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 · change · CWILA · feminism · writing

Setting Intentions to a Soundtrack

Just before we took a hiatus for the holiday season Margrit noted that it is something of an unofficial Hook & Eye imperative tradition to create lists. And she’s right, of course, to rethink the ways in which those lists become tools not for tracking goals and accomplishments, but rather for self-flagellation later in the year. When the high of being well-rested, fed by time with loved one (or just time away from the quotidian routine) has been worn down by a demanding term that drains that energy despite our best laid plans, well, we tend to focus on what we didn’t accomplish. Indeed, part of what we do here at the blog in our own individual ways, is to be public with our struggles as well as our successes.

It makes sense, really, that we are so list-oriented here. Several of us have noted year in and year out that in the education system we are afforded not one moment for setting intentions, but two. Whether you’re a tenure-track professor or permanent college faculty, a graduate student, a post-doc, a contract worker, a sessional, an alt-ac worker, or working in the library or university press (& the list goes on) September is the “New Year,” January is for resetting intentions, and May is for lofty goals in both research and refuelling.

Except, of course, those different engagements with the education system I just listed are not the same, are they?

As you may remember, the end of the regular term last spring marked a substantial transition for me. For the first time in six years I went from full employment (either as a sessional teaching a 4/4/2 load, or as a contract employee on a salary) to virtual unemployment. It was, as I have alluded here, a blow both emotionally and financially. There’s much to say about how the Canadian political and social systems are messed up, certainly, but lucky for me I qualified for Employment Insurance. Though, for the purposes of this blog we need to consistently remember that very few precariously employed sessionals, recent graduates, and postdocs rarely qualify for EI. Anyhow, what I am getting at is this: I have lived, trained, and worked in the post-secondary education system for thirteen years now. Put differently, the impulse to reset intentions in January runs high. But it is different this year. I find myself thinking about how to positively set intentions (ok, write lists. I love a list.) without hanging on to the injustices, disappointments, devastations, and distractions that keep me from really moving forward?

Let me give you an example by looking at what I did with my time in the fall. In August my partner and I moved back to Halifax where he took up a two-year contract. I team taught a really cool course that I designed with my co-teacher a few years ago. Neat, but it also only took up a small bit of my time. What else did I do? Well, a lot as it turns out. CWILA launched its third annual Count which was 80% larger than ever before. As Chair of the Board it was my responsibility to work with the Board, the Count Director, and all the incredible volunteers to make this data public. I worked with essayists, a translator, and teams of editors. And when the narratives of abuses of mentorship in the Canadian literary community began to surface I wrote an essay on mentorship. And then the dam broke. #GamerGate didn’t so much as happen as it continued to occur and became more and more public. Anita Sarkeesian was threatened again and campus police in Utah pleaded inability to do anything about it because gun licenses trump women’s safety. Ghomeshi tried to spin Canadian’s reception of his abuses through his preemptive and manipulative Facebook post. Then Lucy DeCoutere showed us what bravery looks like. Then more women followed. And then, just before the winter break, very close to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, news of the Dalhousie Dentistry “Gentlemen’s Club” broke. What does any of this have to do with me? Well, like many of you this onslaught was triggering. It consumed my thoughts. It was–and is–distracting and distressing. As Chair of CWILA it also meant that I had people asking what we as an organization were going to do. And so, we consulted, asked, and are now putting the final touches on a crowd-sourced project we’re calling Love, Anonymous. The project required a privacy officer–someone to receive, edit, and make anonymous all the submissions that narrativized experiences of gender-based violence and discrimination. That person was me. So for November and December I spent many many hours reading people’s stories of abuse, writing to them, and developing trust.

I also did some freelance work for another university, co-organized a conference, presented at another conference, and applied for a few jobs. Actually, I obsessed over the need to find a job more than any other thing I did (except work with the anonymous submissions). I fretted. I paced. I gnashed teeth and tore garments. I spent more time on worrying about needing a job, not having a job, where-will-I-ever-find-a-job-style-wailing than I did writing. And friends, writing is what I had wanted to do this fall.

So here is my intention for 2015: I am going to, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, work to shake off the all-consuming ennui of finding a full-time job in the academy. No, I’m not ceasing to look. I’m just going to try to let that fretfulness go. I want to write. I want to find things besides teaching that nourish me and fulfill me, because I don’t have much teaching at all. I want to focus on things other than what I don’t have.

And so, to start this new year, I give you a catchy soundtrack for your Monday. Here’s to you all, readers, and especially to those of you who, like me, have bits of 2014 to shake off.

