copper-bottomed bitch · making friends · saving my sanity · wish list

Merry Christmas! — Wanna make somethin’ of it?

On the syllabus of my first year class this year, December 6th is noted thus: “Papers handed back; receive Christmas cookie.”

Yeah, that’s right. A Christmas cookie. And I wished them all a Merry Christmas on the way out–and told them to relax over the break from studies and the enjoyment of whatever holiday they celebrate. Me, I celebrate Christmas, and wanted to share good wishes from that angle. I bake Christmas cookies, and host a Christmas party, and send out Christmas cards, and hang Christmas lights, and I even have more than one Christmas screen saver.

I was raised Catholic, so I come by this honestly. I’m not Catholic anymore, and my Christmas is more about the secularized rituals of decoration and eggnog and Santa and such. But still. It’s Christmas. It’s not “the season” nor is it “the holidays,” particularly not as such locutions are generally meant, in the most hysterical of politically correct hypercorrection, to not offend someone who might not celebrate Christmas. You don’t have to celebrate Christmas; that’s fine. I’m by no means intending to proselytize. However, I don’t get what’s offensive about me sharing good wishes with you on the basis of a holiday I jump into with both feet every single year: part of my Christmas is smiling at people and wishing them Merry Christmas.

We are arrived at a sorry state when cheerful greetings and a desire to share buttery baked goods chokes up in our throats because we don’t want to offend anyone. Because we’re scared. How on Earth can I offend anyone by smiling and wishing them well, wishing them shortbread dusted in icing sugar and coloured sprinkles?

Surely, we are not so delicate as to be offended by kindness? I am a vegetarian. Sometimes, I go places where people don’t know that, and prepare food with meat, and offer it to me with kindness. You know what? I eat it. I eat it because it was prepared with good will and generosity, as a gesture of human contact. Also, usually, I’m pretty hungry.

So. I think it’s terrible, this slicing and dicing of acceptable phrases of mush that are deliberately context- and culture-free. It’s a vague, bland, nothing kind of self-expression of the sort that if it showed up in an essay I’d draw a field of Rudolph noses all over it. What do you mean? Be precise! Weasel words!

In this vein, I’m actually a lot more sympathetic to those who lobby to “keep the Christ in Christmas” than I am with the purveyors of “season’s greetings” and “holiday sale.” They are trying, at least, to keep some specificity and rootedness in their celebration. Still, I’m a sucker for red and white decorations and for the (religious) traditions of my own childhood.  So yeah, I’m secularizing and generalizing Christmas. But I draw the line at changing the name. And I draw the line at the idea that calling Christmas what it is is somehow offensive. One of my friends and I were out for supper the other night, and heard a really loud someone at another table speaking loudly of “ghetto blasters” and we looked at one another, askance: we call them boom boxes now, because ‘ghetto blaster’ is a derogatory term. Christmas, I suggest to you, is not a derogatory term, and needs to emendation.

So then. From my keyboard to yours: Merry Christmas, goddamnit.

Have a cookie. I made ’em myself.

grad school · making friends · moving

On Moving

As you know, blogging is new for me. Last week while I was rushing to finish a mind-blowingly long application I sent out a request for post ideas. A new acquaintance of mine suggested discussing moving. Or, more accurately, he suggested discussing the mostly-unspoken pressure to move around to complete various degrees.

Moving is a topic near to my heart… Since beginning my undergraduate degree in 1997 I have moved 18 times. I’ve lived in North Carolina, British Columbia (island and interior and, for a short time, on a school bus), Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and now Nova Scotia. I’ve gone to three different universities to obtain my three degrees, took one small year off (hence the BC living), and have happened to move house almost every year for various reasons. Given that I and many of my dear friends and acquaintances are also still on the job market moving is very much on my mind.

But as I mentioned my friend who initially suggested this post had a slightly different angle in mind. He’d been thinking specifically about the pressure to move to a different university to complete your degree. That’s something which was really easy for me to do, and less so for him given family obligations. But he’s got me thinking: is moving to do your degree necessary?

