Twenty-two years ago my mom drove me from my summer job at the family business in Ontario to begin my first year of university in North Carolina.
Seventeen years ago I moved from the interior of British Columbia to Quebec to start my Masters at McGill.
Fifteen years ago I moved from Montreal to Calgary to start a PhD.
Ten years ago I moved across the country to start a ten-month contract as Dalhousie.
Nine years ago we began Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe.
Six years ago I started a twelve-month contract at Mount Allison University.
Five years ago I was teaching sessionally and my partner was teaching on contract. We had a five month old infant and no regular child care.
Four years ago I was on an with-month contract at Acadia University.
Three years ago I started a tenure-track position.
So much of my life has been organized around the ebb and flow of an academic timeline. At times this has felt thrilling. At others, it has been oppressive and scary. Often, it has been something in between, and much of that has been tied to the more-or-less precarious state I’ve been living.
As we enter this new school year I find myself reflecting not only on my own trajectory–warts, roses, and all the rest of it–I find myself thinking about the ways in which communities are made and re-made in the spaces around and in academia. Hook & Eye was imagined as one such possible space.
This year, as we revivify the work we do here, and as we look toward a full decade of feminist academic blogging, I find myself grateful for what has come before, and excited for what is to come.
Welcome. Welcome back. Let’s get to work, and let’s balance that work with the rest of our fulsome lives.
I’m kind of a Kondo-ite. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up rivals Pride and Prejudice on my list of sick-in-bed comfort reads. When stressed, I throw things out. It’s never been the wrong thing to do.
It’s my first week back to teaching, after my year-long sabbatical and I’m a little frazzled just from the change in pace, routine, number of people, details to manage, the excitement of a new semester. At night, my daughter and I crawl into bed together with the cat and the dog and fire up an episode of Tidying Up on the Netflix-machine and enjoy the transition from the overwhelm and frazzle of my messy day–oh, wait, I mean someone else’s messy home–to the beatific smiles that arise when you know that when you open that specific kitchen drawer, there’s an open spot to put the can opener back into. Ahhhhhh.
It’s easy to focus on the before, on the piles and piles and piles of DVDs, the overflowing laundry baskets, counters encrusted with random bric-a-brac, the entire rumpus room of Christmas decorations in April. It’s easy to goggle at the enormous piles of garbage bags. It’s easy to spin cynical narratives of late capitalist over-accumulation and the soothing of every feeling of discomfort with “retail therapy,” easy to tut-tut at a particularly American drive to always have more, damn the torpedoes, the credit-rating, the square-footage of the dwelling, common sense. It’s easy to think: these people need to learn to say no, to get rid of, to limit, to control. A tightening of purse strings. Self-discipline. No. Consider some of the recent journalism on this. Very judgemental.
The Mersier family (the episode I watched last night) made a special point of noting that Kondo doesn’t judge anyone’s possessions, anyone’s choice about what sparks joy and what doesn’t. And that’s true. Kondo is not so much about getting rid of clutter but of recalibrating your joy sensor. People don’t accumulate 200 pairs of socks because they’re trying to be slobs. They don’t stack every participation medal they’ve earned since 1983 into a shoe box and put it on the dining room table because they want to make sure everyone eats on the couch. People buy stuff, hold onto stuff, produce teetering piles in the corners of their rooms because at some point those objects felt like the solution to some sort of problem: mismatched and not enough socks, a way to show their care for their childrens’ childhoods, a way to keep cherished hobbies close to hand but not in the way. The impulses are always positive, the gratifications perhaps immediate, but the long-term effects unexpectedly, drip by drip, exhausting and overwhelming. People buy, and keep, and store things to create joy. But they lose the way at some point without realising it and don’t know how to climb over the mountain of discount nutcrackers that are blocking their view of the future.
Kondo helps people find their joy again. It looks like throwing things away, it looks like saying no, forcefully, over and over: no, you don’t need to keep 40 years of baseball cards you collected with your kids who haven’t lived here for 20 years. No you don’t need an insulated coat you bought for Michigan now that you live in California. No you don’t need 80 cotton t-shirts. No your kids shouldn’t have so many possessions that they need secondary storage areas in the common rooms of your home. Violence, self-negation, rejection, deprivation.
But what if Kondo is asking us not to say no, but to say yes?
Why does everyone look more … free at the end of each episode than at the beginning? Their faces softer and more open, their gestures more expansive, their laughs full-throated? They have said yes to joy. They have found what they’re looking for: a ‘path to winning’ for the Mersiers, and the feeling that a downsized apartment has become a home. A path into the future, a wide-open retirement for the couple with enough Christmas decorations to do up all of Macy’s, enough baseball cards to open a store. An end to the petty arguments and helplessness of the couple with two young children and no counter space at all.
