faster feminism · gradschool · guest post · running

Guest Post: Being What You Are

September is my favorite time of year, which is a sure sign that I’ve spent almost my whole life going back to school as the season changes. I love the fresh, chilly air, the eagerness in my new students, and the return to routine after the casual chaos of summertime. Like New Year’s Day, the first weeks of classes come with resolutions, good intentions, and enthusiastic motivation, but I know that these will soon wither as the stresses of teaching and writing bear down on me. This year, though, I’m really hoping to make at least one of those resolutions stick.
As a PhD student, I really love the work that I’m privileged to do, but I have to admit that I don’t always feel like the real deal. I know everyone struggles with feeling like an imposter sometimes, but the courage and confidence to think of myself as an academic are so often in short supply, especially after the starry-eyed hopes of September have faded. Unfortunately, motivating oneself to read, or write, or be otherwise academically productive is particularly difficult when it all feels pointless, because that too-busy-for-its-own-good brain is so sure that nothing it ever achieves will be good enough. This year, though, I’m determined to change my perspective.
I received some very simple advice a couple of years ago, when I decided to take up running. I was very reluctant to call myself “a runner,” and I had it in my head that, in order to define myself as a runner, I had to be an Olympian. I needed to be running marathons, to have the fancy shoes and the hardcore 6-days-a-week schedule like the people on the covers of fitness magazines. But one day, when struggling to articulate my love for running without actually calling myself (gasp!) a runner, someone asked me a simple question:
“Do you run?”
I said, hesitantly, “. . . yes?”
“Then you’re a runner. That’s all there is to it.”
This was a breakthrough for me. The next time I tied up my running shoes and hit the pavement, I thought to myself “I’m a runner!” It turns out that I’m not any different from the people you see out the car window, sprinting along the sidewalk in the rain. I’m badass too, just like them! And when I ran my first half-marathon last fall, I really felt badass. I obviously didn’t finish anywhere near the top; I wasn’t the fastest one out there, but I finished, and I was so incredibly proud of my time. Now, I really do feel like a runner, but I’m convinced that starting to think of myself that way even before I had run my first race really did help me get there in the first place.
What I’m hoping for this year, then, is that I can apply that same principle elsewhere in my idea of myself. I have a feeling that tricking Keely-the-PhD-student into understanding herself as a scholar, a writer, a teacher – all the things I long to be but can’t quite convince myself that I am – will be a lot more complicated than lacing up a pair of running shoes. I realize that changing the way I see myself is going to take some work, some serious, intense, painful growth. But I think – or at least I hope – that changing the way I think about myself will help me do that.
Because it turns out that, even in the midst of all my self-doubt, I was “a runner” all along! It also turns out that I’m already doing the things that make me a writer, an academic, and a teacher. Of course, if I’m going to meet the goals I’ve set for myself, academic or otherwise, I’ll still need to work my butt off, to push myself, to be disciplined. But thanks to my newfound confidence as “a runner,” I know now that if I’m ever going to become who I want to be, it will take a shift in the vision I have of myself – and I’m determined to sustain this vision right on through the 2015-2016 school year . . . or at least until Christmas.

