disability · travel · Uncategorized

You Gotta Name It to Claim It

Basically, I need to travel like a toddler. I need to travel like a toddler because I have ADHD and am autistic and am easily overwhelmed by sound, temperature shifts, crowds, lack of control over my immediate context, and tight spaces. For me, travelling like a toddler means dressing in fluffy comfortable layers, having blankets, having snacks, along a schedule organized around my normal bedtimes. It means having an eye mask, and ear plugs, and my sweatshirt version of a heavy blanket (a Lululemon Scuba 2 hoodie that fits snug and thick, which covers for my hands and a hood that zips up high and tight like a deep-dive wetsuit of sensory dampening). It means making allowances for jet lag and major time shifts, for needs of hunger and sleep and quiet. It sometimes means seat upgrades, or paying for seat selection and boarding priority. It sometimes means an extra night in a hotel to manage all of it.

Me on the floor at a gate in Denver: alarm just went off, so getting up for another flight.

Maybe you need to travel like a toddler too, but you can’t. Or you’re not supposed to.

My limit case was flying to Hawaii in August (more on that in another post). Hawaii is 7500km away from where I live. You can fly there in a day, sure, but add in customs and ground transportation and layovers and it’s, like, a WHOLE DAY. My flight there was: wake up at 2:30am, in taxi at 3am, drop bag and go through security and US customs at 4am, 2 hour flight at 6am, 3 hour layover in the crackly-noised sparkle-walled deep-freeze that is Chicago O’Hare, 9 hour flight to Honololu, land at 2pm (which is 8pm in my head), meet a whole bunch of people, settle in to residence, go for supper, and try to stay awake until 9 or 10 (so 3am or 4am) in my head.


I was terrified to do this. Terrified enough that I talked to my doctor about it, and he just kind of said, it is what it is, do whatever you can to make yourself more comfortable. So I went full toddler. I slept in the taxi; I slept at gates, on the floor. I retreated into a cocoon of me. I did what I had to get through it without a meltdown or a panic attack or wrecking my chances of acclimating to the time change once I arrived. Still, it was really really gruelling. That was Tuesday. Wednesday morning, we started work at 9 am, and did a full day. And then Thursday. And then Friday. Oof.

Academic and other work travel is full of indignities and compromises usually related to cost and time. Usually, the worker is the one absorbing the cost and giving up the time and the employer or other funder reaps the savings. My brother in law, for example, flies from Toronto to North Carolina for meetings fairly regularly. His company puts him on a 6 am flight, and then he works all day in the US, and then they fly him home in the evening. They count that as a day of work, very efficient, but of course, he is losing a night of sleep (getting up a 2:30 to be on that 6am flight), working exhausted, and then driving home in the dark to get back home at bedtime. And he’s in at the office the next morning. The company saves on a hotel and can claim to make it a shorter, easier trip for my BIL, but of course, the money is saved at the cost of his sleep, his downtime, his family. You know what I’m talking about: you have surely done this too, to save money at the cost of your own health needs.

Me, I just can’t do it. My body can’t do it, and my brain just fritzes right out. And because I have the diagnoses I now have, I can push back on the requirements of “cheapest possible flight” and “least number of overnight stays”–because those savings are debiting an account in my body that’s always on the verge of overdrawn. And I have the paperwork that says so.

In my head, I’m a sophisticated cosmopolitan. I wear work clothes to travel, to save packing space. I only have my rollaway bag, because checked bags are for losers. I wear makeup and do my hair, to make travel glamourous again. I fly in early in the day to maximize my productivity. I like thinking of myself this way, controlled, productive, fashionable, lightweight. But I can’t actually be that way, really. And why should I? Whose needs does that serve? What a con! Air travel is legitimately awful and getting worse: overcrowded, no food, no storage, incredibly tightly crammed, ridiculous security theatre requirements that rob dignity and steal time. Why should I put on makeup for that and hop off the plane ready to attend a meeting? I’ve been through hell and need a nap, and a shower, and a good cry, usually. It’s all a scam, this idea that somehow we can create these economies of time and cost and comfort and nothing is lost: it’s just that the costs have been transferred onto the individuals who are made to feel like they should be able to hack it. That they should smile while doing it, feel good about how much they can cram in, in what terrible circumstances, how cute and carefree they can look while doing so.