Kondo begins her magic by saying yes to the home. She sits on the floor. She closes her eyes and becomes still. She smiles a little, touches her fingertips to the floor and traces a little arc from her knees around to her hips. It is awkward and time-consuming and non-narrative … and unexpectedly moving. At least one woman cries on witnessing it. Others become awkwardly still, humbled, as if by someone praying. They bow their heads, they smile nervously. Kondo says yes to the home. Yes to the idea that home is a space of care, that we respect ourselves and our families and our great privilege by attending to this space.
I’m going somewhere with this.
I want to ask you: what are you saying yes to in your home, or, in your work? I’ve written a few times in the past year about my own sometimes frenzied sometimes deliberate sometimes emotional sometimes planned “tidying up” of my working spaces. I am hundreds and hundreds of pounds lighter in the most material of ways. I am lighter in other ways too: getting rid of something between 50 and 100 books gave me the freedom to read many more things, greet new ideas, cherish older ones, release my guilt and obligation. I’m not going to read Sadie Plant again, I never liked that book in the first place, I can let that book go. I can read something else.
But I have said yes in other acts of “tidying up” as well. More is not always better. A little bravery and thoughtfulness might find joy in less. What looks like no can be a yes.
You can tidy up your habits, ideas of what work is, what you “should” be or do, what is essential and what is not. This tidying up, too, is magic.
When I started teaching, I had textbooks and a coursepacks and exams and oral presentations and a research paper. I wrote lectures. I had quizzes. For every course. I had accumulated all these teaching strategies from various places and figured I had to use all of them all the time. It was, if you will, cluttered and ill thought out. I did all those things to assuage my anxiety about my own competence. I did them to fit in with what I thought my colleagues were doing. I did it because I thought it was what students expected. It didn’t bring me joy. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to keep adding things. Do you see where this is going? When I tidied up my pedagogy and assessments, I got rid of a lot: don’t need an exam in a writing course; don’t need a research paper in a methods course; don’t need oral presentations from students in … most courses, don’t need readings for every single class. No to the piles and to the more and to the eveyrthing, yes to leaner, cleaner, focused work. One of my colleagues expressed great shock that I did away with the 10 page research paper in second year course on literary critical methods. But research what? Scansion? Methods are about applying techniques, about learning specialized language, about recognizing instances of a given thing–there are way better ways than ten-sources-at-least-one-academic-monograph-and-two-peer-reviewed-articles-and-not-more-than-one-internet-site research papers in MLA format following the hourglass structure. That’s just clutter. It does not spark joy. It weighs me down.
My dear colleague Frankie and I are teaching a project based graduate course together, one that blends her expertise in social movements, pedagogies of care, racial justice, and critical theory with mine in social and digital media, in design, in communities of online practice, in virality, in platform. We said no to trying to master one another’s fields; we said yes to learning from each other in class and modelling humility and curiosity in that way. We said no to all assigned reading, no to course packs, no to bookstore orders, no to PDFs on the course website, no to performing our own competence by generating overwhelming reference lists. We said yes to really committing to the project-based pedagogy, and so we said yes to supporting students’ research efforts more generously as they build their own reading lists. Students are anxious about what we’re asking them to do for group projects: but we have said yes to devoting the bulk of instructional and contact time to helping them work through it, as their main focus. I expect a lot of emails: I said no to assigned readings so I can say yes to that extra meeting, yes to reviewing that draft, yes to let’s have a look at that reference list. Just writing this out right now sparks joy.
I have said no to on-campus time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Friday mornings. Saying “no” to campus on those days is actually saying yes to: rebuilding my spoon stock by being quiet, wearing clothes that don’t chafe, taking yoga breaks, watching the birds out my window as I think and write and process. It is saying yes to a Thursday run during daylight hours instead of with a head lamp after supper. Yes to devoting my energy to the big tasks that need me to really manage my attention for a few hours, uninterrupted. Yes to putting some food into the slow cooker at lunchtime and having a hot meal, relaxed, with my family. These slow quiet focused gentle reflective days spark joy in me, make my work joyful. Yes.
On the flip side, I am saying yes to being on campus for 9.5 hours on Monday, with 4.5 of those actually in classroom teaching. I am on campus for 8 hours on Wednesdays, with grad meetings, and 2 hours of office hours, and 1.5 hours of teaching. I am saying yes, Mondays and Wednesdays, to being open and available and dressed professionally and with a packed lunch and collegiality. And I can find joy in this, too, because I do love teaching, spontaneous hallway chats, chance encounters, solving people’s problems, making handouts with jokes in them, and seeing students laugh. Yes to that shift in energy in a classroom when everyone suddenly gets it. Yes to the student who comes to my office to tell me something that is scaring them. Yes to that poster announcing that talk that I never would have thought I wanted to hear but becomes weirdly salient. Yes to enjoying my collection of 90s inspired mock turtlenecks and roomy pants that taper at the ankle, to patent lace-ups. Yes to the walk to and from campus through the park, feeling the wind, crunching the snow.