CWILA · generational mentorship · sexist fail · social media

Healthy Communities and Mentorship

No new post from me, because what I really want you to read today is Erin’s most recent essay over at CWILA on healthy communities and mentorship for women. Erin is also looking for contributions to a crowdsourced guide for effective and responsible mentorship. Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”

For the full post, head over to CWILA.

canada · CWILA · emotional labour · fast feminism · guest post · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

It’s About More than Livesay

Last week, Kaarina Mikalson wrote a guest post for us titled “Why Dorothy Livesay Matters.” In it, she recounted an exchange with a male acquaintance that ended with the wholesale dismissal of Livesay as a poet and a figure central to the history of Canadian literature. She prefaced it with an epigraph from Joan Coldwell’s “Walking the Tightrope with Anne Wilkinson,” her essay about editing Wilkinson’s collected poems and autobiographical writings, one in which she articulates her reasons for the necessity of recuperating Wilkinson’s work: “To read other women’s lives, especially in their own voices, is to be given a fuller understanding of ourselves. It is to participate in a community of women writers and readers that generates a different kind of confidence than is permitted to women’s voices in patriarchal culture.”

Livesay died in 1996. Wilkinson died long before, in 1961. Jay Macpherson, a contemporary of both and the subject of my doctoral research, died in 2012. All three were among the foremost writers of their generations, but for all three (and for most of the female poets of Canadian modernism, with the possible exception of P.K. Page) reading the body of criticism about their work reveals something strange and important. Like Coldwell, very many critics view their critical work on these women and their writing as an act of recuperation. The fundamental impulse behind much of it is not to reveal something noteworthy about style, or relationship to historical context, or use of language, or community formation in the modernist period, although that happens along the way and often as justification for recuperation. The core message–implicit or explicit–is that the work of these women is on the verge of disappearing from the world, from our critical consciousness, and has been on that verge for a very long time. This criticism, written by those like Kaarina and I who care deeply about this work and advocate strongly for its importance, fights to keep the work of these writers from disappearing from world, from our understanding of what it was like to to be a woman writer in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, from the matrilineage of writing by and about women that forms a chain that leads right to the present.

Like Kaarina, I’m mad about the state of things. I’m mad that Livesay and her colleagues get dismissed, or ignored, or misrepresented. That anger is a productive one for me, and fuels my work on Macpherson, as it did my earlier work on Wilkinson. There’s plenty to be mad about: I don’t imagine that if the youngest-ever winner of a Governor General’s Award for Poetry were a man, there would be fewer than ten articles about his work and endless digs about his much more famous girlfriend. I don’t imagine that the collected poems of a male modernist, one edited by his lover, would emphasize all of the sexy bits. But I’m angrier still that this isn’t just an issue of temporal remove, that this isn’t just about us forgetting the modernists and those who came before them. CWILA, and its annual count of books reviewed in Canada, proves that this is simply not true. As Erin argues, despite efforts to change this status quo women writers still get short shrift in the present. This doesn’t bode well for the future. We don’t get reviewed and read now, and the chances become ever less likely that we will build up a reputation that will sustain us through the years, that will ensure that some critic will take us up as their personal cause, will advocate for our remembrance and our importance twenty, thirty, forty years from now.

As Woolf argues, we think back through our mothers, and we need women muses, as well as male, to mother our minds and to act as keepers of memory and as inspiration. What happens to women writers now, when those who came before them are already on the verge of being lost? What happens to the women writers of the future, who may have neither the writers of the present moment nor  the ones of the years before to mother their minds? We–and I’m talking readers and writers of all genders here–lose that memory, that inspiration. We lose that fuller understanding of ourselves that comes when we try to see the world from another’s perspective, one often markedly different from our own. We lose historical perspectives that have crucial things to tell us about how we could best deal with the challenges of the present and the future. And we lose that community of women writers, one that generates in all of its members a different and greater confidence to speak as a woman than our current culture provides, to articulate perspectives and truths that our broken world needs to hear. These are things we cannot afford to lose.

And this is why the CWILA count matters. This is why Livesay matters. This is why Hook and Eye matters. It’s hard to say if the work we do here, or the work of CWILA, or the individual moments in which we advocate for ourselves and for other women, are making a difference. To be a woman in the world today is to continually walk the tightrope between hope that it will get better and utter hopelessness at the brokenness of the world’s relationship to women. It’s hard to sometimes to feel that hope justified, to see change in action. But we keep trying.