academic work · adjuncts · affect · change · classrooms · emotional labour

Returns, Rituals, & the Road Ahead

September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.

My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.

I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.

Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.

I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.

I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.

I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.

This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.

As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.

Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.

emotional labour · goals · silence

How to Handle Bad Behaviour at Work


Someone I know once had an argument with a colleague. The colleague was technically also my friend’s manager/supervisor. The argument was about an intellectual problem and was not personal. But it did get heated. They were sitting on opposite sides of a desk. At one point, the colleague threw a book at my friend. To be more accurate, the colleague picked up a big heavy book, and threw it across the desk in the general direction of my friend. The book bounced on the desk, skidded across the remaining surface of the desk, and landed on the floor.
This is where I am pretty sure I would have cried. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room and felt crappy.
But that is not what my friend did. He looked at the book, looked at his colleague, and did not move. He waited for his colleague to get up, go around the desk, pick up the book, return it to the desk, and sit back down to continue the discussion.
I think a lot about that story because I want to remember that, should anyone at work decide to throw a book at me, I should resist the urge to cry and run out of the room. I should stand my ground.
This post is about bad behaviour. By bad behaviour, I am not euphemistically referring to behaviour that is criminal and/or in violation of various campus codes of conduct. I am talking about things that are unacceptable, but not illegal. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of thing that I find especially shocking in the workplace because it is not the kind of behaviour that I expect from generally polite, educated, and typically nice people. But it happens. I have now seen plenty of it. And, I admit, I am shocked every time.
And then I remember that I have to resist the urge to cry and run out the room. I have to wait for the other person to pick that book up off the floor. I have to maintain my dignity and hold my ground. It is really hard to do.
But, over the years, I’ve learned a few things. They are not the complete solution. But they have helped me. Here are five steps for handling bad behaviour in the workplace.
1. Recognize that it is bad behaviour, and that such behaviour is unacceptable.
This is harder than you might think. I am usually so busy being shocked that it takes me a long while to realize what’s happening. But it’s important to just see it for what it is. Sometimes, when someone is being awful, I have found it helpful just to say to myself, over and over again in my head, that is bad behaviour. It becomes a kind of mantra. I find it sort of grounding.
2. Do not engage by reciprocating.
No point in going down to their level. Make them come up to yours. Engaging with bad behaviour – let’s say yelling at the person who is yelling at you – only reinforces it.
3. Remember that the best response is often a silent one.
Sometimes, totally hypothetically, it might be that, as one of two Asian faculty members in your workplace, you might be mistaken for each other. You might have someone ask you about her recent book. You might have someone ask you about that great course she taught. You might be in a meeting and have someone ask for response when she is not on the committee and not in the room. Here, silence, sometimes even a bemused and quizzical silence, is golden.
4. Document, document, document.
Sometimes this stuff happens so fast it’s hard to remember that it even happened. Or it is so fast and so egregious that you wonder if it happened at all. Write it down. Write an email to a colleague. Maybe write to that person. Identify specifically what happened. It might make you feel better. It might not. But it might help you identify patterns of behaviour. And, if things ever get worse, it’s good to have, however one-sided, a record of events.
5. Take up physical space.
Breathe. Stand or sit up straight. Keep your chin up.
balance · day in the life · emotional labour · enter the confessional · food · time crunch

Sunday Suppers

My relationship to food is a long and deep one. I come from a family that prizes Sunday dinners, at home or at my grandmother’s house, where the twenty-or-so of us would gather at least once a month for birthdays and holidays or just because. We’re a family that spends meals talking about other meals, that shares intel on really good cheeses like state secrets. Growing up, we ate dinner as a family nearly every night. My Valentine’s Day was spent cooking for those people, who all piled into our dining room for dinner despite how unromantic or uncool it might be to spend the day of love with your parents. It was awesome. (If you’re interested, we ate Martha’s mac and cheese, which was SO GOOD, plus a green salad with fennel and lemon, and a beet salad with citrus, pickled onion, olives, and pistachios. Mom brought brownies baked in a heart-shaped pan, Dad brought wine, and Colleen brought the secret cheese.)

