Hello Readers! My name is Margrit Talpalaru. I am a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, and an early-career researcher on my own time. I am delighted and honoured to join the regular cast of H&E writers.
Saturday night, I took my daughter skating. There’s an outdoor rink in our town square, very close to home, but far enough to feel like an adventure to a little kid. It was magic: she’s so rarely out after dark, the moon was clear and nearly full, the rink was all lit up and full of teenagers and families and people on dates, with my five year old the only little kid wobbling around the undisturbed middle of the ice.
She’s a new skater, in the sense that she’s only figured it out this past week–and I know this precisely because she learned on a field trip with her kindergarden class that I attended. I’ve been on several of these “sorties éducatives” with her, ever since she started daycare actually. I figure I miss so many weeks to conferences, so many evenings to public lectures or job-candidate dinners, so many weekends lost to grading binges at crunch time, and every single year since 2006 I miss her birthday because I teach at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria. In the face of all that not-around, I like to compensate by attending these mid-day, mid-week events that the professorial life affords.
It’s a balancing act, home versus work, daughter time and husband time and alone time, negotiated daily. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well when the borders between Professor and Mom/Wife are too porous–not three minutes ago I snapped at my darling husband because I’m trying to do too much at once. He’s bathing the girl and I said I’d take care of the post-supper mess, but he came downstairs to find me typing away at this post and I wasn’t too pleased he doubts I’ll do the dishes. He’s none too pleased with my tone. I’ll go up in a minute and apologize, and try to remember that work, even blogging work, is best handled during the day, when I’m all alone. I seem to have to learn that same lesson fairly frequently. But sometimes, as in the case of the field trips and the skating, the balance can work, the lesson is easy, the reward immediate.
When I’m on the field trip, my daughter formally introduces me to everyone; she licks my hand because she’s a kitten who loves me; she sits next to me on the bus; she tells everyone her mom is the best skating teacher in the world (I’m not), or the best french story reader (maybe true). She’s thrilled to bits to have me there. I wouldn’t miss this for the world, and, hallelujah, I don’t have to. There’s lots I have to miss, but at least I get this:
She’s been trying to skate for years. She has her mother’s athletic gifts (minimal) and violent impatience (in spades) but it finally–suddenly, completely–clicked. And I was there.
Which meant we could go out together Saturday, holding hands under the stars, on a mild, clear February night, singing skating songs in French. When I’m old, I know this is what’s going to matter most to me. The research trips, the articles, all of it? I’m proud of that work and I enjoy it, but what melts my heart are these times, something new and surprising, shared with my family, going around in circles maybe, but keeping our eyes on the stars.
Several of my colleagues refer to this trough of the year as Jebuary, and it comes with its own set of challenges. Jebuary is a proper noun–the stretch of January and February that, in Canada at least, accounts for some of the most soul-challenging weather of the year. One can also have a case of the Jebuaries. It is hard to muster the momentum and enthusiasm necessary to perform solid, engaging lectures, write those conference papers and articles, and attend meetings with the civic-mindedness that seems a bit easier to tap into in September. One of the constant concerns I have about posting on a Monday is tone. I fear that my tone has a tendency toward the frantic, the frenzied, the exhausted, and the fearful, and let’s be frank, no one needs those tones on a Monday morning, however accurate they may be!
So here we are, in the midst of Jebuary, and it is a Monday no less. Obviously, I’m concerned about our collective and individual well being. And yet I am a month into a four-course teaching term that already has me begging for a little mercy. I wonder, as I write, about how to strike a balance between being frank about my experience as an LTA and the kinds of feelings I am having this term without dragging all y’all down.
What’s the solution? Well, for me it is returning to that one entry I’ve managed to make in my #Reverb11: Quality. How does one beg, steal, or borrow quality, not to mention quality time, when there seems to be no time at all? While I was trying to work this question out I remembered Aim e’s post about how much can be accomplished in thirty minutes, and using it as a guide I’ve carved out thirty quality minutes for myself on a weekday morning. Friends, this term I live for Friday morning. On Friday mornings I teach an early class, this means I have no time to go home after my yoga practice. Instead of feeling guilty for leaving my partner with dog-walking duties, and rather than getting ahead on work for the coming week, I shower at the yoga studio and then walk to my favorite cafe and sit in the corner and read the local indy news. I drink fancy coffee, eat my breakfast, and buy another fancy coffee to go. All told I’m there for only about thirty or forty minutes, but they are some of the sweetest, calmest, and relaxing minutes of my week.
|Here is a photo of me with my true blue pal and morning yoga partner Mia. We are in the lovely lobby of the yoga studio. If we look a bit smug it is because this photo is taken during the day as opposed to at the crack of dawn, which is when we are usually at the Shala.|
|I love hiding in the corner of The Smiling Goat, drinking amazing coffee, and reading The Coast on Friday mornings before I wade into the remains of the week.|
What about you? How do you carve out quality time just for you in the midst of the hectic and ennui-filled Jebuaries?
