Connection / Disconnection

In a fit of post-admin-role freedom, I booked myself to go to sleep away camp halfway through Orientation Two Days. I flew away to Halifax, on points, to join my friend Megan for four days at Big Cove Camp, the oldest such camp in Canada. The camp was called Make. Do. Camp. And they took away our phones.

It was a transformative experience.

I remember camp as a child: sing-alongs, campfires, hikes, group activities. I remember feeling … nervous, disconnected, not-quite-right, not-quite-fit. I did not feel, as it were, hailed (in the Althusserian sense) by camp: everyone seemed social and outgoing, everyone was chipper and enthusiastic, everyone had lots of friends and no inner turmoil. There were things I loved about camp: being outside, swimming, the rhythm of the days tied to cycles of daylight, and so that’s why I went, and only with a friend–we’d have each other at least, even if there were cliques and we didn’t fit in any of them.

But here’s the thing. I have never felt so connected to a group of strangers in my life. Never so safe, never so seen and supported. Part of it was getting rid of the phones and the safety line they provided, but much of it was due to incredibly thoughtful facilitation, and there’s something to learn from this that I can bring back to my teaching.

From the opening ceremony forward, camp facilitators, directors, leaders, and minders opened up spaces of difference and welcome. They invited us to come in, in all of our differences, a huge list of identities and feelings and orientations and histories. We could be a group, they suggested, while remaining in substantial ways complicatedly different from one another. This was magic to hear. I felt named and seen and as a result could not retreat to my usual space of meteoritical, ironic, abstract distance. They hailed me: nervous, skeptical, hopeful, tired. The welcome, in seeking to name all the ways we could arrive in the space in all our differences, took a really long time, as they sought to acknowledge and celebrate these differences. And we all sat there, rapt: we had been seen and noticed and named and welcomed.

It is amazing how a sense of group feeling can develop from a 15 minute recitation of all the ways we are different from one another. Instead of jostling for space or recognition or feeling excluded, we become more free to find a strand of connection.

I’ve been thinking, as a result, of how I welcome my classes to the term. What totalizing assumptions do I make about them that might limit or exclude them, that might lead to ironizing, to checking out, to hurt feelings or disconnection? How can I welcome and celebrate everyone’s differences so that they feel hailed into our shared project?

I have been trying to start the term by inviting personal communication from students, creative work that situates them in their own contexts, on their own terms. Then I summarize for the class all the different kinds of difference we see, and how wonderful it is, and how little we can know about one another just from looking at a list of names, and majors, and year level. I think I could do more, I’m wondering how. But the kinds of work that people can do when they feel seen, heard, understood, and recognized is incredible, and I want more of that possibility in my own teaching.

affect · being undone · loneliness · teaching

On being lonely in university

A Huffington Post article made its way into my Facebook feed, last week, describing how “Almost 70% of University Students Admit to Feeling Lonely.” I clicked it because I remember the absolutely crippling loneliness of much of my undergraduate years. The post led to original news story on the topic at CBC, that details the study more closely, and outlines what staff at the University of Winnipeg are doing to support students. It links as well to a Washington Post article describing the terrible health effects of loneliness–“molecular level” physiological effects comparable to diabetes! smoking! obesity!

So go make some friends! suggests the article. In fact, there’s a different HuffPo story on “How to Cope with Loneliness at University“–spoiler alert, you cope with loneliness by making friends! The CBC story is a little more nuanced, giving space to several employees from a campus wellness program at the University of Winnipeg describing counselling and support interventions offered to students. Still, students have to seek these out.

If you’ve ever been really lonely–not solitary, not introverted, but lonely–you will know at least one thing: it’s such a terrible feeling that no one resides in it willingly, and if you knew how to be less lonely, you would do it. . People risk loneliness by coming to university, full of people, but people who are already established in campus networks, or everyone else uprooted from their home contexts and starting from nothing. If you don’t live in residence, or socialize easily while wearing multiple sets of beads and a ridiculous hat, while shouting university fight songs, it can be hard to make connections. Doubly hard if you commute from away, or if you have family obligations, or are an international student, an older student. If you are a graduate student, for whom not even these forced social encounters are organized.

I don’t know how fair it is to ask the lonely to just “make some friends!” or even necessarily to reach out for formal help.