We all seek joy. We wish to be at peace, in comfort, in control, easeful. Our whole economic system is predicated on making us feel insufficient, not enough, and to find abundance by the accumulation of things. The academy, too, is based on muchness: higher grades, more reading, more publications, longer CVs, bigger grants, more more more. But it’s a trap. Like the contributors on Tidying Up, we have been trying to fulfil our very real needs for emotional and intellectual and practical safety, comfort, and joy by overstuffing our closets and our calendars, enacting positivity by saying yes to more sweaters, more assignments, more emails, more committees in ways that are counterproductive to these needs. Full of shame and fear, tired beyond belief, immured by all our own things and obligations and habits, we feel pushed to say no and it’s hard, like we’re being punished or like we are failing.
But maybe it’s not about the garbage bags, not about the awful spectacle of how you let it get to this point. Maybe it’s about the way you can exhale more deeply, about the room freed up in your head when everywhere you set your eyes does not reproach you with some obligation unmet for some problem not yet solved. Maybe it really is about the joy, about the yes, not the no.
What can you say yes to, this semester, by tidying up–saying yes, even though it looks like a no–some small part of your habits and work? Could you, maybe, find a little space for a tiny act of joy?
My sabbatical ended on December 31–the university officially opened today, January 2, so here I am, being, what? Not-on-sabbatical? That’s pretty much what I’m getting done today: being not-on-sabbatical.
Transitions are not my strong suit, and major life changes are always very emotionally gruelling for me. It was hard for me to go on sabbatical, and now it’s hard for me to end. Before sabbatical, I did a lot of clearing the decks in the months leading up to January, and it did me a world of good to take stock of my office, my books, my career, all the stuff that accumulates, unnoticed, and crufts up one’s soul. And I have done similar before coming back, taking time over the last two months to really think about who I want to be as a teacher, researcher, and colleague upon my return. There may have been free writing and visualization exercises. I know that in the past year I have really gained a lot of confidence as a researcher and writer: freed from both excuses and obligations (and with a coach and, crucially, medication treatment for my ADHD) I discovered with joy that I love my research, that I am a good writer, that others also find value in what I can do with ideas. I haven’t felt that kind of joy and freedom and alive-ness about research since, probably, grad school. I know I want to hold onto that. I’m not just a pretty-good-teacher, service workhorse, and verbally dextrous smartass who wrote an inventive dissertation but probably peaked at the moment of hiring. I’m a very good teacher, actually, and a verbally dextrous smartass who has lots of writing emerging and published. I was maybe a service martyr, and I should not be.
I set some boundaries around my teaching, related to asking for course assignments and schedules that reflect that I have historically taught 30%-100% more students each term than some of my colleagues nominally on the same “teaching load” as me, while also supervising more PhD students than average. So maybe teaching won’t be a black hole of grading and resentment this time around.
I’m coming back with zero administrative assignments. Surely, I’ll be asked to serve on some committees, but I’m now a lot more mindful of what saying yes means (tl;dr: it means saying no to something else). I’m going to do my share, and do it well, and that’s enough.
I’ve been making plans and making lists. My daughter and I walked to campus yesterday bearing indoor shoes and snacks and textbooks and essential oil room spray (“Awake”–lots of mint). I took the time to make lists of what needs doing before classes start on Monday. I cleared the desk, and she made plans to make me new art for the corkboards to replaces some of the … 8 year old drawings fading in the sun.
I came in this morning imagining myself misting the air in invigorating mint, sitting down, setting the timer, and banging out syllabuses and permission forms and emails, and ticking the items off my carefully planned lists. But I’m not.
I’ve spent the morning haunted by all the ghosts in this room, dust-covered noise-maker I got from a Sandy Stone performance in 2001. A photo from a family celebration in 2004. Sarcastic postcards I pinned to my board at least ten years ago. Books that have faded in the sun against the sharp lines of the books filed next to them. Piles of printouts of research for articles I’ve already published. Assigned readings for grad courses I hardly remember teaching. Coffee cups I feel emotionally exhausted just looking at.
It’s hard to make a fresh start in a room you’ve occupied for almost 15 years. My sabbatical was all about personal and professional renewal, about healing and moving forward, about new beginnings, about letting go of what’s not working.
But when I sat down this morning, it felt like nothing had changed. My soul got re-crufted. And so I have been throwing even more things out, putting more books on the giveaway shelf, dusting, spraying room spray like holy water, exorcising all the stuckness and ruts and bad feelings and self-hatred and exhaustion.
I tend to characterize myself as one who hates change. I guess that’s how I wound up with one postcard slightly askew for more than 10 years on the same spot on my corkboard, having left a slightly askew sun-fade behind. And yes, transitions are hard and I hate them. Still, I find myself thinking that there are more changes coming, that for all the changes I’ve made all year, I’m not done yet.