From the time I was in high school, I was often the one responsible for getting dinner started, and I’ve fed myself–and often other people, roommates and friends and sisters and spouses–almost every night for more than a decade. I’ve kept a food blog, off and on, since 2006. I own somewhere north of a hundred cookbooks, many of which are dog eared and food splattered, plus boxes of cards that record recipes collected from my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my own mom, and the internet. I have a knife callus at the base of my right index finger, and mandoline scars marring the fingerprints on three others. I’m an extremely good cook, mostly because I love to eat good food and I had to learn a long time ago–especially during the dire grad school years, when money was not a thing that we had–to make it for myself. I also really love cooking, the act of turning raw ingredients into something much more than the sum of their parts, of adding a bit of this, and a little more of that, until whatever I’m making tastes exactly like itself. Tastes good. As Tamar Adler would put it, I like exerting my will over a little slice of the chaotic world through cooking.

Cooking is also–and it seems like a cliché to say it, these days–one of my primary forms of emotional labour, of care not only for myself but for the people I feed. And my love of cooking gets in my way when it comes to gender equity at home.

My partner is good at many things, but meal planning and walking into a kitchen and turning what’s in the fridge into a meal is not one of them. He’s a good cook, but because he’s had rather less practice than I have, his repertoire is much more limited, and his ease in the kitchen is less. It seems to me a natural consequence of living in households where women are (expected to be) the primary preparers of food, and because I like doing the thing that keeps us fed, I leave less room than I should to step in and take over. The tension between wanting to cook–to feed us both well–and wanting to create equitable divisions of labour in our family has long nagged at me, especially since cooking is one of the major tasks that make up the second shift, that after-work work that women do rather more of than men. My desire to find different ways of approaching food-labour also has to do with the fact that as much as I love to cook, I hate making weeknight dinners. After all those years starting dinner as the first one home, and because I don’t want to become the human fridge inventory and Magic 8-ball that answers the question of what’s for dinner, the last thing I want to do after walking in the door from work is pull out my knives and light the burners. Too, I work full time, finish my PhD part-time, freelance sometimes, and try do things like sleep and have fun with friends and move my body and watch the new X-Files and have a life that is full but not “busy.”

There is not time to make dinner every night and do all those things.

It’s only in the last six months or so that I’ve seemingly found a solution that works for us that does not involve eating avocado toast for dinner every night or resorting to (and resenting) takeout, one that lets me indulge my love of making food, create room for my partner in the kitchen, transfer some of the food-labour to him, and get rid of weeknight dinner making. I call it Sunday suppers, and it is, in essence, a sort of leisurely batch cooking that makes me feel both relaxed and proficient, which is exactly how I want to feel before starting a new week. At some point on Sunday, I put a few things on the stove or in the oven or the slow cooker that will do their thing for awhile, with only a gentle nudge and prod from me as I do other things–read, write, watch Firefly for the thousandth time while I put away my laundry. I pull out my stacks of quart and half-quart takeout containers from the restaurant supply store, a roll of painter’s tape, and a Sharpie. I spend some time turning those simmering, bubbling pots into things that can be at the centre of a meal; this week’s pots of beans and cans of tomatoes became pasta e fagioli, channa masala, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter. There are usually a few pans of roasted vegetables in there, which most often become breakfast with a fried egg on top, or dinner piled onto toast and snowed under with Parmesan cheese, or blended into soup. Sometimes there’s quiche, or a sort of chili-pilaf cross, or Ethiopian lentil stew and greens, or falafel. Later, everything get packed and labelled and stowed in the fridge and freezer. On weeknights, my partner gets to be on assembling and pasta-boiling and salad-making duty, or we do it together because we like being in the kitchen together.

