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

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

FBF9FB12-B00E-4E74-B7D4-06E12C37CBCB
Yeah, that’s me in my grad class, 8pm, teaching with my foot on the desk. IN DENIAL.
academic work · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · productivity · protip

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by “linked,” you mean “hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I’m bound.” I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I’m willing to work (if by willing you mean “what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down”), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak’s piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I’m currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let’s say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you’ve mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let’s say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you’ll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I … freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I’m working on–assessing grad admissions files, say–and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I’ll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: “Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it’s been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don’t have three hours because I have to do that grading and I’ll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can’t write now because I’m worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I’M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I’m a terrible person because now it’s been another five minutes and I’m no farther ahead on this and I think I’ll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research …”

It’s exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don’t work, because I’m panicking about work, about how I’ll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn’t get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I’m reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander (“If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I’m going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?”) I remind myself that I’ve scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It’s a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what’s happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I’ll never finish another book ever) is a fool’s game. And if we play it too often, we don’t do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That’s untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I’m worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I’m going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

best laid plans · new year new plan · teaching · twitter

Draining & Sustaining: My Relationship With Social Media

I like to think of myself as a pretty dependable correspondent. Email, text, social media: I’m on it. And if I’m not responding then I am there, listening. I know the conversations, the key talking points, the hot takes and the thorough think-pieces. I can point you to a dozen “important” conversations in my field (which is, cough cough, Canadian literature…)  At the very least, regardless of the length of my to-do list, I get the emails sent on time. I tweet back. I message. I respond. I engage. I try and listen. But today when I signed in to schedule my post and found two dozen emails, a few direct messages on Twitter, eighteen notifications on Facebook, and read Aimée’s piece on Lindy West’s departure from Twitter for the first time (she published it four days ago) I finally had to admit what other people have known for a while: I’m dropping some balls.

Or rather, I am tired. Existentially. Politically. Poetically, even, if you count the gorgeous one-liners I think up in the liminal space between waking and sleeping. What has tired me out, I think, is not social media per se, but rather what my friend Sue Goyette identified the other day as the slippage between impact and intent. Let me break it down: I love Facebook for the news. It keeps me in contact with people I would otherwise have long lost touch with. Sure, we don’t write to one another daily, but seeing photos and thoughts and comments from far-flung friends and acquaintances has broadened my access to other people’s lives and perspectives. It isn’t a stretch to say I feel enriched by the connections of many people I know and “know” on Facebook. I like Twitter too. I like the speed of conversation, the way that information and ideas and writing and news travels. It feeds the impatient part of me (a big part of me…)

But for about two years now social media has felt at least equal parts draining and sustaining. I have been trying to mark a moment when that shift started happening, and I think there are, for me, two. The first was when Chief Theresa Spence was on her hunger strike in Ottawa, and the second was was when Emma Healey published her brave, necessary, and gutting “Stories Like Passwords” on The Hairpin. There have been many many more moments since these two, but for me those events mark moments in my digital life when it was made clear to me that hate–in the form of racism and misogyny and rape culture–was so clearly fed and fanned by the conditions of social media.

I’m fortunate: I’ve not been cyber-bullied. I’ve only had a handful of rape threats on Twitter. I am not a lightening rod for charged conversation. I have friends, mentors, and acquaintances who are, and while I am so grateful to them and in awe of their energy, I worry for them. I can see the toll it takes, being constantly accessible. Feeling, I suspect, constantly responsible.

And so, as we head into this new year with its uncertainties and ruptures I find myself wanting not resolutions but reorientations. I aim to reorient my relationship with speedy responses. Yes, I’ll respond to students and colleagues on time. But perhaps I won’t keep Facebook on my phone. Maybe I will schedule time for social media and when that time is up it is up. Maybe I won’t do any of this and bring it to my students as a case study for letting ourselves fail and learning from our failures. Who knows. What I do know is this: I’m working to be more generous in my engagements with others–online, in the classroom, in my home, and with myself. And sometimes being generous means taking a moment and a step back.

