emotional labour · guest post · outreach

Guest Post: “There’s No Crying in Academia,” Acknowledging Emotional Labour in the Academy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the demands made on graduate students and the emotional labour that is required as a result. Academia privileges and glorifies mental labour (from the qualifying exams you have to take to the dissertation that you will write). But in my experience, the academy is mute when it comes to the question of the emotional labour that these acts of mental and intellectual rigor entail. Nobody talks about his or her feelings. If, as Tom Hanks famously proclaims in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in baseball,” then there is certainly no crying in academia. And so academia requires maintaining a vow of silence as you fight to live in this Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Yet the dirty secret that no one wants you to know is that there is actually much crying in academia. But we do that crying in private. Our suffering takes place in bathroom stalls, in our private offices, or in our homes. We suffer in private where we cannot be shamed.
I say that we suffer not to be hyperbolic, but because labour and suffering are etymologically linked. In the first half of the 12thcentury, labour meant trouble, effort, affliction, and misfortune. By 1170 labour became a burden. One hundred years later, our labour was our suffering. And another hundred years later, our suffering became more specific, with labour denoting physical pain, fatigue, hardship, distress, wear and tear. I’m compelled here to read tear in both senses of the word: as in ripping or tearing and as the drop of liquid that our eyes release as a sign of emotion, but especially when we feel grief or sorrow. So the labour we perform – which could be physical, mental, or intellectual –hurts us and can make us suffer. And that hurt, I’d argue, is doubled when the labour we’re asked to perform (or need to perform, for ourselves, for others) is emotional in nature.
I’ve seen emotional labour take many shapes in my own academic life. I’m passionate about my research and so writing a conference paper, dissertation chapter or grant proposal is as much a physical labour (sitting down at my computer, fingers typing) and an intellectual labour (figuring out what my ideas are and how to best articulate them) as it is an emotional labour. Then there’s the emotional labour that goes into being a teacher. I’m deeply invested in my students and their successes. I work hard to create a classroom that is a safe space where students can be vulnerable and admit when they don’t understand something, a space where they treat one another with respect and care. I accept and want to perform these emotional labours.
But there are certain acts of emotional labour that I don’t wish to perform, like the emotional labour of pretending that I’m okay. Academia requires that you conceal your feelings all the time, because, god forbid someone (a professor, supervisor, administrator, colleague) be confronted with the fact that you’re a human being and you have feelings. I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard. My supervisor [1] came into our first class and told us how she’d just had a panic attack and explained why. She wanted us to know that, as a result, she’d be a bit off for that class. This was the first time that I heard a professor talk about their feelings (outside of “I love this book”). In that moment I felt like I could breathe again, that there was perhaps a space for emotions within the academy. The professors that I’ve TAed for before have also made space for my emotional life. When you make space for someone’s emotional life, you’re also opening up space for him or her to be a human. Recognizing another emotional life is not just a vital act, but also an ethical one. When I have to hide my feelings for the sake of other people’s comfort, I become exhausted. While I pride myself on always thinking about the comfort of others, I’ve also come to realize that living ethically means that sometimes we have to sit with that discomfort, we have to confront it, interrogate it, for the sake of the other.
