enter the confessional

Not waving but drowning

Okay here’s the thing. Everything is awful and I’m not okay. Have you missed me these past weeks? I haven’t posted because I just couldn’t get my act together. I didn’t even tell all my other lovelies that I needed a break. (I’m so sorry …) I just disappeared.

I find myself experiencing serious overwhelm. I am hurting. It’s not clear to me how I’m going to get through this semester. I just want to be real about it for a moment. Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I push two chairs together in my office, crawl under my coat and fall deeply asleep for 40 minutes. When my iPhone alarm goes off, I’m staggeringly disoriented. Sometimes, I cry.

I pushed back a grading thing by a week, which moved another deadline by a week, for my first years. Still, I’ve graded, for them, 40 short papers, and 120 online quizzes, and answered at least 40 intro emails, and met with a dozen of them in office hours. My fourth years have also produced 35 short papers that have been graded, and they’ve been coming to meet me about their projects, and it’s a new course so I’m hauling ass to get everything prepped. My first year class turned into a new prep too, because my Dropbox got hacked and all my teaching materials disappeared (please don’t give me advice on how to fix this: trust me when I say I’ve tried everything).

A couple of days ago, I told my daughter to stop jumping up and down on the squeaky part of the floor because “I don’t like that noise, and you must stop.” Her response? “Mom, there’s a LOT of things you don’t like.” It’s true. I’m very short tempered and impatient, lately.

The first week back at school I had a dissertation defence. I’ve got through one advisee chapter since then, and half of another, and I have two more on my desk that need my attention. Three students are waiting on me for stuff. I’ve organized two more defences since then, and two others took place this week.

Yesterday, I snapped at my husband in the car, for singing a funny song to make our kid laugh. “It’s too loud and I need you to stop that right now!” I barked at him. Poor man. He’s been making suppers and being quiet, and taking on extra chores. But I’m snappish and mean.

I’ve led four three-hour grad committee meetings, four Fridays in a row. We’ve also had team meetings, and a department meeting. And we’re doing a program review and there’s lots I’m in charge of. And my annual performance review files I had to pull together and narrate. And the kind of crisis that pops up unexpectedly but with great force in a big grad program, sometimes, that takes 10 hours and 30 emails to fix. Also we’re doing an internal recruitment thing that means I’m having a lot of meetings with candidates and assessing a lot of files on my own instead of passing them to the committee. I’m asking for money, I’m planning an event, I’m dealing with people upset about decisions.

From January 30 to February 18, I worked every single day. And every night I slept in two short naps, usually between 11 and 3, and then from 5:30-6:30. I spent the intervening hours with a racing heart and racing mind, miserable. Some mornings, I isolated myself from my family, because I could not bring myself to be nice to them. Everything is too loud and too bright and too itchy, and if you drop a pencil too close to me, I will scream and my heart rate will shoot up to 140.

January 31, I co-planned a rally attended by more than 600 people. I did press, I did promotions. I cooked a meal for a local refugee family on the same day, in a fit of terrible scheduling. It was my birthday, and I had to be dragged out. I cried a little before we went to the restaurant. I missed, somehow, an email from my kid’s school about an important meeting, so I missed the meeting, too.

I wrote a 6000 word research talk, and made a 72 slide Keynote deck to go with it. I spent a (truly lovely, inspiring, and amazing) day at McMaster to present it and meet people. The woman who introduced me made a big deal out of how important Hook and Eye was to her.  It was so touching! When I got back home, every email I’d missed reminded me how that time was not really mine to use for research.

I have two boxes of Cliff bars and a dozen meal replacement shakes in my office. I don’t take lunches. I shovel food in my face dashing between my office and the department photocopier. I guzzle a latte between my office and my fourth year class. I guzzle a Diet Coke between my office and my first year class.

I have to convert the Works Cited for an accepted chapter into MLA 8. I hid from the editor so successfully because I couldn’t find time to do it that she actually phoned my chair. This is my life now.

I’m not well. One day, I had to cancel some meetings because every time I stood up, I got dizzy. My insomnia is literally impairing my ability to think: I tried to drive somewhere a couple of days ago, and when I got in the car I couldn’t visualize the whole route, I just knew which direction to start in. I figured I’d recognize it as I went. I did. That was scary. I had to meet a student today, and I went to school in oversized track pants and my pyjama shirt. I have not had a shower today. I feel like if I have to gussy myself up for one more thing I am going to have a complete meltdown.