I can’t. And maybe you can’t either. The thing is, only some of us (me) have the paperwork to push back.

As I lean more into what it means to be a disabled academic, I’m thinking of ways that I can use my experiences, and the accommodations I fight for, to extend more kindness and balance and humanity to other academics who are increasingly finding their time, mental health, physical health, and well-being imperilled by the speed-up and belt-tightening of academic work. These conditions are inhumane and disabling to all of us, and my diagnoses has finally given me the clarity of a frame through which to say: I can’t do it this way, and I won’t, and I don’t have to. I hope to be a wedge opening up a bigger crack, to show that many of the conditions under which we all are pushed to work are also fundamentally disabling and inhumane and that we all ought to be able to push back.

So expect more posts from this year about academic-ing while disabled, as I come to terms with what that means for me. I’m still on sabbatical, so I’ll have more to say on that, too. As usual, I’ll have lots to say about grad students, and writing, and academic politics. Of course, if you have any tips on how to make academic travel any less awful, please drop a comment!

commute · grad school · job market · travel

Easy commutes and hard choices

It’s turned into commuter week on Hook & Eye, with Erin thinking about her new commute,  and Aimée musing on her un-commute. Like Aimée, I’m currently an un-commuter,  although it wasn’t always that way, and getting to this point took some tough decisions and a whole lot of privilege. It might not seem like it, but my current commute says much about the state of academia, my place within it, and the kinds of decisions grad students have to make on the regular.

Scenes from my un-commute

For nearly seven years, I commuted from downtown up to York campus, the last two of those full time. When I started my PhD,  I was commuting from the apartment I shared with my then-husband at the edge of Yonge/Eg and Don Mills, which took up to ninety minutes each way in the winter. I was also, for the first while, commuting to my full-time job at OUP. I’d never, not since I was old enough to work, not worked and gone to school at the same time–I’m a pretty typical first generation university student in that–and I thought my PhD should be no different. The work commute ended when I realized how wrong I was, and the school commute changed when my marriage ended and I moved back in with my parents in the suburbs. I couldn’t afford to live in the city on my own–humanities graduate funding packages aren’t kind to single people, especially not in Toronto–and I was lucky to have a home base I could commute from, no questions asked, until I could find a roommate.

But that commute from my parents’ house was wearing, and when I moved in with a grad school friend downtown, we chose somewhere central that would minimize our travel time. The forty-five minutes I spent in transit–a walk, plus the subway, plus the bus–morning and evening was doable, for a time. But somewhere during that time I decided that one of the things I was absolutely unwilling to do was to become an academic road warrior, piecing together teaching across multiple campuses while I was hunting for a tenure-track job. And when my current partner and I inherited a house in the city (extraordinary, extraordinary privilege, despite the fact that it was only possible because he lost a parent), I made the decision that I was also not going to apply for tenure-track jobs that would require us to sell that house and move across the country, away from my family and his aging father, or that would see him stay in Toronto and me commute home at intervals from wherever I was working. Which meant, in practice, that I wasn’t going to apply for tenure-track jobs, because there weren’t exactly floods of Canadian literature jobs in the Golden Horseshoe.

Scenes from my un-commute

Making that decision was freeing, and taking my first full-time administrative job at York was even more so. But ninety minutes a day in transit, five days a week, was a lot of time I could have been using to do other things–writing, exercising, spending time with my people–and a hard transition after so many years of a flexible academic schedule. And having made the first big decision not to become a professor, I felt confident in choosing to look for a new job that gave me back that time. So now I have a lovely walk to work, and colleagues that affectionately tease me that I only took the job for the commute. It’s no coincidence that I wrote the largest chunk of my dissertation in the year after I settled into this new job, because the absence of a long commute–and the walking and thinking time my un-commute time gives me–turned out to be what I needed to write.