I’ve cried in front of various administrators throughout my time in the PhD. Some have known how to handle it while others haven’t. One might say that it’s unprofessional to cry in front of your department head; but when you say that, you’re policing affect and failing to acknowledge that as human beings we feel things. What you’re saying is “there’s no crying in academia.” And you’re also shifting blame: you, the crier, need to change so that the person you’re crying in front of doesn’t have to figure out how to make space for your feelings. It’s this kind of thinking that has made the words “mental health” taboo. So when you say that it’s important for grad students to take care of their bodies and minds, you’re at the same time attempting to absolve yourself of any responsibility or accountability. You need to take care of yourself.
This year, UofT’s Graduate English Association executive decided to run its first ever workshop on health and wellness in academia. I was incredibly excited that this was happening and volunteered to talk about how I’ve dealt with my anxiety disorder while completing my PhD. Other students volunteered to talk about everything from having an eating disorder to how to make time and space for physical activity, and how to deal with failing your comprehensive exams. There were representatives from Student Life and Accessibility Services, as well as the newly created “Healthy Grad Crew” who came to talk about the different services that the university offers to support mental health and wellness.
It was an amazing workshop. Unfortunately, the volunteers and speakers were the only ones who were there to experience it. No other students came. There are many reasons that this could’ve been the case. Perhaps there are other, more private ways that they deal with their mental health. Maybe when it comes to their mental health, they desire privacy. I want to respect those choices. And yet many students expressed excitement at the thought of having this kind of workshop on offer, which leaves me feeling that the lack of attendees speaks – at least in part – to the fact that students don’t feel like there is time or space to make mental health and wellness a priority. Of course, I say this as someone who stopped going to yoga in the first semester of my PhD and then felt so awful as a result. Still, I think it also speaks to the fact that people are afraid to talk about their mental health, afraid to admit that they sometimes (or oftentimes) struggle when it comes to anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, and a whole other host of affects that grad students tend to feel. The fact that the executive decided to call it the “Health and Wellness” workshop instead of “Mental Health and Wellness” speaks to their own awareness of the lived reality of the stigmas and taboos surrounding mental health – both inside of academia as much as outside of it.
In thinking about emotional labour within academia, it’s also important that we highlight just how gendered that labour is. All of the student volunteers were women and all of the representatives at the workshop were women. It was women who came together to talk about the importance of mental health and wellness. And it was women who were going to perform emotional labour – by sharing their stories and struggles – in the service of others. This shouldn’t have shocked me; it is taken as a fact that women are emotional caregivers. We can see this in the fact women outnumber men in the fields of social work, counseling, and teaching. We can see this in the ways in which women are criticized for not smiling or for having “Resting Bitchy Face.” And yet here I was, not only surprised but also angry. I’ve spoken to many men in my program about their struggles with anxiety and depression, yet it was only women at this workshop (although one member of the executive is a man, who couldn’t be at the workshop but put a good deal of labour into the planning and organization). 
In “Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,” Sara Ahmed describes how the gendered performance of affects – happiness in particular – “erases the signs of labour under the sign of happiness” (121). She goes on to point out that “the claim that women are happy, and that this happiness is behind the work they do, functions to justify gendered forms of labour not as products of nature, law or duty, but as an expression of a collective wish and desire” (121). Ahmed points out how the emotional labour that women perform is not for them, but for the collective that holds certain wishes and desires – those wishes might be everything from the desire to not have to be confronted with “negative” affects to a wish to not recognize the suffering that is etymologically, if not inextricably, linked to the emotional labour performed by women.
