Thursday, June 29, 2006

Ode to course design

What is it about course design that’s so delectable?

I have, this month, designed my courses for next year…One is a core course that I’ve done from scratch. It’s the kind of course I’ve been wanting to get my hands on. The other is a revisiting of a course I taught in my precise field in May – about which I blogged rapturously here – and am now revamping for the fall, for this new university. I’ve surprised myself by making at least a third of the readings new ones, and adding topics with abandon. I’m happy that it’s still so alive and evolving, that course.

What I love in course design is the sense of hope that comes with the devising of what I imagine, for five minutes, is a perfect intellectual package. I love the way a vision gets played out in a selection of texts. As I choose readings and order topics so they flow, I imagine the students building on knowledge gained from one week to the next. I have ideas for lectures (which I never write down – bad me) that I am sure will speak very well to the relationships between disparate texts and topics. I feel, for a moment, certain that what I’ve constructed will hold the key to the (inter)discipline for students who really care about what they’re doing – and I’m lucky that there is a surfeit of those, at the new university.

Of course, the pristine package that I imagine in June doesn’t last through September, when the course becomes a living beast and my delusions of grandeur must end. Students become bogged down by content, and I get myopic. I tend to forget the big picture I had constructed, doing the prep from week to week (and it’s one of my goals for next year to find a way to instantiate the vision – to make it concrete with every class I plan). But having had the initial vision of greatness buoys me somehow – and I catch glimpses of it from time to time.

I also love how the design process clarifies my own thinking in relation to the field. I feel grounded, somehow hailed by texts that I might otherwise forget about. Course design keeps me in check, makes my own research and writing stronger by reminding me of the wealth of what’s out there, not letting my perspective narrow.

In these ways, I think course design nicely captures almost all of the facets of what we do, as teaching academics. It is nice to bring it all together a couple of times a year.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Post-doctoral authority

Alert readers may remember that I used this forum to set myself some deadlines a few weeks ago. Well, it seems to have worked, and I’m even well ahead of myself, with the first article now finished and ready to be submitted a good week in advance. I’ve been more productive than I’ve ever been before, it seems. And it’s been a nice balance of writing and course design.

What interests me right now is the writing, though. This is my first stretch of post-PhD time unencumbered by schedules and teaching responsibilities. And it’s really the first writing I’ve done since I defended in December. I seemed to need a break after that – and didn’t accomplish anything, save for some very minor revisions for a publication. I worried about my ability to self-motivate this summer, since my last writing experience was the vise grip of the dissertation push and it stopped being fun, if it had ever really begun to be. But I’ve been writing with ease these last few weeks, and feeling perhaps better about my writing than I have since before I began grad school – grad school being the entity that poisoned my voice and my confidence as a writing thinker.

I have realized, as I’ve been contentedly writing, that the difference lies in the degree, terrible as that is. Writing became so paralytic during my PhD because of the crisis of authority that plagues so many grad students. I didn’t believe I had the authority to think much of anything, much less to write it. Having had my PhD not only passed, but heartily appreciated by a very tough committee, has alleviated a lot of my anxiety about my right to theorize. I hate to say it, but even the convocation ritual in February was important to me in conferring a degree of the authority that’s propelling me forward. It’s not as if I’m free of self-doubt – I’m healthily circumspect about what I’m doing – but I am, at least, able to enjoy the feeling that my thoughts are worth something, even to other people. What a revelation. And how much easier it becomes to inhabit this writing space. I once loved it - I grew up writing - and it is so nice to feel that foundational comfort again.

PS - Writing brings me a variety of joy, or at least contentment. What brings me full-on joy in breaks from writing, several times a day, is visiting cute overload. If you haven't been there and are susceptible to animal adorability, I advise you to visit quickly. Right now there's a video of kittens learning to walk. Killer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Academic baby-kissing

The other night GF and I went to a political event. It was a fundraising dinner for a political hopeful in our area. This was as good these kinds of events can get, from our perspective – a truly progressive politician, a woman who has a multi-ethnic base of support – out in force that night – in our overwhelmingly working-class constituency. But I found the whole thing a little hard to swallow. Other politicians were there, gladhanding. As much as I admire these people’s work – and sat with or near some of them, and could see that they are human beings – I couldn’t get over the reek of opportunism. The quite genuine agenda and great work of the politician we were supporting was sometimes overwhelmed by too many fake smiles and strategic chitty-chat on the part of her potential future cohort.