My choices were largely driven by personal preference, and I have enough privilege–financial, racial, health–that I could make those choices. For lots of my people, choices about their commute, or their lack of one, are a matter of necessity. They have to choose jobs, or entire careers, that permit a commute and a schedule that accommodate a sick or disabled child, or their own disability, or their mental illness, or an elderly parent, or the need to be close to family for childcare, or a combination of these. Sometimes that means choosing no commute because it means choosing unemployment; sometimes that unemployment isn’t a choice at all. And the reality is that for those of us who aren’t the lucky ones like Aimée, those kinds of necessities often drive our career choices, and drive us out of an academy that likes to tell us that having preferences about where we work and how we get there and how long it takes are less important than the tenure-track dream. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the connection between the kinds of choices that academia tells us are legitimate, the kinds of flexibility it accommodates or doesn’t, and the leaky pipeline that pushes people who want, or have, to choose different kinds of working arrangements, different priorities for their location and time, out of the academy.

advice · job market · travel

Mid-week Montreal: self-care on fast trips

Last week, I was in Montréal from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon. I was very kindly invited by the English Studies Department to present my research on Facebook as an auto/biographical technology. There are a lot of reasons to say “yes” to such invitations. The opportunity to share research and receive feedback is chief among them of course, but there are other inducements. My friend Heather was doing the asking–and I hadn’t seen her since she was doing her MA and I was starting my PhD at the U of A. Um, Montréal in October. And never underestimate the lure of two nights in a quiet hotel, with no cooking, no office hours, no family demands, and an away message on my email. A break in the semester.

Of course the main reason to say “no” to an invitation like this is that who can take a break mid-semester? Teaching! Office hours! Meetings! Email! And, ugh, airports. Since I wouldn’t miss any teaching, and the paper was already written and the slides carefully crafted, I pushed these qualms aside. I’m pleased to say the visit went very well, and although I did come back to a LOT of email, I think I’m getting competent at mid-week travel.

Here’s how I manage fast trips during the semester. All this advice applies equally to campus interviews as to invited talks, in my experience.

1. Be realistic when you book the travel part. I was originally planning just an overnight stay, because I didn’t want to get behind at the office, but my husband reminded me I’m usually just a terrible grump, and very stressed and resentful, when I do that. If you go on a trip, just commit to the trip. I wouldn’t have had time to do much more than arrive, sleep, give the talk, and leave. That’s hardly time to see the host department, or notice what city you’re in. A two night stay, which my host originally offered me, was much more humane and reasonable.

2. Be realistic when you book the travel part, part 2. It has taken me many years to know that it is a false economy for me to fiddle the margins by flying very early in the morning, or later in the evening. When I fly in the morning, I’m exhausted from a poor sleep the night before, and have to commute the hour to the airport during rush hour, which then becomes 90 minutes. When I fly at night, I’m already burnt out and sleepy and have no patience left when I arrive home to my family. I have learned the hard way, over and over, that I like to fly mid-day. Maybe I’m technically “wasting” time that way, but exhaustion, insomnia, and bitchiness are just not worth it to me to get there three hours earlier, or leave three hours later. It’s no loss to me to arrive somewhere at 5pm, well-rested and even tempered.

3. Have a packing strategy. I try to balance being careful about weather conditions with knowing what I need to bring with me every time and how it will all fit in my bag. I keep travel toiletries always packed and ready, and I know how to stuff my running gear into my shoes and my shoes into my bag. I know I need warm pyjamas, and I will be unhappy without fuzzy socks, too. I know just how much I can fit in my carry on. It usually only takes me 20 minutes to pack for a few-days trip, which cuts a lot of burdensome nonsense out of the planning. I know which clothes won’t wrinkle and which pair of pants can go with three tops to make three outfits. I have been known to purchase footwear because it will work with both a dress and with pants, so that I can travel with only one pair of shoes. I also have a travel purse that has a laptop sleeve and I keep a folder with all the travel documents in it. Everything is the same every time I travel, so I don’t have to worry about it. This saves a lot of worrying, so I basically don’t have to think about the trip at all until it’s an hour before I have to leave for the airport and I get my bag out of the attic. Erin has some good tips about this.

