Thoughts toward a sustainable future inside the neoliberal university

When I started commuting in January between my new house in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario I asked Facebook to tell me what podcasts I should be listening to along the way.

I got a lot of amazing suggestions, and tried many of them. There have been two standouts.

The first is the gorgeous Ear Hustle, a storytelling podcast conceived, created, and produced inside San Quentin State Prison in California. If you are not already a listener, please click on the link just above and remedy that immediately! It’s a fantastic body of work committed to making the not-visible, visible.

The second is Reasons to Be Cheerful, hosted by (the best prime minister Britain never had!) Ed Miliband, and Geoff Lloyd. Reasons to be Cheerful is an “ideas” podcast, which is another way of saying that it thinks about hard stuff to do with being alive in the (mostly, anglo-western) world today and doesn’t shy on the nuance. Enjoy that, mates.

It’s summer so I’m not commuting much (THANK THE GODDESS). But last Thursday I headed up to London for a meeting and another meeting and hanging out with my folks for a bit. And en route I heard a fantastic discussion on the latest Reasons about Donut Economics, with Donut Econ guru Kate Raworth.

WTF?

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(This post will contain a lot of photographs of amazing donuts. You are forewarned.)

Donut economics is a way of rethinking the way growth works in the existing neoliberal capitalist marketplace. Instead of imagining uninhibited, constant growth (aka cancer), Donut Econ aims for a) reasonable prosperity for all humans, within b) earth’s sustainable limits. In the wash, nobody ends up in the donut hole.

Which is a terrible place to be, if you ask me, because it contains no donut.

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(Sorry. But I warned you.)

This podcast would have resonated with me only privately had it not been for a piece I read the same morning in University Affairs about the role that tenured faculty might play in improving working conditions at universities across North America. That piece was adapted from a now-viral Twitter post by my colleague at the University of Waterloo, Aimée Morrison.

Dr Morrison is asking, I think, about how we might implement a version of Donut Economics at our universities, right now.

In other words: she wonders what it would take for us to figure out how to manage prosperity for those less immediately fortunate than We The Tenured are, within the limits of the current university climate.*

Note: this is not the same as wondering about the revolution required to fix the current university climate. (And, if you are reading this in Ontario after last week’s election, that’s a whole other post. Bear with me.)

She writes:

A lot of us with tenure are watching PhD students leave their programs without finishing, go into debt, suffer lousy adjunct jobs and destroy their mental health. We are watching our undergrad programs turned into scaled-up piecework, our administrative structures turn managerial. What can we do?

Because we, the tenured, are the ones to do it. Who else? Marginalized scholars? Contingent workers? Trustees and boards? No. If anyone has the footing, power and safety to push back, it’s tenured faculty. What are you going to do?

Yes, yes, I know: you are just one mid-level associate trying to finish your book, get that grant, grade those assignments. You’re a nobody. Except you’re a nobody with very strong job protection, a stable salary, benefits and institutional access. That is not nothing. Now what?

(There’s lots more. Please click here and keep reading.)

I read Dr Morrison over coffee and toast. I listened to Kate and Ed and Geoff in the car while drinking my smoothie.

Then I put two and two together.

What if we thought the political economy of university labour through Donut Economics?

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(Me and this kid are hungry. No donut holes will do.)

What if we believed, really believed, that we could get everyone out of the university donut hole. NOW. How? Obviously a better provincial / federal / etc funding structure would help (duh). But in the meantime we can do way better (I know I can do way better) advocating for fairer work and compensation structures within our schools, which might go some way toward mitigating the existing mess.

I get why this is hard. We get stonewalled a lot by administration / the culture / expectations about business-as-usual. We are all overworked: it’s a fact. What can those of us up the chain actually do? Our to-do lists are full!

This is, in fact, Dr. Morrison’s central question – and it’s not rhetorical. It’s the thing that I started thinking about, while driving.

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(I also think about donuts when I’m driving. My amazing local is Donut Monster. LOVE THE MONSTER!)

First, ask yourself this. What’s your position of privilege within the existing structure?

I’ll start. I was promoted to full professor with tenure two years ago at Western University. That means I have as much privilege as there is going. Unless I do something illegal and/or unconscionable, my job is secure.

I don’t actually need to publish anything else, ever.

I could perish, literally, before I perish from “publish or perish”.