Anyway, it got me thinking again about what became clear to me this first year of full-time university teaching: that smarminess will get you places. I wanted to believe that academe was above that kind of politicking. But though most of the people I encounter in this realm are lovely, passionate, genuine people, the ones who aren’t really stick in my craw. I watch them use people, or otherwise treat them badly, and get rewarded for it.

The person I haven’t yet been able to get over is a former friend of mine. I watched her engage in games with faculty and students alike (oy, the stories I could tell – but I won’t), plastering over every interaction in the hallways of that institution with a transparently artificial smile. It felt like as if she had read a Spark Notes version of Dale Carnegie, one that counseled her to “always smile and use people’s names a lot – it will make them feel important”. All of this came, for me, at the end of years of watching her screw over good people. And she once revealed that the secret of her success was, essentially, to treat people well so she could get stuff from them later.*

To make a long story short, this person has made it. She demonstrated highly questionable ethics in her first year as a professor, and pissed off the people who hired her. Her work has never been anything to write home about. But she put her smarminess to work and she’s home free.

We all know of cases like hers. What is it about this profession that makes us susceptible to folks like this? We should know better. Are professors so lacking in social skills that they can’t tell the difference between genuine engagement and self-interested pandering?

I think of my former friend with a certain rage as I watch my friends Gorgeous Big Personality and Lovely Humble Man continue to suffer after LDH's defeat. The pair wrote the book on ethics, and where does it get them? It burns my ass to realize that their life could probably look a lot different right about now if Lovely Humble Man weren’t so, well, humble. If he were willing to do the academic politicking that gets the smarmies the good jobs. And I can’t help but compare myself to my smarmy colleague – after all, we’re in the same cohort, and were on the job hunt at the same time over the last year. I’m no saint, but I have made very conscious decisions not to compromise myself several times over the course of a young academic career – and let’s not kid ourselves, the opportunities for compromise are rampant, are they not? Putting aside my own writing – because that’s not what smarminess is about, and I honestly think I’m at least the equal of my smarmy colleague in that respect, in terms of both output and quality – seeing her and other smarmies succeed makes me wonder if my life would look different, had I gone the baby-kissing route.

*Yes, this person was my friend. This has taught me a lot about, uh, being more choosy with my friends.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

"A feminine way of seeing it"

Funny that Maggie May just had a great post about an awkward exchange with a friend/colleague, who engages in that old, tired discourse about escaping from the tiresome grind of home and kids, while his female partner/wife is there caring for them. Setting up home and partner as burdensome ball and chain. I had an email yesterday that touched on – or, rather, exploded – a very similar kind of issue.

I have an email friendship with a guy I met at a conference just over a year ago. We admire each other’s work, have some overlapping theoretical interests and are both being published in an anthology that’s coming out shortly. We’ve talked about putting a conference panel together, and have exchanged work. We email periodically and have talked on the phone once or twice. He’s not a close friend, by any means, but I think we enjoy having a glimpse of each other’s lives, which are very, very different – and conducted in very different parts of the world.

His wife just gave birth to their second child very recently. He announced this, I congratulated him, and then his next email mentioned how many demands he feels he’s dealing with. People – read: wife, toddler, and brand new baby – need things from him incessantly. A typical complaint, I suppose, but the tone and the implications chafed a bit. Did he hope to work away in the ivory tower untouched by earthly demands? What about his wife, who sounds as if she is doing most of the care for this family on her own?

I emailed back and expressed sympathy for the too-muchness of it all, which is of course a real thing for anyone. But I also wrote something short about how interesting, how far-out and cool, new babies are. And said that I hoped he was also able to find some joy in this time, find the good in it.

I got an email back yesterday saying that what I’d written was “a very feminine way of seeing it”. And that he “sees it from a heavier perspective”.

Oh, right. Of course. I’d forgotten that men own “heaviness”, while we women flit about twittering over children, dangerously unaware of life’s gravity. I suppose it is men’s business to sit, head in hand, and contemplate the terrifying philosophical implications of new life, or whatever, while women do the trivial – and apparently irritating – work of carrying, bearing, and raising children.

This comment quickly confirmed the tone I had been wary of in the earlier email. And casts doubt on my friendship with this guy. It becomes nearly impossible. I also feel as if the work I do is being trivialized. Am I not able to see past my “feminine perspective” when I write feminist theoretical work on the thinker we both work on? I remember that when we were out to lunch with another couple of scholars at the conference where we met, he had said something – that he thought was supportive and “feminist” – about how the outstanding question for people doing the kind of work I do is “What about [major thinker]’s wife?” I was puzzled, bugged – feminist work can, and admirably does, tread the very same ground that he and his cohort do, and isn’t interested in being relegated to studying the daily lives of male philosophers' wives and mistresses. But I let it go. Cause I get tired of confrontation, I hate arguing, and it is a fault of mine that I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Now I see that that attitude speaks to a deeply gender-segregated worldview. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

GF says I should reply with a classic “Sometimes email leads to misunderstandings. So I’m just going to clarify that you didn’t mean to suggest that women don’t deal with “heavy” issues. Correct?”