So here’s to a new term, dear readers. Here’s to another Monday, another opportunity to take a tiny moment for ourselves to reorient how we’re moving through the worlds and with and alongside others. And here’s to writing and reading feminist work. We need it, we’re going to need it.

best laid plans · feminism · politics · winter

Planning for the Holidays, Holidays for Planning

I’m seven working days away from my first vacation in a year and a half. All of my time off from work in 2016 was used to go to the MLA, teach at DHSI, and finish and defend my dissertation. All good things, but none of them a vacation. And I’m tired. Bring on the holidays.

But I’m also mad and scared and sad. I’m not terribly good at being mad and scared and sad. I grew up in a family with only two emotional temperatures–everything is great, or nuclear. I love my family dearly, but being raised by them has left me with, as Hermione Granger would say,  the emotional range of a teaspoon when it comes to the less cheery feelings. And so my natural tendency is to shy away from strong negative feelings because my body and mind don’t quite know how to distinguish between “kinda, and justifiably, angry” and the nuclear option of my childhood and adolescence. But I’m learning. (Guts’ new “In the Cards: Ask a Feelings-Witch” column was super on point this week–subject: anger–and super helpful). I’m furious about a lot, including how little the Canadian government is doing, diplomatically and otherwise, to intervene in Syria, and so I spent last night in a righteous rage, calling and tweeting and pulling out my credit card. It turns out that I’m pretty okay with being angry when the alternative is feeling impotent and helpless

What does all of this have to do with the holidays, you might ask? I love a good plan–see, as evidence, the fact that I never go anywhere without my Hobonichi Techo planner, or my way over-the-top first week post-PhD schedule–and while I’m planning for the holidays, I’m also going to use my holidays for planning. I’ve got a long list of things I want to do, for fun and self-care. I want to finish reading all of the Miss Fisher novels. I want to work on my novel every day. I want to go shopping in Kensington Market and cook an amazing anniversary dinner with my partner. I want to finally figure out what the hell to do with that stupid corner cabinet in the kitchen. I want to finish crocheting the giant blanket I’ve been working on. I want to go to the movies. I want to take my godson on his first trip to the art gallery. I want to spend time feeding and hugging and listening to my people. I want to sit in front of the fire.

But I also want to use my holidays to do some research and learning and planning toward a more sustainable approach to anger and advocacy next year. I’m pretty sure–Rebecca Solnit’s hope for a miracle aside–that 2017 is going to be a crappy, crappy year. It’s going to be full of all of that fear and rage and sadness that I’m working hard to get good at. And I need to figure out the most useful and sensible ways to channel those feelings into sustainable, mindful, planned action. And so I’m going spend part of my holidays planning for 2017. What local organizations can I get involved or more involved in that support the work of intersectional feminist joy-killing, combatting climate change, helping refugees? What organizations, local and international, most deserve my money and do the most impactful work with donations? What and who should I add to my reading list to help me be a better advocate and ally? What’s the contact information for the most powerful and responsive people in local, provincial, and federal governments? How can I better connect and collaborate with the amazing people in my life who share my concerns and goals? What does sustainable activism–a steady blaze, not a flash fire–look like for me, in good balance with work, research, creative, and family life?

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to do all of things I want to over the holidays, but in planning for both self-care and activism, I’m hoping to head into 2017 feeling recharged and ready to keep working and fighting. This is likely our last post of 2016 on Hook & Eye, and so from all of us, wishing you a restful and rage-filled winter break. Let’s burn down the worst parts of the world and make s’mores while we’re at it.

best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It’s not getting my bum in the seat that’s the problem, it’s not finding the time. It’s not that I’m not writing, even. I’ve done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There’s probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I’m stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I’m trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I’m not sure what professors do in this situation.

I’ve spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they’re overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames …. but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I’m married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. “Look,” he said, “If your student came to you with this ‘draft’, what would you tell them?” And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it’s not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I’m always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it’s going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here’s a first step to take. I mean, I can’t really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It’s not good that I’m finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I’m really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

