feminist communities · grad school · making friends · mental health · solidarity

Healthy Friendships Within Academia

Departing from the Women, Academia, Sport theme for a minute – I am so not the person to write about such things, though the posts have been excellent! 

Have you noticed? There’ve been a string of articles recently about the value of female friendships, and how they supply alternatives and perhaps stronger bonds than marriages and romantic partnerships (or how they themselves can offer to straight women a different form of romanticism). There was this one in NYMag about a stormy “friendship affair” between two women; this one about love that sits outside of friendliness and sex and “both inside and outside of ‘family'”; and most recently, this one in the NYT about what friendships offer women outside of love (written by the author who writes about single women dominating the political landscape in America). Maybe this is following on the wake of Elena Ferrante frenzy (there is now a TV series in the works!), or maybe it just reflects a general across-the-board questioning, broadening, and even dismantling of traditional marital structures.

Personally, I have always been deeply reliant on friendships, perhaps because I do not have an especially large or close family. Maybe I expect my friendships to supply the permanency associated with family, and so find myself struggling–like, a lot–when friendships fade, when people move away, when I realize it’s been a minute since I’ve had a quality conversation with someone.

As I’ve discovered, academia presents particular difficulties to strong friendships.  This cleverly diagrammed listicle by Tim Urban from Wait But Why offers what I think is a stimulating system for thinking through the healthiness quotient of friendships. Consider this graph:

If you’re in the first stages of a PhD program, I would especially urge you to consider this graph, because these are some of the times when you’re likely to achieve the first-tier brother- and- sister-like friendships described in the Urban article, due to what sociologists identify as the ideal environment for making lifelong friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” (generally associated with undergrad degrees, but I’m a late bloomer). At the beginning of a grad program, you’re taking the same classes, writing the same papers, gossiping over which professors are in touch with and available to students, or who gives minimal feedback on papers and holds office hours only by appointment. Together you are excited and proud to be enrolled in the graduate program, and eager to form new friendships that bridge the personal and the professional. Perhaps you hold area reading groups, language groups, writing workshop groups, you organize meals and drink dates together, and schedule regular coffees to talk through that final paper. You’re in the process of exploring yourselves and each other. You share hotel rooms at conferences and sometimes even plan vacations together, and you practice-test each other in the months leading up to oral exams. Together you build a uniquely generative and intimate intellectual community of scholars and buds.

Years later, when you’re still waiting for those letters to appear after your name and some of the prestige of being a budding PhD has worn down, when you’re unsure how you’re going to pay the bills the following year, when you’re competing with colleagues for courses and even jobs and facing the harsh reality that writing a dissertation is perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you’ve ever attempted in your life, things change. The paths of you and your friends are diverging, perhaps in ways you don’t even realize. Sometimes, friendships end for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. Inherent in romantic relationships is an expectation that you provide some kind of explanation when things go awry. Not so with friendships.

So, if you’re an early graduate student, I’m here to offer you a couple tidbits of advice as you form bonds with the grad students around you.

  1. Be cautious when developing close friendships with people who tend toward excessive gossip or cattiness toward other people in the department. If you spend most of your time talking shit about other people, chances are the some day you’ll be talking shit about each other. I mean c’mon, Mean Girls taught us this. 
  2. Don’t feel you need to accept all offers of friendship presented to you. Is there something about this person that attracts you to them as well? Do you find him/her inspiring in some way? Or are you just feeling pressured to enter an academic clique? 
  3. Be intentional about reaching outside your institution and forming connections with other people, either at other institutions (if you are in an area with multiple universities), or outside academia entirely. Join a basketball league! Find an online community with shared interests or a hobby you’d like to develop! Take an art class! One of my favorite circles is the feminist book club I’m a part of which is composed mostly of nonacademics. In addition to ensuring that the sum total of your identity is not tied to academia, and helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance, these connections may open up inspiration and creativity in ways you don’t expect. And, with friends outside your department, the stakes are lower. I can celebrate my friend-outside-Fordham’s Teaching Excellence award with nary a twinge of jealousy–to which, let’s face it, we all fall prey.
  4. Be thankful for the lasting, genuine, tier-one and -two friendships that you have. These are the friendships that contain minimal suspicion and jealousy; regular, reciprocated enthusiasm; excitement and positive vibes. With these friends, you’re on the same team–and that is truly beautiful. Any kind of relationship that relies upon effort and enthusiasm rather than contractual obligation to enhance some aspect of our lives should be celebrated. And in that vein, why not pick up your phone and shoot off an expression of gratitude to someone dear to you right now!
What about you, readers? Have you struggled with friendships within your academic environments, or found them to be generally fruitful and positive? Any advice you’d like to add?