I don’t know. I think it’s done. I don’t know if I need to have that conversation. I’m tired of sexism and just want it to go the fuck away. Do I need to have a Gender 101 conversation with an up-and-coming international scholar who should know better, given his overall political and philosophical stance?

In closing, let me just say that I was reminded of Mina Loy’s amazingly avant-la-lettre poem, “The Effectual Marriage, or the Insipid Narrative of Gina and Miovanni.” It reads, in (small) part:


In the evening they looked out of their windows
Miovanni out of his library window
Gina from the kitchen window
From among his pots and pans
Where he so kindly kept her
Where she so wisely busied herself
Pots and Pans she cooked in them
All sorts of sialagogues
Some say that happy women are immaterial


Ding dong said the bell
Miovanni Gina called
Would it be fitting for you to tell
The time for supper
Pooh said Miovanni I am
Outside time and space

Patience said Gina is an attribute
And she learned at any hour to offer
The dish appropriately delectable

What had Miovanni made of his ego
In his library
What had Gina wondered among the pots and pans
One never asked the other
So they the wise ones eat their suppers in peace

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Animal (non-)communication

This morning I left for my walk with Mr. K, the dog. He is a very high-energy guy, so we go for about two hours – a long walk to a huge off-leash park where he really burns off the steam. Mr. K is a very sweet dog – exceptionally so – but he looks a little intimidating to some people. But he’s generally well-trained and a sweetie.

About five minutes into our walk, a nice man stopped me and asked me – in Spanish, of which I speak not a word – for some directions to a nearby neighbourhood centre. I only knew what he was talking about because he was showing me the address on a business card. I pointed him in the right direction and turned around to continue my walk. I quickly turned back again because I thought he could use more help. As I called out to him and he turned around to me again, Mr. K lunged forward and charged him, catching me off guard and pulling me off my feet and onto the concrete sidewalk, where he continued to pull me on all fours. The pain of this forced me to let go of the leash, I guess, and the dog was loose and proceeded to growl, bark, and jump all over this poor, poor man. Who was terrified, of course, which made Mr. K even more suspicious of his motives with me…etc. I eventually managed to grad hold of Mr. K and apologize to the man, who was very kind considering what had just happened.

This kind of egregious behaviour toward random people on the street is appalling- and embarrassing. Also, my knees and one hand are torn up and bleeding, and there’s a kind of road rash down one calf. I’m pissed. It hurts like hell, for one thing. It will add still more scars to already badly scarred knees. (Knees which prompted a physiotherapist to say to me, a few months ago, “I guess you can’t be a model, eh?” Nice.) It will interfere with exercise, with my getting around (by bike), and with the wearing of skirts, which is a key strategy for me in this summertime heat.

So am I just being petty and vindictive by refusing to exercise Mr. K today, as is my inclination? Not giving him his usual cookies when we got home after our ten-minute debacle of a walk? I mean, I scolded him harshly after I got hold of him during the incident. But this outrageous behaviour seems to warrant more. The question is, though, does he get it? Or is it pointless and cruel for me to spend the day ignoring him, since he’s probably completely forgotten what happened? Or can’t make the connection between this incident and the questions of why we’re not walking today and he's not being fussed over?

Argh. I suspect that any trainer would tell me it does no good to withhold affection at this point. But my torn up knees and hand and I, we can’t quite get over ourselves. Perhaps half a litre of gelato will help.


I hit upon three strategies for working myself out of my unproductive snit:
1. Blogging it. This actually helped me feel better, folks. Scriptotherapy, anyone?
2. Telling Mr. K what a bad dog he was, over and over, in a neutral-to-praiseful voice. This was highly beneficial to both of us. He wagged at me. And I found it cathartic.
3. Taking myself and my oozing knee up to the gelato place, with Mr. K. He got to run around a bit in the park that's directly on the way there. I got to eat the world's most orgasmic foodstuff, frutti di bosco gelato. Also it exploded into super-World-Cup-street-party just as I hit Italian Street, because Italy won their match. That was satisfying for both Mr. K and I, in different ways.

And now, it's off to work I go.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The limits of solidarity

I had an odd experience the other night that has left me thinking about both the possibility and the fragility of connection.