Everyone gets fed. I don’t feel resentful. We eat together, and well. It works, and we both get what we fundamentally want, which is full bellies and time to do the things we love and a marriage that keeps working to break down old barriers and ways of being that don’t work for us anymore.

Now to figure out a better system for the laundry…

community · emotional labour · feminist communities · in the news · risky writing · women

From the Archives: To Build Sustained Discourse on Rape Culture is a Feminist Act

If you’re in Canada you will know that today marks the start of the trial of former CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, who is being accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.

We have been thinking about how to have mindful, generative, public discussions about rape culture for a long while here at Hook and Eye, and our thinking is built on our identification as feminist academics.

If you’re looking to think with us I have pulled some of our writing on the subject from the archives, as well as one brilliant piece by Lucia Lorenzi which was originally published at rabble.ca

Lily, on silence, forgetting, and being at the Ghomeshi bail hearing.

Erin, on social media, slow academe, and building sustained public conversations about rape culture.

Lucia Lorenzi at rabble.ca on how the burden of healing is still placed on women.

Erin, a year later, on the how the Ghomeshi scandal changed her.

Erin, asking what it is going to take to have sustained and generative public discourse about rape culture.

Jana, on reading the comments.

Erin, on healthy communities and mentorship in the wake of public revelations of misogyny in Canadian literary circles.

And Erin again on restorative justice, social media, and why it is important that #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral.

And Erin once more, with an open letter to Rex Murphy about why language matters when we are talking about rape culture, racism, and systemic violence.

emotional labour · grad school · professors · teaching

A Pedagogy of Detachment

“So, we’re supposed to read two things for every class?”

A number of thoughts cross through my mind when a student asks me such a question:

1. Why are they asking me this?
2. Have I put too many readings on the course syllabus?
3. Are they feeling overwhelmed and it’s my fault?
4. Am I contributing to a culture wherein students are overworked and placed under undue pressure to succeed and enter the workforce as soon as possible and never have time for themselves or for play? 

In spite of these thoughts, what I should say, when confronted with this question, is simply “Yes, there are a couple readings for every class,” and leave it to them to follow up if they have a problem with this fact. But what I did say, following from that thought progression, was something along the lines of, “uhh, yes, there are a couple, but you know, the reading schedule is open and evolving and adaptive to the needs of our course, so if I find that we’re getting overwhelmed with work or anything, I’ll dial it back–or, conversely, add texts if it seems like too little. Also, other professors assign an essay a week, so my courses are a little more reading-heavy than others, so you should be thankful you’re in my class and stop complaining.” (ok I didn’t say that last bit)

This was not a good teaching moment. It was, in fact, an instance where I faltered in my current pedagogy strategy as I enter a new semester of teaching: a pedagogy of detachment, of caring less, of embodying more authority and not feeling so beholden to the needs and preferences of each student. Rather than adhering to my carefully thought out teaching principles, I nervously rattled off all the reasons I had for assigning ‘so much reading,’ even though in reality some of those pieces are only a few pages long, and these students are adults, and the readings are important and interesting and diverse and carefully selected.

In essence, my new strategy can be embodied in one important emoji:

I deploy this metaphor of the hammer in my head whenever I need to give fewer f***s. Aided by this emoji (with the exception of the two-readings question), so far I’ve been maintaining more authority than I have in the past, stuck to my principles more, fought against the urge to externalize the running nervous commentary of feelings and questionings in my head. Past students have written on course evaluations that I am sometimes inconsistent in my assessment standards: I will say one thing in class, perhaps revise proceedings to accommodate the class’s supposed needs, but then not be quite so accommodating in my grading. This semester I am going to try to leave things in the same place where I set them down, as much as possible–hammer them into place, if you will. Paradoxically enough, I think caring (and apologizing) less will earn me more respect as a teacher, so hammering things into place is mutually beneficial.