What if we asked the non-lonely to do something instead? How might those among us blessed with social connections and a feeling of community help incorporate lonely undergrads, lonely graduate students, lonely professors?

What can we do in our classrooms, our department get-togethers and meetings, our course materials and assignments, to help ease this heavy burden of isolation?

One thing I’m still trying to do is to move beyond my own comfort zone–so hard won!–and interact with new people at events. I have been running formal and informal writing groups that make space for simple chat, and for being alone together in a common cause. In my classes, I will continue to find new ways to structure activities so that students have opportunities to meaningfully interact with one another–one of the simplest tricks being that each group has to nominate someone to introduce all the members to the class, or making space for students to have negative feelings, or having all the students send me an email introducing themselves and their interests, and I respond to it in kind.

Loneliness in higher education is real. I have at various times and stages suffered terribly from it myself, and felt completely powerless to change my situation. I think now that I’m more secure and supported, it’s time for me to be part of the solution. You? Have you suffered academic or other loneliness? How do you reach out to others?

being undone · teaching

Teaching and All The Feels

I have that nervous feeling in my stomach again–those butterflies, or that flip-flopping feeling, a vague nausea and discomfort. It’s final paper time, and while I’m not writing any myself, I assign them. And it makes me incredibly nervous, shepherding my grad students through their projects’ various stages. I want so badly for them to succeed; I worry so much about how tired they look, or frustrated, or, worse, how silent they get.

Teaching. It’s very emotional.

Over the past ten years, as I have wrestled with my teaching persona, teaching practices, teaching goals, one thread runs constant–trying to manage my own emotions. I started out perhaps over-attached to results: if a student did poorly on an exam, say, I would take all that on as a personal failure of mine. There was a lot of crying. It was not helpful. I tried to learn to not take it as a personal affront when students were often absent. I had to learn that sometimes it’s not about me when students look bored and tired every single semester once week 7 rolls around. I was very emotional but about the wrong things and it was gruelling and ineffective.

Then, for a while, I tried too hard to swing the other way. Teaching became more contractual and transactional. I would lay out some rules and try to enframe the teaching situation as mutually beneficial but largely impersonal: trying to protect my own feelings and recover from my over investment in outcomes that were beyond my control, I tried to take my feelings out of the classroom. But even as I tried to pull away from my misguided mother hen tendencies, my students still sometimes cried, or got angry, and I was doing them a new disservice by trying to deny them that reality.

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

For me this starts with acknowledging that I care a lot about the material I teach, and I am, actually, really invested in having students learn it. This might be an ethical and respectful methodology for research on the internet, or it might be the history of the www, or it might be the difference between technological determinism and social construction, or it might be the design theory of affordance, or it might be feminist pragmatics, or it might be how to make a daguerrotype. It really matters to me a lot that students understand these things and, crucially, see the value in them.

When I teach, I necessarily make myself incredibly vulnerable to my students, by reaching out to them with ideas and sources and methods and assignments and illustrations, and asking them to hold on. It requires, I find, an incredible outlay of empathy for me to try to find where the students are at already, intellectually and ideologically or whatever, and go to them there to ask them to come with me to where the class is designed to take us. It is rarely the case now that I teach just from what I want to say; I’m always doing this sort of dance where I try to figure out the emotional temperature of the room, poll the interests, prod the knowledge base, and figure out a context-specific approach.

The best way I can find to describe it is this: It feels like being on a first date with 40 people at the same time. Every single time I teach.

To be clear, I’m not in it to be “loved” or even liked. I’m trying to put myself–Aimée Morrison, the situated human being–behind the ideas but of course teaching and learning are human acts so I’m still there. Reaching out, trying to get in 40 heads and hearts at the same time, trying to shift something in someone’s understanding: “even though this was a required course, it was surprisingly useful.”