A friend came to visit from (the past year’s) University City. I had invited him to go to a talk by Important Author/Inspiring Figure, who was passing through, so he organized a two-day stay with me around that. I was a wee bit worried that he and GF wouldn’t get along for a bunch of reasons relating to gender identities and worldviews. I needn’t have fretted. It was a lovely visit – we all three got on beautifully, and my friend and GF very quickly found and riffed on their commonalities. My friend and I reflected on how well we had connected as friends, and how much we have in common across some important differences.

We went to hear Important Author/Inspiring Figure on Sunday. IA/IF is a transgendered person, and so were many in the audience. The experience of being in that packed auditorium with a very diverse array of genders prompted my friend, who is a trans man, to the edge of an important epiphany. And IA/IF spoke about solidarity, its political necessity, in a way that was no doubt compelling to every person in that room. We left and went to a nearby patio for dinner – GF, my friend, and an old friend of his whom I didn’t know but GF knew a bit from around, the way that queers do, even in big cities. We were all full of such different things, I think, all so charged with emotions and commitments and memories, and some of us didn’t know each other terribly well, so we were shy to begin, this foursome. But so eager to talk through our shifting perspectives and make something of our palpable desire to connect with each other. And it didn’t take long for us to warm to the dynamic at work in our little dinner group, and soon enough I think each of us was feeling pretty adept at enacting the very solidarity that IA/IF had just been speaking about. That felt good. Great, even.

Just as our drinks had arrived and we were hitting this groove, a woman at the next table interrupted my friend to comment on what he had just said. She was small and alone. And eavesdropping, apparently. We took in her comment politely, all of us, I think, impatient to get back to our own conversation, to pursue this tie that was quickly developing between the four of us in the afterglow of the talk.

Then the woman said, in a voice that wasn’t quite slurring but was clearly colonized by alcohol, the voice of a well-seasoned drunk, “You know what? I’m just going to be honest. I’m going to ask you if I can join you for a drink.”

We four WASP, bourgeois revolutionaries nodded and mumbled a half-hearted “of course”. Each of us chewed over our own disappointment that this outsider was crashing our party. But none of us had been able to be honest with her, to tell her that we preferred, at that moment, our own reflexive, narcissistic narrativizing.

She sat with us for nearly half an hour. She ordered and quickly drained another glass of wine. She told us random bits and pieces of her life. Later my friend’s friend said she seemed as if she was dying. She unraveled in front of us. Moving constantly to the edge of tears and back again. She told us about her boyfriend. How he didn’t like her drinking, although she claimed it used to be a problem and now it wasn’t. She could have a drink or two, she said. She alluded to something huge, and though at first I wondered if the boyfriend was abusing her, I became convinced that he wasn’t. I think it was simply that she knew she was killing herself with alcohol. And sabotaging her own possibilities for solidarity with people she loved.

All of this was punctuated with two refrains: “I can just tell you’re all nice people” and “it just feels good to get this all out”. She had chosen us, a group of trannies and queers, for a desperate attempt at connection.

And us? Well, we listened to her talk. Asked her some questions. Encouraged and assuaged her a little. My friend convinced her to go back home instead of having yet another drink. But we were shifty-eyed and slightly incredulous. We were uncomfortable. Solidarity? It was reserved for each other. Even a group of four "nice people" who know what it feels like to be live on the outside – the other three more than I, admittedly – found it impossible to really open ourselves to this woman.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Search for perspective on grad school and elitism

Warning: This is a fairly freeform working-through of a question. It meanders.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of the Master's degree. I was told recently by two students from the past year that they're "going to go to grad school". I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I wouldn't have pegged either of them as grad school-bound. One, in particular, probably won't get in - I'm not sure she's aware of the kinds of grades it takes. The other might have a shot, and it alarmed me to realize this (and also raises the pressing question of grade inflation. If she doesn't have what it takes to go to grad school, why are her grades high enough to suggest that she might well get in to some schools? And how have I contributed to that inflation?). She's an ideologue; she'll be eaten alive in an environment that will laughingly dismiss her hyperbolic claims. Neither of these two have the analytical skills that would seem to be a prerequisite for advanced study. Maybe this is partly the fault of inept professors who don't know how, don't really know how, to teach critical analysis, as much as we think that's what we do all the time - yes, I include myself in this category. At any rate, these students are, I think, products of a culture that has come to view the MA as just another credential. This has been gnawing at me.

Am I an elitist asshole who would thwart the democratic promise of pedagogy? If I believe in the change-making power of education, why would I want to deny it to someone who is clearly getting something from it? If these folks - and others - want to go on to a Master's, what harm will it do? They're not C students. It's not like they're talking about staying in academia for the long haul, doing PhD's and becoming professors. They're pumped right now - why not encourage them in their pursuit of learning?