I’m not done yet. I don’t know where this is going, this post or my return to work or my identity as a professor, or why I suddenly need to buy mock turtlenecks and paper-bag waist pants. I am not yet fully become the person that sabbatical allowed me to discover.
I guess that’s what I do now, back at work, back to teaching, back among my colleagues.
Maybe this afternoon, I’ll get that syllabus draft fully fleshed out. Or maybe I’ll sit here and have a good cry. Or maybe I’ll buy new pens. It turns out, returning to campus after a year’s sabbatical is not really coming back. Maybe it’s coming forward, not quite sure where I’m going to land.
Well. It’s official. I’m actually on sabbatical now, my first in seven years, a full year. It is an unbelievable privilege of my tenured position that I am able to apply for these periodical paid (85% salary) leaves, and devote time to my research.
I have been looking forward to this sabbatical ever since I learned I would have to forego my earned half-year sabbatical when I became grad chair in 2014. I knew the reward would be that I could accrue enough credits to qualify for the full year, which I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for, otherwise. I looked forward to it as a distant mirage, where my time was my own, where there wouldn’t be so many emails, so many meetings, so much grading, so much teaching. I was basically picturing my year long sabbatical as a dramatic arm sweep that would throw everything off all my desks onto the floor, another gesture ripping the phone cord out of the wall, then tapping out the Nuclear Option away message on my email.
I had, that is, a fundamentally negative view of my long dreamed of sabbatical: things would disappear, things would stop.
But a sabbatical is for something, as much as it is about against other things–it is for research, and I had plenty of that backlogged and untended.
I both longed for the chance to hit the reset button on my campus life that the sabbatical represented, at the same time as I dreaded thinking about accomplishing a Year of Distraction and Excuse Free Writing That Would Make Me Seem Productive and Valuable As A Scholar. Yeah, I think with initial caps about the things that scare me.
I’m going to write, this year, about how I am learning to write on sabbatical. I’ll let you know what it’s like, adjusting to not being on campus, finding my rhythm, saying no to things that aren’t research related, dealing with loneliness maybe, preparing for reentry, finding a way to end on a good note. I hope this will help others who might not be sure what the “right” way to do a sabbatical is. So it will be pitched to faculty, sure, but it strikes me this year I have–a year where I have one book contract to fulfill for sure, and god help me, quite probably another one, too–is a lot like where graduate students land after their proposal pass. Sabbatical is a lot like ABD, all huge expectations, no structure, isolation, and a great big fear of not being able to live up to it.
For now I’ll tell you some early highlights, that I am going to take up in posts this year:
full blown meltdown on January 1, the day the sabbatical started
spending the six months pre-sabbatical clearing the emotional, mental, and practical decks
how much it is possible, and not possible, to write in one day
you can’t make up for lost time, and trying makes you miserable
how to turn a year into a big picture plan
how to turn that big picture plan into a series of monthly, weekly, and daily plans
all the things I’m saying “no” to–and how easy it’s turning out to be
all the naps I’m saying “yes” to–and why that’s a good thing
you can’t do this alone: mad props to my squad, and all they do
Me, I got cold feet the very day I handed in all my Fall grades and concluded my on-campus responsibilities until, ulp, January 2019. This sabbatical is already terrifying, and restful, and busy, and laid-back by turns. Let’s see how this turns out!
A funny thing happened this weekend when I stopped by my office to drop off some books and art. As I got out of the car my partner reminded me to have some identification as well as my keys in case I had to call security to let me in. In the past several years we’ve both had trouble getting in on weekends because, I think, of how part-time and contract faculty cards are programmed. As I walked up to the security doors on Saturday they clicked open before I could even pull my card form my pocket. They didn’t quite swing open, roll out a red carpet, and hand me champagne as I passed through them, but the difference was palpable: I have a tenure-track job now. I am legible to the institution.
It is a very strange feeling indeed to return to an institution as a tenure-track faculty. Much of my public-facing work in the last decade has been about precarity, and now I am no longer precarious. My feelings are complicated: I don’t feel guilty about landing a job, not really, but I do feel acutely aware of how very hard the hustle has been. I know I deserve my position, and I am also acutely aware of how many others—my loved ones, my colleagues, my peers—deserve the stability and legibility I’ve been granted.
When I received the call that I got the job several months ago, I burst into tears. I cried (a lot). Then I took a three-hour nap. I slept in a way I hadn’t in who-knows-how-long. My body relaxed in ways I still don’t have the words for. And yet, I’m also more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which stability is such a privilege. The more I calm, the more I focus, the more time and space I have for carefully plotting out my five- and ten-year research plans, the more I am also aware of how completely precarity is woven into so very much of one’s life.