I do want to take a moment and acknowledge that men are confronted with a great amount of stigma when it comes to mental health. Historically (and sadly, even presently) women have been portrayed as weak, hysterical, emotional. And so we’re the ones who take on this burden of emotional labour; it is our terrain. Men have been portrayed as strong, self-sufficient, rational. To admit that you’re struggling, that you’re dealing with a mental illness, might seem impossible. It is tragic when a man suffers but it is quotidian when a woman does.
In a recent article for GUTS Magazine, “DEAR BB: DUDES INRAPE CULTURE,” the author addresses a man who wants to know how he can stop being complicit in rape culture. He writes: “Can you talk to me about talking to rapists about rape?” The unnamed author responds by asking the man to think about the emotional labour he is asking the women in his life to perform. She writes: “Teaching people not to rape (and indeed, trying to not get raped) is work that is disproportionately performed by the people who are raped most often: women, even more so if they are of colour, Indigenous, trans, sex workers, disabled, fat, or poor. Rape is quotidian to us.”
The author wonders why is it women that must teach men about rape when men are the ones who are experts. Why is it that women are the ones to talk about their struggles with mental health when men struggle too? When you ask women to tell you about x, or when you place them in the position of being the only ones to share their stories, you’re asking them to perform some heavy emotional labour; labour that can be painful, distressing, fatiguing; labour that can tear new wounds and reopen others. I’m willing to do this, but I can’t be the only one to do it. While so many women are willing to do with work with me, I don’t feel like that is enough. I don’t want women to be the only ones crying, in academia or in general.
I want this essay to be a manifesto that is not just a call to the academy to recognize the ways in which it asks (or tells) us to keep our emotional labour a secret. This manifesto is also a call to the men who exist within the academy’s walls, especially to the men who identify as feminists. I want us to push back against “the residue of certain cultural,” and I would add emotional,  “imperatives: to have a relationship to pain defined by the single note of resistance” (Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” 209). Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering. If we continue to ignore the emotional labour that is part and parcel to being an academic – and a human being – then we’re saying: “you just got to figure out a way to deal.”
This kind of logic begs the question: where has all the empathy gone? To borrow the words of Carl Gombrich, we are experiencing an “empathy deficit” in academia. So what would it mean for us to rectify this deficit? If empathy requires “knowing you know nothing,” as Leslie Jamison argues, then the stakes are pretty high (“The Empathy Exams,” 5). To admit that you know nothing when you exist in a field that is committed to the performance of knowledge, well, that’s a pretty scary thought. And yet this is what I try to do with my students. I try to teach them to feel okay about admitting that they don’t understand something. Being okay with not understanding doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand. When we confront the unknown what we’ve actually done is give ourselves an opportunity to travel into another world.
As a PhD candidate in English, what draws me towards literature (and what made me fall in love with literature in the first place) is that I’m able to enter a new world – sometimes familiar, sometimes unfamiliar. I get to meet new people in the form of characters; I see how they struggle and what enables them to thrive. And more often than not, I come to care about them. Literature has taught me how to be in the world with others, it has provided me with different roadmaps for ethical relations and enabled me to create my own. I find that I’m compelled to read stories of great sadness, suffering, and sorrow – and it is these stories that ask me, beg me, to empathize. There’s plenty of crying in literature. When will there be a space for crying in academia?