advice · collaboration · grad school · making friends

On Starting Grad School

A few months after I was admitted into the MA program at my current university, I drove three hours north to visit the campus. I remember walking into the graduate student lounge in my soon-to-be department in a semi-state of awe. I didn’t notice the dreadful couches or the filthy dishes in the sink; I barely perceived the stacks of paper and books on the table. Instead, I gazed at the group of students clustered in the middle around a wooden table. Soon, I’d be one of them, I recall thinking. What are they like? What area are they studying? Had they been much better prepared than I was (or felt)?

My feeling of uncertainty didn’t change much after I actually began my studies. The first few weeks and months of graduate school are chock full of it, particularly for newbie MAs. I recall with vivid clarity the panic that set in after I’d received all my syllabi, bought my stacks of books, and wrote the dates of my first presentations in my agenda. Would I really be able to do this?, I wondered, frequently and often. How would I make it through?

It’s been several years since I was a newbie MA, but every year in September I’m reminded again of what it feels like when I introduce myself to the new Graduate Students in my department. With them in mind (and putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not to go to grad school in the first place!), I’d like to offer a bit of advice on how to approach the first few months as a new graduate student:

1. Know that You’re Not the Only One. Everyone feels a bit like an imposter starting graduate school, and uncertainty and self-doubt is common. It’s there even if you think that everyone else seems confident and on top of things! The fact is that the learning curve of grad school is a steep one, and every student coming from an undergraduate degree has to climb it, not just you.

2. Be Generous with your Friendship. Know that some of the people you meet for the first time at various orientation events might come across unfavourably on first impression, but are actually great, brilliant, kind people. It’s well-worth the effort to go to all the orientation and social mixer events and meet everyone you can. You’ll probably interact with people who will become great friends and collaborators for months or even years to come.

3. Participate in New Student Mentorship Program. My department offers “grad buddies” to new incoming students who can answer all sorts of questions about the university, department, and even the city. But even if you don’t have a program like this one, you can ask to be put in touch with students further along in the program, or you can simply introduce yourself. These seasoned veterans can direct you around the campus, show you the library, and give you advice about how to manage your crushing reading schedule. They’re invaluable resources and can be great friends and mentors, too.

4. Read Blogs like Hook and Eye! Blogs like this one can be invaluable resources. Melissa has written about things she wished she’d known when she started her PhD, and Boyda has discussed productivity in the PhD and practicing self-care. Aimée has blogged about how to write great conference proposals, and I’ve talked about starting writing groups, and what it’s like to teach for the first time. Over the next few months, we’ll be tackling how to choose an advisor, issues related to graduate-student labour, self-care, and other questions of concern to both the newbie and seasoned graduate student.

academic work · advice · balance · collaboration · community · day in the life · grad school · making friends · writing

Write! In Community!

If you asked me while I was in the first year of my PhD how I would manage the long, unstructured hours of post-course-work dissertation writing, I might have stared at you blankly and stammered out something about supervisory meetings, conference proposals, creating self-imposed deadlines blah blah blah.

Really I would have had no clue. In fact, it took me about three months of post-candidacy-defense panicking to figure out exactly how to write the dissertation (well, how to start writing the dissertation, anyway!). And though my supervisory meetings have been absolutely essential in helping me move along through the program, and conference proposals have helped me clarify and restate my ideas in clear and simple prose, I can honestly say the best thing for my productivity, bar none, has been my writing group. Strike that: my two writing groups.

It was mostly serendipitous, and I honestly can’t quite remember how I started with either one. The first had been going for a while before I became a regular member, I started out occasionally and then became a regular, the second I joined on the suggestion of a friend who didn’t even attend herself. Now they have both become essential not only for my productivity, but for my sanity as well. I need these groups not just because of the habit and practice of writing, which becomes mandatory in the presence of the all-mighty timer, but also because this is time to chat, commiserate, ask questions, and, ultimately, build friendships. My writing group buddies are the people who have offered me support, both in terms of the practice of writing and in the practice of care. These are the people who have helped me prioritize my work/life commitments with with offers of babysitting, dinner for my family, drinks out, and sympathetic ears. We offer each other advice from things ranging from conference attire to encouragement for how to slog through a chapter that’s burgeoning out of control. And, of course, we stop talking and write.

