best laid plans · emotional labour · health · notes from the non-tenured-stream · work

What I Have in Common with Conan O’Brien

My teaching semester ended on Thursday at 2:30. After I gave my final lecture I packed up my belongings and walked back to my office. While I was walking I ran into a student I know, a lovely, smart, kind student who asked me how I was. “I’ve just finished my last lecture of the term, and I am feeling a little lost” I replied. Poor fellow, sometimes I’m too honest.

But the truth is that I seem to have a pattern every spring: finish an intense teaching semester and crash. Hard. This past term was the most difficult one I’ve had in my relatively short teaching career. I was teaching four courses (all different, no repeats), I was teaching my first graduate course, I submitted a large grant application, I travelled to two conferences, and I had a job interview. Our faculty nearly went on strike, and for the weeks leading up to what seemed an unavoidable strike action I, like others, spent extra time meeting with stressed students, grading papers much more quickly than usual in an attempt to prepare students for working on their own should faculty have to walk off the job. All in all it felt like an especially trying term.

I know I should feel justified–even entitled–to take a bit of a break before the grading begins (not to mention the fact that I am teaching a new course in May…) Indeed I’ve encouraged friends and colleagues to take a break. “You need to recharge!” I tell others. So why is it so difficult for me to take my own advice? This weekend I had brilliant plans for a mix of work and relaxation. I planned to grade a few papers each day, to spend a little time doing cursory research for a new article, and to spend the evenings cooking and hanging out with my partner in crime. Instead I took three hour naps each day, woke up feeling groggy and disoriented, and then felt horrible for not grading any papers. What gives?

I got a bit of a hint on Saturday evening when my partner and I watched two movies in a row. I didn’t even feel I had the mental capacity for a complex narrative, so we watched an action film and then we watched Conan O’Brien’s documentary about his post-NBC-firing stand-up show. As I am an early-to-bed-early-to-riser I didn’t really know much about the Leno-Coco debacle, so I went into watching the film with what began as cool detachment. Cool detachment quickly changed to concern and frustration: O’Brian appeared stressed, angry, high-strung, and exhausted. But what bothered me most was not his increasingly dark circles, what bothered me was that he was getting it done. Clearly the emotional toll of being fired as well as the emotional and physical toll of performing were getting to him, but ultimately he was killing it. The show was good.

I didn’t get to see how the documentary ended because the DVD we had was scratched. He had just been asked what he would do if he didn’t have his work. I didn’t get to hear his answer because the screen froze on close-up on O’Brien’s face: tired, frantic, and, as he’d said a number of times in the documentary, unable to stop.

Now I’m no fool, I’m not Conan O’Brien, and while there might be some similarities to be drawn, my classes are not really anything like late night television. I’m struck though by the ways in which I feel like that frantic, frenetic version of O’Brien that makes up the majority of the documentary: unable to stop because stopping means the unknown. Stopping means dealing with all the other parts of life that have been put on hold to get the job done. Friends, that is a scary thought.

I offer this little confessional not (only) as navel-gazing wallowing, but rather as a conversation opener: how do your recover from an emotionally and physically exhausting term without completely shutting down?

community · work · writing

Showing Your Work

Since Aim


e’s post last week I’ve had conferencing on my mind. Well, her post and the fact that it is conference season. I gave a paper this past Friday at the NSCAD Cineflux Symposium, and this coming Friday I’ll be heading off to Fredericton, NB to attend Congress.

I don’t have any children, so I must admit that the important issues Aimée discussed aren’t issues I’ve had to deal with or consider. Conference time is my time plain and simple. OK, maybe not plain and simple.

I’ve been thinking about conference papers–and more generally of conferences–as sites for either positive collaborative thinking or (less positively) another notch in the old CV. Of course others have written about the good, the bad, and the boring conference already.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about sharing ideas. Here’s what I mean: the panel I was on at the Cineflux conference was made up of a new group of collaborators. My colleagues have recently been successful in the competition for a SSHRC Research Creation Grant and I am a collaborator (eeek!) We are a film maker, a sculptor/installation artist, an urban anthropologist, an independent artist, a technology specialist and digital artist, a design specialist, and me. This is our project. When we got together this weekend the aim and intent was to share ideas, to inspire and inform one another, and to begin to think about how out work in different disciplines could productively cross-pollenate to create new ways of experiencing urban space.

I realized that everyone else on the team has been used to working collaboratively save for me. Now if you look at my CV you’ll notice that I go out of my way to think, practice, and write about collaboration in the Humanities. …But as we well know co-authorship and other collaborative work isn’t yet valued in the same ways in all disciplines. There are some good reasons–and less good reasons–for that but what I’m really interested in is the way in which I’m only just getting used to sharing my BIG (read: research) ideas with other people. Before they’ve germinated.

I did not have the kind of MA of PhD experience in which I would show my supervisors conference papers before I gave them. Sure, we worked on my thesis and dissertation together, but any work I did on the side was my own. I wonder why? I certainly could have showed it to either of those women, they would have read, responded, offered useful commentary. It never occurred to me though. I have been under the unconscious impression for such a long time now that I shouldn’t show my works in progress until they are more or less polished. That’s hurt me, I think. Perhaps I was influenced by the endemic fear that circulates amongst many graduate students of having my ideas stolen. Granted, there are certainly cases where that happens but I’m coming to believe that giving my ideas public breathing space is the best way to make them mine, and make them better.

In the last year or so I have been trading drafts with colleagues. I’ll admit, I find it is still TERRIFYING. I often catch myself thinking some version of the fraud narrative: will I be revealed as a novice/idiot/charlatan now? (note that I clearly have blocked the fact that many writers, especially creative writers, show their work all the time in workshops and with editors. Hmm, good model, no?) In reality though the result has been that my work is stronger, more fully articulated, and sounder for this sharing.