University of Toronto



 [1]I’ve spoken to my supervisor about disclosing this moment and she has told me that she is more than okay with that (the decision to not name her was my own).


advice · change · faster feminism · outreach

Please say yes when they call: women in the media

First a pitch and then a bootstrap. People, this is serious. There are not enough lady academics participating in the public conversation that happens in the news media. There are not enough lady academics on expert panels on current events shows. There are not enough female experts giving context on news stories. There are not enough smart women setting the agenda on issues through venues like the op-ed pages of newspapers.
————–

Pitch

On TV, on the radio, in the newspapers, it’s still 80% men appearing a pundits and experts, and 20% women.

Now, there are a lot of reasons for this including the usual old boys’ network, which I guess we continue to counter by putting together some binders full of women. But one big reason, that I keep hearing both from professionals working in the media and from academics seeking to increase women’s participation in same is this: the women get asked to participate, and they keep saying no.

Here are some reasons:

  • I need more time to prepare notes and research if I want to do a good job.
  • You want an expert in ABC(a), but I actually research ABC(b).
  • Oh, I couldn’t possibly offer an opinion: my research is objective.
80% men. Some of them are great men, but a diversity of opinion and expertise is always better than the same three 50 year old white guys. Men do not say things like “I’m not well-prepared enough” and they don’t say “My subfield is a hair’s breadth removed from the one you want” and they don’t say “I will let the data in that peer-reviewed article hidden behind a paywall and linguistically and pragmatically accessible to only 42 people speak for itself while I go home and revel in my imposter syndrome.”
Sometimes, yes, they mansplain and this kind of overconfidence and arrogance is to be avoided. But we’re never going to be more than 20% visible in public discourse unless we start to say yes to media calls.
For the love of all that’s good and feminist, PLEASE SAY YES WHEN THEY CALL YOU.
It’s not that hard. Here’s the bootstrap part.
—————-
Saying Yes
Here’s how it happens. You get an email or a phone call from a reporter or a producer or an intern working in radio or television or print. They ask you if you can give context or background on an issue, or to explain something, or to be part of a panel just generally discussing an issue. They give you a timeframe, which varies from “the camera truck is on the road now, let us know where we can meet you,” to “I’d like to discuss this briefly with you before the end of the morning tomorrow,” to “we’re doing a show on this early next week and would like you to appear.” They might want to engage with you over the telephone, over email, in a recording studio, on a location “stand up”, or in a television studio.
Here’s what you do. If the timeframe is ridiculously fast (“in the next hour”) Google what they’re asking you about, get the gist and ask yourself: “would I have something vaguely sensible to say about this to an undergrad who doesn’t know about this topic?” If the answer is yes, you are qualified to appear. Remember the bar is “undergrad who doesn’t know about the topic” and not “superstar researcher in the field.” If the timeframe is a little more relaxed, actually, the same standard applies.
Now you call back. Say yes. 
Last week, the host of a local current affairs television show emailed me to ask if I would appear for about 16 minutes on a show devoted to bullying and to Amanda Todd. I said yes. Am I an expert in teen suicide? No. Am I an expert in high school? No. Am I an expert on bullying? No. But she had already got experts on those topics and wanted to talk to me about the social media elements. That, I’m an expert in.
So of course I said yes. And it was great. And the host was even happy to take a goofy pic with me so I could convince you all that doing TV is really not scary, and that everyone is really nice:
It’s me! And Hayley Zimak of Rogers Talk Local Waterloo Region!
Preparing
Sometimes, all you have is that couple of minutes of Googling before you have to do your thing. Usually all they want for print or radio or TV is about two minutes of contact of which they will only use about 20 seconds, one soundbite, or one sentence. This is why you don’t need three weeks to do a literature review.
For the talk show, I had about five days notice. The host sent me her general topics and I sent her back a link to my post from last week. She amended her questions and we decided to zero in on the gendered issues.
Generally, I prepare like this: I surf the internet for what’s happening (because my field is new media studies, and people are asking me about what’s happening on the internet.) I read media coverage of the same issues. I already have my scholarly knowledge from the research and teaching that I do, but sometimes I look up some reports or articles. That’s only for long interviews, though, like when I was on TV last year talking about Canadian internet privacy law. I was on for 20 minutes, and my notes looked like this:
Google, google, think, think, scribble, scribble, DONE.
That’s it. Not hard. Please note that you shouldn’t bring your notes on camera with you if you’re doing TV, or into the studio if you’re doing radio, because it sounds / looks really stilted and unnatural.

Be on TV!

People can see you when you’re on TV. There are some general guidelines to make you more successful in this regard.

  • No skinny stripes on your shirt (mostly people only see your top half, sometimes only to your shoulders)
  • You need to wear a lot of makeup on standard definition television. Like crazy amounts, or you’ll look like a squinty eyed puffball.
Here’s a picture of me in my “TV face” we took at home:
“Homer! I think you left the makeup gun set to ‘whore’!”
I know, right? Omigod. But on TV it looks like this:
“It’s not the Internet, actually, it’s sexism that’s the problem”
Also good to know when you’re on TV:
  • Try not to look at the camera
  • Be animated–it’s okay to smile or vary your facial expression to show your own interest in the topic
  • Remember you’re talking to the equivalent of curious undergrads: it’s not necessary to footnote your commentary
  • It’s just a bunch of people sitting at a breakfast bar, chatting.
“Please make sure your phones are turned off while we tape!”
—————-
The Upshot
Can I just say how extremely empowering this most recent talk show appearance was? After complaining so bitterly about misdirected media coverage of this case, I GOT TO BECOME THE MEDIA COVERAGE OF THIS CASE?