Want to start your own writing group? Here’s how we structure a day of writing:

1. At the beginning of each writing session, we usually state what we hope to accomplish in the session. Working on a portion of a chapter? Writing a conference proposal? Revising an article for publication? We say what we’re working on and what, specifically, we’d like to write during the day.

2. Stick to the timer. Each writing session is usually divided up into several chunks of time, which we dedicate to writing. We set the timer for 25-45 minutes, depending on how people are feeling in terms of focus and goals. Then, we stick to it. The rule is no talking while the timer is running, no internet, no interruptions. After the timer has gone, we usually say what we accomplished during the unit, or describe how it went.

3. Take Breaks. Whether it’s to check email, chat about how the writing is going, or complain about how hard writing is (WRITING IS SO HARD), these are imperative to making the day work. I usually take a minimum half hour break for lunch, but 5-10 minute breaks between timer units are important as well. Our brains need breaks to refocus.

Do you have a writing group? What kinds of habits do you practice?

conferences · guest post · making friends · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This guest post, by Megan Dean, a masters student in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, reminds us that not all subjects move through the world in the same ways, nor are all technologies and practices “selfish” in the same ways. It reminds us as well that interpersonal interactions can be asymmetrical in ways that are scary. This is a useful reminder.


At this year’s meeting for the society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, I attended a thought-provoking panel entitled “How Big is the Body?” Tracy Nicholls’ contribution contrasted the disparate experiences of listening to music with others—described in rich and vibrant language as the expansion of the body through space—and listening to an iPod—characterized as an isolating experience that effectively limits the body, foreclosing possibilities for community by buffering the earbudded individual from others’ “big bodies” which otherwise might “bump into” her. I was drawn to Nicholls’ description of communal musical experience, to the feeling of being thrown out of oneself by music. At the same time, I was troubled by her description of the ipod as a technology that entails selfish or even rude disengagement from others.

I always carry an iPod. The central reason for this is not to provide a soundtrack to my day, but to lessen the personal impact of sexual harassment. Appearing as if I can’t hear anything isn’t always effective in preventing harassers from calling out or making comments, but at least I can pretend I didn’t hear them when they do.

Two days prior to Nicholl’s talk I had been sexually harassed while in the line-up for conference registration. The incident had left me flustered and upset, and I had spent the rest of that day alone in my room, wanting to avoid running into the harasser again or having to explain my emotional state to colleagues. The harasser’s “big body” was one that I’d have been better off having never bumped into. 

Thinking through Nicholl’s paper in light of this incident, I suggest that disengagement via iPod should not be dismissed as a selfish, community-degrading practice; while it sounds counterintuitive, I think self-imposed isolation deserves consideration as a useful strategy for building moral communities, or at least for supporting the sorts of persons who can engage in that work.

Some level of personal fortitude is important for political engagement, especially where one’s politics is a fundamentally critical one. Such a politics suggests that one will be regularly disgusted, frustrated, and outraged by the everyday behaviour of institutions and individuals. Dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration generated by such encounters can be productive and motivate people to become politically active. It can also be dis-enabling and self-destructive. I draw strength from feminist colleagues and friends, whose support helps me withstand “bumping into” the bodies of “normal” individuals—normal meaning sexist, racist, ableist, and speciesist—without devolving into rigid bitterness, apathy, or ressentiment. Even with this support, the harassment left me upset and frustrated. The fact is that most of us are more than aware that sexual harassment exists and calls for a response. Being harassed one more time did little to enhance my appreciation of this. What it did do is undermine my confidence and lead me to withdraw from an important professional event. Having an option to strategically avoid, however imperfectly, situations like this one merits consideration as a tool for preserving personal well-being and avoiding some of the very real negative individual consequences of sexual harassment.