I always thought so, though in retrospect I’m not certain why. I began my academic career in the United States. I was already accustomed to moving, my parents changed career when I was 10 leading us from Ottawa to rural North Carolina twice a year. So perhaps the itch/ability/inevitability to move was ingrained. But, those of you located in the U.S. of A. will know that it isn’t necessary to move this much if you choose to enter academia: the Masters degree is streamed into the PhD process which means that (like the student who received and ‘A’ on her Emerson paper) students begin the PhD process at age 21 or so (making huge obvious assumptions about going straight through one’s degree with no deviations or interruptions called life). Another good friend of mine did this: we began our BA at the same time, she’s finished her PhD now, and she’s lived in the same place for more than 4 years.

In Canada there does seem to be more pressure to move around to do one’s degree. As I say, that’s been easy for me in the past because I’ve almost always been making decisions for myself alone. But I can think of several friends–of various genders–who have agonized about continuing on because it has generally required leaving or uprooting family and partner.

I’m not sure what I think about this imperative–real or implied–to move for various degrees. Certainly that’s due in part to the fact it hasn’t been an overly agonizing detail for me (although that’s changing now). I appreciate the three very different geographic spaces in which I took my degrees: North Carolina and Montreal and Alberta have surprising similarities in addition to the myriad of obvious differences. I have become extremely adept at starting over. But is it necessary to move?

Your turn readers: what do you think about the pressure (implied or overt) to move for various degrees?

copper-bottomed bitch · making friends

Why I don’t want to be friends: a word from Dr Chary

I’ve been thinking about Erin’s Monday post about friendship and mentoring – and everybody’s smart, smart comments. I agree with a lot of what she says. I agree that inter-generational conversations are a joy. I really like my students; I am amazed by their energy and their wit and their ingenuity. I have feelings of warmth, respect, and concern toward them. I am thrilled by their successes and I will always make myself available to talk about their institutional, personal, or intellectual difficulties. In addition, and less personally, I think our highly cerebral institutions should be friendlier. I believe that it’s important for women who have ‘made it’ to hold out an open hand to those who want to. So I facebook current graduate students and former undergrads, if they want, though I don’t take it personally if they don’t.

I’d bank on the fact that many of my students and mentees (as the lingo has it) are reading this, which makes what I am about to say kind of awkward:

I do not necessarily want to be friends with them.

It actually has nothing to do with them; I don’t really want to be friends with anybody. I am not looking for new friends. My friend drawer is full. I barely have time to stay connected to the friends I do have. I have made approximately three new friends in the last five years – okay, maybe four – okay, maybe one a year. (Okay, yes, you’re right, maybe a few more than that.) Each one is a surprise. We are thrown together by circumstance (leadership training, the academic plan, a queer festival, to cite some not-so-random examples, or the job market drops someone in) and gradually what’s between us becomes more than that. I cannot identify the moment when it happens – I find that growing sense of commitment and interest, those tendrils of inchoate affection magical and mysterious, and I like it that way – but I can mark the moment when I realize we are friends. It is kind of like the moment I admit that the seemingly disconnected sensations of sore throat, itchy eyes, and muscle aches are not just random, but evidence that I am actually coming down with a cold. A cold! The common cold! Same sense of disbelief, similar sense of outrage.

Outrage? Yes. Because friendship demands a lot. My friends have always been the most important source of succor to me, and there is nothing I would not do for them. Deliver your babies in Portland? Check. Fly to Seattle to help you through a rough patch? Wouldn’t think twice. What, you need to move in with me for a while? No problem.

Maybe I have a ridiculous understanding of friendship; maybe those thousands of dollars in therapy would have been better spent on shoes, since evidently I have no boundaries where my friendships are concerned. Or maybe I should be less uptight and allow the facebook standard (“I know you, therefore we are friends”) to characterize the mutual caring, understanding and trust that passes as friendship today. But let me get to my point.

The problem I have with befriending students is that women are already disproportionately called on to do unpaid emotional labor in this profession. We do this work because we believe it is important. Reread Erin’s post: everything she says is true, and her gratitude is heartfelt. We believe we have benefited from such care; we believe we can help others by extending an open hand and a listening ear. I believe all those things. I also believe – though we admit this far less readily – that we get something (re/assurance? a sense of worth? an optimistic glimpse of a profession after the old boys’ game?) from the sense of being needed by someone junior. But this is not exactly friendship, with its ragged and unpredictable demands and its besotted joys, or at least it shouldn’t be.