Nevertheless, every year I get a small salary bump from being rather productive on the publications front. I’m good on teaching evals and service commitments, too. Together, my scores on those metrics amount to roughly $3500 added onto my base salary annually.

Not much to me.

But lots – LOTS – to somebody else.

So: what if we rethought this workload and compensation structure to be more fair?

What if, for example, permanent, tenure-track and tenured contract allocations (the standard 40/40/20 in North America) differed based on where you are in the seniority ranks?

I’m now at the top of the tenured heap, and let me tell you, I have no fucking idea how that happened. Hard work and gross luck, that’s it. That doesn’t make me special.

It makes me lucky.

So, what if we rethink 40/40/20? For those of us snuggling in the cream, I mean.

What if 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service shifted, for those of us already sorted, to 25% teaching, 25% research, 25% service to communities inside and outside the university, and 25% to mentorship and support of younger colleagues?

That 25% could be literally ANYTHING that supports the work of the next generation. It could be helping new colleagues find their feet in the workplace culture. It could be grant application support and mentorship for those who have never won external funding support. It could be devoting actual time, energy, and resources to those who don’t have the existing support to get the work done on time and on spec without us.

It could be advocacy work for sessional and part-time colleagues, both inside and outside union structures.

But the crux is that it would need to be incentivized in the contract, built into the labour and reward structure we currently have. (I don’t see it as “just more service” – it can’t fit into the existing 20% allotment for that. There’s too much to do.) It would need, this way, to be legitimized as essential, valuable, university labour.

This is just one potential model of Donut Economics @ Neoliberal University.

I find myself asking myself these questions:

  • do I really need more merit pay?
  • am I far enough along / up the ladder? Do I really need to get further along / up the ladder?
  • could I advocate for better / fairer metrics with the administration at my school? Could I help convince them that supporting younger colleagues deserves recognition in terms of merit scores and/or pay, as much as and/or more than another publication from me?
  • could I help a younger colleague, by actually, materially helping a younger colleague? If so, why shouldn’t I?

I find myself asking: who helped me get it done, the first time out? How were they compensated? (WERE they compensated?)

Personally, I’m profoundly grateful that I got a job. In this climate, I don’t think I’d be all that competitive.

I think I might get some interviews. Maybe.

If we have tenure, are secure, let’s actively remember our good fortune. Let’s remember that we were not that special, once.

We just had amazing timing.

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Kim

*Friends in the UK and Australasia, I get that this is a bit outside your wheelhouse. Please adapt as you see fit!

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More collaborative writing

A few weeks ago I co-authored a review essay on the musical Fun Home with my student Rachel Windsor; that pleasurable, rejuvenating exercise was exactly what I needed at the end of a long and tiring term.

So I’ve been at it again: this time with a terrific postdoctoral fellow who works with me at Western University, Dr Erin Julian.

Erin and I are currently collaborating on a research project about diversity and inclusion at the Stratford Festival, a large repertory company grounded in the plays of William Shakespeare. Stratford has been working hard in recent seasons to shift its image as a straight and white kind of place, making big strides in hiring younger, more ethnically, racially, and gender-diverse cast members and thinking outside the old, familiar box of “what the playwright intended” (as if we could ever know that, anyway).

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(Please, people. We all know Shakespeare intended to go to the beach!)

All of these strides are great, of course. But what, Erin and I wondered, does it really mean to practice diversity and inclusion at Stratford, as opposed to just representing those things? That is, what does it take for a non-straight, non-white perspective to become the seed for work, the grounding place for a vision, and also (crucially) the starting point for new working practices, rather than just the thing a theatre company wants the public to see, perceive, or believe about it?

We can – and should, of course – ask the very same questions of our educational institutions, our employers, as well as our own classrooms.

As Erin and I developed our project’s research questions, we were inspired by the important work done by Toronto’s Modern Times Theatre Company in their “post marginal” initiative (read more about that here), and especially by the associated symposium, “Beyond Representation,” that took place in Toronto in April 2017 (read the final report from that superb event here, or check out video of the speakers and panels here). We were also inspired by the work of Keira Loughran, a playwright, actor, and director who works for Stratford as both the head of its playwrights’ unit and Forum public engagement series, as well as in her capacity as a theatre artist.

