enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

man-person-woman-face

I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · day in the life · enter the confessional · risky writing

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I’ve been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye‘s history. As I wrote in that post,

And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love.

Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I’ll never be an academic. No, I’ll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:

  • Submitted a grant application I’ve spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I’m finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I’m reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn’t it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job–my life–gets a whole other kind of label and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we’re altac–separate, and to some, lesser. I’ve quite happily adopted this label myself–I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs–when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I’d love if we could just call them–and tenured ones–jobs, full stop.
I have a job.
I am an academic.

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn’t know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there’s nothing #alt about it.

community · emotional labour · feminist communities · in the news · risky writing · women

From the Archives: To Build Sustained Discourse on Rape Culture is a Feminist Act

If you’re in Canada you will know that today marks the start of the trial of former CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, who is being accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.

We have been thinking about how to have mindful, generative, public discussions about rape culture for a long while here at Hook and Eye, and our thinking is built on our identification as feminist academics.

If you’re looking to think with us I have pulled some of our writing on the subject from the archives, as well as one brilliant piece by Lucia Lorenzi which was originally published at rabble.ca

Lily, on silence, forgetting, and being at the Ghomeshi bail hearing.

Erin, on social media, slow academe, and building sustained public conversations about rape culture.

Lucia Lorenzi at rabble.ca on how the burden of healing is still placed on women.

Erin, a year later, on the how the Ghomeshi scandal changed her.

Erin, asking what it is going to take to have sustained and generative public discourse about rape culture.

Jana, on reading the comments.

Erin, on healthy communities and mentorship in the wake of public revelations of misogyny in Canadian literary circles.

And Erin again on restorative justice, social media, and why it is important that #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral.

And Erin once more, with an open letter to Rex Murphy about why language matters when we are talking about rape culture, racism, and systemic violence.

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
#alt-ac · #post-ac · academy · administration · risky writing · serious

Silenced by Fear and Doubt: Blogging in the #Altac

The year is still new, but I’m already looking back. I didn’t post nearly as much as I wanted to last year. There were a few reasons. I was busy trying to figure out how to be a full time administrator and a PhD student and a friend and a partner and a homeowner and Moose’s person at the same time. I was tired and anxious, because a year of doing everything for the first time and wanting to do it really well will do that to you. I had a hard time coming up with post ideas that pleased me, that I thought would please you, our readers. Those are all okay reasons. But the biggest reason I deleted so many of the posts I started was the thought of displeasing a very specific some of you, our readers. You see, my co-workers, including the Dean and people I report to, read this blog. Not all the time, I’m sure, but on occasion. Often enough that my posts have come up in conversation around the office. Often enough that it makes me very wary of talking openly about some of the biggest challenges and changes of being a flexible academic who has chosen to move into administration.

Talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the #altac is what I’m here for, for the most part. We have Boyda and Jana to talk about various stages of the graduate student experience, Erin and Margrit to speak to the contingent and in-transition perspective, and Aimee and Lily to be our tenured viewpoints. We’re also bringing on a whole host of fantastic guest bloggers this year to speak to a wider range of jobbed and lived perspectives than we’ve ever spoken to before. We all have our niches, and I’m the #altac girl. Sure, I like to write about my research on occasion, and I’ll be doing more of that this year than last because I feel like I’ve mostly got a grip on how to be a flexible academic who works and researches at the same time. Yes, I like to write about gender and sexism in literature and life and the media. Sometimes I want to talk about my haircut, or my cat. But more often than not, I want to talk about work, the work that I’ve discovered I love after worrying for years that finding fulfillment in non-professorial work would be impossible. My posts on #altac issues tend to be pretty popular around here, at least in part (I think) because many of you feel the same way, and want a view into what life is like on the other side. It’s mostly good, but not always. And I feel like I can’t give you a clear view, at least not in the ways I want to.