What about you? Do you share your work with colleagues/writing groups/an editor before it is fully finished?

academy · best laid plans · Blogroll · women · work

Making Lists, Making Suggestions

Since our linked series of posts last week that covered the Heliopause (that is being a woman and being promoted to full professorship early in one’s career), the standing-still issue (namely the MLA’s good advice… though I didn’t see any how to implement suggestions in the MLA’s publication), and the complexities of being a full-time academic and full-time mother/partner/autonomous individual without a time machine I’ve found myself thinking in bullet points.

My desire to organize into lists may well be due to the fact that I am about to embark on the holiest of mid-winter grails: reading week. Now’s the time when academics across the nation look over our to-do lists with feverish eyes and over-achievement in our hearts and think ‘I shall accomplish all of these tasks!’ Or maybe that’s just me.

Nonetheless I’m big into lists these days. I find I want to think not only about what I need to get done, but how I am going to do it, and what steps it make take to get it done. You might be asking yourselves what this love of lists has to do with the posts of last week. First and foremost it has to do with my desire to get involved in making this profession (and, by proxy, my life) a more equitable and enjoyable and functional space. I’m no where near tenure or promotion (one would need a tenure-track job for that), nor am I a chair of a department, programme, committee, working group, or advisory team through which I could advocate for changing the way we do the dossier (again, there’s that bit about needing a permanent job first). And I’m not a parent, so while I do agonize over whether I spend enough quality time with my partner, my friends, and (frankly) me, I do not have the added real time and emotional pressures and privileges of caring for a wee one.

What I can do, though, is make some lists!

Lee Skallerup Bessette, one of the regular bloggers for our friend over at University of Venus and blogger and pedagog in her own right, has recently reminded me once again why it is so important to blog as a woman in higher education. For Bessette blogging is a way of combating bullying, “that’s what the media, the politicians, administrators, and even a number of academics are, bullies.” Indeed, that’s what I mean for this list to do.

I’m not the first to make lists, obviously. About three years ago University Affairs ran a series on women in higher education in Canada. (This was around the same time that Inside Higher Ed ran a post on the ‘quiet desperation’ of women academics) Two of the UA posts were entitled “A Challenging Landscape” and “Women Academics Five Strategies for Success.” While I applaud the focus, what frustrates me is the onus that is put entirely on the woman academic navigating that challenging landscape. So I’m going to start my own list, and I’d love for you to add to it. This list is first and foremost for the graduate students and newly minted PhDs among our readership. Why? Because I have no experience beyond the limited term appointment…yet.

So here we go. Three suggestions to begin:

1. Don’t become isolated: read blogs, form reading and writing support groups, make regular meetings with your supervisor, mentor or peers.

2. Do make space for your research. See Aimee’s post on studying for candidacies and adapt those strategies to work for writing the dissertation, writing articles, spending time searching job lists, and writing conference abstract.

3. Do one thing a day that is just for you. Take 15 minutes to look at the Fluevog sale site and droool, go to a yoga class, read a poem, walk outside, write a postcard, make some music Brian Eno style, hug your dog (or mine, see above. Isn’t he huggable?) Whatever. Just make sure you don’t forget that this is your life and you need taking care of too.

Now, back to my epic reading break to do list. Right after I walk the dog.
teaching · turgid institution · work

You’re on …. whose side?

Some time ago, an external evaluator turned me down for something, and it fell to my Chair – a wonderful administrator, a compassionate person and a good feminist – to explain it. “This person is working with you,” said my Chair. “There are lots of excellent suggestions for how to improve. This evaluator is on your side.”

My eyebrows flew into my hairline, the universal sign for BULLSHIT.

If you caught Madeleine Li’s sickening story about being awarded for teaching excellence while being denied tenure, you’ll recognize the pattern. Explaining why she didn’t chop her book manuscript into stand-alone articles, she writes, “I really wanted the book contract, and was felled by a supportive letter asking me to revise and resubmit. The letter was encouraging but not what I needed.”

I bring this up in connection with Erin’s Monday post about reading teaching evaluations in a context that recognizes systemic prejudicial assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, age, authority, and competence. It’s not just students who evaluate professors. We evaluate each other all the time, too. The question behind this post is, how do we reconcile rigor (or quality, or excellence, or competence) with all of the gendered and raced inequities that we know structure academic work?

The answer is not obvious. On the one hand, of course we care about rigor: we are academics, nobody wants to give the nod to shoddy work. We are probably all familiar with the research on blind auditions for symphony positions. (Simply put: blind auditions resulted in more chairs for women musicians.) We want scholarship to stand on its own, and we would bristle at the suggestion that women academics be held to different standards than men.

On the other hand, we know that women, immigrants, Aboriginals, queers and visible minorities (some of us fit more than one category here, obviously) labour under differential conditions than our male, white, middle-aged, conventionally gendered colleagues. The demands to mentor and model, to lend a helping hand, whether that be to the next generation of scholars or to the community, are greater for some than for others, and these differential workloads result in women taking longer than men to be tenured and, especially, promoted. Don’t take my word for it; here’s a gem from the latest AAUP publication, The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work:

Men [associate professors] spent seven and a half hours more a week on their research than did women. Even if these differences in research time occurred only during semesters, not during summer or holiday breaks, this would mean that men spent in excess of two hundred more hours on their research each year than women. On the other hand, women associate professors taught an hour more each week than men, mentored an additional two hours a week, and spent nearly five hours more a week on service. This translates to women spending roughly 220 more hours on teaching, mentoring, and service over two semesters than men at that rank.

Whenever I am asked to review a file, I am uncomfortably aware of inequities like these. Uncomfortably aware – yet not at all sure what to do.