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(The fabulous Keira Loughran)

Just around the time that the “Beyond Representation” symposium got me thinking deeply about diversity as theatrical practice, Keira told me about her vision for her summer 2018 production of Comedy of Errors at Stratford. She wanted its world (called Ephesus in the text) to be gender-fluid, as well as generationally and ethnically crosshatched: in other words, a world that all of the characters could inhabit completely comfortably, in both their similarities (the play is littered with twins and mistaken-identity plots) as well as in their profound and meaningful differences. She told us about her plans for the script, for casting, and for building links with the trans community, particular via artist-consultants from that community who came on board once rehearsals began in March.

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(The fabulous Sunny Drake, one of the consultants on Keira’s production)

Erin and I decided that Keira’s production would be a brilliant way for us to dive deeply into the challenges practicing diversity in a thorough-going way, at all levels of theatrical development, can pose at a large, resource-rich, but also traditionally-minded and subscription-audience-driven festival like Stratford. We had some hunches about what these challenges might be, but we were also willing to be surprised about both the good and the not-so-good.

Truly, we simply wanted to take the measure: when you commit to working diversely and inclusively as a starting place, when that kind of work isn’t your workplace norm, what happens next?

We’ve been shadowing Keira’s process since early winter, including attending rehearsals and workshops, and we were thrilled to be invited to a dress rehearsal in early May. The show opens this week, and we’re excited to see how audiences and critics respond.

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(The promo image for Keira’s Comedy of Errors, featuring Jessica Hill and Qasim Khan as the central twins. It’s selling out – grab tickets soon!)

Erin and I also recognize, though, that with our privileged perspective as academic insider-outsiders comes responsibility: the responsibility to help audiences (including critics) to see something of the complexities of process lying behind the stage world they will encounter at Comedy of Errors. Keira’s version of Ephesus isn’t going to be what a lot of audience members will be expecting; how might we, with our nuanced sense of the production’s development, help them get oriented, find their feet in this different-looking place?

Audiences, we think, not only should know, but need to know at least a bit about how the incredible care taken and commitment shown by Keira, her cast, and her entire team to building a thoughtful, deeply humane world of body inclusivity has shaped the final product they will see. Seeing only the product is tantamount to seeing diversity only as representation, not as lived practice or indeed as workplace practice. In relation to this production, that feels wrong.

So last week we reached out to Keira to ask if she’d permit us to write a preview article for Stratfordfestivalreviews.com about our shadowing of the production, what we observed and what we felt about our observations. Keira – who is deeply aware that some Stratford audience members may feel somewhat alienated by the world her team has created – readily agreed.

I’m now really pleased to share the article with you. In addition to being a window onto a gender-diverse and non-conforming Shakespeare production, I hope it can also serve as a bit of a primer, inspired by Keira’s thoughtful directorial guidance, on how we might all practice body diversity and inclusion in more effective ways in our classrooms and rehearsal spaces – not just representing it, but living it with our students and thus modelling inclusionary perspectives and actions as new cultural norms.

As Keira’s process reveals, diversity practice is genuine, proper work, but it’s really not that hard to do: it simply requires us to begin, as Donna Michelle St-Bernard noted in her “Beyond Representation” keynote address last April, from this basic question.

What would happen if I imagined that I was ACTUALLY the centre of the universe?

I’d know I was not the most oppressed person in the room. I’d have to turn around to see who was behind me.

Click here to access my and Erin’s preview, “The Comedy of Errors: Building Inclusivity at the Stratford Festival.” Thanks in advance for reading!

Kim

In praise of resting

(NB: A version of this post originally appeared this morning on Fit is a Feminist Issue, the terrific fitness and wellness blog for humans of all genders curated by my colleagues Tracy Isaacs [Western University] and Samantha Brennan [University of Guelph]. Thanks to them both for the ongoing opportunity to reflect on the ways different aspects of my life interrelate! I’m reposting this here because, well, rest is both a feminist issue AND an academic issue…)

I’ve been finished my teaching for the winter term for about a month now. Finals are over and marked; my campus office (which is moving this summer back across the lawn to my faculty’s newly – and beautifully – restored heritage building) is packed up. The book I was writing all autumn and winter is done, dusted, and in production.

So why am I still so tired all the time?

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(Peppermint Pattie, head on desk and looking glum, says: SO TIRED.)