I begin finally to understand that this is why teaching days are so gruelling. Why if I teach in the morning, I’m not going to be writing in the afternoon. It’s the interpersonal work, the mutual vulnerability, the work of empathy, the work of caring. In my worst moments I want to withdraw–I say things like, “If they won’t do the readings, to hell with them.” But really, I am usually overwhelmed with the sheer importance of the work I’m trying to do, and how much I care and how much I care about having students come to care about what I teach as well. I’m not naturally empathetic and I’m much more inclined to try to structure the world into rule-based interactions we can process cognitively and rationally, so the empathy required of teaching is not something I come to naturally. It’s something over time I’ve come to learn is crucial: learning is transformative, and thus scary and personal. Teaching must be these things too. All the feels.

being undone · best laid plans · failure

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I’ve slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I’d got done in a month. I feel awful–I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don’t even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don’t seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials–so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there’s a new edition of the textbook. I’m prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who’ve already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband’s job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I’m near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I’m too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You’ve probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I’ve done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It’s all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN’T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what’s not working, and try again. It’s refinements big and little, and constant, that’ll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I’ve fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I’ve missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

being undone · coming out · family · feminism · politics

Identity Trouble

Have y’all read this? It’s long, but oh-so-good: Jordana Rosenberg’s captivating essay-cum-personal memoir on making sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as a young lesbian whose conservative mother cannot accept her sexuality. It’s a tale of abandonment, grief, confusion, and self-doubt, and anything I say about it here cannot really do it justice. Beyond the sheer pathos and engagability of her story, I think it admirable that Rosenberg deploys the notoriously jargony pages of Butler’s prose as an element in her life-narrative and struggle, thus challenging the artificial divide between critical and personal we as scholars tend to maintain. Further, she opens a space for “unknowing” as a crucial political and academic act, urging her students and her readers to embrace texts and situations that we don’t understand, which would allow us to internalize the value of risk, of humility, of un-understanding the world. Only once we learn to extend ourselves into unfamiliar situations will we learn to truly become ourselves and enact political transformation. The idea of empowerment as rooted in our own epistemological undoing is, I think, highly radical.

Rosenberg got me thinking about the issue of how open we should be to our parents, family, nonacademic relations, people we love: not just regarding our sexuality, but also regarding such potentially objectionable things as feminism, atheism, leftism, advocacy for reproductive rights, whatever. In making this kind of comparison between Rosenberg’s coming out and other kinds of coming out, I in no way mean to imply that the different forms are equal: sexual politics hold a particular transgressive valence for most conservative folk, and emerging LGBTQ people often meet with more violence than emerging feminists. Personally, I will never be disowned for my political beliefs, though I might still be faced with the pain of wounding people I love and possible subsequent alienation. Outing oneself is something we tend to applaud and support at all costs, and I am often ashamed to admit that I have not expressed to eveeyone the extent of how much my beliefs and convictions have evolved in the last few years. Interestingly, however, Rosenberg expresses an at least initial sense of regret after having come out to her mother: she claims that she “decided the whole project of coming out had been bankrupt – that [she] had been misled by identity politics into a contraction of the political field to the microuniverse of the bourgeois family.” She never mentions whether the clashing of these two very different worlds in the name of identity politics is something she ultimately supports, but her lifelong struggle with communicating with and forgiving her mother may give us some indication of how she felt. We are not left with a sense of redemption and self-discovery here; her story seems to answer the question of “Does it get better?” with a resounding “….not really.”

Perhaps, then, honesty is not always the best policy–especially involving cases that might incur irreparable damage upon your relationships and your future, and lead family members into believing you may be a lost cause, or into fearing for your soul. For me, it is an ongoing challenge to negotiate my identity as scholar and daughter, and deciding when it might be appropriate for my various selves to be made available to my various worlds at various times. So to the broader question: how do we ethically maintain our pursuit of feminist politics within the academy while minimizing emotional damage and trauma incurred upon people we love (who actually may believe we’re going to hell if they knew the extent of it! Can you imagine believing that about someone??)? How do we cultivate our identities as ethical scholars and loving daughters? What selves and what bodies should we exhibit to the different communities of which we are a part?

These questions do not have easy answers, just as Gender Trouble commits itself to refusing (or troubling) easy answers as well. As Rosenberg observes, Gender Trouble “has to be hard” because you

have to subject yourself to the difficulty of its language in order to begin to unstitch the only-seemingly coherent logic of gender, order, and discourse that you have grown accustomed to, that has been made natural to you – no, through which you, your gender, has been made to seem natural. 

And so we are back to an issue I’ve blogged about before: the issue of committing ourselves to difficult language and struggling through our complicated networks of desires, relationships, and responsibilities. Reading Gender Trouble for the first time has to be hard–and so does composing our intersecting identities as scholars, daughters, wives, partners, mothers, teachers, and feminists. I’m trying, and good lord I might be failing in all sorts of ways, but that is all part of the impossible quest to discover the evasive and forever deferred “I.”