For me, this is pure knowledge mobilization: I research identity online, and it’s in the news, and therefore, I need to be on the news. But there are a lot of other reasons someone might call you, and for the most part, it’s nowhere near as hard or as much work or as scary as you think it’s going to be.
And until you start saying yes, it’s still going to be 80% men and 20% women leading the public conversation on everything from food to new media to politics to driving. Everything.
Please, take that PhD into the world with you. Hayley is very friendly, and I’ve got more makeup tips for you. Please, say yes when they call.

community · outreach

Find or Forge: Locating Your Intellectual Community

A few years ago my mentor and I were chatting over coffee. I was nearly finished my dissertation and was in what I can only describe as a state of heightened anxiety. In addition to worrying about finding a job I was feeling adrift. While I had made good friends in my PhD programme I did not have people who were working in similar areas to mine. When I looked to my peers at my own institution and elsewhere it seemed as though there were many people who were falling into natural intellectual communities. There were reading and writing groups being formed, conferences being organized or attended. I was talking with my mentor about this and she said something simple that has stuck with me. She was talking about her favourite annual conference–an international one–and said that practically all of her intellectual community was there. When I asked her what she meant she told me that she found her intellectual community–those people with whom she did her best and most generative thinking, writing, and imagining–by going to interdisciplinary conferences.

It had only occurred obliquely to me that I would have to search out an intellectual community beyond the borders of my own institution. Sure, I had friends and acquaintances elsewhere, but how is one to forge a functioning intellectual community with colleagues who are far-flung? Here are a few ideas based on my own trial and –often–error. (You can find additional suggestions at the University of Venus’s Networking Challenge):

1) Talk to your peers about their work. Tell them about your own!
After that first semester of the MA or PhD, or the orientation session for the new job how often do we really sit down and talk about our work with our most geographically close communities? There’s something to be said for proximity. Proximity affords the luxury of hanging out, of chatting, of slow thinking together. Is it possible there are people on your own hallway whose work might chime with yours? Besides, talking about your work puts your own trademark on it, in addition to the benefits you get from the input of others.

2) Proximity isn’t enough, you need structure.
Sure, there is something quite wonderful about serendipity, but we’ll get there in a moment. If you want to forge an intellectual community that is sustainable you need a plan and you need to delegate. First, the plan: do you want to read together? Talk? Write? Identify the aims of your group and set some parameters. How often will you meet? Who will facilitate? What is everyone responsible for when you do meet? What will people get out of it? This last question is kind of a doozy. I’ve spoken to several friends who have attempted to start writing groups at their own institutions with varying degrees of success. While it would be wonderful to believe that people want to get together for the love of the work that isn’t always the case. Start with a clear structure and aim and the cult following will come.

3) DIY is great, but don’t reinvent the wheel. Find a conference and commit.
I have a tendency to take things into my own hands, and that has its benefits for sure, but it is also tiring, often lonely, and it can be a real waste of energy. For those who are affiliated with major research projects the forging of an intellectual community is a bit more organic: network both within and outside your group! But if, like me, your work isn’t affiliated with a clear-cut community then try committing to an annual conference. I started attending Congress when I was an Masters student. I was overwhelmed and excited. I was also pretty lonely, but I kept going. It seemed as though there were so many exciting people doing incredible work. I just wanted to be around them. Stick with it and you’ll start to meet people.

4) Look beyond your horizons. Cold call someone whose work you admire.
This is tricky, I’ll admit. However, we all know the handful of people whose work we turn to again and again. Consider introducing yourself. Who knows, you might strike up a correspondence, or you might not. The only thing that is certain is the you wont know until you try.

Do you feel you have an intellectual community? How did you find or forge it? Do you have any advice for other readers?

academy · advice · going public · outreach · work · writing

It would be an honour

Here’s an awkward conversation I had last week:

Him: “Yes, the talk you’ve outlined sounds perfect, and of course we’re looking forward to hearing it. But I’m calling to settle another matter with you. What’s your usual speaking fee?”

Me, after picking myself up off the floor from a dead faint: “Um, err, oh, it’s, I goes … zero? I’m an academic. I’m usually just glad someone has asked me to talk.”

Him: “Okay. No. How about $250?”

Me: “Of course. That sounds great. Thank you.”

Yes, it’s a post about honoraria. Honorariums? I don’t know. The money people pay you to talk about your research, money that’s not your salary. Money that’s not your travel or food expenses. Ideas money.