And so, as I head into a new school year, I’ll be here writing and thinking about the shifting experience of working and teaching within the institution, rather than on its periphery. I’ll be working to structure my time here with the aim and intent of making and holding space for myself and others who are and have been so marked by our precarious times. And, I’ll be doing my very best to strike a balance between having a critical attention and a joyful heart. For, a feminist killjoy’s work is never done.
I like to think of myself as a pretty dependable correspondent. Email, text, social media: I’m on it. And if I’m not responding then I am there, listening. I know the conversations, the key talking points, the hot takes and the thorough think-pieces. I can point you to a dozen “important” conversations in my field (which is, cough cough, Canadian literature…) At the very least, regardless of the length of my to-do list, I get the emails sent on time. I tweet back. I message. I respond. I engage. I try and listen. But today when I signed in to schedule my post and found two dozen emails, a few direct messages on Twitter, eighteen notifications on Facebook, and read Aimée’s piece on Lindy West’s departure from Twitter for the first time (she published it four days ago) I finally had to admit what other people have known for a while: I’m dropping some balls.
Or rather, I am tired. Existentially. Politically. Poetically, even, if you count the gorgeous one-liners I think up in the liminal space between waking and sleeping. What has tired me out, I think, is not social media per se, but rather what my friend Sue Goyette identified the other day as the slippage between impact and intent. Let me break it down: I love Facebook for the news. It keeps me in contact with people I would otherwise have long lost touch with. Sure, we don’t write to one another daily, but seeing photos and thoughts and comments from far-flung friends and acquaintances has broadened my access to other people’s lives and perspectives. It isn’t a stretch to say I feel enriched by the connections of many people I know and “know” on Facebook. I like Twitter too. I like the speed of conversation, the way that information and ideas and writing and news travels. It feeds the impatient part of me (a big part of me…)
But for about two years now social media has felt at least equal parts draining and sustaining. I have been trying to mark a moment when that shift started happening, and I think there are, for me, two. The first was when Chief Theresa Spence was on her hunger strike in Ottawa, and the second was was when Emma Healey published her brave, necessary, and gutting “Stories Like Passwords” on The Hairpin. There have been many many more moments since these two, but for me those events mark moments in my digital life when it was made clear to me that hate–in the form of racism and misogyny and rape culture–was so clearly fed and fanned by the conditions of social media.
I’m fortunate: I’ve not been cyber-bullied. I’ve only had a handful of rape threats on Twitter. I am not a lightening rod for charged conversation. I have friends, mentors, and acquaintances who are, and while I am so grateful to them and in awe of their energy, I worry for them. I can see the toll it takes, being constantly accessible. Feeling, I suspect, constantly responsible.
And so, as we head into this new year with its uncertainties and ruptures I find myself wanting not resolutions but reorientations. I aim to reorient my relationship with speedy responses. Yes, I’ll respond to students and colleagues on time. But perhaps I won’t keep Facebook on my phone. Maybe I will schedule time for social media and when that time is up it is up. Maybe I won’t do any of this and bring it to my students as a case study for letting ourselves fail and learning from our failures. Who knows. What I do know is this: I’m working to be more generous in my engagements with others–online, in the classroom, in my home, and with myself. And sometimes being generous means taking a moment and a step back.
So here’s to a new term, dear readers. Here’s to another Monday, another opportunity to take a tiny moment for ourselves to reorient how we’re moving through the worlds and with and alongside others. And here’s to writing and reading feminist work. We need it, we’re going to need it.
Its that time again. You know, the thrice-annual academic moment for the making of resolutions: September, January, and May. September has its crisp leaves and new school supplies kind of optimism. Resolutions made then tend to focus on positive aspirations. January not so much. If my social media feeds are to be trusted January’s resolutions have all the cold self-reprimand of a wicked Victorian school master. And May? Well, as much as I love May it seems to me that the academic resolutions one tends to make in May are filled with a mix of helium and gin: effusive, gravity-defying, and likely to give you a headache in three months time.
Now that our infant is seven months old and I feel smug and secure more comfortable in my new role as a parent I am starting to think of these academic moments as trimesters. Things grow, you change, something new (and possibly horrifying or astonishing or humiliating) is around the corner and you just keep resolving to notice and to take stock and to take it in stride and to keep watch and keep thinking about how to be a better and better human. Or you try to do those things. You try to be the right balance of grounded and amazed that things just keep happening. You try to keep up and keep your wonder intact without tripping over yourself.
Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s Day.
That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.
Let’s imagine that these moments of reflection in an academic worker’s life are not dates but opportunities. Not a wrestling and reckoning with past accounts, but rather neat little reminders to see how you’re growing? What if we collectively worked to refuse the disproportionate aspirations of May (I will grade my papers, get a job, go to all the conferences, finish three articles, work on the grant, go on vacation, relax and refuel, plan my fall classes by June, and WRITE A WHOLE BOOK)? What if we embraced the optimism and energy of September in…February? What if we took stock and set intentions in March? What I wonder is this: what if we circled back, re-read, and re-introduced ourselves to ideas that we have encountered, bookmarked for a later time, and forgotten?