So while I am sympathetic to the imperative to open ourselves to others in the interest of building better, more equitable and just communities, and I am certain that in many cases, we should confront what (or who) is problematic face to face, we should consider the political and personal value of occasionally sticking the earbuds in and tuning those big, “normal” and unfortunately sexist bodies out.

Megan Dean

appreciation · balance · good things · grad school · making friends · networking

Coats on the floor, the wine’s over there: Department parties

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.

The tally:

  • 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.

advice · community · DIY · faster feminism · ideas for change · making friends · new year new plan · role models

Guest Post: How to start a professional development group for academic women

A very useful and inspiring guest post, from Bonnie Kaserman, on 10 Things to Consider when starting a professional development group for academic women. Who doesn’t love a neatly organized list at the beginning of term? Particularly one that helps us support one another more effectively?

(Also, I love the reminder that food motivates people. Oh, yes, it’s true! I’ll bring the bean dip!)


Have you been thinking about starting up a group to support the academic women on your campus?

Yes, you’ll be busy as the school year starts in earnest. Overwhelmed. But, at least in my experience, having a community to meet and talk about gender in the academy can be one of the most invigorating and sustaining aspects of academic life. Since the late 1990s, I’ve been involved in groups that support women in my discipline of Geography. (For example, see C-SWIG). Our monthly meetings are part-professional development and part emotional support. Here are a few tidbits that I’ve gleaned along the way to get a group going and keep it going:

  1. Start your group at the beginning of fall term. You think, “We’ll start something after the rush at the beginning of term.” But the truth is, life only gets more hectic. Get the ball rolling early and establish the group as part of everyone’s regular schedule.
  2. Decide on membership. Who will be in this group? Undergrads, graduate students, post-docs, faculty? Is your group exclusive to women? It’s important to have space exclusively for those who self-identify as women, but you must weigh the political ramifications of doing so. Also, with people coming and going from institutions, consider how the group’s membership will be sustained from year to year.
  3. Consider affiliating your group with your university. Funding may be sparse these days, but if your group can be considered an official student group, you may be able to apply for university funding. Use those dollars to fund guest speakers or to help fund members’ travel for conferences.
  4. Share the responsibilities. Women are often assigned time-sucking social responsibilities in their departments and at their institutions. Make an agreement about how responsibilities (facilitating a meeting, choosing readings, organizing an event, etc.) will be shared amongst group members.
  5. Establish a website and a listserv. Agree upon a mission statement and sets of goals. Also, when is your next meeting? What is the topic? What resources do you want to share? The website will serve as the group’s public face as well as the group’s archive of meetings and activities.
  6. Meet regularly and vary when you meet. Meeting once a month has worked well for our group, and, in order to accommodate so many schedules, we vary the weeknight when we meet. Keep meetings from being a burden by having a set meeting-end time. Be diligent and unapologetic about ending the meeting. Also, have each member bring a snack to share. Food = attendance.
  7. Have focused meeting topics and consider assigned readings. Have one topic per meeting and pair it with a short reading or two (as in: you can read them on the bus on the way to the meeting). Readings help to ground the group in that discussion and help to connect personal experiences to larger sets of practices. Read about academic mentoring, gender & race in academe, work-life, and classroom dynamics. Keep in mind that once the group gets going that returning members need new dialogue. Readings along with different topics help with keeping ideas and strategies fresh.
  8. Teach members about creating online presence and emerging online technologies. Remember: who learns new online technologies is uneven. Teach each other and seek out university resource staff who may be willing to guide your group in these endeavors. Also, share knowledge about appropriate software, such as Omeka and Zotero.
  9. Discuss confidentiality. Depending on the kinds of discussion your group is having, you may want to open your meetings with a reminder about building trust. “Safe” spaces and supportive environments are different.
  10. Activist activities. My group has primarily focused on small interventions in our everyday lives as academics. Small interventions can make a huge impact. At the same time, what about working together to influence a change in policy at the departmental or university level? Or making a change at the disciplinary level by connecting with other like-minded groups within your discipline’s national or international organization. Having formal impact can help to sustain a group.

Bonnie Kaserman

academy · appreciation · balance · change · equity · good things · having it all · ideas for change · kid stuff · making friends · reform

Something special, an ordinary party

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 😉

going public · making friends · outreach

Materfamilias Writes. Under her own name.