And I wonder if other readers have similar struggles.

bad academics · balance · being undone · day in the life · free time · mental health · productivity

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can’t get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow …]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I’m running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn’t even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I’m a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I’m asking myself:

  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I’m listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?

There’s a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it’s difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you’re trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it’s enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here’s to the blank spaces and what they do for us.

being undone · change · enter the confessional

I am David Gilmour: a cry for help

I keep telling everyone I know, in every forum that I can find, that David Gilmour is not a literature professor. Or any kind of professor. There’s a variety of reasons why that matters, but the point that has struck me, and right in the solar plexus, is this:

I’m hardly a literary scholar at this point either, and I find I’m turning into David Gilmour.

I was hired here as a rhetoric professor specializing in new media studies and digital humanities, but of course I was trained as a literary scholar and am often called upon to teach or profess literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels. So my research in digital life writing is explicitly feminist, in dealing with writings by mommy bloggers, and my overall project interrogates the loaded distinctions between public and private, emotional and rational, domestic stories versus Men of Note. I read widely across male and female writers and critics online, am at the forefront of pushing for gender equity and inclusivity in new media studies and digital humanities organizations.

But. Literature?

It’s been 15 years since I’ve been a student of literature. I am so busy reading the entire Internet that I hardly ever read novels anymore, and what I do pick up are book I already read, books I bought during my time as a literature student. It’s kinda not my field.

Now, I’m developing an online version of our foundational literary criticism class. And all the example texts that keep suggesting themselves to me … are written by men.

Oh. Shit.

Shakespeare, e. e. cummings, the Six Romantic Poets everyone studies, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin. Sweet merciful Leavis, I am the problem.

I love the texts I’m using already, because they really do the work I want. But I need a lot more texts. By people of color, by women, by anglophone writers outside of Britain and the US. The textbook I’m using, Ways of Reading, actually does a pretty good job of showing the variety of literatures and Englishes. But I keep falling back on the stuff I can readily call to mind, from a literary education that hit its peak in 1996-97, the end of my BA, before I turned more into a digital scholar.

Unlike David Gilmour, who as a pet writer at U of T can teach whatever he likes off the top of his head, I am a literary professional. The standards of inclusion and being in tune with the discipline are higher for me, as they should be. I am not on top of emerging inclusive canons of short story writers, poets, or novellists. It’s not my field, and I can assure I’m working my damnedest to be 100% at the front of the line for a more equitable sub-discipline where I actually do most of my work.

So I’m asking for help.

I’ve got more than enough living and dead British and American white guys on the roster. Can you suggest to me any poems, stories, novels by other kinds of writers that you love, or love to teach? I want to be as wide-ranging as I can be. Whatever you suggest, I can assure you I’ve got the critical tools at my disposal to do them justice in my teaching. It’s just that the imaginative cupboard is awfully bare, and I just can’t conquer all of literature on my own right now. So maybe your suggestions can be my bedtime reading as well.

I throw myself on your mercy, Internet. I’m not as widely read as this course requires me to be. If you suggest it, I will read it.

Halp!

being undone

Homeward bound …

There is something really satisfying about packing up my belongings to return home. I like the challenge and the possibilities entailed in laying out different outfits and such when I’m getting ready to go to a conference–it’s an act of creativity to account for possible social scenarios, weather, style, maybe getting to go to yoga … But coming home is simpler: everything that belongs to me that is not in the bag must now go in the bag.

Collect everything. Put it away. Leave a perfectly clean room behind.

This satisfies my perfectionist and absolutist tendencies, and gives me a great sense of control over my life, such as this life is represented by a suitcase, some blazers, a travel yoga mat, and a bunch of computer cables. Done or not done. I’m all the way here, or I’m all the way there. Knowable, verifiable, rectilinear, mobile!

Of course, this experience is the opposite of what usually happens to my inner life when I travel.

I head out of town with nice pens and blank paper and the batteries of my MacBook and my brain fully charged. I am open to possibility, ready for anything. I experience, in this case, three very full days of Congress (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) followed by five even fuller days of DHSI (I taught a course on knowledge mobilization), and my mind and my subjective state and my body all go directly to hell.