I see that my unease comes from a desire to preserve the grad school classroom and common room as spaces for deep analysis. Teaching puts me - most of us who teach, really - in touch with the failures of the contemporary classroom as a challenging site. Students who see their relationship with the academy as a business transaction; professors who get frustrated, throw up their/our hands, and retreat into bitterness, cynicism and grade inflation; administrators who have a convenient case of amnesia about the purpose of the university...I do think it's true that all of these have eroded the quality of classroom discourse. We spend a good deal of time on our blogs and in our everyday lives musing, ranting, and/or whining about this.

Of course, I am highly suspicious of my own assertion, here - I worry that I'm being dangerously nostalgic for a mythical golden age of universities that never existed, and that certainly didn't accommodate the perspectives and people and emergent disciplines whose presence in the academy I value and indeed depend on. But I do think something has been lost, at least in the universities I'm familiar with.* Things have changed even since I was an undergrad - tuitions have gone way up, meaning that students struggle with crushing paid workloads and debts that complicate their lives as students ans the conditions of possibility of genuine interest in what we do in school. Administrations have succumbed to corporate pressures in the face of cuts in public funding, and students have picked up on the resulting degradation of the value of an arts degree. I think that all of this finds its way into what we do in our classrooms every day; this is what I mean by an eroded environment - it's bigger than the students or their professors. I think, in fact, that if there's any nostalgia, it's nostalgia for a more progressive era, one in which we didn't spend our time in corporate-branded classrooms and watch as soaring glass temples were built for the business schools as we moulded in ancient, brutalist caves teaching arts.

So I've identified this as the reason I'm wary, very wary, of a grad school free-for-all featuring loads of students who don't have the skills to participate really effectively - it's because I'm dying for something that approximates sustained, engaged inquiry. But as I write this, I'm stopped in my own tracks again - because the students I'm talking about are, at least, interested, excited. Isn't that important? Isn't it enough?

Having written my way through this problem, I now see that it's larger than I realized. I can't endorse using the Master's as a democratic, radically critical site when the conditions don't exist to prepare many students for that before they get there. They come to grad school applications without the necessary skills in part because of the mess the neo-liberal model of the university has gotten us in. Letting them in won't fix that.

Might it do other good things, though? That's the question I'm left with.


*I am, obviously, speaking of the Canadian situation here. Its public university system and the very particular ways that has been threatened over the last ten years.

(In other news: Go Oilers.)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

...the wanting begins

Earlier this week I went for an overnight stay in New University City. I had been invited by the Chair to go to a party at a faculty member’s home – she thought it would be a good opportunity to meet people affiliated with the Department. What you need to know is that New University is where I’ve dreamed of ending up. I’m very lucky. All should be, and nearly is, well. Except that it’s not a permanent job – it’s another nine-month limited-term appointment. I am still lucky – just not secure.

Early in the day, the Chair spent a couple of hours with me, marching me around the campus, introducing me to people, getting me set up. She was the very model of generosity and helpfulness. She is actually in her last days as Chair, and that’s too bad – she’s great.

In the late afternoon, I made my way over to the party, and did the chatting rounds, which is not my forte. And most everyone was lovely and there were potential friends and some scholars I admire. I felt like I was “on”. Of course, I was “on” because this was my first time hanging out with these folks. But I was also “on” the way that I will be for the foreseeable future. You see, the outgoing Chair, who appears to be on my side, has told me that there will likely be a tenure-track posting for the following year. They’ll be hiring someone to teach and specialize in one of the core, required courses in the program. Which is the major portion of my teaching load for the coming year – it’s a perfect fit for me. (It’s a dreamy job I’ve landed.) Given my history of longing to be at this institution, this has me salivating. But of course, the job will be widely and openly posted; I’d be competing for my own position. I’m sure some of you have been there. Ugh.