Most people write about the importance of a pedagogy of compassion, of treating students like humans and being sympathetic and flexible when they experience life crises or fall behind on their work. I agree with all of that, of course: undergraduate students, like grad students, are under more stress than ever in this precarious socio-political climate, and we as instructors should be sensitive to the pressures they face. I am not the type of person who could ever be fully detached–even after only a couple classes, I can feel myself growing fond of the students in my classes as unique individuals, and I enjoy joking and chatting with them on a personal level. So in dialing back my propensity for caring too much, I’m just reestablishing balance, fighting against the feminine nurturing stereotype instilled within me, cutting down on draining emotional labour, and attempting to instate a reasonable level of care and compassion while retaining my own authority as an instructor.

Yet I know, and fear, that this approach may have its own host of negative repercussions, as this timely NYT article on the “madonna-whore complex” that still tends to persist in modern academia suggests. I guess with this new tactic I’m trying to achieve whatever the word for the aunt-equivalent of “avuncular” would be, an alternative to the girlfriend or mother affiliation: related, yet detached; skin in the game, but not my whole body. I wish more cultural codes existed for this type of persona for women. I wish I didn’t continue to worry that a non-nurturing front will read as overly assertive or abrasive to students, to whom I remain indebted for strong evaluations. I wish I could just enter the classroom and immediately command authority without feeling under scrutiny for my outfit or my hair. I wish things were a little bit easier for us female instructors.

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.

#MLA16 · day in the life · emotional labour · feminist communities

Radical Feminist Self-Care, MLA Style (Towards a Manifesto)

“So did you know that apparently all of us feminists at the MLA are passing one another packages of fancy face masks and holding beauty parties?” This came from Amy as we were getting ready for our first days at the MLA conference in Austin last week. If you haven’t heard about how ten-step Korean-beauty-inspired face masking is, apparently, the new radical academic feminist mode of self care, then let us catch you up. In an article for Slate, former Chronicle blogger Rebecca Schuman posited that a ten-step face masking regime, practiced by women in South Korea for decades, was emerging amongst academic feminists as a new form of self-care.
 
Her article, which now has a substantial retraction, is, we think, ultimately trying to advocate for academic women to take some time for themselves. But it made everyone in the room uncomfortable, and if our social media feeds are any indication, we were hardly the only MLA-feminists having trouble swallowing this prescriptive branding and beautifying of feminism in academia. The general response in our room was incredulity. As we talked about what bothered us, worried us, and made us LOL, we realized we needed to take our discussion public. So here, for you, are some of our collective thoughts around the claims that academic feminists need elaborate beauty regimes to practice self-care, and what our self-care looks like instead.
 
It’s true that there are times when “self care” looks like “self indulgence”–an extra glass (or an extra bottle) of wine, an overflowing bubble bath, a pan of brownies–but the two are by no means identical. What made us go “ick” about Schuman’s article was the conflation of radical feminist self-care with expensive, indulgent attempts to conform with normative standards of beauty–self-care as the pursuit of a dewy, youthful, white complexion–that are often harmfully sexist, racist, ageist, classist, and superficial. The straight up shill for Adeline Koh’s products, as great as they may be, was nearly as galling as the idea that women academics are focused on cosmetics at MLA rather than their presentations, interviewing, networking, and/or reuniting with colleagues.

While we are all for self-care, especially in the way that Audre Lorde talks about it–as political warfare–we think there is something a bit insidious happening in Schuman’s piece. First, it seems to assume a beleaguered female body as the only academic feminist body possible. Second, it seemed to suggest that is you weren’t following this regime, should you be fortunate enough to be in the know, then your fate was to remain beleaguered and haggard. In short, one of the issues we take with Schuman’s deployment of her argument is that she presumes a self-conscious femme body preoccupied with the coercive patriarchal norms that see women’s bodies as always already insufficient, less than, and invisible.