I’m not one to give myself a break – I’m a high-functioning type-A kind of woman, and I am as productive and successful as I am professionally because of this.

But life isn’t work. And I am also 43 years old. I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. And TBH most evenings I am ready for bed by 10:30 (no more clubbing for me).

Now, sleep I get quite a lot of – and FFI is a blog that supports good, effective sleep as part of our human wellness. (Sam has written before about being a champion sleeper. I envy her ability to conk out on airplanes!)

But REST is more than only sleep. And for me rest is another matter.

I was at my friend Nat’s house for supper two weeks ago and we talked about parenting and sleep deprivation. Nat’s kids are still quite young and the 3am wake-ups are still happening. She feels insanely sleep-deprived right now, as does her partner.

We all talked about the idea that, if it’s a matter of choosing between exercise and sleeping, the sleep-deprived should hit snooze rather than clamber out of bed early to run 5 miles. (Read more here about the interrelationship of sleep and exercise.)

Similarly, I once had a cycling coach who reminded me that resting is as important as training – resting is a key part of training, in fact. And resting means resting: it doesn’t mean digging up the garden, staining the deck, cleaning all the windows upstairs, or even walking the dog for two hours in the forest.

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(Emma the Dog on a path in Cootes Paradise, Hamilton, Ontario. “Whaddaya mean rest doesn’t include walkies??”)

Rest actually means sitting or lying comfortably and allowing your body to replenish itself. It means sleeping if sleep is what is required. It means eating good, healthy food in good proportions, and/or eating specific foods required for your body’s replenishment before another day of training hard. These might include proteins, or carbs, or a variety of things.

Ice cream or cake too, if you’re looking for a cheery treat! I always go for the milkshake, personally.

I have realized over the last month of being on my summer schedule that I’m not resting enough. I’m exhausted all the time because my brain convinces me that I need always to be working – if not tapping on my computer then digging up the garden or cleaning the windows or walking the dog. I also train a lot – riding and rowing 2-3 times a week each, with one rest day somewhere in there – and the impetus to get in the boat, or on the bike for at least 90 minutes at a shot (and usually more like 3 hours at a shot) also often feels like “work” pressure for me.

So no wonder I’m tired. I’m running on empty a lot of the time!

I woke up yesterday morning realizing that, in fact, the world would not end if I did practically nothing that day. My boyfriend was visiting; we could spend the day together being pretty chill (including lying in bed far longer than usual) and hanging out and the internet would not explode. My email (as usual) could wait. So could the other 450 urgent things that do not, ever never never, constitute an academic emergency.

(My therapist once helpfully reminded me: there is no such thing as an academic emergency.)

But when I looked at the clock and realized it was 10am I also felt a surge of guilt.

And here’s the rub. Yes, I need to recalibrate my relationship to rest, but it’s not just a matter of me making a series of individual choices – this isn’t all about me and it is not all about my free will.

It’s also related to the way our culture moralizes movement and rest – in the same way it moralizes food, something we talk about on FFI a lot. (See here, for example, a post by Tracy Isaacs about food being beyond “good” and “evil”.)

In the so-called “West” or “Global North” many of us live in cultures that believe rising late is “lazy,” while getting up early to head off to toil at our jobs is a virtue. School is a terrible one for this: is starts so very goddamn early!

But why?

Research suggests this belief in early-to-rise is not by any means universally supportable: teenagers, for example, actually need up to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their shifting body rhythms are at odds with the wake-up-early-rush-to-school pace our cultures usually enforce. No wonder they are all yawning in 8:30am Bio! (See here for more on teenage sleep needs.)

My own body clock, I’ve discovered thanks to the flexibility of my job, works like this: I want to go to bed between 10 and 11:30pm (it can vary depending on when I had my last cup of coffee in the day), and I want to wake up around 9am. 8:30am is also fine. But if my alarm is set for, say, 7am, I’m usually woken in the middle of a dream (REM sleep), and I’m instantly fuzzy. The day doesn’t improve from there.

I like to sleep late. I really do. This used to drive my mother CRAZY; it seemed, well, “bad” and “lazy”. (I remember her waking me up by spraying me with water from the plant mister. No, really. Waking up as punishment! Sounds about right…)

And yet: I’m still a high-functioning professional. I was an A student. And I’m a good cyclist. And a good friend and partner and teacher and writer and daughter and doggie guardian… and human being.