I always start with an empty mental suitcase I wish to pack carefully full of ideas and interactions and experiences. I very often end up with a metaphorical blown zipper, lost wheel, “heavy baggage” sticker, or, like today, feeling the equivalent of dragging all my stuff home in an off-brand black garbage bag that will not survive the flight.

When the zombie apocalypse arrives, I will be dead within days. It turns out I’m perhaps not so resilient as I wish to be: disturb my routine and a couple of days later I’m a gibbering mess under all but the most felicitous circumstances. It turns out I’m really touchy about when and what I eat and how much sleep I need and how much alone time and under what circumstances and what freaks me out. Oh dear. I’m a delicate snowflake, I find to my dismay.

The exact details of my current state of total inner chaos don’t matter. I’m trying to meditate on this condition, breathe through it, ask how it is that I let this kind of work undo me totally.

Well, at least some of it I did right. I met Margrit, whom I’d otherwise never clapped eyes on! We had a drink at a great cocktail bar, with Erin! Then I had a nice lunch with Erin and got all caught up! I walked down to the ocean with Melissa, grabbed a coffee and contemplated the surf with her and Erin! I took a picture!

And! Yesterday I met Pantagruelle, a regular commenter who happens to be attending DHSI, too! Thanks so much, Pantagruelle, for introducing yourself!

Still. My bags look perfect. Everything is folded, everything is tucked away nicely. Inside my head, though, it’s a real mess. What are some of your strategies for maintaining equilibrium on research trips or conferences or workshops? Do you suffer the long dark midnight of the soul from being mentally overstimulated? I sometimes wonder if I’m just a big baby about these things: maybe other people can sit amongst 6000 or 500 academics sharing work and ideas at top speed and somehow keep up. I wonder if I’m doing it wrong?

being undone · community

When the Well Runs Dry…

I wasn’t able to post over the last month: the tank was empty. The well ran dry. I was feeling pretty burnt out with end-of-semester fatigue.
I’ve felt this way before.
So, what does one do? You fill the well back up again, but not with work. You fill it with as much play as your schedule will allow.
These instruments fill my well.
I love playing old-time Appalachian-style stringband music. I started playing the fiddle as an adult, while I was writing my dissertation. I’ve been at it for about five years. I think it’s one of the things that helped me finish my PhD. For one thing, learning the fiddle broadened my social circle beyond other graduate students; while having a supportive group of grad student friends was also really important in helping me finish, interacting with folks outside of academia (or meeting musicians who were also academics) gave me some healthy perspective on what I was doing in graduate school. I met people who showed me that it’s possible to have a life and be an academic, although not always all the time… it gets harder to maintain that balance at end-of-semester crunch time, and I’m not sure “balance” is even a reasonable goal to have at the end of term. At the end of a semester, survival is the only goal.
While I love the tunes themselves, I also love how this music is played. The fiddles all play the melody more-or-less in unison over and over again. It’s meditative. There’s a basic melody line, but there’s some room for colouring outside the lines, as well. It can be a very forgiving genre. This can make the music a little boring to listen to, but very fun to play. I was once on the Montreal-Toronto train listening to a Bob Carlin CD (old-time fiddle and banjo music). Strangely, the sound didn’t seem to be coming through my headphones, so I had to crank up the volume on my laptop. After about 20 minutes, I heard a voice a couple of rows back say, “Excuse me, but could you please turn your music down?” I had that sinking, “Is this about me?” feeling and took the headphones out of my ears. My CD was blaring away for the entire train to hear. I turned down the volume and said, “Sorry. I didn’t realize” and the lady across the aisle said, “Yeah. It was just the same thing over and over and over again.”
The bumper sticker that I once saw at a music festival is true: “Old-time music. It’s better than it sounds.”
I also really love that I learned the fiddle as an adult. It reminds me that I can still learn new things. It also means that I will never be a virtuoso. I love having that off the table as an expectation for myself. It just makes this activity an ongoing project done for pleasure and love of the music.
Playing old-time music is “real time” activity, as a friend of mine calls it; when you’re doing it, you’re fully immersed. I can’t do anything else. I’m not thinking about deadlines or the many list of things I “should” do.
So, readers, what fills your tank back up when it’s feeling empty? What are your “real time” activities?