Keely Cronin
University of Waterloo

commute · feminism · running

Experiments in Walking While Feminist

Earlier this year, I read about Beth Breslaw’s experiments with walking in public and male entitlement. Breslaw decided that she would stop moving out of the way when a) she was walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk, and b) someone was not walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk and directly in her way. I decided to take her up on the challenge of doing the same on my twice-daily walks to and from the office, and during my weekend errand runs around the Annex and down to Kensington Market (which is packed with pedestrians). 
Here’s what will come as not even a little bit of a surprise. Entitlement is alive and well on the sidewalk. When I don’t move–and I can’t do this every day, because it’s exhausting–I get slammed. Repeatedly. When another walker and I are on a collision course, I apparently become invisible and my personal space completely disappears. And it doesn’t matter how much or little of my side of the sidewalk I’m taking up. I can be essentially on the curb and I still get body checked. Women also fail to yield, but men are much (much) more likely not to move over. A number of snarky articles took offense at New York Magazine’s decision to call this “manslamming,” and called into question the legitimacy of Breslaw’s experiment. Hers (nor mine) stand up to any kind of rigorous examination as scientific experiments, but they don’t need to–at least one of the many walking studies in the 1970s demonstrated exactly what we both experienced: “when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian.”
What gives? Breslaw makes the connection between failing to yield and manspreading, or what we might think of more generally as the male entitlement to fully bodily inhabit public space, and I think she’s right. One of the reasons that I was so desperate to give up my subway commute was the back pain it was causing me–men felt entitled to sit fully back in their narrow seats, shoulders spread, and I was getting chronic back pain from squeezing between them and having my shoulders pushed forward the entire hour-long ride. When I did attempt to take up my full allotted amount of space on public transit, I experienced the same pushback, subtle and unsubtle, that women continually report in every story about manspreading ever written. The same pushback I get on the sidewalk. 
What I really wonder is how I failed to notice for more than thirty years of my life that my seemingly straight-lined walks were actually continual feints, dodges, and weaves. When I’m not refusing to move, I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy moving, repeatedly, multiple times a minute, for people who have decided that my half of the sidewalk is their rightful space. The distance between my starting point and destination on a map does not equate with how far I actually walk, because all of my weaving adds up to a significant addition. Interestingly, the same is not true for when I’m out running. Perhaps its simply because I choose not to run during rush hour, or on streets that I know will be crowded, but my GPS tracker normally lines up with the distance on the map at the end of a run–I haven’t feinted my way to an extra half kilometre. I wonder, though, if it’s because “athlete” registers differently in public than just “woman.” 
Despite how frustrating, and sometimes painful, keeping up this experiment sometimes gets, I still refuse to move on at least a few of my walks a week. I really doubt that the men who bash into me are learning anything from the experience, although I hope they might. But mostly I do it for the same reason that I do power poses before an interview–to remind myself that my body is entitled to its share of space in the world, and that to step aside or hunch my shoulders or compress myself into a smaller space does make me smaller, does disempower me, does change how I experience being me in the world. And I’m not down with that. 
good things · job notes · learning · running · teaching · tenured life

Yelling, and other things I’ve forgotten in ten years

Last Wednesday, I shouted myself hoarse. Or, more specifically, I talked so much and so loudly for so much of the day that I gave myself a pounding headache and my braces tore up the inside of my mouth. I told myself it was because the “Faculty Speed Dating” orientation session was really loud, and since I was the one that had to get people to move tables every five minutes, it was the yelling that did it (note to self for next year: buy a bell, or a gong). But then Thursday: headache again. And all I had done was a presentation to 20 continuing PhD students, for an hour. Perhaps I was coming down with something?

Friday found me standing in the graduate coordinator’s office, clutching my throat and my head, moaning. J is a singer, with a degree in music. She knows about throats, and yelling, and of course, about managing grad chairs. She offered me a headache pill and then some advice.

She said I should stop yelling and start speaking loudly, from the diaphragm. Pfft, I said, I know how to do that, I’ve done theater! And singing (very very poorly)! And public speaking! She told me, then,  kindly, that her own speech therapist noted that every September, she was besieged by … teachers. Experienced ones.

July marked the 10th anniversary of my hiring at Waterloo. I’ve been a professor for ten years. Ten! Tenured now for three. The “new carpet” I brag about my office having is now ten years old. Some of the books I bought new with my first grant now have sun-scorched spines. I’ve taught somewhere in the vicinity of 35 classes, ranging from 10 to 200 students, and given what feel like countless presentations and papers.

But here I was, like a rookie, squelching up my throat and squeezing my vocal cords and pinching my voice and yelling. Like a rookie.

Ten years in the same office, with the same departments, many of the same colleagues, and surprisingly many of the same classes. This stability is, of course, one of the great privileges of tenured and tenure-track appointments, but in the midst of all this incremental moving from one September to the next, it’s easy to forget that I am changing, still learning, forgetting things. This year, over the summer, somehow I’ve started yelling instead of projecting. So my project is to remember how to be loud without giving myself a headache.

My career here attains the rhythm of a long, slow, Sunday run. I’m focused on endurance, and maybe enjoying the view, listening to the birds. Ten years behind me and at least another 25 in front of me, in the same office with the same carpet, and many of the same colleagues. I’m not racing to put together enough work for the fall. Not sending applications out wildly into a future I can’t see. Not packing or unpacking for or from a major move. In ten years? I’ll still be here, most likely, doing much what I’m doing now.