So let’s all try, together, to work on our relationship to the concept of rest. It’s something we lack in our academic jobs as much as in our daily lives, and the lack of it is enforced by a series of cultural norms (aka, the good old neoliberal university…) that also value capitalism, individualism, and (dare I say it) covert or overt forms of Protestantism – that value progress over process, over taking one’s time for discovery, and over the pace shifts required to nurture proper creativity.

I’ll write more about time and space later in the summer (after I’ve enjoyed more of it, and thought more about it, along with colleagues working on my new research project). For now, though: on your own rest days, remember to put your feet up, grab a book or the Netflix, and don’t forget the milkshake. Not because you “deserve it” – but because you are simply human.

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(A photo with two milkshakes in the foreground. On the left is a brown/chocolate one, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. On the right is a mint-coloured one with whipped cream and a mint leaf on top. In soft focus behind them and staggered to one side are two stainless steel mixing containers. I’d like the chocolate one, please!)

Be well-rested!

Kim

Collaborative Writing, with Undergrads

Those of you who read regularly know I’ve been jonesing for collaboration lately. I talked about it extensively in my recent post for Gary and Lena at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and I reflected on my need for more of it in my last post, which focused on what’s next (or might be next) for my writing practice.

Then, a couple of weeks ago – just as the semester had reached the “oh lord, just shoot me now” point that is early April – an opportunity for an ideal collaboration, with a senior undergraduate student, fell into my lap.

Keith Tomasek at Stratford Festival Reviews had invited me a while back to review the Canadian premiere of Fun Home, the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. (NB: Bechdel test? THAT Bechdel.) The tickets finally came through (along with yet another dump of late-season snow) and I realized I had a spare ticket to give away.

Cue the moment when I ALSO realized that my fourth-year honours thesis student, Rachel Windsor, had spent the last six months researching and writing about Bechdel’s memoir. Might she like to come along? She jumped at the chance – and also at the chance to help me out with the review. Her writing on the memoir was stellar, original; I knew she’d be a great collaborator, even if a novice reviewer. Our team was born.

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Here’s Rachel, in her headshot for our review.

The night of the show was another blusterer (thanks, winter. Fuck off now like a good pet, please), but we had a fabulous time. It was opening night, so the crowds were thick in the tiny main-floor theatre lobby, and many were dressed up and partying in the second-floor lobby bar. The cast began a little bit out of tune, but that lasted no more than a few minutes. In no time, the inescapable enthusiasm and raw talent of the young members of the cast (there are three children in the show) shone through, and we were laughing hard and clapping harder at the signature number “Come to the Fun Home” (Fun Home = Bechdel family funeral home) – with the young Bechdels Jackson-Five-ing it in and around the casket they are polishing.

After the show, Rachel and I walked back to Dundas Square and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like; what we’d expected, gotten, and not quite gotten, from the 90-or-so minute show. We hatched a plan to compare notes the next day.

The next morning, in the middle of one of my final exams, I had a bit of a revelation: what if Rachel and I restaged our post-show chat as a dialogic review? I sketched a raw outline and shot it over to her. She began filling in answers to my mock questions, and we were off.

The results are now up at Stratfordfestivalreviews.com, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out – not least because this review practically wrote itself, what with the fun of re-enacting our dialogue on paper and the pleasure of working with a genuinely talented and capable collaborator.

Here’s a short excerpt; for the full review, please click here.

Kim: Rachel, you’ve been working on Bechdel’s memoir, on which the musical is based, for over a year. That’s a whole lot of back story to bring to an adaptation! Going into the performance, what did you most want to see translated from page to stage?

Rachel: I definitely walked into the theatre with a lot of anticipation! My own work on the memoir has to do primarily with its powerful engagements with trauma and memory – both Alison’s and her dad’s – so I was really hoping to see the actors grapple with representing these challenging concepts on stage.

Bechdel describes her work in the original memoir as “tragicomic,” but a large part of the premise of “Fun Home” is Bechdel’s own father Bruce Bechdel’s suicide. It’s hard to make that scenario lighthearted – which is at least somewhat necessary in a musical! – and so I was very curious to see how Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori would go about building this central, traumatic situation into the entertainment value that musicals demand.