accomodation · balance · best laid plans · self care · winter

Sick Days

A few days ago, I went to work sick.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. But I wanted to stay in bed.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get dressed. But I didn’t want to get dressed.
I was not so sick that I did not stay up past midnight the night before finishing my lecture. But I should not have finished it.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t go to work. But I should not have done it.
I can only say that now that I have completely failed to be sensible. Of course, I went to campus. Of course, I delivered my brilliant lecture noting that it was made more brilliant by the halo of rainbows that seemed to wobble in and out of the periphery of each powerpoint slide. Of course, I stayed on campus after teaching and kept all of my appointments.
Of course, I dragged my sorry self home at the end of a long day and wondered why I did that to myself.
You have totally done this too. Don’t even try to pretend otherwise.
I wonder now why I did not take Sheila Heti’s excellent advice. Heti reminds us that it is especially important to take a sick day right before you are really, really sick:
I recommend being sick in bed especially when you are not that sick. When you are seriously knocked out, eyes crusted over, sneezing nonstop, it’s hard to have life-changing epiphanies. The sick days we must take advantage of are those when it’s just a simple cold. The days when, if we pushed ourselves, we could get out of bed; the days when all it would take is a shower to make us feel 70 percent better. Those are exactly the days we should choose to be sick in bed. You still have your brain; you’re not aching all over. You just need to take things slower.
Heti’s recommendations are so gentle, and so right, that you should just, if you have not already done so, read the whole thing yourself. But, for now, let me draw out few things in particular. First, note the reference to life-changing epiphanies in the above passage. For Heti, being sick in bed, ideally, is a chance to pause and arrive at illumination of some kind. It is not just about lying there, buried in tissues, hoping that the meds will kick in soon so that they rest of the day can be spent in sweet oblivion. Although that would be nice too.
I thought about the times when I have been sick in bed. I have never been as wise as Heti. I have only been sick in bed when I have been really, really, really sick. In a hospital. Once, that happened the year before I came up for tenure. I was sick for a while. Months. I came out of that with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the friends who saw me through, but also with a wonderfully recalibrated attitude towards getting tenure. After being very sick, and then no longer being sick, I came to the realization that I was pretty awesome generally, and pretty awesome at my job specifically, and that any tenure and promotion committee would have to be blind not to see that. I also finished my book in four months. I had been sitting on that thing for over four years before that. It took getting sick and forcing myself to only read murder mysteries and trashy magazines for many months to kick my ass in gear. I can say now that I did not do it because I was afraid I would not get tenure. It’s hard to believe, but that honestly was not the motivation. I did it because I had been very sick and then I was not and I realized that I should just finish that thing. Not because it was my life’s work or anything like that. Just because it was something I should do.  
There is no logic to any of this. It’s just how it went down. I’m not even sure it was a life-changing epiphany. It felt much more prosaic.
I think back to that now and I wonder why I put myself through that. Maybe I could have just done it after being a little bit sick?
That is the second thing that I wanted to draw out from Heti’s essay. She suggests that the best sick days are the ones where you are not really all that sick. How hard it is to really take that wisdom to heart, to know to push the pause button just before the full-blown fevered climax. That this is the real trick.
And this trick is connected to the third and final piece of tender wisdom that I want to sit with. “Why,” she asks, “is it so hard to stop doing, to just rest?”
Although Heti connects this question to the need to value unproductivity simply for its own sake, in my case, there is also some unthinking machismo involved. I’m not saying it is like that for you. I am just owning up to the ridiculousness of the way that I man up.
Last fall, I had a bike accident. I flew over the handlebars and my chin bore the brunt of the fall. I was really lucky. There was a lull in traffic so there were no cars around me right at that moment. I had my helmet on. I was not going fast. So I was a bit banged up, and cut my chin up enough to need some stitches, but I was otherwise ok. Still, I couldn’t really open my mouth without pain (hello, stitches). Did I go into class the next day and lecture for two hours? Yep. Did I run my tutorial after, wincing the whole time? Yep? Did I refuse to cancel any of my appointments? Yep. Did anybody make me do that? Nope. Would my teaching or any of the other parts of my job have been compromised if I had just called in sick and stayed in bed, mouth shut, drinking smoothies and reading murder mysteries and trashy magazines? Nope. Was I an idiot? Yep.
Am I writing this right now while still sick? Yep.
Am I ever going to learn? I really hope so. And if I don’t, I hope you do. Do you feel a little sick? Don’t man up. Keep your jammies on. Stay in bed.
best laid plans · careers · emotional labour · precocity

Once More, With Feelings

This weekend, as I was scrolling through social media, I came across a post from a colleague at a university down the road. It was announcing a guest speaker — Harsha Walia, if you’re curious — and I found myself feeling that familiar sensation of vertigo. You know what I mean, the feeling that the floor is getting a bit further away and the room is darkening at the edges. This feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with the guest speaker or my friend who has posted about her arrival. Rather, that feeling of falling, or rather, of being dropped came from my archived emotions. Once more, the sharp realities of my own job precarity reared up and shook my foundations. If you’re wondering why the announcement of an activist coming to campus made me look, navel-gazingly, at my own conditions of labour you’re not alone. I, too, thought ‘what the hell is wrong with you, Erin? Why does this bother you so much?’