We agree that radical feminist self care at MLA is often necessary. We have very different ideas about what it might look like.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means surrounding yourself with people who support your work and career. It means generous professionalism. It means eschewing toxic behaviors of academic posturing and jockeying–rejecting the idea that academia is a zero-sum game–in favor of generating community, camaraderie, and friendship.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means self care as group care, as recognizing that caring for yourself can also involve the emotional labour of caring for members of the community that buoys and empowers you. It means building meaningful community with other women in early, pre-tenure, just-tenured, newly-sabbatical-ed, precarious, alt-ac, and other complicated career positions.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means calling out male academics on their bad behavior when you have the power to do so.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means sitting around a hotel room at midnight, with a bottle of wine, validating the shit out of each other.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means attending to your physical and mental health more than your complexion. Sometimes it means leaning out as far as you can. It means saying no to FOMO and yes to naps. It means drinking lots of water between coffee and cocktails.
 
Radical feminist self care at MLA means spending your money on All The Books–The Beauty Myth, perhaps?–instead of pricy beauty regimes containing snail mucus.
 
For us, radical feminist self care at MLA means rooming with a bunch of other meat-eschewers so that you don’t have to fight to feed yourself with the delicious vegan tacos that both your tastebuds and your ethics demand.
 
And you know what? Radical feminist self care in academia isn’t limited to the MLA.
 
We would love to hear some of the ways you care for yourself and your community.
__________________________________
My thanks to Amy Clukey (University of Louisville), Hannah McGregor (U Alberta), and Melissa Dalgleish (Hook & Eye, Hospital for Sick Children) for writing this with me.
 
{Editor’s note: we totally wrote this in our pyjamas while drinking wine and eating vegan donuts. Actually, no, we didn’t. We wrote it in Google Docs after the MLA, after long days at work, in our scant spare time, because sometimes radical community care means working together on a heart-piece that we really care about. But we did eat vegan donuts at the MLA. More than once.}  
academic work · community · day in the life · emotional labour · fast feminism

Surthrival

Late last week I was chatting with a friend of mine and we asked one another, “how are you?” And then we both giggled. Okay, actually we sent one another ellipses and exclamation points, because we were chatting on Facebook. The hilarity and lack of verbal articulation came from the fact that my friend, who is a single parent, is teaching four classes this term, and I, a co-parent to a six month old, am teaching two classes while my partner teaches three. We have no child care. My friend was up grading papers after teaching three classes, running tutorials, and making sure her own kids were well and fed and getting what they needed. I was awake working on a job application after having driven with my partner two-thirds of the way to New England for a conference at which he was to give a paper the next day. My partner was working on a paper after having taught a class and driving for six hours. Our kiddo, generous being that she is, was asleep in her portable crib in the middle of the hotel room.

How are you?

…!!!???!!!…

Our wordless pause came from this, then: we are both in it up to our eyeballs, my friend and I. We are running from the moment we wake to the moment we drop into bed. We are, neither of us, in stable work, so there’s the usual scramble to keep it all afloat. And yet. And yet as my friend and I agreed, the things that keep us grounded–the mornings, when my girl wakes us up singing in her tiny infant voice, the afternoons when my friend steals a moment to write–these things are good. There are roots in our lives, we agreed.

But let’s not deny it is hard. Let us not deny the feeling of being eaten alive by bureaucracy, Brazil-like. Let’s not ignore the data that suggests that nearly half the people working in higher education exhibit symptoms of psychological distress.

I want a word that means more than “surviving” without losing that hard-scrabble fact of what is really going on. I want a word that defies the isolation that comes with working in the academy, because my work–the job I go and do–can and does bring me joy, even if the conditions of that work cannot. I want a word that acknowledges the emotional labour, the sheer physical labour (you should see how quick I am on my bicycle, zipping to campus and class as soon as my partner gets home from his class to take bébé).