By the time Friday afternoon landed on my lap, the party had 60 or so confirmed attendees. The department holiday party. At my house. And from my rough estimation–necessarily rough because some people, sighted by my husband in our very living room, came and went without me ever pushing through the crush to get to them–it seems like they all came.
I love the department holiday party. I have always loved these affairs, from the very first one I attended nervously as a Masters student, to the first one I attended nervously as a PhD student, to the first one I attended nervously as a new Assistant Professor, all the way to the ones I now (nervously, natch) host.
- 24 empty bottles of wine
- 18 empty bottles of beer
- 5 king cans, hidden under the dining room table
- 4 bags of ice
- 2 trays of sushi
- 2 vegetable platter
- 1 tray of sweets
- 1 cheese platter
- 2 boxes of Carr’s water crackers
- 4 bowls of cheesies
- 3 ramekins of homemade nuts-and-bolts
- 1 Christmas cactus
- 1 pointsettia
- 2 hostess gifts of cookies
- 1 daughter in a taffeta dress offering one cheesie to each incoming guest
- 0 edible leftovers of any kind
- untold amounts of shortbread ground into the floor
- vast amounts of wine spilled: on the walls of three rooms, the kitchen cupboards, the floor
- 15 guests shooed out after midnight
- 3 leftover mittens
- 1 lost bicycle light
No Mad Men-style debauch (and thank God) but no stilted junior high school church social either, the holiday party as manifested around here is a real mixer: staff, and faculty, graduate students from all levels and years of study, locals, out-of-towners. Spouses, kids, kids’ friends. (Only one sessional instructor this year, though.)
It’s the kind of thing, actually, that makes me think about the general segregations of everyday life. About how narrow my own life is, in general, and how much like sticks to like. In playing host to so many different people, I’m aware of doing some … stretching to make everyone feel at ease, and this reflects on the insularity of my own life rather than on anyone else’s awkwardness. I’ll find some toys for the two year old, and then, across the room, all of a sudden, a Master’s student I taught a required undergraduate course to several years ago. Asking a former chair about his European adventures over the last decade and a half and then joining a conversation among twenty-somethings about long-distance relationships. I’m at a place in my life where I know what daycare costs, what constitutes a good mortgage rate, how to distinguish gins in blind tastings, what it feels like to get older, how to be “appropriate” in company, what’s happening in the New York Times and The Guardian. I don’t know which are / if there are any good live music venues here. Do people go out dancing? Where? Good, cheap ethnic food? Dunno. Used bookstores? What? What happens after 8pm around this town? I have no idea. What do apartments cost? Bus routes to the grocery store? So parties can lead into new conversations, for everyone. Even meeting colleagues in this context can lead in new directions than might usually be traversed: you experience different conversation prompts while trying to wipe soy sauce off the wall than you do around the committee table waiting for the meeting chair to show up.
One of the great things about a really good party is mixing socially with people who are not exactly like me, and in situations that are not the norm. (I say not exactly, because we were averaging about two degrees in English apiece.) Candles and students and spouses and everyone in their socks and sparkly things / nicer pants.
Long live the holiday party, I say, a bit of fun and magic in a mostly routinized term.
I think we need a boast post–well, I think I might need one, because this week, it feels like the voices in my head are doing nothing but complaining and pointing out my flaws (“I hate grading! I’m an idiot for assigning all this writing! I’m actively getting stupid because I never get to read anything! I’m a terrible researcher! I’m inherently unserious and immature! Why is the office 18 degrees? Where’s my scarf and fingerless gloves? Wah!”).
Instead of getting lost in awful minutiae of the end of term, I thought I’d come back to first principles. I’m thinking about the passion that brought me here, and the skills that allow me to shine, in my own way at least. Because that’s what keeps me going.
