family · grad school · PhD · research · role models · women · writing

Reading (Through) the Mothers

I do most of my writing in a room in my house we call the library, a room that used to hold something like five thousand books–on shelves, in piles on the floor, tucked under the yellow Danish chair that never got used. Very many of those books were written by, or about, the women I consider my literary mothers, poets and novelists and theorists. They were all bought, or written by, or gifted to one of my actual mothers, my husband’s mother, who was the Canadian academic-translator-editor Barbara Godard. Very many of those books were gifted a few years ago to the university to which we both belonged, but many others still line the walls as I write, or come down to share something with me when I need to hear a critical voice that’s not my own.

I’m currently reading and writing my way through the grouping of poems that Jay Macpherson wrote to submit to the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize when she was in her Master’s degree, poems that she would turn into O Earth Return: A Speculum for Fallen Women, and then into her Governor General’s Award-winning collection The Boatman. Macpherson had been spending a lot of time in rooms very different from my library full of women–in Robert Graves’s studio, where women and women writers were relegated to the position of Muse, and in Northrop Frye’s office, where his library shelves were stocked with very male canon-fodder–and she began to wonder where in those rooms she fit, where she might find the missing mothers she needed as a young woman writer. So she went out to find them, which she did, as I do, through reading and writing them. She found one in Eve, “the mother of all living” (“Eve in Reflection”), and another in the Queen of Sheba. She found others in the myths of Sibylla, Eurynome, Andromeda. But what she also found was that her mothers were in a double bind. In the literature and myth she so loved, women were the object, always subsumed under the male gaze and secondary to the plot of the male story. They only became women in and of themselves after they had fallen, after they had transgressed and been cast off. Then, and only then, in developing a self-consciousness that set them apart from their male creators–as Eve with her apple did from God and Adam–did they have an identity of their own.

So, Macpherson let them fall. And found her mothers, who had been hidden in the canonical texts she loved all along. She also found herself as a writer, not as Graves’s Muse, or as Frye’s disciple, or as a writer bound by the strictures of the canon, but as someone who could freely play with the stories she loved, turning them inside out and upside down in order to see how they fit together, to see how she fit into them, and they into her, however uncomfortably: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye. Her poems are full of mirrors and reflections, women drowned and women watching images of themselves wavering on the water. As Barbara wrote in an essay about one of Macpherson’s best friends and poetic daughters, Margaret Atwood, “in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity.” In her early poems, Macpherson wrote to weave her mirror doubles–her fallen women, her personal goddesses–into eternity. Macpherson is one of my fallen women–fallen out of the canon, fallen from critical favour–and now I write to weave her back into the story of the creation of that thing we call Canadian literature. I write to give her a story of her own that isn’t a subplot in a narrative about the canonical men–Frye, Graves, George Johnston, Hans Jonas–who have been credited with shaping hers.

As I sit on my sofa reading words that “the mom,” as my husband Alexis calls her, wrote back in 1987, my reading is mirrored, doubled. I sit reading an article Barbara wrote in the space where the words I read were written. I am reading Macpherson through Atwood through Godard. I am sitting on the sofa with the man who was, in my imagination of one of those days in 1987, downstairs making himself an after-school snack while his mother sat upstairs writing the words I am reading, a hungry twelve year old who now often reminds me to eat because he knows hangry when he sees it. I am finishing a dissertation on Canadian literature in a house that used to be home to one of the people who made doing that possible, who forced English departments like the one we both called home to teach the literature of our country, to recognize it as a legitimate subject of inquiry, to put writers like Macpherson on the syllabus and the comprehensive exams. I think about what it must have been like to do this work–the writing, the reading, the advocacy–as a mostly single parent with a growing son, what sacrifices that must have required of both of them, what sacrifices I don’t have to make because Alexis is grown and because we don’t have children of our own and because Barbara and my other mothers made them before me. And I recognize that because of Barbara and Jay, the mothers who came before me, I don’t have to go looking for my academic and writerly mothers–they’re here, in the room, on the shelves, and with me as I write.

Photo credit: James Gillespie. 