4. Don’t write on the plane. Look, travelling is awful enough. Do you really want the added stress of not having your talk or your slides prepared? If you are counting on having access to wifi at the airport to finish your talk, and the traffic on the way there means you lose that time, or you open your laptop and realize all the relevant files are on the other computer, at home, inaccessible, or your hotel doesn’t have a printer and you have to find a Staples and a flash drive somehow before you present, well, that makes things was more tense and unpleasant than I like them to be. Look, working while travelling and on trips can often be very pleasant. I often write on the plane–but I’m writing something other than the talk I’m supposed to give. Don’t cut it so close, is all I’m saying. To myself. Because otherwise I’m miserable.

5. Go easy on yourself. Flying in to give a talk somewhere is intense. You are the centre of attention. There is a poster with your face on it. People are arranging meals with you. Grad students may want to meet you. The Q+A at the end of such talks can last 20 minutes or more, and the questions are usually really good. I’m a very sociable person, and I don’t get stage fright or anything like that but I’ll be honest: I find these things emotionally very taxing. Being at my smartest and most pleasant and trying to remember names and wearing tights and a dress for hours in a row is hard. The way I do it is by being easy on myself the morning of the talk, being alone and being quiet and reading and getting ready in a really gradual way, or going for a run first or doing yoga. Reading the newspaper, reading a book, drinking my coffee in my own damn time as I go over my paper one last time, so I can be confident everything will go well. So I’m fresh for the event. And afterward, I give myself a pass for the rest of the day–many campus visitors will tell you they have deep and satisfying naps between their talks and the supper. This is an excellent idea. Last week, in Montréal, I was going to take a long walk but it was pouring rain so I went to the Fine Arts Museum for a few hours, and it was exactly what I needed. I find twentieth century art incredibly soothing and soul-expanding. Then I had a nap and went out to supper with my host. Wonderful.

6. Be open to the experience. At my talk, I met several scholars whose work intersects with my own in ways none of us had imagined. I saw their eyes light up, and mine did too. There was much scribbling of new ideas and contact info, which for me is one of the prime benefits of this kind of trip. Because I was in Montréal, I had a chance to speak almost exclusively in French for several days. That was a nice brain teaser, and lots of fun, and got me thinking of all the different ways English and French are different and a number of other little fizzy little things of ideas that I was at leisure to indulge while eating lunch on my own after a long walk. The fine arts museum was a revelation–there was a special exhibit that completely knocked my socks off and I immediately saw a completely out of the blue connection to some work I’m doing on digital photography … in a set of 1920s oil paintings. I had to sit down and type out some notes on my phone. What I’m saying basically is: a new context produces new connections and new thinking. Be ready for this by leaving your real life at home and focusing on being in the now of the time of the trip. I would have missed out on a lot if I’d spent all the first night feverishly finishing my paper, and the second afternoon locked in my room grading or answering emails.

Travel is a chore and travel is a privilege. Sharing research is terrifying and sharing research is exciting. Meeting new people is scary and meeting new people is enriching. Academic lives of routine are often punctuated by short trips, and me, I’m seizing the opportunity by the horns, in ways that I’m trying to optimize so I can stay happy and productive. If you have any tips for self-care on such trips, I’d love to hear them~

community · grad school · mental health · reform · research · solitude · travel

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she’d been told during her PhD–a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa’s advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I’ve been traveling for over four weeks now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think–about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other’s shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don’t think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being–I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I’ve been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I’ve been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven’t been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I’ve fallen behind on email, I haven’t been teaching or grading, I’ve had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I’ve spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I’ve enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here–a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven’t accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I’ve encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren’t an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again–something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I’d like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I’ve been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I’m over here–sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess–but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I’m in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn’t let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I’ve already built up. Here’s hopin,’ anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I’d recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.

advice · archives · libraries · NYPL · travel

Horizontal Histories and Learning from the Archive

As a medievalist, I’ve had the great and unusual privilege of spending a fair bit of time in manuscripts rooms handling 600-year-old handwritten books. I fell in love with medieval studies during my undergrad due to a funded summer at the University of Calgary when I was asked to help catalogue and investigate over thirty manuscripts preserved on microfilm. I then spent a summer of my MA in England, bypassing the microfilm for actual old papers and books, and this semester I get to do it again: temporarily excused from teaching responsibilities, I’m currently hanging out in the UK for a few weeks to conduct primary research for my dissertation. It’s….stressful (am I looking at the right things, from the right perspective, for the right amount of time?). It’s tiring (must-get-there-when-library-opens-must-stay-until-close). It’s a little lonely (Oh hello, girl in the white blouse. I sat across from you yesterday. Let’s be pretend friends in my mind.).