So yeah, I was on like a frigging lightbulb at the party; I realized I was effectively beginning a months-long job interview. Yee haw. A friend who went to the party with me – she’s tenure-track at the New University and I will be staying with her next year (another stroke of luck) – warned me not to start thinking about it that way. To be myself, and blah blah blah. But it’s hard when I want something this badly. So I was there for a couple of hours, and did the chit-chat thing all the while. And then spent the rest of the evening identifying points at which I had potentially sounded arrogant, or stupid, or, or, or…

It’s just, I’m just, too close. To get my foot in the door at this place I’ve longed for this long, and yet to face the uncertainty of a search that might very well not play out in my favour…it all feels like too much tension, too much wanting…

(Now, a few days past the party, it mostly makes me laugh. That much wanting? Something I can’t even sleep with? Good god!)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Work and not-work

On the weekend I went away for a day. I was doing my hobby, for lack of a better word – that one makes me cringe. In fact, I am cringing so hard that…let’s call it The Activity. The Activity is something I’ve been doing for twelve years, and I did a related something for a few years before that. Over the years The Activity has been an enormously important and valuable part of my life. There’s been a lot of travel, a lot of time committed to rehearsals all year round, a lot of friends made. We’re talking major commitment. And beyond the joy The Activity itself has brought me, there is also its place at the centre of a rare and beautiful community. I have become great friends with my fellow Activity-doers, and The Activity is connected to a larger community that I really think is exceptional for lots and lots of reasons.

Over the last two years or so, things have felt a little less than top-form with The Activity. We’ve fallen off course, and the group has become fraught with some unpleasant dynamics. And so, last year, when I realized I had to move to University City for a job, I wasn’t as devastated as I would have been say, five years earlier. I still missed them terribly, though. And I didn’t cut myself off completely – I went to rehearsals and even events on those rare occasions when I could.

But this weekend away, I and a couple of my close Activity-doing friends were talking about leaving the group for good. It just doesn’t hold us anymore – and for me, there’s the logistical issue of, uh, not actually being in the same city once the academic year starts up again. There was talk about a future, super-incarnation of Activity-doing that some of us could do on the sly, starting in a year or so. That’ll be enough to give me The Activity buzz and keep me seeing the friends.

Contemplating an end to all this commitment and purpose has me worrying, though. I’ve always been so happy to have a life that’s not defined solely by the academic work I do. I worked in magazine publishing on the side, all the way through undergrad degree and most of grad school. And I had The Activity. These two things, I thought, saved me from becoming too wrapped up in the ivory tower. The Activity, in particular, has been so important because it diversified the friends I had. It helped ensure that life didn’t narrow too much, that my circle didn’t consist solely of lesbians and academics. I don’t want that, much as I like (and am) both.

In leaving The Activity, I’ll be cutting myself off from anything consuming outside of my job, outside of academia. Oh sure, I work out (usually). But that isn’t really a – retch – hobby. It doesn’t come with the specialized, intimate knowledge that The Activity does – or the travel, or the glimpses of different lives. There’s no community in it (nor would I want there to be). I could look around for another Activity of some kind, but there’s nothing I can think of off the top of my head.

Really I just seem to want to work. But I’ve watched myself working very hard over the last week – I become so lost in my own brain that some nights I feel like I can’t even pull far enough out of myself to say two words to GF. Is this who I’ll be without The Activity? Is this what I want? Will I watch my life narrow, along with my own capacities to imagine myself differently? Will I start on the road to early-onset academic eccentricity, that all too common affliction?

Seriously, I worry about the ways this life can be an unhealthy obsession. I think those of us who do this work all live with the knowledge that we can't leave work at work...try as we might, we can't be 9-to5ers. Nor would we want to be - that's what's liberating about this job, after all. So it seeps into our lives. But when does the seeping stop? In my case, will my stopping the Activity - and not replacing it with something else - mean it's crept too far?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Been thinking about mentoring...

I went out for cocktail hour (I just love to say that – and it’s true!) with my ex-Supervisor last night. I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately, since I recently wrote some fawning - and entirely heartfelt - remarks to be read at a reception honouring her that I had to miss since I was far away from Home City. We had a lovely hour and a half chatting, and had to tear ourselves away from each other because I needed to get home to a starving dog – otherwise, I think we’d have stayed there all evening. At the end ex-S expressed her hope that we will see each other a lot more often, and implored me to think of her not as my Supervisor, but as my friend and colleague.

Of course I’d like to do this, and I am slowly becoming more able to see her as a kind of equal. But this is easier said than done, even though last night, at our first post-PhD drinks date, we talked more personally than we ever have. I still catch myself calling her my Supervisor even though that relationship ostensibly ended seven months ago when I defended my dissertation. I call her when I need job advice, a course design confidante or suggestions on where to submit an article for publication. As she was during my PhD, she has been nothing but helpful and supportive – but also measured, experienced. It is that rare combination that I value so much.

I don’t want that to end. We need those mentor figures, and since I’m a bit rootless at the moment, I haven’t had the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with a senior faculty member that might function like that. Until I do, she’s going to be the stand-in – even if we are going out mostly just to drink wine and gossip.

