academic reorganization · emotional labour · empowerment · stockpiling letterhead

Dreaming Communities of Care in the Academy

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to think about what it means to be a member of a supportive community. The beloved cafe in my new home town has experienced a misunderstanding with the town council over patio space. The short term result has been for the cafe owners to take a vacation and recharge. It isn’t just that we are missing the excellent espresso and St. Viateur bagels. It is that we are missing the people we get to see on a daily basis. That’s the thing about a small town: if you’re feeling lonely or needing a wee break you know you can head down to the cafe and have a chat with folks. In the meantime, I’ve witnessed a community of care rally to try and rectify the situation for everyone. The aim, it seems to me as a newcomer, is simply to make our town better for the whole community.

What does this have to do with academia?

It is fall, and as jobs are posted, the MLA job list opens, and grant application deadlines seem to be running straight towards us rather than looming in the distance I’ve found myself wondering once again what a community of care in the academy might look like.

Sure, these communities of care happen on a micro-level: reading groups, friends, small trans-university networks. I can think of many times when these communities pop up on a smaller scale. For example, having someone offer to show you his successful grant application as you write yours, having a mentor offer advice about where to send those revisions, talking with friends and letting of anxious steam, having a colleague offer you letterhead so you can continue to apply for jobs, having an institution offer you adjunct status to allow you to apply for grants: these are all small-scale instances of care within the academic community.

But what might it look like to create large-scale communities of care in the academy? What kinds of specific structural changes could happen at the classroom/ departmental/ faculty levels? What kinds of changes might happen if we — and by “we” I mean those of us working in the academy in full- part- and precarious-time positions — simply to make things better for the whole community?

enter the confessional · grad school · graduation · stockpiling letterhead

Notes from beyond the university

I have a confession to make: I am not exactly, at this precise moment, engaged with “the university.” I raise this point because many of my recent posts have had nothing to do with working as a woman in the academy. This is in large part because I found other, more pressing things to talk about, but also because I don’t necessarily feel much like a woman in the academy these days.

You see, as the very clever Aimée Morrison once put it, I am “between academic positions” at the moment. I am still doing research and writing like crazy, but I’m not teaching, not employed by an academic institution, not part of a research centre – I’m mostly just writing from home and quilting (seriously, there has been SO MUCH quilting…).

my latest hand sewn quilt top (48″ x 60″)

While I respect the mandate of Hook and Eye immensely (that is, to “write about the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system”), I’ve been struggling to come up with interesting things about academic life to discuss. I simply feel very disconnected from it right now. I’m not, strictly speaking, a woman “working in the Canadian university system.”

I’m not complaining. Come month’s end, I will have 0 essays to grade, and in mid-April I will actually celebrate my birthday rather than frantically read final exams. I’m lucky to have this time away. Its like a sabbatical, only it is a consequence of the precarious labour environment for sessional instructors, rather than a deserved research leave from a great job.

I’m struggling because my life has been defined by the university for a very long time. I went straight into university from high school, straight into a MA from undergrad, straight into a PhD from my MA, and now here I am – out. I haven’t actually celebrated my birthday on (or near) my actual birthday for years! I mean, who has time for a birthday in mid-April!?!?

The issue is that grad students are socialized – by institutions, supervisors, and each other – to define themselves by their academic affiliations. There is no world outside of your academic world. If we don’t have an institutional prospect in the form of a postdoc or a tenure track position waiting for us post-defense, we panic. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to write under my name right now?
                                          Danielle J. Deveau, PhD
                                          Amateur Lady Scholar and Quilt-Maker

Really and truly, I’m not complaining. My quilt is looking pretty awesome and I cook all the time. I have sent two articles off for review this term and have a couple more that I am diligently working on and hope to finish by the summer.

I’m getting some good work done.

I’m enjoying myself.

BUT… I do think that as fewer and fewer PhDs leave school and move directly into academic track jobs, we need to have a better strategy in place to bestow some kind of identity that is not grounded in our ability to acquire university letterhead.

after the LTA · DIY · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · stockpiling letterhead

DIY Academia?

I ran into an acquaintance of mine outside the library today. I met her last year at the new faculty orientation (aside: DO NOT SKIP THIS. It is one of those rare chances to meet people outside your department and it is also really heartening to meet a bunch of other folks who are new to the city/school/teaching/research gig. Seriously, you should go to this.)

Anyhow, she is on a limited term appointment much like mine, meaning that as of May 2011 we’re both out of work. Unless, of course we get jobs which is, yes, what we both would like.

As we chatted in the sun, relishing the last few days of on-campus quiet, conversation inevitably turned to what-ifs. What if you don’t get a job? We asked each other. What if you don’t get a postdoctoral fellowship or some other similar research-based position?

I was surprised to hear the answers that came out of both our mouths.

My friend intends to return to the Southern United States where her partner is situated. She’ll take some time to write articles and flesh out the publications section of her CV. My answer was similar: I’ll stay where I am. My partner has a great career going, we both like the city, and there’s no reason to uproot us both if we’re not moving for a great job. So yes, I’ll also work to cobble together some sessional teaching while I write and try to publish.

It struck me then that both my friend and I are planning for life as DIY academics. Given time, but not money, institutions, but no institutional support, we’ll each work away at getting in to this profession we love. Not the best case scenario, obviously, but one that needs to be thought out and planned and discussed more openly. What happens when—if—you move from being an Assistant Professor on an LTA to an unaffiliated DIY academic?