I did just this as I sat down to write this.
I was, as I often do, scrolling through the Hook & Eye archives and I came across Lily’s first post called The Good Enough Professor. Do you remember it? In this piece Lily thinks through Winnicot’s notion of the Good Enough Mother to imagine what it might look like to apply these principles to her own work. Being Good Enough is, in Lily’s reading, a form of radical self-care and, I daresay, a radical paradigm shift for academics. Being Good Enough isn’t dropping the ball or dialling it in, not in the deeply negative sense. Rather, being Good Enough is a careful negotiation of what is possible, practical, and pleasurable. Being Good Enough means taking into account the gendered paradigms in which we live and operate (Winnicot, as Lily points out, is talking about heteronormative mothering. We could extend and complicate this to think about race and sexuality, I think).
So my resolution for today is to recognize that I am a Good Enough Professor. Let me explain:
Today I will be walking into the classroom — two classrooms, to be precise — for the fortieth time. What I mean is that today I will be teaching my thirty-ninth and fortieth class. I’m not counting the in depended reading courses I have taught, nor am I counting any guest lectures. Nope, just this: I’ve taught forty classes. I’ve written forty syllabi. I have planned forty different classroom arcs for forty different groups of students. This is both a big and small accomplishment. On the one hand, teaching is what I do. While I pack research and writing and blogging and working with CWILA and sitting on Boards for various projects and associations into other moments of my day, teaching is what I get paid for, not the other stuff. So in that way, the fact that I have taught for score classes is just (forgive me) par for the course.
On the other hand, of the forty classes I have taught I would say about a quarter of them are squarely in my very specific area of training. I did my candidacy examinations at the University of Calgary, and at the time PhD students had to write three lists: a major field, a minor field, and an area of specialization. My major field was in writing by women of the 19th and 20th century. No kidding. All genres, all over the world. My minor field was in contemporary critical theory. My area of specialization? Avant-garde and experimental Canadian poetry and poetics. While I have taught a number of theory courses and general surveys of Canadian literature, I have only taught two courses on contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics. The reason for this is pretty simple: as a precariously employed academic faculty member I rarely have the luxury to reteach the same course. Like so many of my peers I often am hired a few weeks before the class begins, and often of late, because the hires are emergency hires, these are classes that are very large and very generalized.
I have learned–and am continuing to learn–to be a Good Enough teacher. I still get nervous walking into an auditorium in front of students, whether there are ten or (like today) two hundred. I still wonder if a lecture is going well, if the students like me/the material/my teaching style. I still brace myself for the inevitable comments on my wardrobe or my voice or my verve. But I realize something has shifted in the years since I began teaching. I know how to write a syllabus. I trust my ability to both write and deliver content. I (mostly) know when and how to go off script and respect or manage those moments in the classroom when things do not go quite as I planned.
Now, I am not talking about the myriad power dynamics that happen in a classroom, not here, not today in this post. I’m not talking about the vulnerabilities I often feel, either. Not today. Today, on this first teaching day of January 2016 I am talking about being Good Enough as a mode of self-reflection and renewal. Today, on this first teaching day of 2016, I’m urging you to conjure up a little of Gramsci’s resolve to keep reflecting and renewing throughout this year.
Hallo from London, Canada! So happy to be back with you for my third year of writing for H&E. In September, we think about new beginnings, setting new academic and personal goals. Melissa has already shared about the benefits and challenges of transitioning into the new AY on the #altac path (no shame hangover!), and Erin has given a big high five to the blog and offered some thoughts about slow academe. Since I happen currently to be in England for a bit ‘o manuscripts research, I want to share a little bit about my history with the archives, and my love of libraries, and hopefully use some of my story to inspire you, dear readers, to take a few more risks in your own research paths.
I first registered as a British Library Reader when I was 23, a young Masters’ student sent over to the UK by myself for three months of research. It was a strange trip: I spent much of it sequestered in my tiny flat in Leeds, a city where I knew no one, though I met once with an advisor, a major scholar in a different field, who seemed visibly concerned about my ability to function in this new country. I rifled through boxes of loose seventeenth-century papers at the Brotherton Library, knowing I was supposed to be looking for something, but never quite grasping what it was. I didn’t know how to differentiate between which materials were important and relevant for the large research project I was part of, and which were just *cool* because they were old and rare. So I would amass long catalogues of books and papers, complete with photographs and descriptions and scribal analyses and research questions, which I would then send back to my advisors back in Calgary, letting them be the ones to identify whether something was interesting, or supposed to be finding and reporting back on.