When I started my job, all of this seemed much easier than it’s proven to be. But something has changed since that first day in the office, and my identity as an #altac blogger has proven much less stable than my previous identity as a graduate student one. Given the negative experiences of others who have collided headlong with the limitations of free speech as non-tenured academic writers, there are still lots of questions to be answered about how to go about blogging in the #altac. How can flexible academics effectively talk about potential issues like workload, sexism in the workplace, possible career trajectories, or negotiating our commitments to work and family when the promise of safety and freedom that tenure brings doesn’t exist in the same way in the #altac? How can we #alt-academics negotiate our sense of responsibility to the academic community–a responsibility that I argue strongly for, and one that demands the ability to speak openly and honestly about life as a flexible academic–and our responsibility to maintaining workplace protocols and collegiality? Is the university community able to read honest criticisms of its less admirable practices and attitudes from those who have seen it from all sides–as students, and teachers, and staff–as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks? These are questions that I don’t know how to answer–they’re questions that even feel risky to ask openly–and they’re keeping me silent.

I am very aware that there are many of us who have to negotiate the balance between self-expression and self-protection. With the majority of academic work being contingent and outside of the structures of tenure, that number is ever increasing. I know that I’m late to the game in my realization of how difficult this negotiation can be. Erin has written, and Margrit has spoken, about their belief that their openness on Hook & Eye has been to the detriment of their careers. As Aimee has noted, Heather’s voice took on a perhaps uncomfortable weight when she became Vice Dean, and she stopped writing for us not long after. Lee has long been contract academic faculty and a blogger, and now has to negotiate her new status as an #alt-academic who writes in public. This is an issue for all of us who are untenured, who don’t have the protections to our freedom of speech that tenure provides, or who have the protections of tenure only for our lives as researchers and not for our lives as administrators (a sharp divide, as Robert Buckingham so memorably found out). That leaves just Aimee and Lily who can, ostensibly, say what they like and not feel constrained by signing their names to it. Aimee recognizes this, and she speaks out for us when we can’t.

Not having that freedom for myself rankles, especially given the commitment of everyone who writes for H&E to sign our names to our writing. But I am junior. I am untenured, and will never have the protections of tenure. I rely on good relationships with the people I work with–relationships I do have, because the people I work with are great and they seem to think the same about me–to make my working life go smoothly, and to ensure that I’ll be able to move up and on when I’m ready. I could lose a promotion, as Anne Whisnant did when she criticized the way the academy integrates (or fails to integrate) doctorate-holding staff into its ranks. I could even lose my job. I don’t want that to be me, and I’m in a genuine pickle about how to move forward without putting myself at risk.

Whatever the answer is, or even if there isn’t one, it’s a start to have the questions out in the open.

classrooms · equity · ideas for change · job market · learning · PhD · risky writing

Conquering Fear, Risking Failure

I’m writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.

In the last few months, as I’ve sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I’ve come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one’s work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she’d written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.

While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.

Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I’m often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.

But I’ve been inspired by these writer-activists I’m studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.

Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn’t go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.

But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.

I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I’m not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.

#alt-ac · administration · grad school · identity · risky writing · transition

On Being That Which You Question

It’s been six months, but most of the time it feels like I’ve been in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for as long as I can remember. My days as a full-time PhD student feel like they happened a very long time ago, and a lot has changed. My writing related anxieties (and they were many, and sometimes debilitating) have entirely disappeared, replaced with an affection for my dissertation and the writing process that brings me much joy. No longer worried about making myself attractive on the job market as a Canadianist, I’m delightedly pursuing my other academic passion, which is writing, reading, and talking about doctoral reform, graduate professional development, and post-PhD pathways. I have a decent professional wardrobe, and I finally figured out a quick but put-together hairstyle (a.k.a. have been too busy to get a haircut and it just happened to grow out nicely). Instead of frequently being the oldest person in the room, surrounded by students, I’m quite often the youngest, and more often patronized than I would like. I usually identify myself as a fellow PhD student when I’m working with graduate students, but not when I’m working with other staff. I have people to delegate to, and wish there were more of us to share the work. I’ve seen inside the sausage factory, as Kim Yates delightfully puts it in her great essay about taking a staff position post-PhD, and I’m only mildly horrified.