From Frances Sprout! Who very kindly introduced herself to me at, yes, a panel on social media in higher ed, and who offered a post. Some great back-to-school musings on being personal, in public, as we all dust off our satchels and our lesson plans.

Ever since I first discovered Hook and Eye, I’ve wanted to comment on it: at first, simply to congratulate its collaborators on creating this welcome venue; regularly since then because some post has reflected my experience so brilliantly or another has galvanized me to protest or another has moved me to share a sexist moment in anticipation of some feminist solidarity. Yet I’ve always held back. Why? Because to do so, I would either have to hide – or own up to – my own blogs, signalled as soon as another reader clicks on the avatar marking my comment. Hiding (registering another name, keeping it separate from my Google/Blogger identity) felt cowardly, but I wasn’t ready to own my digital corpus yet. Instead, stalling has been my chosen response for the past year, while I regularly composed numerous imaginary posts and comments “outing” myself. And then I met Aimée at an ACCUTE panel in Fredericton. Only two months later, and here’s my submission for a potential guest post.

The irony about my continued reluctance to expose myself is that my blog, Materfamilias Writes, began from an impulse to integrate my academic life with the rest of it. As well, I hoped to free up my writing voice from the strangling effect of dissertation-writing, a hyper-awareness of my internal editor. And perhaps most honestly, I wanted to satisfy my urge to write without the demands of research, difficult to achieve with a 4/4 teaching schedule. (I’ve been pleased to discover that the habit of regular non-academic writing has, in fact, led to a small, but satisfying, file of research-based writing.) Writing about my quotidian pursuits satisfied these goals, but left me self-conscious – at least in academic venues – about my less-than-scholarly focus.

How much less scholarly, you ask? Well, let’s see. My most common tags are “shoes,” “knitting,” “what I wore,” “garden,” “Paris,” “food,” “family,” and, more recently, “granddaughter.” All those pieces of life (excepting family and granddaughter, I hope) most likely to be dismissed as superficial. Not particularly associated with “the life of the mind.”

As well, as my community of fellow bloggers has grown and coalesced, I write increasingly about life for women “of a certain age.” Not only write about it, but also share photos of myself in that genre some of you may know as What I Wore/What I’m Wearing. I know other academics do this – Audi at Fashion for Nerds is a great example, as are the collaborative blogs Academichic (sadly seemingly defunct! –ed.) and In Professorial Fashion – but these stylish academic bloggers are all considerably younger than I am. Besides vaulting the hurdles that separate the “life of the mind” from ornamentation of the body, I’m contending with a social expectation that women my age (58, since you’re asking) not draw attention to their dress. Claiming visibility is too often rewarded with that horrid butcher-derived label, “Mutton dressed as lamb.”

And visibility, of course, is a huge issue when one teaches 4 and 4. I’m up in front of that classroom for twelve hours each week, scrutinized by a tough crowd. Disgruntled at having to write about poetry when they only want a B.Comm ticket to ride, my students may well delight at the possibilities for ridicule inherent in a post with photos of me “restyling” an old pair of jeans, a vintage sweater, demonstrating the value of Fluevog heels for enlivening a ho-hum skirt. I believe in the politics of posting about my late-middle-age pursuit of personal style, but I’ve so far been relieved that Materfamilias and Frances Sprout have been distinct beings, occupying parallel, but mainly separate spheres. That relief is doubled when I picture my dissertation supervisor stumbling across my blog (my security is ensured by the unlikelihood of her wasting time as an internet flaneuse).

The panels on blogging I’ve attended at recent academic conferences haven’t made me feel any more comfortable – the blogs discussed are most often scholarly in focus, or occasionally creative, with an emphasis on experimentation. Even the name I chose just over four years ago sometimes embarrasses me: I wanted to signal the importance of my family life, the way my role – as mother of four grown children – acts as a balancing counterweight to the challenges of academe; instead, I worry that I appear to fetishize a retro-domesticity, never, ever part of my program. Even the gap between the name of my blog, Materfamilias Writes, and the key words of my URL, materfamiliasknits, seems to signal a gap between my claim to a writing (thus allied to academe in a small way) life and the reality of a domestic limitation. You might want to write, sweetie, but what you really should stick to is your knitting.