It’s all very awkward. No one ever told me about honoraria when I was a grad student, just like they never told me about negotiating for royalty payments for a textbook. And here I am with both issues somehow having become current in my life. The only thing I ever remember hearing about “speaking fees” was of a Famous Postmodernist who extorted a very large speaking fee from a university I attended, and then read to the eager crowd an excerpt from a book he’d published ten years earlier. The idea I gained from that anecdote and others was twofold. First, superstars get fees, and they’re big. Like prohibitively, we can’t afford her, four digits big. Second, there’s a whiff of jackassery and arrogance about the whole notion of charging money for talking about your research.

Okay, I guess it was threefold, because I also picked up the idea that writing and speaking that paid was not real research. You know that’s true: textbooks bring their authors lots of money and monographs are often subsidized by money the author somehow finds to give to the press. Which book earns the author a gold star at review time?

Last year, I was invited to another university to give a talk in a lecture series. They told me up front that they would pay all my travel and subsistence expenses. And they said there would be a modest honorarium, but they didn’t say how much. This year, I gave a plenary address to nearly 200 high school students at a symposium, and I had written the paper before I found out that there was going to be an honorarium, and how much. I gave a keynote to a small gathering of scholars and found out after the event was finished that there was going to be an honorarium. I won’t know how much until it arrives, I guess.

I have written about social media and the professoriate for a Reader’s Forum in a scholarly journal, gratis. I have written about collaboration and the humanities for University Affairs, with Heather and Erin, for a fee. It’s all a mystery, frankly. I am making, I discover, a gagillion dollars a year from the Canadian edition of the textbook I work on, but the American author makes several gagillion more, but exactly how much is a mystery to me.

We don’t, I guess I’m saying, talk in very clear or explicit ways about money in this business. Should we? Myself, I do a lot of knowledge dissemination work, which is to say, media and public talks and such. Some of it is paid and some of it isn’t, but we never talk about it beforehand. I have been recompensed along a sliding scale from nothing (local TV, talks at the library, most academic gigs), through logo-emblazoned coffee cups (The Current), to cash money plus a bottle of wine (private high school).

I am always honoured to be asked. The honorarium is never top of mind. Should it be? Or middle of mind? What do you think about the issue? I find it all terribly awkward and perplexing, but it is nice to be paid for things, sometimes at least. I don’t know, seriously, I just don’t know what I think about the issue. You?

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.

conferences · faculty evaluation · going public · outreach · writing

Guest Post: Recycling is not a bad thing

Our first guest post of the ‘summer’! Jo Van Every had the classic experience of writing a humongous comment on a post here, and then watching it get eaten by Blogger. Luckily for us, she channeled her disappearing-comment energies into writing a full-fledged post, and it’s very topical: as conference season launches, it’s a good time to think about the “communication of scholarly results,” as our funders express it.

Enjoy!

——

This post was inspired by Aimée’s post Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I have used examples from her post for the sake of convenience. Feel free to substitute names of journals and conferences in your field as you read.

I’ve written on my own blog about the tensions between publishing for validation and publishing for communication. While you will be judged (and validated as a scholar) based on your publications, the primary reason for publishing and presenting your work at conferences, public lectures, or wherever, should be to communicate.

If you have a communication orientation to your work, the recycling issue appears in a very different light.

Audience makes a difference

The list of occasions on which Aimée had presented similar work looked to me like it spanned a range of different audiences:

I’ve been joking that what I’ve been creating this week, in preparation, is a “Frankenpaper”: parts of Saturday’s 15 minute conference paper is built from text I created for a public talk in the Digital Media Series at Stratford, reworked for a lecture celebrating 50 years of the Faculty of Arts at UW, and then reframed in a minor way for an invited lecture hosted by the MA in Humanities at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Incidentally, those talks all revisited ideas and prose I first considered and wrote in 2005, for the Reader’s Forum of English Studies in Canada. Still with me? Okay. My conference paper is also built from an article I’ve recently submitted to Biography–which was written from the ideas I pulled together for a different conference paper for last summer’s International Auto/Biography Association conference in Sussex. Oops, I did pull stuff right from the conference paper, too, that I had removed from the article version of that research. The Keynote slides draw from the Stratford/Arts/Sudbury presentation, as well as from the IABA presentation.