She has me thinking about what it would look like to be a mentor, and not just have one. (I mean to really be one – not just in the transient, teacherly way I was to some students this past year.)Sometimes, during my PhD, I would express some dismay at the amount of, basically, volunteer time Ex-S spent on me as a student. She told me that it would all one day come out in the wash – I would supervise and mentor another batch of grad students, and that’s when I’d “repay” her. And I’ve remembered that, and from time to time tried to craft an imaginary mentor persona. It’s based largely on ex-S, with her exceptional blend of indulgence and practicality. There’s also a cup or two of a woman I worked with quite a bit early in my graduate studies. She showed me that the task of administration (she was Chair of a huge grad program then) didn’t have to be a pact with the devil – instead, it could be accomplished as a fiercely political advocacy for everything that is good about the academy, especially students.

It seems to me important to remember those mentors, given all the unethical shit we see go down in this profession – I saw more than my fair share of ethics violations in just nine months at a tiny university. It’s so easy to become cynical, and start to imagine smarminess and/or ruthlessness as our only viable options. Mentors like her concretize other ways of living this life.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My girlfriend, my superego

The other day GF expressed to me her concern about my summer of work. She said, “I’m just worried that you’re going to spend all your time blogging and you won’t get any work done.” Oh my. I told her I wasn’t worried, and that if I’m not, she shouldn’t be.

The funny thing is, I think part of why I signed on to this whole blogging deal was because I was reading the blogs of very productive academics. I could feel their (your) productivity, and gain a picture of my own life as an organized and industrious writer. I need that; after all, this is my first summer post-PhD, and I am finding, as they always say, that the real pressure has just begun. I’ve had a tendency to procrastinate in the past, though I got through the dissertation quickly. All of you out there with plans and schedules inspire me to stay on track – especially Flavia, with the Plan that she just posted today. In fact, I’ve had a very productive couple of days, though I’ve been so immersed in the errands required to re-orient myself in Home City, and mundane work-related tasks like final grading, that I haven’t been able to write yet. But the writing/research will start tomorrow, and I’m excited in a way I wasn’t before I started blogging. Go figure.

Bizarre as it may seem, y’all are the ones who, without even knowing it, are going to help me meet my self-imposed deadlines this summer: By the time I leave for five days in New York on July 6, expand and submit for publication an article I hold dear, and finish planning and writing syllabi for my fall courses - and send off the reprotexts. By Labour Day, finish another article and decide whether to turn dissertation into manuscript or move on to a fun new book project I have in mind, fun being more appealing…Having written that here, to my smattering of readers, will help me make that real. (And I think you won’t be surprised to know that my overly anxious nature means I always hold myself to deadlines, when I have the guts to set them.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

I could not resist...

posting this line from an exam I marked today:

"Freudians' explanation of the shoe fetish is that shoes are also a very important part of the fashionable outfit. The shoe fetish finishes off the outfit."



On Thursday, the day before I left University City, I had a driving test. I passed, despite the mean examiner and the nervous crisis he engendered in me. (How does having an aggressive robot in the passenger seat in any way approximate an actual driving situation?)

Yes, that's right. I've only learned to drive in the last year, even though I'm over thirty. I've just never had the need to drive - I cycle for most of the year, and take transit or walk when I can't ride my bike. GF gave me the gift of driving lessons about a year and a half ago (uh, gee, thanks, honey) and though she insisted it wasn't so I could help her with driving when we rent a car (we don't own one), I still suspect that was part of it. Though she's a good driver, she's far from a happy one. Road rage, anyone? Fair enough, though - she could use some help.

I approached all this with ambivalence. I've had a couple of dangerous bike accidents in my time, both of which were the fault of careless drivers. I remember declaring vehemently, on my way to the hospital after the last one (I was pretty much fine, just needed some patching up) that I'd never be a driver. The woman who had hit me was, in the immediate aftermath, more traumatized by the whole thing than I was. As we waited around while the police wrote up their report, there was a strange reversal of roles, whereby I tried to comfort her. She was in a state of shock, I could see. She stood there glassy-eyed and unresponsive for quite a while, and then she pulled from her wallet some kind of nursing prayer or oath about always protecting the wellbeing of others. She was a public health nurse, of all things. Oh, the irony. It was that incident that drove home to me the terrifying responsibility that driving entails, and led to my post-accident declaration that I'd never get behind the wheel. The woman had made a human error. We all do this. But how do we deal with the consequences of mistakes that involve the lives of other people?