Some things, however, remain much the same:

1) Impostor syndrome doesn’t just go away when you change jobs (file this under “things I knew but chose not to believe”), and it has cropped up in all sorts of weird places. Like at our monthly Research Officers meeting where my predecessor, now in a different Faculty, commented that my pay band was totally out of line. I was just about to chime in with “I know! I can’t believe what I make!” when she continued “they SO don’t pay you enough. That job is hard.” Oh. Or when I presented at a big provincial conference for higher education professionals earlier this month and worried that I would reveal that I was doing my job totally wrong, and then found out that I was doing it pretty much like everyone else, and pretty damn well for someone who is learning everything as she goes. Or when I was invited to give a talk at another university and realized that I get to take a train (my favourite thing!) and be away from the office for the day and get paid for it (rather than, as with conferences, end up in the hole).

2) My academic credibility hasn’t vanished overnight; if anything, it’s increasing in some areas. I’m getting asked to do more invited talks than ever before. I have a major new publication on the books, and I’m working out a collaboration with one of the country’s major advocates for doctoral reform. My academic network is expanding across the border in useful and interesting ways. And perhaps best, I get to do the work, to build the reputation, to do the research, to share the knowledge, without having to reenter the structure of the professoriate. At the same time, I’m realizing that finishing my PhD remains necessary to achieving my #alt-ac goals, which is a good question to have answered.

3) And speaking of vanishing, neither (I’m both pleased and disconcerted to find) has my wariness of academic administration, despite my being firmly ensconced within it. I’m admittedly not very far into the beast–I’m only one step away from our graduate programs on the organizational chart, and when I’m not liaising with the government or other granting agencies, I work directly with graduate students, faculty, and student services. A fair part of my job is teaching, mostly in the realm of professional skills and grant writing. Critiques of administrative bloat, outsize salaries, and blatant self-interest are, for me, in sharp contrast to the leanness of our Faculty’s operations–we have a reputation for being the busiest and toughest Faculty to work in–and just how deeply the folks I work with care about grad student success. Those critiques don’t seem to apply to us.

But then I attempt to mentally picture the structure of the university that sits over my head, in all of its many many layers, and realize that I can’t completely wrap my head around a structure of its size and complexity. I realize just how newly created the positions are of some people I work with (even my position has only existed in its current form since the year I started my PhD), how many of those new administrative positions there are, and how desperately we fought during our last adjunct strike to get two tenure-stream conversions. I hear from Aimée that her office has curtains from 1972 while the administration building at her university is doubling in size. I try to explain to our President’s manager of communications, who started not long before I did, how polarizing a figure he (and his salary, and his car, and his housing allowance) was during our last labour dispute, which was centred on fair compensation and job security for contingent faculty. I see efforts duplicated, resources misdirected, politics getting in the way of getting things done. I work to bring to the table the perspective of graduate students, the people we’re serving, a perspective that sometimes gets lost with a group of people who never were grad students, or who haven’t been one for a long time. And I try to reconcile my long years of being a graduate student, at a university where grads tend to have a critical and indeed antagonistic relationship with administration, with my few months as just one of those administrators. That reconciliation hasn’t happened yet. 

But maybe, as tiring as the internal contradiction can sometimes be, that’s a good thing. I don’t want to become an administrator who forgets what it’s like to be a student. I don’t want to accept the structures and the processes of the university as the status quo if there’s a better way we could do things. I don’t want to feel entitled to my job, or indispensable, when most of my academic friends are still vying for an infinitesimally small number of stable faculty positions. I don’t want to identify as an administrator to the point that legitimate critiques of the structure I’m in make me defensive, or challenge my sense of identity, rather than inspire me to work on the problems they identify. So I’m going to hang on to that questioning, that suspicion, that critical distance, that impostor syndrome for as long as I can. I took this job because I passionately believe in the value of graduate education, and because I want to be somewhere that lets me make a real and tangible difference in the lives of graduate students and in the ways that the academy supports and trains them. And if I can keep on asking those questions, I’ll do those things better.

But remind me to read this in ten years.

emotional labour · risky writing

Unspeakable

This weekend I saw a trailer for Sini Anderson‘s documentary about Kathleen Hanna called The Punk Singer. 


While talking about the emergence of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, and Hanna herself, one of the interviewees says “feminism was really good at critiquing pop culture, it wasn’t good at making it.”