“I hope survival turns to thrival,” I wrote to my friend, in an attempt to name our own daily work of making our lives good despite, or in spite, or just in the midst of the long, hard work.

“Here’s to surTHRIVEal!” she wrote back, proving once again (let us acknowledge it here) that poets are indeed the legislators of the world.

So here’s to surthriving. To the precariate, doing your jobs and keeping your head and your spirits above water: surthrive. Find what lifts you. To the graduate students, filled with fear and anxiety about what is next and what is now: surthrive. You are smart. To the assistant professors, finishing their first terms and finding that the dream is still a f*ckload of work: surthrive. You deserve your job, we need you there. To the associate professors, keeping it all going despite the oft-unacknowledged workload: surthrive. You are in positions of power, don’t forget that. To the full professors, wondering, perhaps, what happened to the university you came to at the beginning of your career: surthrive. We need you. To the undergraduate students, facing student debt, facing final exams, trying to keep a social life and likely a job, too: surthrive. Find what lifts you up and hold onto that shining thing and let it light your way. To the administrative staff, keeping us all organized, and keepers of our quiet and not-so-quiet sorrows: surthrive. You keep this whole boat level and moving forward with the band playing.

Here is to surthrival. Here is to refusing to lose the light while acknowledging that the darkness is coming earlier these days. Here is to remembering that there are good moments in each day if we look for them. And here is to refuelling our resolve to make more of the day good, generative, and generous.

emotional labour

Self care and emotional labour

I made it about a block from my house yesterday, walking to the office, before I turned back and got in the car. I didn’t want to. It was starting to rain really hard, and was just going to rain harder on my way home, so it was more sensible to drive.

I need to walk on Tuesday, because Tuesday is the day I have my open office hours.

As you now, I detest email and phone calls and have been trying to set some boundaries around the care work involved in being grad chair. The strategy I landed on is a two and a half hour block of time on Tuesday I call my “open office hours” where I agree to solve any and all problems, from the trivial to the immense, for anyone who shows up. It’s intense, with lineups sometimes from the minute I pull my key out of my purse to the moment I race out to meet my daughter’s bus back home, but at least it has a clear beginning and an end.

Only, I discover, it doesn’t. Open office hours call upon all my talents: rule-enforcing, help-finding, recruitment, retention, firm talking-to, conflict management, bureaucracy-explaining, book-sharing, draft-reading, truth-telling, accommodation-finding. Sometimes professors and staff come to my open office hours, and I shift gears to help them as well. Many people enter upset and leave calm. Other people enter calm and leave upset. I have to make sure to have a cup of coffee in my hand when I arrive because I almost never have time to put up my “Back in Five!” sticky note on the door and go buy myself a cup.

For each student, I try to figure out the emotional temperature so I can adjust my affect. This might involve burying my own frustration to appear friendly. Or it might involve hiding my sadness. Or it might involve restraining myself from talking too much because the student needs the space to articulate her ideas and I am just supposed to listen. It might seem to students that I use my office hours to issue edicts and enforce my will on everyone, but most of the time, I’m really busy orienting the interaction to what I think the student needs.

God, this is as exhausting as it is necessary. I am so honoured to do it, but it is so, so draining. It’s hard work for me to sublimate myself and pay attention to everyone’s feelings at the same time that I am enacting authority, and care, and support. It is also both an honour and a burden to carry the emotional weight of these interactions. People laugh, people cry, people are angry, people are vulnerable–it runs the whole gamut. And these feelings attach to me, and I carry them in my body on Tuesdays.

It is an honour. The work is necessary. I truly am glad to do it.

But. I find that Tuesday nights I put my pyjamas on when I get home at 4 in the afternoon. I have a glass of wine. I go to bed at 9. I’ve tried this fall to develop more active and energetically replenishing  ways to find my equanimity on Tuesdays. If I walk to school, I feel fresh when I start, and if I walk home, the fresh air and the exercise helps reset my mood and blows the cobwebs out. Failing a walking commute, I go for a late afternoon run–I push myself hard, and I run outside, and the combination of tired quads and expanding lungs, along with sunshine and birdsong, really, really helps.