And I’m not convinced that the concept of “mentoring” solves the problem, either. In fact, I worry that mentoring – particularly now that it is shaping up to be another institutional command (enhance your teaching! engage your students! mentor your colleagues!) – is just one more way of masking women’s unpaid emotional work. While I like Julie R’s articulate response in Monday’s comments – that mentoring is a relationship initiated within and largely determined by institutional conditions that we forget at our peril – her proposal presumes that what students need from us is a relationship, and if a relationship is done right, it can’t be predicted or easily parceled out into chunks of time and attention. Students will drop issues into the middle of a crowded inbox and their crises are blind to whatever is going on in your life (even if students themselves are considerate, which mine most certainly are). If you ask me, our feelings are no less genuine for being institutionally mediated – and no less complex. But mentoring talks about boundaries and modeling as though human interactivity is a technology, as though any situation has a pat answer that will protect everybody’s individuality and model appropriate behavior, when in reality we live most days like battlefield surgeons: you live! you die! you wait! you’re next!

I’m willing to bet that what guides most of us through this chaotic minefield is emotional intelligence: a well honed sense of what others need, what we can provide, and what’s sustainable. It’s so well honed it feels intuitive. So we drop everything (or not), we take our junior colleagues out for coffee, we make the time and find the energy to stay connected.

But do you think men do? Do you think our male colleagues steer through chaotic days according to a goal of cultivating the whole person? Do you think they feel the same sense that the university’s very livability rests in finding the right email tone, making a prompt and compassionate response, offering understanding as well as solutions? Doubtful. (Cue the standard caveat: not all women, not no men.) And will the institution ever sufficiently reward women for the actual work we do in the name of mentoring? Just think of it: teaching seen as more than classroom practice! graduate supervision recognized for its quality! tenure and promotion: more than a research sweepstakes!

Until that happy day, we will keep mentoring and even befriending our students and junior colleagues because we genuinely care, because it’s the right thing to do, because we believe in paying it forward, because we need each other, and because we crazily, optimistically, recklessly hope that these human interactions might help build not just a better institution, but also a more equitable future.

(PS: M, I’d still like to come over for dinner on Saturday – if you’ll have me.)

making friends · openness · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Mentorship as Responsible Engagement, or, why I do make friend with (some of) my students

This post comes to you by way of a bit of a syllogism:

In a recent post at the fabulous University of Venus, Denise Horn wrote about becoming Facebook friends with one’s students. She suggests, and I agree, that part of the professorial job is mentorship, and that often that mentorship starts first through friendship.

I am currently in a (not so) unusual position of applying for both postdoctoral fellowships and—why not?—faculty research grants. This has me contacting former supervisors and committee members, as well as colleagues for letters of advice and support. I am lucky to say that all of these people who were initially my mentors and professors are now also my friends.

Which leads me to the following conclusion: mentorship is a form of friendship, and like it or not, we’ve all signed up for this. Working in the Academy means encountering undergraduate and graduate students in all phases of their lives, as well as their work, and while the life aspect of these encounters can indeed have the potential to cause complications, this is the emotional geography in which we work.

I will never forget the first time a professor and I got together for coffee and discussion. I had a good sense of how taxed her time was, and I was incredibly appreciative of her willingness to talk with me about my work. As it turns out, we got along incredibly well. Her willingness to be friends with me—which amounted to getting together for coffee every couple of weeks, both on campus and off, as well as exchanging informal emails and periodically getting together for a meal—had an insurmountable impact on me. She made me feel like being an academic didn’t have to mean hiding my personality and, even more so, she made me feel like my perspectives mattered outside the classroom as well as inside it.

When I transitioned to the other side of the podium as a teacher I found myself strangely reticent to become friends with my students. I worried that my age was (for, well, approximately five minutes) too close to theirs, that I would be misinterpreted somehow. But without quite realizing it—until, that is, I read Denise’s post in the same week I was contacting reference writers—I have discovered that reticence has changed. No, I do not make friend requests willy-nilly to my class lists, nor to I accept friend requests with abandon. But I do try to take time to talk to the students who want to chat, and I do suggest going for coffee sometimes. After all, in addition to the promises of fame and fortune I got into this profession because I love talking with others. The privilege of inter-generational discursive engagement is just that: a privilege.

And so, in this harried month of class list changes, grant writing, and general insanity I’d like to say thank you to the professors and colleagues who have mentored me. And to my students, thank you for reminding me that mentorship is a kind of friendship, and that both require responsible engagement.

Let’s have it: do you make friends with your students/professors? Or have I just been quite lucky?