I’ve been taking some baby steps lately though, trying to own my digital corpus with something like the politics that propel me to own my physical body, to show photographs of what a late-middle-aged woman looks like in her jeans. The first baby step came involuntarily. I was pushed, in fact, by the Vancouver Opera when their Social Media Manager asked me to join the “live bloggers” during performances throughout 2009-10 and 2010-11. I had barely said “yes” to the opportunity when I realized my IRL name was being linked to my blog; googling it could show students a direct path to my blog. I gulped, thought about that reality, and carried on. Since most of them are more likely to click on Rate Your Professor than on a weird Latin name, I have not, so far, noticed any increase in classroom snickering. More recently, when signing up for a Twitter account, I used my real name on my profile, although I tweet as “Materfam” to continue building my blog readership. As well, using TweetDeck to send Twitter posts to Facebook means more colleagues may follow the breadcrumbs to my other side, and I’m trying to accept that this is an okay, if not definitively a good thing.

Because much of what I have to offer as a teacher, and even, I’d argue, as a scholar, was built in that other part of my life. I was in my early 40s, with four kids, before I completed my undergrad, over 50 when my PhD was finally done. I will never catch up to the scholarly research foundation built by those of you who have been immersed in academe from your 20s. But I have a wealth of life experience and tangible skills that I am convinced can – and really, must – be integrated with any scholarship and teaching that I do. So, whew!, here’s an attempt to do that, integrating my digital selves in a continuing effort to build an authentic life, in the classroom, in the library, and beyond, I’m finally free to comment as my “self” (however Judith Butler might problematize that notion) on future HookandEye posts.

faster feminism · making friends · openness

Making Connections

Sometimes I’m shy. I find it hard to advertise myself and my work. Sometimes I even find it difficult too post status updates. In part this is due to only beginning to learn to toot my own horn, but it is also partly due to my reluctance to network. Until relatively recently “networking” has been a term that has me thinking of suits, firm handshakes, and back room deals. But seriously, networking is an important part of what we do.

Recently one of my colleagues and blogging mentors noted that she’d finally watched The Social Network. I had twitter updates and RSS feeds on my mind when I came across the fact that Tenured Radical has also recently mentioned social networking. Specifically, Tenured Radical thinks through the dictum that networking is a crucial part of the academic’s job.

I’ve been thinking about networking as the crocuses outside peek through the detritus of winter. Conference season is nearly upon us here in Canada, and as a voice from the un-tenured stream the pros (networking! paper writing! public presentation of self!) and cons (cost! cost! cost!) of conference travel weight heavily on my mind. Furthermore, I’ve had some former students contact me lately asking about how to network which I suspect means 1) how do I do it? and 2) does it really matter?

So, following TR’s lead I’d like to think through some of my own networking in the past several years. It hasn’t landed me a tenure-track job (yet) but what has it accomplished?

Fall of 2006: I attend a conference at the other large university in the province where I was completing my PhD. I give a paper which was…poorly received (to say the least!) and am shaken. This isn’t my first conference, but it is early in my PhD programme. I leave, convinced my career is ruined.

Spring 2006: I attend the annual ACCUTE conference at York University where my dear friend is the President of the Graduate Student Caucus. I tag along with him to the meeting because I hardly ever get to see him. I wind up volunteering to co-steer the GSC for the following year and to take over the year after that. Enter my first experience of being involved in a national committee. Invaluable!

Spring 2007: I return to the same aforementioned university to give another paper. I am chatting with a friend who introduces me to her supervisor, the incomparable Susan Brown. Susan introduces me to Heather Zwicker (the very same!) and they tell me they’d like for me to write a reflective piece on my hard conference experience for an anthology they are co-editing. You can read about it here. This was my first invited piece of academic writing.

Spring 2008: I head once more to the close-by university where my PhD supervisor had been invited to join a discussion for a new project. The project was being initiated by Susan Brown and the weekend was co-facilitated by Heather. I was the only graduate student in attendance. I was able to sit in a room full of my now colleagues, then mentors, and watch a project be planned from the ground up. That project is now the path-breaking CWRC. If you’re interested in seeing what it is all about you can send in a conference paper proposal, they are due March 31st.

Spring 2010: I am at the ACCUTE conference in Montreal where I am chairing a roundtable for CWRC and giving a paper called “Hopelessly Witty or Witless Hope: Notes from LTA-Land” for the Committee for Professional Concerns. Heather is in the audience and we reintroduce ourselves. She has an idea for a feminist academic blog. We talk about it, she introduces me to Aimée, we start planning for what is now Hook & Eye.