I haven’t been to yoga for months, except to teach.

A faculty member recently came to my office to berate me for asking him to spend ten minutes writing a reference letter: did I not know how busy he was? and what an outrageous claim on his time this was? I had a vision of screams and fire and violence. I saw myself grow to the size of the entire building, rampaging. I pressed my nails into my palms and stayed quiet.

I don’t need anyone to help me — that is, this post is not itself a cry for help. It’s reading week now, and I’m going to try very hard to catch my breath. I’ve taken some walks. I’ve played piano. I’ve baked with my kid, and cuddled my spouse. I’m letting myself sleep. I do myself the kindness of reaching out to the people who love me, who are loving me, and it helps. I’m writing this post.

What I’m intending with this post is to just flag that …. what? That I have all kinds of good advice and good habits and boundaries and all the rest of it but sometimes there’s just actually too much work to do. That this can imperil your health and your happiness. That sometimes, mid-semester, all you can do is cling on by your fingernails, cut corners where you can, and wait for it to end. The problem right now is that there is just too much work to be done, and it’s important sometimes just to recognize that. To recognize as well that my body is giving me strong signals that this is not sustainable: the dizziness, and the insomnia, will soon enough knock me flat on my ass, and force me to take a sick day. My body sends important signals, and I should listen.

If this is you, too, please know: I feel you. I’m sorry this is happening. Do not grin and bear it — you might have to bear it, but there’s no need to be cheerful about it. If you want to unburden yourself in the comments, please do. I do not want to normalize or heroize this kind of labour. I want to call it what it is–terribly and unhealthy, and harmful in many ways–and work towards making the kind of university where it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does.

advice · enter the confessional · supervision · writing

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they’re going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing

The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have–you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from “meh, I’ve got LOADS of time” to “BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE.” I call this line, “The Terror Curve.”

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we’ve discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they’re read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to “write something” and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn’t a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like “finish within four years.”

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn’t know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent — the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it’s not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn’t is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not scary and I’m not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror

Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don’t read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn’t write the essays. I didn’t write them because I’m an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn’t hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn’t hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn’t get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it’s easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don’t want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don’t get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh — about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn’t have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it’s only three weeks away …

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.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · day in the life · enter the confessional · risky writing

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I’ve been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye‘s history. As I wrote in that post,

And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love.

Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I’ll never be an academic. No, I’ll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:

  • Submitted a grant application I’ve spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I’m finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I’m reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn’t it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job–my life–gets a whole other kind of label and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we’re altac–separate, and to some, lesser. I’ve quite happily adopted this label myself–I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs–when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I’d love if we could just call them–and tenured ones–jobs, full stop.
I have a job.
I am an academic.

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn’t know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there’s nothing #alt about it.

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…

enter the confessional · grad school · grading · teaching

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They’re really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It’s dark, they’re tired, I get it. It’s easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn’t really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it’s dark, I’m tired, I’ve been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process–how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill’s book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

“Grading done, lesson not done–crowd source!”

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I’m trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There’s clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there’s something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that’s based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It’s possible that I could have lectured for three hours–I did know the material, even if I hadn’t pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It’s a lot easier to say; “Ugh, my students didn’t do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!” But it’s a lot more productive to say: “You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It’s a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?”

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn’t do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we’re all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we’re not ready to do it alone.

academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
balance · enter the confessional

Bring your kid to work day, March Break edition

I brought my kid to work today. She’s got an iPad to read pony comics on, my second laptop to watch some Netflix while the iPad is charging, headphones to keep the noise down, some stuffies, some crayons and paper, and a work-appropriate hairdo (“I don’t want to look like a hobo at the office, Mom”). She picked a special outfit, and some accessories to look more professional. She’s happy as a clam.

See?

Snacks plus Netflix = Bender salute

It’s March Break, and normally we would have enrolled her in camps all week, because of course her father and I both work full time and I can’t take vacation time in the middle of term and neither can he. But we didn’t do all camps this year, because she’s burnt out. When the topic of March Break was gleefully announced by her about a month ago, she had visions of lounging in her pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and watching Monster High movies with me and her dad. Reminded about our jobs and her camps, she visibly deflated. Camps are fun, but they’re not relaxing, and she needed to relax, she said. I see her point. Camps mean getting up early, and packing a lunch, and lugging around a day’s worth of supplies, and interacting with grownups and kids you don’t know, and being in structured time all day.