And it came to me, once again, my heartbreak on an eternal feedback loop: precarity means not having a place at the table. It means not being a part of the structural and institutional mechanisms that bring people to campus, that build curricular change, that afford you the luxury of teaching the same classes for several years (or more) in a row.

I hate writing about precarity. And yet I feel compelled. I haven’t written about it here for months (even though I am the Contract Academic Faculty representative for ACCUTE), and that’s been deliberate. I’m making something of an unofficial and unpaid career talking about underpaid and precarious work. While that is hilarious and kind of fun to say, the reality is that it is isolating, exhausting, and lonely. It puts strain on me and on my family. But as we creep towards the one year anniversary of National Adjunct Walk Out Day, I find myself here again, thinking publicly about some of the effects and affects of precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching my brilliant and likewise precarious friends and colleagues try to innovate in their classrooms to make up for the fact that they can’t innovate in the long term on their campuses.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching at department meetings while the tenured faculty become more and more tired from shouldering the work that new hires would be able to help with, not to mention bring fresh energy to.

Being a part of the precarious labour force mean not being on the email lists that tell you when the guest speakers are coming, or when the grant deadlines are (if, of course, you happen to be eligible despite your precarity).

Being a part of the precarious labour force means pouring your energies into teaching the classes you get, rather than the classes you’re an expert in, and then watching your field advance while you struggle to make comma splices interesting to two hundred non-major undergrads.

Being a part of the precarious labour force also means you really do give a shit about those two hundred undergrads because, dammit, you’re trained as a Marxist and you understand how the material conditions of labour reverberate from you to them and back again.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means that if you’re in a contract position you’re trying to do that service work because a) it might be the only time you get to _________ (teach a grad class, mentor an honours student, do a directed reading, sit on a departmental committee, etc.) and b) because no matter how often you tell yourself differently, hope is a tenacious beast and maybe this service work will matter for reasons other than altruism.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means your colleague lose sight of your areas of expertise–if, indeed, they ever knew in the first place–because you become a ghost. In to teach your class, then elsewhere for office hours or to teach another class on another campus or to work your other job to make rent.

Being a part of the precarious labour force in Canada, where letters of reference are tailored to each job application, means worrying about the time your referees put in to writing these letters. It means wondering why the hell a job ad didn’t just say what it was looking for and save you and three to four letter writers the time and energy. And it means knowing that you’ll do it again next time; you’ll ask for the letters and imagine yourself into this different iteration of what you do, in hopes that someone on the committee sees you for who you are, for your potential, and for your commitment.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you get really bloody tired of people asking you about how the job market is, but even more scared that they will stop asking you. No one asking means no one thinking about you. No one asking rings loud, thought not clear.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means nothing is clear. Not your career, not your plans, not your life choices, not your work.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means making life choices regardless of your precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force does not mean you’re not interested in/ aware of/ participating in/ and constantly thinking about the work in your field and your own place within it. But it does mean that the feeling of scholarly loneliness is compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means the politics of childcare, of being a woman, of being a person of colour, of being queer, of being differently abled, of being ______ are compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you are quiet because talking about precarity is exhausting. It becomes what people think you are about, and then you become more exhausted, because honestly, aren’t we scholars trained to diagnose and close read systems?

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you’re a killjoy, because let’s not forget that killing the so-called joys of normativity is a world-making project. A necessary, if isolating and exhausting project.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means finding genuine pleasure in spite of the crummy conditions of your labour.

academic work · best laid plans · CWILA · new year new plan · reflection

Resolutions and Being Good Enough

Its that time again. You know, the thrice-annual academic moment for the making of resolutions: September, January, and May. September has its crisp leaves and new school supplies kind of optimism. Resolutions made then tend to focus on positive aspirations. January not so much. If my social media feeds are to be trusted January’s resolutions have all the cold self-reprimand of a wicked Victorian school master. And May? Well, as much as I love May it seems to me that the academic resolutions one tends to make in May are filled with a mix of helium and gin: effusive, gravity-defying, and likely to give you a headache in three months time.