Fall 2010: Hook & Eye is launched. I feel I am able/responsible/willing to speak about my experience as a woman in the non-tenured stream (trying to get into that other stream) and that I have a productive and receptive space in which to do this.

Granted this is an abbreviated list of networking moments, and I’ve presented one branch of my career that follows a somewhat straightforward pathway. Would I have started a blog about my experience of this profession otherwise? Who knows. Will blogging count as public intellectual work to a SSHRC committee? I couldn’t say. Do I know exactly what the quantitative benefits of networking have been in my career thus far? No, but I can make some educated guesses.

It can be easy to feel jaded, or even intimidated by networking. Its hard to know how many conferences are enough, or when you’ve over-introduced yourself, but I can say that I’m consistently surprised by the ways in which moments of networking (or moments that didn’t even seem like networking but did require me putting myself and my work out in the world) have come back in exciting ways.

I’ll leave Tenured Radical with the (second) last work on this:

“The ability to get things done not only makes life more pleasant, and far richer when you consider time consuming projects like program development and the hiring of new colleagues, but it frees up time to write. It also brings interesting and novel projects — book series, journal articles, special issues, conferences, and Internet-based exchanges — to fruition. This, I think, reveals the basic value of networking: when it works, it isn’t about you. It’s about you in relation to others. Scholarship, at its most effective, is about exchange, not about the grandiosity of one person.”


What about you, dear readers? Have you any surprising networking successes?
community · emotional labour · making friends · reform · righteous feminist anger · slow academy

Feeeeeelings, Nothing More than Feeeelings

You know I write about mommy blogs, right? I’ve just handed in a paper to Biography on the intimate public of mommy blogging, wherein I argue that that genre’s emphasis on sharing personal details about private lives both separates this blogging community from the broader, rational public sphere, and cements deep emotional connections between participants.

This seems important to me to consider more broadly, this week, following Shannon Dea’s fantastic guest post on the situation at UW, and how women’s feelings of (in)security are deemed irrational and overwrought. I’m thinking about the emotional labour of activating the classroom, about making lists to supplement our memories. I’m thinking about how those of my posts that get the most responses are the ones that relate personal details from my private life.

I’m thinking again about how to blend the personal and the professional, and in the context of my own feminism. Feelings, I think, might be a feminist issue.

I’d like to direct your attention to ‘Another Mother’s’ blog– how can you not be favorably predisposed to a blog that puns in its very title as cleverly as Breast for the Weary? Montreal resident Shannon Smith started this blog after being kicked out of a children’s clothing store for breastfeeding her infant. Go away and read her post on the incident, and then come back, okay?

[hums, taps foot, gets a glass of water …]

How brave do you have to be to write this?

“I knew the law. I knew my rights. But I was still upset. And not the angry, self-important, righteous kind of upset. The teary, scared, “they’re going to kick me out of the store”, “I’m here with my kids” type of upset. It was clear I was about to be thrown out, and I was pretty sure that if I was going to be forced to justify feeding my baby, I was going to cry. And I felt truly alone.”

Smith’s blog is remarkable for the way it combines a personal narrative recounted in deeply emotional terms with a call to public action, citing and linking to case law, public policy documents, and activist organizations in articulating purely rational arguments against her banishment from the store.

Lauren Berlant claims “that the gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real—social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life” (5). I think being a woman in the academy has some characteristics that are hard to manage in the lived real. For me, this blog (and other blogs I’ve written) help me cultivate a real sense of belonging, a place where I can share my feelings … where I can feel better in ways that perhaps empower me to act in more concrete ways in the sometimes hostile public spheres where I have learned to never show those feelings.

I want to be more like Shannon Smith. I want to be able to pull together a kick-ass, well-cited, rational, legal case to support whatever it is I’m proposing; and I want to be able to talk about my feelings at the same time.

Easy enough (for various reasons on which I can expound at great length, and with citations, even) to do on a blog. Harder to do where it matters: in the classroom, in our published research, in our committee meetings, with our colleagues and advisees, with administrators and public agencies.

How to transform the longstanding dismissal of feelings from public discourse, without either evacuating this public discourse of its rationality? Any ideas?