I’m passionate about reading. All the time. I think, at this point, I’ve got all the ads on the bus memorized, for example. This morning, I read all the text on the box from which I removed a new bar of soap. So I should be happy, and I guess I am, that I have so much in front of me to read. I really am excited to read my students’ papers (but not to grade them). I’m excited to read the textbook (but not to prep my class). I am always excited to read material in my field in a new book, or an article. My biggest passion, beyond just simply reading all the time, is for my field: honestly, I just keep finding more and more to be fascinated with in computing culture. When I started, the world wide web had just been invented, and I wanted to understand how people came to understand computers as personal machines. Ha! And now there’s so, so very much more to think about and I get so excited I start to talk really fast when I even consider it.
So my passions still drive me as much as they ever did.
And what am I good at? It’s hard to remember now when I feel so beaten down by meetings I don’t feel well-enough prepared for, by grading piles that don’t ever get any smaller, by research that is so completely not writing itself now. Hm. Well, I’m funny. My students in their evaluation always seem to remark on how I can make even boring stuff kind of fun and I think that should count for something, shouldn’t it? A spoonful of sugar, and all that? Man, my prep might not be as thorough in late November as it was in September, but, dammit, at least I’ve got the personality and the wit to really sell it. So. I’m good at being funny.
Here’s something funny, a little gift from me to you: my husband and I were walking in from Amazingly Distant Parking Lot when we came upon this. There’s something very late-November-y about it, which might resonate with many of you. Enjoy:
Huh. Okay. Now I’m feeling a little better about life. I’m chuckling out loud right now, just like in the video, at that poor stuck squirrel.
Maybe a little pause to consider what you’re passionate about, and what you’re really good at can help you get through term, too: maybe slam poetry rocks your universe; maybe your skill is giving compassionate extensions to stressed out students; maybe you can’t get enough of literature in translation and have an uncanny ability to plan meetings that have solid agendas and always end early. I’d LOVE to hear about it.
Please! Tell me the passion that keeps you going through this November slog, and one thing you’re good at that makes it all a little easier. Let’s all cheer each other, and cheer each other up.
Time is collapsing all around me.
I am grading first year papers, and as I sometimes do, I dug out one of my papers from first year–from, holy crap, 1992! And I read it. And was transported back into that smart aleck self I was then, all piss and vinegar and not much knowledge at all. It was a paper on “To His Coy Mistress” wherein I expressed surprise that literature could be witty. (Yeah. I was that kid. Let me just apologize to all my teachers …) The paper both sounded like me and did not sound like me … and was in Courier font, because my prof didn’t like computers. When I put the paper down and blinked up at the sunshine in my campus office I was totally discombobulated. The shift from 1992 to 2011 happened in that glance up from the paper. How did this happen to me?
We are hiring a new junior colleague in my field (digital media studies! Please apply!) and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I am not, actually, junior any more. I’ve been here seven and a half years; I got my PhD in 2004. I was imagining that we would be hiring … I don’t know, someone from my cohort? But I won’t even be a generational peer of my new colleague. I’m not the fresh thinking any more; I am one of those who will benefit from the infusion of someone else’s fresh blood into the body of the department. Amazing!
In my digital life writing class, my grad students have all had to produce personal blogs. As I read through those, the lives they articulate are both startlingly familiar and achingly remote. Grad student experiences are eternal and timeless, and while those experiences are part of my experiences, my history, it’s not really my story any more. I’m mostly through my existential crises, my big moves to new cities, my basement apartments and groaning bookshelves whose tomes were assigned to me by others. How did 1998 get so far away from me without my really knowing it? Most of my friends are closer to 50 than they are to 30.
My oldest nephew is in grade 11: his mother and I are taking him back to our alma mater this weekend, for campus day. He spent the first two years of his life on that campus. We’re going to retrace our steps, only this time instead of handing him in his slippery nylon snowsuit back and forth as we try to find a spot to eat that’s not in the smoking section, he’ll be busy fending off the hugs of my five year old daughter while his mother and I can’t stop remarking on the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t. My nephew is full of excitement, amazed to discover that university classes don’t run every day, from 9:00 until 3:00, and that he gets to pick them all himself. That there will be classes with hundreds of people in them. The freedom and the responsibility.
One of my colleagues is retiring. There’s going to be a party, with speeches. His kids have moved away, and he and his wife have sold their big old house with the beautiful gardens and the pocket doors and are renting something, until they figure out what they want to do next. He seems quite happy to be walking away. Amazing.