balance · family · generational mentorship · guest post

Guest Post: An Open Letter to My Son, On Starting University

Dear Owen,
When you were accepted to Dalhousie, one of my first thoughts was “welcome to my world!”
I’ve been around universities all of my life. I was born in Berkeley, where my parents had met as graduate students. I vividly remember childhood visits to my father’s office in UBC’s Old Administration Building: I had no idea what work he did there, but I loved the hushed yet busy atmosphere and the cabinets full of stationery supplies. My parents used to pick us up from elementary school at lunch time so we could attend the Music Department’s noon-hour concerts; when I went to University Hill Secondary School (which, as its name implies, was on the periphery of the campus) the university library, cafeterias, bookstore, and pool all became familiar territory. Without really knowing it, I was internalizing a culture, a way of life, that I went on to explore further as a university student and which I now inhabit fully as a professor myself. Though I’m at the opposite side of our (very wide) nation from where I began, in this respect at least I’m still very much at home.
It’s not as if you haven’t also been around universities all of your life, of course. You were born literally across the street from the Dalhousie campus, in a teaching hospital affiliated with the university’s medical school. You went to many summer camps at Dalhousie — what a treat it always was to visit you on the quad at lunch time! You’ve hung out with me at my office and attended workshops and special events here. Over the years you’ve also overheard endless conversations between your two professor parents about our academic work: about our students, about our colleagues, about our professional commitments, but also about the passionate interests that motivated us to take up this work in the first place.
You aren’t exactly a stranger to this world, then. But it’s different now, because this time it’s about you, not me.
I’ve been surprised by how emotional I get contemplating your move to university. It’s not just that you are literally moving, into residence, though that’s part of it: the room that has been yours for so many of your 18 years will feel more than empty. It’s not just that I’m worried about how well you’ll take care of yourself without a bit of nudging, though of course that’s part of it too, because moms fret (“this mom especially,” I hear you saying, with a hint of irritation)(but seriously, you won’t forget to floss, will you?). No, what’s both exciting and unsettling is knowing what a period of discovery this will be for you, and thus, inevitably, for us, as we all find out who you are really going to be and where you’re going to go from here. We’ve brought you this far, but from now on we will recede, rightly, from the foreground of your life — we will be formative but not definitive influences on you. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” George Eliot wisely observed: while for you this is a beginning, for me it is also an ending, and so my celebration is inevitably tinged with poignancy.
It turns out, then, that I’m not really welcoming you into my familiar world: I’m watching you make it yourworld. Don’t think, though, that this means I don’t have any advice for you! After all, I’ve still been around universities a lot longer than you — and I’m still your mom. So here are my top tips, for you and for anyone on the brink of this big adventure.
First of all, take care of yourself (did I mention flossing? healthy gums, healthy mind!).
Second, take care of your business — by which I mean the business of your education. My specific tips here might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how much they matter, and how many students disregard them, sometimes until it’s too late.
1.     Go to class. Boring or entertaining, simple or challenging, that’s what you are there for, and you won’t always be the best judge of the value of the time you spend in the room.
2.     Do the work, including all the readings. Remember the immortal words of Raymond Chandler: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” Make it interesting.
3.     Be present — not just physically, but mentally. Sometimes this will take effort. Make the effort.
4.     Talk to your professors. That’s what they are there for — and there’s nothing they like better than talking to a student who is trying to know more, understand more, do more with the subject they have dedicated their lives to. (Remember how I light up when I talk about Middlemarch? Every professor has a Middlemarch, and you will learn the most from them when they talk about it. If you ever want to listen when I talk about Middlemarch, you will learn something from me too!)
5.     If you don’t know something, or if you need something, ask someone. This applies in class, but also across campus: in your residence, at the library, at the counselling center, or at the gym. Just because it’s up to you now doesn’t mean you’re on your own.
I miss you already, but I also couldn’t be more excited for you. Learn a lot, have a wonderful time, and when you’re ready, invite me over and tell me what it’s like for you.

Mom
Department of English, Dalhousie University
Read Rohan’s amazing blog Novel Readings here
best laid plans · body · busy · family · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · writing

From the Archives: The More She Sleeps

Last Wednesday our daughter was born. Every day since then has been a wonderful–and somewhat exhausting–blur of getting our bearings in this new life of ours. While I plan to write a post on navigating being pregnant and on the job market that’s not what is on my mind today. Rather, after a bleary night of feeding and rocking and trying to sleep, I’m thinking about my partner who has a writing deadline. I am thinking about all of you heading to Congress. I am thinking about the summer research and writing plans. And of course, I am thinking about this wee little person who is strapped to my chest while I type.

Here, in the spirit of writing and sleeping and finding your bearings, is a post that Aimée wrote about how writing is like sleep training.
__________________________________________________________________
When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, “Well, at least she’ll sleep tonight for sure!”

But here’s the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn’t nap. And, those weird days where she’d get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She’d conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I’ve been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I’ve come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.


I’m thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I’m thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That’s the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of “writing” was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that’s fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I’m not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don’t work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you’re likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they’ll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I’m pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I’m always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I’m more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There’s no onerous citation requirement. I don’t have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that’s all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It’s fun, but I’m probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own “low-stakes**” writing has an impact on your “high-stakes” work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we’ll start worrying about the productivity of people who don’t fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes 😉

—–
* “easily” is relative. I still really hate writing. It’s just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I’ve had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more “Wow, I’m impressed.”

academic work · accomodation · commute · family · free time · inconvenience · kid stuff · open letter · parenting

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don’t tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They’ve had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I’m teaching, it’s a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that’s mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these “cinq à sept”, because this kind of party runs from five until seven–note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you’re scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I’m here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I’m kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I’m being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn’t want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I’m not there until 6:45, and who’s going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it’s unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I’m sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am–I know you’ve probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It’s just that I don’t want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,
Aimée

being undone · coming out · family · feminism · politics

Identity Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wonder if other readers have similar struggles.