Only now it’s cold, and it’s dark. I’ll need a new self-care strategy moving into the winter, and in the absence of one yesterday, I’m feeling a little off, a little depleted.

What are your self-care strategies for the more emotionally demanding parts of your role in the academy?

affect · emotional labour · grief · heartbreak · women

Guest Post: That lachrymose season: a term of crying in academia

Last week’s Hook and Eye post by Margeaux Feldman, “There’s no crying in academia,” is vital reading about largely unacknowledged emotional labour in the academy. In twelve years of academic instruction, I have never spent a term without having someone cry in my office for some very justifiable reasons. There’s plenty of pain out there: depression, divorce, violence, crippling anxiety. But this term, I’m the crier in my office. There’s no saying no to it and no separating the personal from the professional. And while the grief is terrible – how could it be anything but? – the reception of it in my department and my classes has been surprising.

My mother passed away in September from injuries sustained after a fall; she died on the first day of the fall teaching term. I have all kind of feminist criticisms about our health care system, and I’ll be writing about those soon. But first, grief. For the record, any time of the year that your mother dies is a terrible time of year but it’s the timing that my sympathetic colleagues have most remarked on. And if it hadn’t happened to me, I too would immediately wonder how to handle such an upheaval in schedule. Since it has happened to me, here’s the answer: I haven’t handled it. It’s the steamroller that has run over me, cartoon-like, and I can only work with the physical demands that are left.

It’s emotional labour, no question, but to tell the truth, it’s taking a toll on my body. Fatigue activates my sciatica, which is now a long taut string of poker-hot muscle that hobbles me. Being in public is a challenge; the performance of normality is the hardest work of all. I swing between being too voluble about the horrible to saying nothing at all. I am indebted to my colleagues who have offered me everything from tea to Kleenex to non-judgemental ears to teaching classes if I feel I can’t. The fact that I appear to have replaced my memory with a sieve has fazed no one. My Chair advised me well to cancel a class or two when I was too stunned to make a good decision, and – maybe more importantly – he was also mindful enough not to insist that I was too stunned to make a good decision. And when he asked me what I wanted to tell the students when I cancelled classes, I knew what I had to say.

I chose to tell my students that I was cancelling class because I had a death in the family. When I was a student, I found the lack of information given to me about a professor’s sudden absence not practically useful and a bit insulting as it assumed that I was a doofus who couldn’t be trusted with basic human information. I remember saying to the department admin, “I don’t need salacious details. I just want to know if she’s okay.” This appeal got me the hairy eyeball. Now that I was the prof, I knew that my students would eventually look me in the face and my face would tell all. I needed to prepare them.

To be clear, I’m not a pool of tears trickling from room to room, discomfiting students. I speak in full sentences, grade papers, discuss texts; I write and sit on committees. But I know that I look odd, strangely strung out: broken blood vessels in my eyes, no makeup, everything a little off-kilter. Because that’s grief. One thing that happens when death occurs is that the boundaries between private and public are wiped out for a while. You have to conduct private business in ways that are horribly public. Many things about the breaching of those boundaries has been and continues to be shocking, but my students have been great. Many immediately sent me condolences via email, or told me when they saw me that they were sorry for my loss. I could even see a few of them — those I’ve taught several times — keeping a close eye on me in my first few classes back.

In turn, I have protected them from the awful knowledge that one’s mother can die by just keeping my statement about “a death in the family.” Because it’s not right to frighten them, but it is right to let them step up and be adults, to make the leap to the understanding that their professors have lives, and loves, and tragedies. It’s right to show them their red-eyed professor who is not absent and not made of stone. It’s right to show them that grief forges its own pedagogical model.

Tanis MacDonald
Wilfrid Laurier University