My time in London was different: I needed a personal topic for my Masters thesis, separate from the larger collaborative research project which sent me over in the first place. Somehow I was both more unmoored and more focused in this quest–I would search manuscripts catalogues for medieval devotional manuscripts that seemed remotely interesting and understudied, and then call them up willy-nilly, energized by the now-faded mystique surrounding handling materials hundreds of years old (the rustic smell, the withered parchment, the stains and fingerprints and signs of love). My excitable bouncing around between manuscripts proved lucrative, and I found a small illustrated volume that had only been touched upon by scholars in a couple articles and books which then formed the basis of my MA thesis and my first published essay.
This trip taught me the value of taking risks in my research–of taking time to make mistakes and search around through unfamiliar and unknown material, and of doing so independently, without express guidance from one’s advisors or higher-ups. My MA advisors trusted me, and gave me much more intellectual license than I’ve found to be the norm for MA supervision, especially in the States. Maybe they trusted me too much, but I think it worked out.
Occasionally throughout my career, I have been told that I have a roguish attitude toward the established program, and need to stick to normal procedures and rely upon official consultation before planning any major trips. This is true in general, of course–we can’t just do whatever we want within an academic institution. But I’m back here now, in the British Library, having planned yet another (albeit short) trip before telling my advisors (they’re okay with it this time), and I’m more hopeful at this late stage in my dissertation. I work better in the BL, feel safer and more academically secure here, than anywhere else in the world. Even when the research itself proves frustrating and hard, I love the transactional exchange of materials, old books for seat number and Reader’s card. I love (if occasionally resent) the fastidiousness of detail here, how the primary materials are treated with such respect and proprietorship. I love how conversations overheard in the local Peyton & Byrne cafes are consistently interesting, engaging, smart. And I love the familiar faces–librarians whom I recognize from over the years, who never seem to change hairstyles or fleece vests, as well as strange patrons of the library who seem by all appearances simply to live here. I love that sometimes, when you peer over a noted academic’s shoulder, you see that while they have a stack of valuable materials sitting next to them, in reality they are covertly poking around on Facebook or Twitter like the rest of us.
I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is: figure out the work environments that make you happy, that motivate you to think your best thoughts and do your best work, and do whatever is in your power to make those environments happen (not everyone has the resources to take overseas research trips on a regular basis, I understand). And while this is not a post promoting pure individualism–ie. a neoliberal bootstraps narrative about setting out on your own and taking hold of your own future–I would encourage you to take some risks this year, to do things for yourselves that (perhaps?) your superiors might disapprove of, because they don’t know you as well as you do. Try to absent yourself from the usual, and you might be surprised at what happens.
In fact, why not grab a pen right now and jot down two out-of-the-ordinary things you plan to do in the next week?
This Labour Day marks my third fall of going back to school as an #alt-academic, although it’s the first year when I’m not actually working in a school. Still, I work in a teaching hospital, and our annual rhythms are much the same–we’re still gearing up for an influx of new undergraduate and graduate students joining us for their first year of doing research with one of our faculty, we’re still getting ready for the fall funding rush, and I’m still wrapped up in my usual rounds of reviewing postdoc applications and prepping for Writing a Winning Research Proposal 101 sessions. And I’m so glad.
It may seem like a little thing to be worried about giving up, but my life has been ruled by the academic calendar since I was four years old. I’ve spent just one year of my adult life working outside of the structures of a school or university, and that was at Oxford University Press, where we still largely observed the academic calendar because all of our writers and buyers did too. Labour Day is my New Year’s Day, the marker of the beginning of a fresh new year with no mistakes in it (as Anne Shirley would say). And being in an #altac position where–even if there’s no back to school for me–the spirit of back to school still reigns is such a comfort. Some things don’t have to change.
But some things do change. And the transition from summer to fall brings some extra challenges for #altac folks who are trying to maintain a semi-active research profile while working full-time jobs. My collaborative projects mostly went dormant over the summer, as everyone turned their attention to large-scale writing projects, research trips, and holidays, but they’re all ramping up again. Hook & Eye is back, and I’ve also got a dissertation chapter, plus some other writing/editing/teaching projects all requiring lots of attention (and completion) in the next couple of months. I’m lucky, though, that I’ve moved from a position that saw me supporting research funding and professional development programs for 6,000 students and postdocs to one that sees me doing the same for about 1, 200–I can do more for fewer people, and my job doesn’t spill over into the rest of my time the way it once did. Like Erin, I’m deliberately moving away from the fastness and hyperproductivity that neoliberalism so loves towards a slowness that that lets me “have intellectual fulfillment as well as a home [I] love coming home to.”
