Hello Readers! My name is Margrit Talpalaru. I am a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, and an early-career researcher on my own time. I am delighted and honoured to join the regular cast of H&E writers.
Here is a lovely post on blending a personal story into a research project, from Shannon Stunden Bower, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.
So I’ve just published a book. It’s not incredibly long, by the standards of my discipline, but it is long enough, I hope, to be respectable. It is a revised version of my dissertation. I started the PhD in September 2001 and the book was published in June 2011. Even considering I have taken two maternity leaves, each of over a year in length, it’s taken me a while.
So given the book is fairly long, and given I’ve taken the time to think about what’s in it, why do I feel that some things are missing? That some stories are in my head, still, rather than on the page?
There is one tale in particular I want to tell. It’s the story that started it all, really. My book is about flooding in southern Manitoba. I grew up in the City of Winnipeg, in a house along the Red River. Yup, that Red River – the one infamous for flooding. My interest in the history of flooding was piqued in 1997, when my family was evacuated during what was called ‘the flood of the century.’ Digging into my family’s history, I discovered this was in fact the second time my father had been forced out of his home. In 1950, during a previous large-scale flood, my grandparents’ house was inundated. My father has a vivid memory of following my strong-willed grandmother down the basement stairs. She took one look around, saw the liquefied coal-dust staining the sodden walls, and declared the family was moving abroad, back to where she was from. And move they did. A few decades later, my father would buy the house I grew up in – the second house he would abandon to floodwater.
In some sense, my book is an attempt to make sense of my father’s story, which is the story of so many Manitobans. Why have people settled a flood plain? What makes them stay? How have they changed the wet prairie, and how has the wet prairie changed them? But I’ve always shied away from including this personal story in my academic writing. It is not out of a need to protect family privacy. My parents have given me their blessing to write about these things. And it is not like there are no precedents in my disciplines (history and geography) or even in my specific subfields (environmental history and historical geography). For example, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, one of environmental history’s landmark works by one of the subfield’s most important scholars, includes an extensive meditation on the inspiration he took from his family experiences.
Now, I’m not deluded. I know I’m not Cronon. I suppose I fear what I find charming in the writings of others might come off as silly and self-indulgent in mine. Interestingly, I’ve also shied away from telling my family’s flood story in less formal venues. I am an occasional contributor to The Otter, a group blog in environmental history run by the Network in Canadian History and Environment. During the spring of 2011, which saw significant flooding throughout much of southern Manitoba, I was asked to focus a few posts on the water situation in the province. I had nearly completed a post dealing with my family history when I suddenly hit the brakes, pulled a high-speed u-turn, and generated a more traditional post from a less-personal perspective. I was more or less happy with the two flood-related posts (here and here) I ultimately submitted. But still, neither post was the story I’d been sitting on for so long.
And so now I’m wondering why I’m deliberately choosing not to tell my family story. By laying all of this before Hook and Eye, I suppose I’m hoping for thoughts on whether there are gendered elements to this issue. Are women scholars more or less likely to include their personal stories in their academic writing? What factors bear on decisions to tell such tales or to keep them quiet?
And thanks, by the way, for letting me tell my little family story. Finally.
Shannon Stunden Bower
If I recall what I learned in elementary school March is fabled to come in like a lion and out like a lamb. While I have vaguely fond memories of making construction paper lions and cotton ball covered lambs to adorn our class bulletin board, I also remember fretting: what if March came in like a lamb and left like a lion? Worse, what if March came in like a lion and left like one too?
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 like the verb ‘se détendre’ in French, which has the various translations noted above in the title. I like the idea even better: me détendre, to release, to slacken, to relax. Let go. Calm down.
Have you noticed that a lot of academics do yoga? I’ve noticed. And I do yoga. A lot of yoga.
Yoga is hard but relaxing: the hardest part for me is the meditation, the mindfulnes, the being-in-the-moment, the observing my thoughts without becoming attached to them. Man. I can’t do that. Ask my teacher: I couldn’t keep my eyes closed in savasana for TWO YEARS. I’m a chronic insomniac, a champion worrier.
(“Hold on — is the plaster cracking on the ceiling? Is that just along the lathe, or is that along a joist line? Omigod, is my house structurally unsound? IS THE SECOND FLOOR GOING TO CAVE IN? Ommmmm.”)
(“Furthermore, what does interdisciplinarity really mean? Does it mean a work meets the standards of no disciplines? Or must meet the standards of several, simultaneously? If the former, how can we call this scholarship? If the latter, who can work hard enough to get it done? But it must! Think of the terrible warning of the geneticists and the evolutionary biologists!!!”)
I’m a little hepped up. A lot of academics are a little hepped up.