The audiences for those various public talks are unlikely to overlap. Local events, like celebrations of 50 years of the Faculty of Arts, draw a local crowd. Public talks have a different audience from academic conferences. And different academic conferences have different groups of people. The Auto/Biography crowd are not the same as the English Studies crowd. (I know, for example, that there are sociologists in the former.)

The same can be said for different print (or online) publications. The people who read Biography are not the same as the people who read English Studies in Canada. And they certainly aren’t the same people who read journals in communication studies, digital media, or whatever.

The fact that you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean everyone in your audience has heard it before.

Audience also affects the content

In addition, each of those presentations/publications will not be exactly the same.

All research communication contributes to ongoing conversations. Those may be formal theoretical conversations happening in peer reviewed academic journals. Or they may be public debates taking place in the mainstream media and people’s living rooms. The general public are interested in your research in a different way than the students in an MA in Humanities, or your disciplinary colleagues at an academic conference. And you want to communicate something different to those different audiences, too. You will be engaging with them in different ways.

You will also contextualize your findings (empirical, conceptual, theoretical) in ways that are relevant to a particular audience. A paper for the International Auto/Biography Association will be different from a paper for English Studies in Canada because you have to make different assumptions about the audience’s familiarity with particular debates that you engage with, at the very least. A public presentation on Digital Media is more likely to be contextualized in public debates happening in mainstream media than theoretical debates happening in academic journals.

Chances are that you are publishing/presenting to those different audiences because you have contributions to make to different debates and those debates are happening in different places. Although the content overlaps, you have something slightly different to say about your research to those different audiences.

Again, just because you’ve said this before doesn’t mean you have. Or that you’ve said it in a way that this audience can engage with.

People need to hear what you have to say

Presenting/publishing in multiple venues is not “recycling” so much as giving people multiple opportunities to come across your work. If you only produce one publication/presentation from a given research project, you rely on the people that need to know what you’ve discovered/created finding that one place where you’ve told anyone about it.

It’s like the proverbial light under the bushel. It’s there. And if you know it’s there and lift up the bushel basket, you can see the light. But most people aren’t going to notice. If you have something worth saying, it’s worth saying in venues (live, online, in print) where the people who need to hear it can find it easily. You don’t need big gaudy neon signs but you need to be visible.

In doing this remember that any oral presentation is reaching a much smaller potential audience than a written publication. People are there to hear it or not. Whereas a print (including online) publication can be engaged with at another time, even years later. One reason to turn your academic conference papers into academic journal articles is to make them accessible to people that weren’t there, including people that won’t even be interested in your topic until 2 years from now. And if you want to reach people who don’t read academic journals, you need to also publish your work in venues they frequent — blogs, magazines, public talks, etc.

That ability to access the paper asynchronously (to use the fancy online learning jargon) also means that readers/listeners can refer others to your work. Maybe Jane heard your paper at that conference and thought it was really interesting. She knows people who could really use that knowledge. Is there a way for her to tell people about it and get them access to what you presented/published?

Validation is still important

The processes that validate your work as an academic only recognize some of those publications: the ones that communicate to audiences they value. If you want recognition and validation by peers in your discipline then presenting at conferences in your discipline and publishing in peer reviewed journals in your discipline is important. The fact that you also communicate to peers in cognate disciplines or interdisciplinary fields is likely to enhance your reputation in your field. Those publications will probably not substitute for publications in your discipline.

Communicating to non-academic audiences may also be valued in this additional way, though peers are likely to wonder what the time you spend on that is taking away from things they value more.

The question is, why are you writing/presenting? Who do you want to reach? What do you value? Organize your publication/presentation strategy accordingly.

In the end, you are probably more at risk of publishing too little than publishing too much. Stop worrying about recycling.

bad academics · going public · heavy-handed metaphors · outreach · writing

Reduce, reuse, recycle?

I’m in Maryland (well, when you read this I’ll be in Maryland. Right now I’m at the airport in Cincinnati, of course) for a conference. We’ll be Theorizing the Web all day on Saturday, and my contribution is a paper on the privacy practices of personal mommy bloggers.