Now that our infant is seven months old and I feel smug and secure  more comfortable in my new role as a parent I am starting to think of these academic moments as trimesters. Things grow, you change, something new (and possibly horrifying or astonishing or humiliating) is around the corner and you just keep resolving to notice and to take stock and to take it in stride and to keep watch and keep thinking about how to be a better and better human. Or you try to do those things. You try to be the right balance of grounded and amazed that things just keep happening. You try to keep up and keep your wonder intact without tripping over yourself.

Or, if that analogy doesn’t work for you, how about Antonio Gramsci’s amazing essay on why he hates New Year’s Day? Here’s a particularly poignant excerpt:

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s Day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.


Let’s imagine that these moments of reflection in an academic worker’s life are not dates but opportunities. Not a wrestling and reckoning with past accounts, but rather neat little reminders to see how you’re growing? What if we collectively worked to refuse the disproportionate aspirations of May (I will grade my papers, get a job, go to all the conferences, finish three articles, work on the grant, go on vacation, relax and refuel, plan my fall classes by June, and WRITE A WHOLE BOOK)? What if we embraced the optimism and energy of September in…February? What if we took stock and set intentions in March? What I wonder is this: what if we circled back, re-read, and re-introduced ourselves to ideas that we have encountered, bookmarked for a later time, and forgotten? 
I did just this as I sat down to write this. 
I was, as I often do, scrolling through the Hook & Eye archives and I came across Lily’s first post called The Good Enough Professor. Do you remember it? In this piece Lily thinks through Winnicot’s notion of the Good Enough Mother to imagine what it might look like to apply these principles to her own work. Being Good Enough is, in Lily’s reading, a form of radical self-care and, I daresay, a radical paradigm shift for academics. Being Good Enough isn’t dropping the ball or dialling it in, not in the deeply negative sense. Rather, being Good Enough is a careful negotiation of what is possible, practical, and pleasurable. Being Good Enough means taking into account the gendered paradigms in which we live and operate (Winnicot, as Lily points out, is talking about heteronormative mothering. We could extend and complicate this to think about race and sexuality, I think).
So my resolution for today is to recognize that I am a Good Enough Professor. Let me explain:

Today I will be walking into the classroom — two classrooms, to be precise — for the fortieth time. What I mean is that today I will be teaching my thirty-ninth and fortieth class. I’m not counting the in depended reading courses I have taught, nor am I counting any guest lectures. Nope, just this: I’ve taught forty classes. I’ve written forty syllabi. I have planned forty different classroom arcs for forty different groups of students. This is both a big and small accomplishment. On the one hand, teaching is what I do. While I pack research and writing and blogging and working with CWILA and sitting on Boards for various projects and associations into other moments of my day, teaching is what I get paid for, not the other stuff. So in that way, the fact that I have taught for score classes is just (forgive me) par for the course.

On the other hand, of the forty classes I have taught I would say about a quarter of them are squarely in my very specific area of training. I did my candidacy examinations at the University of Calgary, and at the time PhD students had to write three lists: a major field, a minor field, and an area of specialization. My major field was in writing by women of the 19th and 20th century. No kidding. All genres, all over the world. My minor field was in contemporary critical theory. My area of specialization? Avant-garde and experimental Canadian poetry and poetics.  While I have taught a number of theory courses and general surveys of Canadian literature, I have only taught two courses on contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics. The reason for this is pretty simple: as a precariously employed academic faculty member I rarely have the luxury to reteach the same course. Like so many of my peers I often am hired a few weeks before the class begins, and often of late, because the hires are emergency hires, these are classes that are very large and very generalized.

I have learned–and am continuing to learn–to be a Good Enough teacher. I still get nervous walking into an auditorium in front of students, whether there are ten or (like today) two hundred. I still wonder if a lecture is going well, if the students like me/the material/my teaching style. I still brace myself for the inevitable comments on my wardrobe or my voice or my verve. But I realize something has shifted in the years since I began teaching. I know how to write a syllabus. I trust my ability to both write and deliver content. I (mostly) know when and how to go off script and respect or manage those moments in the classroom when things do not go quite as I planned.