Over the course of many of my sleepless nights, I’ve given the matter some consideration. It seems to me that to think for a living–worse, to engage professionally in critical thinking–means carrying your work around with you everywhere. It’s hard to stop thinking. Or at least, to stop thinking about things that prevent you from sleeping / enjoying your leisure time / not boring your relatives with disquisitions on usage based billing and moral imperative of net neutrality.
Yeesh, self, give it a break until 9am tomorrow, okay?
Hence, my theory on why a lot of academics drink, quite heavily: it slows your thinking down. Personally, I like martinis.
My husband made me this one, and he put a straw in it so I could drink it in bed, while reading a yoga philosophy book. Double calm!
My other best way to calm down (when I’m not drinking or doing yoga, I guess) is comedy: I like to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos reruns every night on CMT. People falling down make me laugh, and laughing makes me calm.
So none of this has much to do with who I am as an academic. But. I’m a person too, right? And it’s good to remember that, to celebrate that, in its boozy zen chuckling quirkiness. And you’re people too, outside of your academic or para-academic or post-academic or supra-academic daytime identity.
So in the spirit of Friday, I ask: What do you do, when you’re not at work, to calm down, to let go, to slacken, to relax … pour te détendre?
I’m a regular reader of University of Venus. I like the mission statement, I love the variety of voices, and I appreciate the range of perspectives the writers offer. My post comes by way of a response to Mary Churchill’s post Why do Academics Write? from a few months ago. I guess you could say I’m a percolator: I think think think about something for quite some time before I formulate a response to it.
The student who had an appointment was waiting outside my open office door as I came back from the mailroom.
“I would have gone in,” she said, “but …” She gestured towards the minefield of unsteady book towers blocking off the door from the chairs, one sideways glance away from toppling. And toward the chairs, one spilling over with rogue transparencies, the other covered in dirty tupperware, my wallet, a child’s leotard, and other personal effects I had dumped out of my purse while looking for a (lost) flash drive. A laundry basket by the window overflowed with computer cables of all kinds, and yellowing newspapers.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized, shepherding her through the maze and clearing her a seat. “My daughter is just starting junior kindergarten and we’ve had no daytime child care for three weeks. So my husband and I have been taking care of her while still working full time, and this is the kind of office you get when that happens. Now! Let’s talk about your plans for grad school … I’ve read the documents you sent me and here’s some feedback I have for you …”
And so on. Looking back later on the interaction, I was appalled that I had talked about my personal life in that professional context. Am I making excuses for poor performance? Am I oversharing? Am I having boundary issues? Am I being, in short, unprofessional?
I have always imagined that being a professional means being competent and impersonal, manifesting that kind of demeanor, focus, and restraint called to mind by the phrase “she is a real professional” or “she acted very professionally.” But who exactly was it that decided that being a professional means omitting all traces of the rest of life from the workday?
To return to the theme of mentoring, I think that drawing down an iron curtain between what happens At The Office and At Home can be artificial, misleading, demoralizing, and crazy-making for both professors and students. First, if I remove all traces of my outside life (I’m married! I have a kid! My pipes are frozen and I have to wait for the plumber! I went to school thousands of kilometers away from my family!) from my interactions within the university I risk setting myself up as some kind of model of superhuman perfection and accomplishment: a featureless fembrainbot with obviously very nice hair asserting frictionless agency on the world. Ooooh. Not true. Second, sometimes a car accident, or lactation, or a move, or a spouse’s job change, or a death in the family, or a yoga injury can materially impact anyone’s capacity to do her (or his) job: why not be up-front about it, seek a reasonable and temporary accommodation, and model for everyone the practice of muddling through a tough bit only to shine all the brighter once the crisis passes? Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries; what’s the harm in acknowledging the pits?
If I admit that trying to be a stay-at-home mom (with equal help from dad) for three weeks means I haven’t been able to do my job optimally, am I setting the sisterhood back? I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m canceling classes or ducking out of reference letters or student meetings or peer review. I’m just having a harder time answering emails quickly, or cleaning my office, or getting November’s readings up on the website. I’ll get there, I want you to know, but I’m having a bit of a struggle now.
What might happen if I bring a little bit of my personal life into my work, asserting my competence and my challenges all at once? Maybe incorporating the personal into the professional in this way might be a feminist act: I am a fully-fleshed-out human being, just like anyone, and a pretty good professor, at the same time. Shit happens, even to female professors, and so long as the challenge isn’t fatal, I have the will and the capacity to get on with the shoveling. Maybe to get ahead a woman, I might no longer have to pretend I’m not a real person. Hm.
One of my colleagues, popping her head through my door earlier this week, said sympathetically, “This is not the office of the Aimée I know.” And it’s not. Next week, it will be neat as a pin again. This week, I’m asking for a little indulgence as I burrow into the piles, trying to find that extra handout for you, okay?
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?