But it’s also invigorating and exciting, especially insofar as I’m encountering traces of people and bodies that have been forgotten for centuries, and as I practice a history that is reconstructive and “recombinative”–as Nicholas Watson terms it. Watson argues that we as literary historians are charged with forming a relationship with the past, of confronting its phantasms in the present and combating the teleological impulse to privilege the future of modernity over the historically premodern (and the Middle Ages especially is viewed as decayed and obsolete, remnants of a vicious and irrational time) (7). If we think horizontally rather than teleologically, we can learn to listen to what traces of the past have to teach us in the present, thus countering productivist or evolutionary dogma about the future, as well as the “climate of the obvious” that demands we translate our humanist work into metrical and instrumental terms (an issue I wrote about a few weeks ago).

On a more basic level, the archive has retaught me about the value of the book, and I’m not just talking about the medieval book. One setback of this digital age, with all its conveniences and technological marvels, is that the many scholarly materials readily available on the internet foster inattentive attitudes over the means of their production. As an example, I’ve been consulting the British Library’s online catalogue version of one of my manuscripts prior to this trip, and when I located the physical catalogue in the BL Manuscripts room, I discovered that not only this single tome, but also all twenty volumes of the early-twentieth-century Sloane catalogue are handwritten. There were no digital traces of this fact. (Of course all the texts I deal with as a medievalist were originally handwritten, scrawled and deliberated over by poor monks in harsh working conditions with deadlines and demands.)

 Court in front of ye grande British Library

Everything at the British Library is ritualized and formalized, and the conversations overheard at tea time are most often serious, engaged, passionate. When sitting in the reading room, even with a modern book, I often have to suppress a strong impulse to snap a photo with my phone of a particularly useful piece of scholarship, due to the BL’s draconian photography restrictions–instead I  type it out, forcing me to slow down and more consciously ruminate on the information provided. Even the daily ritual of opening my laptop case for the security guards as I leave the reading room serves as a reminder of the precious nature of physical archival materials. Erin has written about the systematic destruction of Canadian archives under the Stephen Harper regime; I dare you, Harper, to step foot in the BL and experience firsthand their protective stewardship of primary documents.

While I don’t at all mean to romanticize books, spurn digital humanities (which have been valuable for scholarship in SO many ways), or fortify the privileged domain of the ivory tower, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value of the humanities lately–as many of us have in this uncertain world–and I think the materials and products upon which our scholarly output is based deserve more attention than they’re normally given. We should also question modes of access to and policing of these materials, and so fight for increased value allotted to primary documents alongside increased visibility and access (which the digital movement has greatly aided). Back home in New York, I’ve tried to be active in the SaveNYPL movement, which is working to prevent the city from incurring irreparable architectural damage to the largest noncirculating library branch in America, and demolishing one of the States’ most frequently used libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Branch, in the process. This is a fight not just for architectural preservation, but also against letting information circulation accelerate beyond a point where we recall the value of slow, conscientious, recombinative scholarship as fostered by noncirculating libraries. The NYPL stands to become what one activist has called a “glorified internet cafe,” and I hope some of you will join me in emailing the mayor to help protest these devastating changes.

So I guess we could all benefit from living for a few days or hours as medieval monks. And what about you, dear readers? What have you learned from working in archives and libraries, from digging through the past? How do you negotiate your own slow scholarship in the midst of the rapid flow of this digital age?

Works Cited
Watson, Nicholas. “The Phantasmal Past: Time, History, and the Recombinative Imagination.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 (2010): 1-37.