Still, mine is affective labour–I work the job I do because it lets me help grad students and postdocs more easily make their way through, and out of, the academy. So too is my research and writing affective labour. Because I care, I work to make unheard voices heard, whether it’s the voice of a poet silenced by sexism and rumour, or graduate students, postdocs, and contract academic faculty silenced by those who don’t want to believe that the academy is failing its most vulnerable. If I was looking for an easier time of it, I could scale back or call it quits on my research, but so long as I feel like I have the opportunity to do some good, I’m not willing to give it up. I also need the balance of the 9-5 and my academic work to keep me happy. It turns out that having one to turn to when I need respite from the other is exactly what suits me, and what keeps me productive. It’s what keeps me from falling back into the writing paralysis I described in my “I Quit” letter, and what lets me have that intellectual fulfillment I want.
My transition into the new year isn’t as abrupt as it is for some. I didn’t have the “normal” academic summer (i.e. the summer of those with the privilege of a well-paying tenure-track job or graduate stipend) of setting aside the usual routines of the school year for four months of all research all the time. I took a week off work to finish up a dissertation chapter and get some projects done around the house, and another to visit family and research sites in London and Copenhagen. Most days, I did what I do every weekday–wrote from 6-8, walked to work, worked from 9-12, wrote from 12-1, worked from 1-5, walked home, made dinner, did household or fun or social things, went to bed, and did it again. Turns out that this routine, at least for me, is the prescription for avoiding summer guilt and the end of summer hangover. My summers as a full-time academic were clouded by guilt–either that I wasn’t working enough, or that I wasn’t enjoying downtime because I felt guilty about not working enough–and capped off by an orgy of shame about the distance between my beginning of summer goals and my end of summer accomplishments. My goals for this summer were minimal–get my writing routines completely embedded so that they were automatic. And I did that, no shame hangover required. It’s a good way to start the new year.
I’m featured in the October University Affairs cover story, and it paints a rosier picture of #altac careers than I think really exists. They’re not the cure-all for the ills of the academic job market, nor a reason to keep PhD enrollments high. But even so, I’ll be damned if I can’t help as many people as possible make their way onto the #altac track. It is such a good place to be for those of us who don’t want the tenure track, but don’t want to leave the rhythms and routines (and research) of the academic life behind. For that reason, I’ll pick back up with the #altac 101 series shortly, and I’ll talk more about how to succeed off the tenure track, about the gendered aspects of job searching, and about how scientists, social scientists, and humanists are in precisely the same boat when it comes to the ills that plague academia. I’m so looking forward to another year of H&E, and of you.
Welcome back to the new term! Were *your* holidays refreshing? Did you manage to take time to yourself without guilt-tripping yourself every two seconds? Or did you spend the break fretting about not working, and missing out on responding to that CFP or procrastinating from writing your Major-Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless paper? No matter where you fit on the spectrum, we all know the promise of freshness in the New Year/New Term combo does not materialize in our bodies, and that we inherit the fatigue of both the Fall term and the holidays (family! travelling! all the food!). My take? Better be realistic about it, and stop pretending mountains will be moved by sheer willpower and perilously low energy levels (it’s cold. it’s dark a lot of the time. it’s January, *then* February before any colour comes back into the world).
Grey January skies over Lake Ontario
So, what is there to do? I’m not one for sports metaphors in general, but it looks like the running one is a refrain here at H&E, so I’ll just re-iterate it. We’re in it for the long haul, so we might as well pace ourselves. The Winter term has only just started, so I know it feels like if you don’t write that proposal, you’ll be written out of that Conference, which is so germane to your larger research project that missing it will cause an irreparable gap in your CV, and potential questions from your doctoral committee, hiring committee, peers, etc. But really? Chill! Unless you’re on the organizing committee, nobody will question your absence, especially these days. Why not take that time that you’d frantically put to inking yet another argument to letting your brain do some unguided rambling? Take the resources you’d put into going to that conference (money, time, physical effort, missed sleep) into translating your brain’s free ramblings into writing. No, I mean it literally: how long would the travel take you? Translate that into writing time over multiple days. Actually sleep the sleep you’d otherwise miss by going to the airport at ungodly hours because you can only afford the 7 am flight. Take it easier on yourself, the environment, and the academic ecosystem.
Try ditching one of the major academic events that you engage in per year, and do the accounting on it, bank those resources, and use them elsewhere. Then do the tally. [I know economic metaphors are not much better than sports ones, but that’s all I got just now, when the lesson plan for the class that starts in two hours, for the course I’d never taught before, beckons. See how I’m pacing myself here?] If there’s one thing I wish we could do more is turn inwardly, and actually understand what it is we want to do. As researchers, we spend so much time trying to make sure we’re abreast of what everyone else in the field is saying. As teachers, not only do we have to prepare the material, we also expend an immeasurable amount of emotional labour ensuring our classes are open and our students feel welcome and engaged in the process.
So, at this begging of term, instead of resolving to work more, be more productive, write more, do more grading, please ask yourself “What’s the healthiest way to accomplish what *I* really want?”