Yet, things change. To keep to the running metaphor, if the job hunt is like racing for the bus in heels while dragging a laptop and 50 student papers behind you, and tenure is a long, slow training run, you might say that I’ve got time to work more carefully on my form. And so I am. This term it’s my own voice, as well as using informal daily writing in my first year class. Last year it was shifting my fourth year design course to a fully major-project focus. I’m learning about anti-racist feminism and how to integrate this better in my teaching. I’m trying to figure out how to help graduate students train as writers rather than just as subject-area experts. I’m writing my first book. Since I finally understand how the courses fit together in our degree programs, I’m starting to think of new and old courses in terms of their fit in the curriculum. I’m taking on bigger administrative roles.

Ten years ago, I was having trouble imagining how I could do one thing for 35 years. I was used to running pell-mell from one milestone to the next, waiting for my real life to start. Ten years in, I can say it’s started. It turns out I’m still feeling just as challenged as ever, and even if I’m in some ways developing new and more advanced skills, sometimes I’m learning the same lessons over again. Like how to project my voice into a big room.

I’ve been catching up with my departmental colleagues this past week, and like they do–like I do–every year, they report the same dream we all started having as children: it’s the first day of class, and I’m not wearing anything; I’m in the wrong room; I’m meant to be teaching in Japanese; the books didn’t arrive on time. Ten years in, I’m still as excited and nervous–nervouscited?–about the new school year as I ever was.

Once I get this headache under control, that’s going to be really cheering to think about.

running · teaching · writing

Teaching as Coaching

I just finished Week 3 of my running app. I have the settings arranged such that while my music plays in the background, the soothing British electronic lady not only indicates when to shift from running to walking and back again, but also encourages me and gives me tips. So she’s like: “Start your one-and-a-half-minute run now.” But she says more: “You have 45 seconds left! Keep running!” And, crucially, “If you find this run hard, slow your pace a little–remember this run is three times longer than what you were running last week!”

Luxuriating in my five minute cool-down walk heading for home (“Remember to keep your pace brisk! I’ll let you know when it’s time to slow down and stretch your muscles!”) I got to thinking about how easy it is to move from Couch to 5K.

And I got really mad. I got to thinking about how I spent most of my life thinking I had a hidden heart defect or lungs the size of mandarin orange segments that made me incapable running from my house to the corner, let alone in increments longer than televisions commercials. Never mind movie-length runs. Because years and years of elementary and middle and high school pays ed had painfully demonstrated that some people can run and others can’t.  This is how we were taught running in high school gym: here’s a map of the route, and we’ll meet back here in 45 minutes. And then the teacher trotted away, leading the two students who could keep pace with her. Basically, the teacher set a goal, and gave us absolutely no indication of how to meet it.

Don’t we often teach writing a lot like this?

Let’s read a lot of books and discuss them in class. Now go away and come back with an essay. Oh, we’ll teach you some rules, about academic integrity, and topic sentences, and proper citation. But the way that most of us were taught writing there was no: process, strategy, training tips.

Teaching phys ed is probably a lot like teaching English. Most of my phys ed teachers were strong and tan and wiry and fast. They looked like they were born with whistles around their necks. They were naturally really good at tennis or running or basketball. They made it look effortless. It was, for me, completely alienating and mostly served to reinforce the message that I could never do any of those things and it was useless to try.

I teach English. I write every day, and I read constantly. Give me 200 words of text and 30 seconds and I can craft you 400 words of analysis in the critical school of your choice. I speak and write in two languages and as I get older my command of allusions only grows. I make it look effortless. And I can see that, if my teaching style, like my phys ed teachers, is to simply model excellence, it’s quite likely that a lot of my students are demoralized and alienated.

I spent decades on the couch, thoroughly convinced that it was impossible for me to be fit and enjoy it. That I was a loser who would never be able to do it. That’s what phys ed taught me: that I would never be strong. Are there ways that I teach English that convince my own students that they will never be writers? That English is something they’ll never be able to “do”?

If so, it’s a terrible waste. Experts who become teachers risk working in a blind spot big enough for their students to disappear into: we are so good at this, so easily compared to most, that we don’t even know how to coach novices into the practice.

It took me a free app with a recorded British lady doing nothing more than setting 9 weeks of goals and explicit instructions of when to trot and when to walk to get me running, happily. What simple steps can I take to draw my students into writing with as much joy and curiosity as I do?

empowerment · possibility · running

Feels like starting over …

I went for a run yesterday. This was my first run since mid-November, when I got banned from running because of a knee injury that needed several months of zero high-impact activity to heal itself. In mid-November, I was gleefully running 7k at a steady pace, floating on endorphins, listening to albums, melting snow on my eyelashes and filling my lungs full of fresh air, smiling all the way. Yesterday, I ran for one minute, then walked for 90 seconds, then did that seven more times. Yup, I’m back on my couch to 5K app, the one I gritted my way through last year.