I’ve been joking that what I’ve been creating this week, in preparation, is a “Frankenpaper”: parts of Saturday’s 15 minute conference paper is built from text I created for a public talk in the Digital Media Series at Stratford, reworked for a lecture celebrating 50 years of the Faculty of Arts at UW, and then reframed in a minor way for an invited lecture hosted by the MA in Humanities at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Incidentally, those talks all revisited ideas and prose I first considered and wrote in 2005, for the Reader’s Forum of English Studies in Canada. Still with me? Okay. My conference paper is also built from an article I’ve recently submitted to Biography–which was written from the ideas I pulled together for a different conference paper for last summer’s International Auto/Biography Association conference in Sussex. Oops, I did pull stuff right from the conference paper, too, that I had removed from the article version of that research.

The Keynote slides draw from the Stratford/Arts/Sudbury presentation, as well as from the IABA presentation.

Basically, the only strictly-speaking new writing in Saturday’s conference paper is in the transition sentences between the ideas. (Although, arguably, those are the places that evidence is turned into argument.)

What I’ve been really thinking about lately is this: how much reusing and recycling of our work is appropriate here?

I used to build absolutely everything from scratch every time. Have a look at my CV: one article on 80s video game movies. One article on email in romantic comedy. One article on mid-1990s rhetorical posturings in Internet manifestos. One book chapter on blogging in literary studies. It is exhilarating and exhausting to write like that.

Lately, I’ve changed practice: I’ve got one article published, one forthcoming, and one submitted, all on personal mommy blogging. I’ve given three public lectures this year, on largely the same thing, but to very different audiences. I’m giving two conference papers reporting on one survey, to two different academic communities.

Is this ‘cheating’ somehow? Or is this what depth of engagement looks like? Is this purely strategic maximization of lines on the CV? Or is it better dissemination of research results in an interdisciplinary field?

Basically, is this reduce (effort), reuse (the same materials), recycle (my ideas)? Or is it, to switch metaphors, back to yoga, deepen (my knowledge by repeated trials), broaden (my scope by bringing different theories to bear on one set of practices), and open (by sharing my work more widely and frequently)?

How much reuse is good? Or is it all bad?

What do you do?

boast post · body · outreach · possibility · you're awesome

Boast Post!

Today, the English Department celebrated the accomplishments of its students, in a ceremony with certificates and sandwiches and sunshine and applause. I had the opportunity both to judge entries in two categories and to present one award, with suitable encomiums for the lauded student. It was the best part of my week so far.

It was just so cheering to celebrate the accomplishments in our department. I’ve still got a real spring in my step (spring–ha! We got 26cm of snow yesterday) just from rubbing shoulders with these students.

So why don’t we do a Boast Post now, as term drains to its very dregs: are you pinned beneath towering piles of grading? Or are you producing towering piles of writing in your coursework or dissertation? Are you eagerly or cringe-ingly awaiting results from SSHRC Standard Research Grant, Doctoral Fellowship, Canada Graduate Scholarship, or Postdoctoral Fellowship competitions? Dragging yourself through to the end of the traditional ‘hiring season’ or wondering what happens after you graduate?

Pause. Centre yourself.

Now: tell me–tell us, readers and bloggers and all of us–one of your recent successes, big or small. A triumph personal or academic that makes you stand a little taller. Look us all right in the eye and say, in a clear voice, “Here is something that I accomplished. Yay for me!”

Perhaps ridiculously, I’m most cheered by the fact that this past weekend I managed King Pigeon Pose. Damnit, I’ve been working on this for years. I needed an assist, but I did it.

“People may smile, but I don’t mind …”

Bert starts dancing around 1:15 — it’ll get you in the mood for celebrating your own awesome self.

Yoga video with Sesame Street characters not sufficiently inspiring? Well, how about my friend Laura Davis, whose new course on Hockey in Canadian Literature is featured in Thursday’s Red Deer Advocate? AWESOME!

So let’s hear about you now!