I found myself immediately thinking about academic feminism, about being a feminist in the academy. As a self-identified feminist working in the academy I am very good at critiquing academic culture. I can talk about labour inequity. I can talk about the ways in which I understand marginalization to function from my own standpoint and I welcome the opportunity to have frank and challenging discussions with others about their own situated knowledge. But do I make academic feminism? What would that mean, and what might that look like?

I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill. I was in grade eight in North Carolina. My parents and I had taken a drive into Chapel Hill, which was about an hour and a half from where we had moved when we left Ottawa two years previous. Chapel Hill seemed to me a bastion of liberal- and counter-culture in what, to my fourteen-year-old self, felt like a completely alienating new space. I didn’t fit in my new school (though who knows if I would have in my old school in Ottawa either). What I did know, standing in the aisle of School Kids Records, was that I had to have the album that was playing. This singer’s voice sounded something like mine: a bit childish, a bit young. But holy hell could she ever scream! And she was swearing and yelling and talking about sexism and sexuality and violence and women. I worked up my nerve to ask the impossibly cool sales clerk what it was, I bought the album, and I wore it out. I had to listen to it with headphones on because my parents would have been appalled at the language. I didn’t care. Here was a band full of women only a few years older than me, and they were calling out everything that they knew was wrong. They were doing more than calling it out! They were naming it. Amazing. I aspire to such truth-telling, I decided. I aspire to tell it like it is and call injustice by its name.

Watching the trailer and remembering fourteen year-old me got me thinking about those promises to yell in the face of inequity and systematic as well as subjective injustice. I’m now six years in to precarious labour and I often wonder: how much of that do I really do? In addition to critiquing academic culture, how much academic feminist culture do I make? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

You can read between the lines, of course. The answer is that while I am good at critiquing academic culture I am not certain I am so good at creating it. In great part this disconnect is systematic: I am careful about critiquing the very system I want to make room for me. My care–more accurately, my trepidation–is in service of trying to make myself appealing and necessary for the system. But here’s the kicker for me, the kick in the pants, the kick in the teeth: any activism is activism against and within an unjust system. I know all this. I know it mostly because of my training in the very system I critique.

So often these last few years I have found myself writing posts about the working conditions of the academy. These posts are necessary, they make room for additional conversations about working conditions. But how often — and how?! — am I making academic feminist culture? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

change · emotional labour · risky writing

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Contract to Contract

I am moving.

More precisely, I am moving from Dalhousie University where I have been a contract employee for four years. On July 1 I will take up a 12-month contract position as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Mount Allison University in beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. 

I am thrilled about the move, thrilled about working in this new department, and beyond thrilled to make my new home in the centre of the universe (The Black Duck! Sappy Fest! Struts!) I am truly excited about the possibilities that await me there. For example, in terms of teaching responsibilities for the first time in the five years since completing my degree I will be teaching less than 200 students in a term (indeed, in the whole year). In terms of my personal and social life there is more happening in Sackville than almost any other place I have visited. And in terms of my research I am hoping that the additional time, the presence of such a rich intellectual and artistic community, and the smaller professor-to-student ratios will allow me to finish the two manuscripts that I have under contract as well.

At the same time, it feels risky to leave a place that I have lived, worked, and developed communities in for four of the last five years. I am not leaving for a tenure track job, if I was my decision to leave Dalhousie would have been far less emotionally challenging.

The other piece that feels risky is writing about my shift from one contract to another, from one university to another. Yet, I’m emboldened by two things. First, since beginning to write for Hook and Eye I have tried to talk frankly and publicly about my own experiences as a precarious worker. Second, the job I’ve been hired for is Canadian literature and gender and literature. As Heather has written, we need to continue talking about work and women. So here I am telling you: I’m excited about my new contract, my new colleagues, my new home, and all the incredible benefits to my personal life as well as my professional life. And here I am telling you that I am sad that the conditions in the academy are such that the kind of leave taking I’ve just experienced are more than common.

That’s the thing about contract work, though: in addition to the constant scramble for employment, you also have to think about those things that fuel your ability to work. In other words, you have to think about balance and those things that help you breathe.

So here’s to change. Sackville, I’m yours.