I’m starting over but I’m not back to zero.

When I started running last year, it was hard. I was nervous and insecure and unsure. I didn’t know how to pace myself. I didn’t know if I would ever start to like running, instead of liking to bask in the glow after I stopped. I didn’t know if I would ever be a “real” runner. I sometimes got too hungry mid-run. I sometimes drank too much beforehand and had to pee. But by mid-November, running in the snow with my nice neckwarmer and my Young Galaxy and my new app, I had mostly solved those problems.

So yesterday, running those 1 minute intervals made my heart pound harder than those 7k runs did. And today, my quads are burning more than I would like. But I do know, now, that I’ll improve pretty rapidly. I already have the right socks and the right sports bar. I know when and what to eat and how much to drink. I am a real runner–I’m just training up again.

It might look like I’m back at the starting line, but there’s something different and better that comes from my earlier experiences.

Writing is like this, too. Every new project–every new class, even–feels like starting over. Feels like getting winded going up the stairs, an embarrassing kind of weakness. But at least for me, I’m finally starting to learn the patterns. We all already know enough to be suspicious of teleologies, right? That progress narrative by which successful persons move from strength to ever greater strength, to the summit of their potential? Sometimes our narratives are more like spirals, looping back on themselves while still expanding: starting a new research project, a new grant application, a new conference paper, a new curriculum revision puts me back, in many ways, to zero. But in other ways, not. Things are maybe not getting easier in the sense that I no longer feel helpless and overwhelmed by the wide open expanse of a new writing project. But they are getting easier in the sense that I know some good ways to move past the helplessness without too much emotional difficulty, and that I know this is a regular part of my research cycle. That’s progress, I think.

So I’ll do my nine weeks of running and walking, moving back off the couch and into 5k, benefitting from my experiences and showing myself some compassion along the way. I hope I’ll be able to do more of this in my academic work in the coming year as well.

heavy-handed metaphors · running · saving my sanity · writing

Writing and running

So, I’m prepping this graduate professionalization course you may have heard me talk about on Twitter. As a result I’m reading a looooooooot of books on writing–academic writing, dissertation writing, creative non-fiction writing. Here’s something I’ve noticed:

A lot of disciplined writers are also runners.

Joan Bolker keeps reverting to running metaphors in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. In the Chronicle, writing columnist Rachel Toor refers fairly frequently to her own running habit–she does half-marathons, apparently. (William Zinsser doesn’t run, so far as I can tell, probably because he’s too busy wagging his fingers at people [mostly male people], but that’s neither here nor there.) Anne Lamott doesn’t run, but Bird by Bird reminds Melissa of running.

I’ve got more, that didn’t arrive in time for the photo shoot.

I’ve started to run. The writing books inspired me, actually. And since I’m doing so much writing this summer (reading books on how to be a productive academic can produce productivity this way) I need some outlets for when I unpeel my butt from my deck chair. Obviously, I began my running career by reading about running. It’s striking how similar the writing advice and the running advice is, to wit:

  • Make a schedule and stick to it
  • Be consistent
  • Shorter efforts, more frequently, achieve better results
  • Capacity builds over time; start slow and it will speed up!
  • It’s important to build in time for rest and recovery
  • The hardest part is getting out the door / opening the document
  • “Motivation” is never going to be enough
  • The good feeling you get from dragging your ass/pen through it when you don’t want to today will give you momentum for tomorrow
  • When you hit your stride, there’s nothing better than staying in that flow

Writing and running are mutually reinforcing each other for me right now. When I just want to surf Dog Shaming rather than write, I think to myself, “Well, you dragged your ass out of bed at 6am to run, and that turned out really great, so bring that same commitment to the writing!” And then, at 6am, when I’m all snuggy and listening to my whole household happily snoring, I think, “Dammit, you sat in a chair for two hours trying to create a BOOK out of NOTHING yesterday, so you can probably manage to thump your feet down sequentially on a pretty path and listen to the birds chirp for half an hour and not DIE.” (There’s a lot all-capsy thinking when I’m feeling sorry for myself, as you do when the alarms goes off in the morning.)