Now, I am not talking about the myriad power dynamics that happen in a classroom, not here, not today in this post. I’m not talking about the vulnerabilities I often feel, either. Not today. Today, on this first teaching day of January 2016 I am talking about being Good Enough as a mode of self-reflection and renewal. Today, on this first teaching day of 2016, I’m urging you to conjure up a little of Gramsci’s resolve to keep reflecting and renewing throughout this year.  

best laid plans · critical theory while breastfeeding · day in the life

Thinking Through the Body

As I got closer and closer to our baby’s due date this spring friends and colleagues offered gentle advice: take a break, they suggested. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Decide to take a break from the blogging, from CWILA. Don’t expect yourself to write or do much of anything else. Just be. Just learn how to be a family. And so, we did. My partner and I spent the summer months hanging out with baby E. Some days were hard, some days were not. Those first weeks were surreal—the longest days and the shortest weeks. And I spent a lot of time sitting learning how to feed our girl. I read a lot of novels. I watched Netflix. I stared into space.
I did not spend any time thinking critically.
Perhaps that’s not a surprise to you, but it was to me. I didn’t expect the kind of hormonal hum that genuinely affected how my brain worked. And you know what? For the most part, that wasn’t a big deal. I missed the critical thinking, but not that much. Not at first. But eventually, as we started to find our familial rhythm, as my body healed and our girl became more aware, more infant than newborn, as the fall crept closer I began to wonder what would move me back into active and deliberate critical thought. Anything? Nothing? 
As it turned out a last-minute emergency sessional hire moved me back into that space more quickly than we’d expected. And now, after the first week of classes, after our household finished our collective first week of teaching + juggling bébé care, I am in an airplane on the way back from two and a half days of thinking critically at a conference.
We’d planned for this, my partner and I. When I submitted my paper proposal I was pregnant. We knew that if I was accepted we’d have to reassess what travelling would mean for us both as a new family with an infant and as precariously employed workers. But ultimately we decided it was worth the added challenges. After all, this would be the new normal.

And so, on Thursday I hopped on a plane and flew west. I said goodbye to my partner and our baby, and I got on the plane. I packed my breast pump, theory books, and laptop in my carry on.

I arrived in Winnipeg at one in the morning, fell into a cab, got to where I was staying, and slept fitfully. A few hours later I got myself to the conference at nine am ready to hear Lauren Berlant give her keynote address.
Oh yeah, did I mention that this was a conference on affect?
As I sat in the audience listening to Berlant theorize a poetics of dissociativeness I felt it in my body. Dissociativeness, she posited, is something we do every day. According to Berlant teaching is an experience of dissociative behaviour: we lecture while thinking about our next move and watching the student who is texting and the student who looks like she may be about to speak in the same moment that we feel our hearts race and wonder if our deodorant is holding up. 

In that moment I really got it. I mean I understood what she was saying in a visceral way. I realized, as I sat in the washroom expressing milk so that I could continue to feed my girl when I got home, that my ‘break’ from critical thinking was actually a shift that has brought me to new relationship with critical thinking. What it means, now, for me to move through critical thinking in my gendered post-partum body is a genuinely different set of negotiations and affects than it was before. Never mind that my time has become even more confetti-like than ever. No, what I mean is that as a person whose work is on affect and poetics—structures and feelings and structures of feelings—my gendered body is even more unavoidable. It is, I daresay, necessary.

Sara Ahmed has written of feminist attachments that vulnerability and fragility are places from which feminist work happens:
In so many research projects: you end up enacting what you are accounting for. A fragile thread woven our of fragility. Easily broken.
Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable.
As I sat in the washroom trying to quietly pump and dump milk between panels and think about the papers I had just heard I began to realize that the division I try to keep between my “personal” and “professional”–a false dichotomy if ever the was one–that these new experiences of fragility offer crucial moments where critical thinking is happening. 

Fragility is a place where crucial feminist work happens. 

My body knew that before I left myself realize it. So here’s to thinking from whatever place of vulnerability and fragility we find ourselves in. And here’s to legitimizing our own site from which that thinking happens.