Well, things change, and now I'm a driver and have even recently become a competent one. (This feels like a miracle - I was a menace for the longest time.) But I've been thinking about how this feels. I've been thinking about how I like the feeling of driving, now that it's clicked, now that I get it. I like the feeling of control, and yes, mastery. But this is, of course, what's so dangerous, this sense of mastery. It feels like both lightness and weight - too much immediate responsibility for the lives of strangers. I'm not sure this is what I signed up for, and now that I have the piece of paper, I'm halfway to regretting it all.

I know this must sound overly dramatic, and it probably reads like a script for a cheesy driver's ed video for sixteen-year-olds, made to impress upon them the gravity of the whole situation. I'd have scoffed at it, had I read it a year ago, having forgotten that driving could be anything but instrumental. But I guess this is what happens when you learn under circumstances like mine, and at this stage in your life...(and when you're hardwired to over-process everything!)

Off I go on my bike, then, to the library...

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hurtling backward

Just taking a little break from unpacking and re-installing myself in Home City house, to get out the rage I've been feeling ever since I saw the front page of today's newspaper. It seems our new Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper - a Bush-booster whose election at the end of January sent shivers down the spines of the left and many centrists in this country - has decided to re-open the issue of same-sex marriage.

For those of you who aren't up on this issue in Canada: In June 2003, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on same-sex marriage in two provinces. That had a domino effect, and cases in other provinces led to the same outcome. So there were queers getting married all over the place. Long story short, this led to legislation brought forth by the previous Liberal government (capital-L Liberal is centrist, here) last summer. It passed in the House of Commons, making same-sex marriage uniformly legal across the country, and Canada became the third country in the world with such a law.

Now, I'm one of the many who was slightly frustrated by the way this issue played out politically. Some of us wondered if this was the right place to put political energy, and worried about the ways this struggle for marriage rights rendered invisible the myriad critiques of the very institution of marriage. Nevertheless, in such a climate - for there were the predictable hell-and-damnation arguments from conservatives - one didn't have much choice but to support the legislation, while still longing for a more nuanced analysis of the issue. (GayProf had a great post capturing the complexity of this issue - in the US context - a few weeks back.) It was celebration time when the legislation was won, and life clipped along.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the evil Mr Harper announced that in the fall he will have the House vote on whether to re-open the debate, which could eventually result in a vote on whether to revoke the legislation itself. Make no mistake, that's what the Conservatives want; they opposed the legislation in the first place, and many of them were elected by a newly invigorated Christian Right lobby in the last election. (Sound familiar?) I don't need to spell out everything that's wrong with this picture. What kind of precedent does this set? That legislation was based on human rights principles, which are reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court initially struck down the ban on same-sex marriage because denying marriage rights violated the Charter. What the Conservative government wants is to consciously revoke human rights that have been recognized and granted. I can't recall a more sinister political development in this country. It's one thing to oppose legislation, as many vocally and hatefully did last year and in the two years leading up to that deciding vote. It's quite another thing to re-open this kind of human rights question once it has been democratically decided. This is a Very Bad Day for this country.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


App Crit mentioned, in his comments on my last post, the question of the melancholia involved in transition. Yes. So how to face this, I ask, because it's taking hold just a little hard for my liking. Anybody have any perspectives on how to deal with decision-making and loss in this teaching world? I know at least a couple of you academic bloggers have made major, lonely decisions lately…

I just went out for a goodbye drink with some friends on my last night in Canadian University City. Besides my lovely, hilarious comrades – and saying goodbye to them was enough to wreck me – there were, unexpectedly, students. Students who turned up at the bar at the end of the night because they’d heard through the grapevine I’d be there (?). And then came up to me one after the other to tell me really, really nice things about their experiences in my classes – including Tough Student, from yesterday. Tough Student told me that Best Student has changed her instant messenger name to “sad” this week because I’m on my way. Ugh. I cried all the way home.

I keep worrying that I’ve made the wrong choice, in turning down the offer to stay here. Was I wrong to make the career decision over the emotional one? In rational terms, I know I wasn’t. There were promises of a long-term future here, but nobody could guarantee anything yet. And so why not go to the new university, a “better” one, where there are also possibilities of a permanent future?

But, but, but, how do we deal with our transient connections to students? Where do we “put” those, what do we do with them when we or they move on? This question has broader relevance, of course. We are constantly saying goodbye to students, not only when we’re leaving one institution for another. If I stayed, for example, I’d only have one more year with these folks who came out to see me. So I guess I’m wondering what we can do to mitigate or at least manage or maybe confront this awful feeling…

But there’s a horrifically large insect buzzing at my window screen, trying to get in and eat me, so I think I’ll leave you with that question, turn off my seductive light, and go to bed…