The academy is full of funny coincidences. A lot of English professors are in therapy / have weirdo hair. A lot of women in Digital Humanities like to knit. A lot of productive writers are runners. Huh. Something to think about.

balance · body · grad school · health · running · writing

Bird by Bird

I ran 16 kilometres yesterday. Even though it was my feet hitting the pavement, my breath making clouds in the cold air, that statement still shocks me a bit.

You see, it was only a little more than a year ago that I started running at all. I was out of shape (life of the mind, and all that) and just so envious of all of the local runners I saw out and about. I wanted to do that–to be a long-distance runner–and I was genuinely unsure if I could. Would I hate it? Would I be terrible at it? Would I fail?

Like any good student, I did the obvious–sought out a teacher. I enrolled in a Learn to Run class with the Running Room. Goal race: a Christmas 5k. The idea of running 5k was intimidating. It seemed unattainable. But we started small–we ran for one minute and walked for one minute. Then two and one. Then five, and eight, and ten minutes, with a one minute walk in the intervals. And we just kept stringing together those ten minute intervals. 3k. 4k. 5k. 6k.

I ran my 5k race, and had a blast doing it. Then I ran a 10k, and loved it too. And now I’m training for a half-marathon. I ran 16k yesterday. But what I really did was run for ten minutes, then walk. Over and over. Little by little, I ate away at those kilometres until there weren’t any left. The idea of running 23k (our longest training distance for the half-marathon) is still terribly intimidating, but ten minutes? I can do that.

It look me awhile–and the purchase of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird–to realize that in my running was also the answer to my search for a sustainable academic writing practice. With my dissertation proposal approved, the idea of writing an entire dissertation was terribly intimidating. All those pages! All those ideas! I found the scope of it difficult–and sometimes paralyzing–to wrap my head around.

But reading Bird by Bird (which I feel like I was the last writer on the planet to do) made me realize that ten-and-ones worked just as well for writing as for running. For those of you who haven’t read it, the key message of Bird by Bird is to break down large writing projects into small chunks–tiny ones, even–and tackle them one-by-one. It seems commonsensical, but when faced with writing a book, common sense sometimes flies out the window. But I got it–I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I just had to write for twenty-five minutes–one Pomodoro. And then do it again. Little by little, I’m eating away at those pages until there won’t be any left. The idea of writing an entire dissertation is still terribly intimidating, but writing for twenty-five minutes? I can do that.

So I’ll keep writing my Pomodoros and running my ten-and-ones. And little by little, my dissertation will get done, and my kilometres will add up. And who knows? The dissertation is definitely a marathon, but maybe I’ll run an actual one of those too.

What about you? What strategies for a sustainable writing practice do you use? How do you tackle projects or goals that are ambitious or intimidating?

busy · chaos · mental health · running

How Read For Pleasure (And Other Impossible Tasks)

Lately I have been thinking a lot about free time. I think it is due largely to the fact that I don’t really have any.
One of the first thoughts I had upon graduating university was that of the sprawling amounts of time I would have to tackle the enormous stack of unread books that I accumulated over my undergrad or the Sunday morning long runs that would no longer be hampered by papers and research.
Sadly, it didn’t take long to realize that those books would remain shut and my long runs would remain unrun as the stack of research and writing assignments on my desk grew. To be honest, when I have an important project on the go, I find it difficult to find time to take a proper breath, much less indulge myself in something I enjoy.
It appears that busyness and academia go hand in hand which would explain why I was so empowered by my female professors during my undergrad. They were organized powerhouses who somehow balanced children, academia, research and a host of other responsibilities and I loved them for it. I thrive on being busy but operating at full speed for weeks on end sets me on a fast track for burnout, usually resulting in an unjustified emotional response to a mundane daily situation or blindsided by whatever illness my compromised immune system is unable to stave off.  
Knowing this, I have tried to sneak things I enjoy while rushing from place to place.  I listen to audio books while I commute and keep a book in my purse for brief moments of quiet during the day where I am riding the bus or waiting in lines. I no longer run during normal waking hours, but find myself setting my alarm clock earlier and earlier in order to fit it in.
Overambitious? Probably. Common for a woman in academia? Yes.
So I ask you, Reader, (knowing you probably are reading this in between meetings, or on your iPhone or eating at your desk while you work on a project) how do you sort through the chaos and find time to do things that you enjoy?
Or do you?