This is my twentieth year in university. More and more of my life is anchored to these places, these schedules, these routines. Orange and brown decor, brutalist architecture, the rhythms of academic semesters. Meal plans, parking woes, and backpacks. Thousands of 18 year olds, bookshelves everywhere, and hyper-literate conversation. This has all stayed mostly the same, but I guess I’ve been changing all along, right?
This is not a lament, no. I’m happier now and here than, really, I’ve ever been. I guess it’s just that circumstances lately have brought home to me that even if I’m not going anywhere, everything is still moving forward. Amazing.
Did you see that episode of the Simpsons, where Bart joins a football team, and Lisa makes this big dramatic entrance to the field, all suited-up, ready to fight the feminist fight against gender discrimination in sport? And there’s already some girls on the team? And she’s kinda like, “Oh, right then, okay, carry on.”
That happened to me this week.
I was invited to attend the welcoming supper for new faculty members, because I’m on the faculty association board. The invitation didn’t specify, so I wrote to ask if I could bring my husband and daughter, you know, to fight the feminist fight against the erasure of real-live-families from academic life? Well. We got there, and not only is there a nametag for my daughter (in cheery Comic Sans, no less), but a whole tablefull of kid name tags. And a giant, well-stocked craft table at the front of the hall, where a mass of small children are excitedly making glittery foam stars and flowers, collaboratively filling out colouring pages. My daughter made friends! And a pink door-hanger with unicorns on it!
I made a point of moving through the room, introducing myself to faculty families–faculty moms and faculty dads and their ‘civilian’ spouses and their toddlers, their newborns, their twins, their tweens. The spouses got nametags, too. There is nothing more heartwarming for a crusty old tenured faculty mom than to see a new professor mom, burping a name-tagged four-month old, while her husband fetches strained carrots out of the diaper bag. We talked schools and daycares, and while I was fully prepared to to staunchly defend our rights to reproduce and research in the same lifetime, no one really needed convincing.
I actually found it very moving.
As the crusty old tenured mom, I have to interrupt myself to bring you back to the olden days, when I started here. I went to the same party. There were no children, let alone a child’s play area. And I would have noticed that, because I was BABY CRAZY but feeling like I had to maybe keep a lid on it.
Things change, even at universities. They even sometimes change for the better, for the more inclusive, and the more humane.
Best. New Faculty. Orientation. Dinner. Ever.*
* full disclosure: I won a cheese tray in the draw. I NEVER win stuff in draws. This possibly colours my interpretation of events 😉
You know, if we took a holiday, took some time to celebrate? It would be-e-e-e, it would be! so! nice!
This post is a couple of hours late because I took a holiday. A vacation. A break. Some time off. For almost nine days in a row, no work. That’s the longest stretch of real time off I’ve taken in over a year. And I’ve lived to tell the tale! I feel like it’s my duty to tell you how hard it was to let go of everything (it took a couple of days), how great it was to be free of all of it, and how relaxed and cheerful I am about returning to work today.
Hard: My last ‘working day’ on the Friday coincided with a very big writing deadline, which I met, but not without some injury to my soul. I felt like I had spent the day trying to dig a ditch through bedrock with my fingernails, with the result that at 5:30, when I tried to go into vacation mode, I was bitchy, headachy, and thoroughly weepy.
- Lesson 1: You can’t do a week of work in one day in anticipation of five days off. At least, I can’t.
Hard: It was hard to maintain vacation mode when I had a defense to participate in on Monday. (Of course, the defense is harder for the candidate; this is worthy work; I’m glad to do it, it’s an honour and a privilege, and it was a great dissertation. Of course.) It was really hard to gussy myself up, go in for three hours and then, again, expect I would be immediately transformed into a blissfully vacationing happy person once the papers were signed. Instead, I got crabby and took a nap.
- Lesson 2: “Switching it off” is not an instantaneous thing. It’s less like a light switch (“click!”) and more like the garden hose — first you turn the tap off, then you gravity-drain the hose, then you turn off the valve inside the house, and drain that. There’s steps. It takes some time.
- Lesson 3: When you go on vacation, don’t even work for 30 minutes a day, because you don’t really get the benefits of letting it all go. Doing less academic work is work to rule; doing no academic work is a vacation.
- Lesson 4: Work exacerbates my control-freak tendencies in ways that don’t contribute to either my happiness or my effectiveness. Might need to rethink some stuff …
- Lesson 5: Draw your own conclusions on holidays here … Do you have a great holiday story you want to leave in the comments?