And, frankly, I want to lounge around in my pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and my kid, and reading an entire book from front to back. I’m burnt out, too. I get it.

I admire my daughter’s capacity to sense her own limits. To know when enough has been enough. To recognize that being a full time student is actually a lot of hard work, not least keeping to a strict schedule and letting others be in charge of your time and your activities. I admire her stubbornness and her self-knowledge: she said that coming to the office with me would be better than camp, and she said she would behave and she’s been as good as her word. She knows herself enough to know that just being alone with me and a bunch of toys in a really quiet room is what she needs to recharge, not a room full of kids and loud noises and routines and chaos.

She doing three days of camp this week, and spending two on downtime. That’s our compromise because, really, I can’t teach an 8:30-11:30 graduate class with her in the room, and there are things that I need some peace and space to get done too, considering it’s not a break week for me.

But there’s a lesson here for me, and for all of us, maybe. The eight year olds are stressed and pressured and overworked, which is terrible. It’s awesome, though, that the eight year olds can express that and just say no, to the limits of their agency. It’s worth remembering to listen to ourselves in this way, too.

All this is to say, I guess, that I’m overworked and stressed out. And you probably are, too. And if you have kids you’re probably trying to manage their March Break and your work at the same time, and feeling various further kinds of overwhelm and guilt. Tonight, when we all get home from work, it’s going to be straight into pyjamas and straight onto the couch. No chores, no cooking, no piano practice, no racing out to one thing or another. Just a little bit of peace and togetherness. A March Break.

enter the confessional

Insomniac

So here’s something you may not know about me: I suffer periodically from insomnia–and by that I mean that I suffer pretty dramatically, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. This is an affliction linked, in my case, to anxiety, and it’s pretty common among academics.

The miserable thing about being insomniac is that you are in fact bone tired–but you can’t sleep. You wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep, so you turn on the light, and try to read, but you’re so exhausted your eyes cross and you’re not retaining any information. So you turn off the light and curl up: but you can’t stop your mind from racing. So you turn on the light and try to read …

I took up yoga to deal with this. And meditation. I cut out caffeine after 1pm. I make before bed to-do lists to rid my mind of its calendaring demons. I restrict my academic writing and research to daylight hours so I don’t get too excited before bed. I dim the lights, I drink herbal tea, I take prescribed sleeping meds and off-label pharmaceuticals on an as-needed basis. Sometimes I self-medicate with Forty Creek Copper Barrel Reserve, 1 oz. Or a dry martini, right before bed.

But sleep often eludes me, still.

Insomnia is an invisible disability. I find it impossible to do creative or scholarly work when I’m sleep-deprived. I can grade (slowly, inefficiently) and I can go to meetings (groggily) and write emails (proofreading twice). Then I feel terrible about not working, which leads to more insomnia, and even more not working.

Insomnia is incredibly humbling. Neither brute force, nor will power, nor good intentions, nor even some pretty good drugs can make sleep happen–the links between mind and body are powerful and intense and won’t be denied. This is a good lesson to remember.

I suspect many of you suffer from insomnia as well. What do you do to manage? Right now I’m trying to be kind to my insomnia, to ask it what it is trying to tell me, what part of my life is not fitting well right now, and how I might be kinder to myself to resolve it. I’m trying to eat better and not drink too much, to get enough exercise, and ask my family to let me nap when I need it.

But it’s important to note that one of the reasons I have insomnia is because of this job, this life of the mind: sometimes my ideas scare me so much that I can’t let them go, for fear of losing them. Sometimes, the deadlines pile up and I worry I won’t meet them. Sometimes before talks I worry for weeks not about not being ready but about not being good enough. Since I’ve taken up my administrative role in my department I worry about the drip drip drip of forms to sign, things to check up on, meetings to remember to attend, deliverables I’ve forgotten I’ve promised, hard cases, tough decisions, all the emails. The work is not bounded by location or time; it is never done, and it could always be done better, or more or faster. My insomniac periods peaked when I was on the job market, the year I came up for tenure, and the year I began my administrative job. The academy always wants more, and we A+ students will always try to give more, even if we don’t have it, and feel like we’re failing.

And so it goes. Until I figure it out again, for now, how to fall asleep and stay asleep, if I pass you in the halls or on the internet and don’t say hi, it’s because I’m concentrating so hard on staying upright I probably just can’t see you.

Sweet dreams.