Kim: I’m someone relatively unfamiliar with Bechdel’s memoir (your thesis introduced me to it, in fact!), but I’m familiar with Lisa Kron and her legacy as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers performance troupe (in New York in the 1980s and 1990s). I therefore expected a story that would foreground lesbian experience from a specifically queer-feminist point of view, but also from a quite personal perspective. (Kron has written other popular autobiographical works, including 2.5 Minute Ride and Well.)

The musical’s primary focus, in fact, is on Alison’s coming-out story, and especially on the way that story intertwines with Bruce’s life as a closeted gay man. Given Kron’s background, that personal-is-political framing made sense to me. So did the use of three Alisons to add rich context and scope to this particular lesbian life.

(Small Alison is played by Hannah Levinson; college-aged [Medium] and adult Alison are played by Sara Farb and Laura Condlln respectfully. The latter two are regulars with the Stratford Festival, as is Evan Builing [Bruce], and Cynthia Dale [who plays Helen Bechdel]).

Fun Home, Toronto, Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Rachel: The three Alisons were brilliant; thanks to them, the musical adaption really foregrounded the role and function of memory in the story. The graphic memoir carefully resists the kind of linear timeline that we associate with autobiography, and I think the adaption would have lost an important quality had it reverted to the traditional past-to-present structure typical of memoir storytelling.

And the Alisons interact! For example, I really enjoyed when adult Alison cringes hilariously at Medium Alison’s awkward attempts to woo her first crush. This strategy allowed the musical to employ a more embodied process of remembering, and to make room for lots of welcome laughter.

Kim: The musical dates to 2013. But, even in 2018, the commentary the musical embeds about the incredible personal challenges that coming out in real life entails is as essential for me as it ever was. I often worry that, for all the good it can do, the current media vogue for gender-queerness risks masking the fact that actually living a gay or trans life is not as easy as selling a look on TV. Queer and trans folk still face real barriers, enormous discrimination, and violence.

All that said, I also hoped for a bit more politics in the musical. Sometimes it felt too easy to empathize with Alison’s story – as though all human experience at bottom is the same.

Sara Farb’s stand-out performance as Medium Alison is a joy to watch and hear, especially as she belts out the lines to “Changing My Major,” the iconic song in which she “comes out” to herself after a night with her new girlfriend, Joan. But Farb’s gorgeous accessibility is also, politically, for me a bit of a liability.

A young woman who just wants to be able to draw cartoons and love another woman with her parents’ blessing: in 2018, who can’t get behind that message? But, of course, the story Bechdel tells is nowhere near that simple.

Rachel: I had similar feelings about the musical’s rendering of Bruce. I wish that we could have seen more emphasis on his affairs with underage boys.

The character Roy (played by Eric Moran) in the memoir is one of Bruce Bechdel’s current high school students. The musical ages him up to become a recently graduated student. But part of the discomfort of Bechdel’s memoir comes from the reader’s reluctance to understand Bruce as a predator, or even as a pedophile.

As readers, we can’t really fall into easy generalizations of Bruce as a one-dimensional villain, because he’s such a loving and inspiring dad to Alison. At the same time, though, the memoir constantly reminds us that Bruce groomed and took advantage of young boys throughout his life as a teacher.

In the musical, there is still a sense of that predatory nature in some of Bruce’s interactions with Roy. For example, there’s a moment near the end of Helen’s solo when Bruce offers Roy a drink – on the condition that he takes off his shirt. Still, I found the musical left out a lot of the immoral and criminal actions that make Bruce such a complex character.

I can’t wait to do this again! Maybe I’ll make a point of taking students to ALL my future commissions. Thanks, Rachel, for such a joyful and revelatory writing experience!

Enthusiastically,

Kim

So what’s next, then?

Hello again! Long time no see.

Actually… this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts in the five years since I began this blog. Holy crap.

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What happened? Well, I started teaching again after a sabbatical, which followed a house move, and which accompanied the writing of a book (which I’m happy to report I finished on 1 March, right on schedule). When the book wrapped, everything that had been on the back burner slid forward – and gosh, what a lot there was to slide. Exhaustion crept up on me quietly from behind… and before I knew it I was the one who was cooked. I spent most the second half of March forgetting to turn off the burners on my gas stove.

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(No, really. It’s not part of the metaphor!)

But something else also happened in March. After I completed the book, I found myself taking stock of the process I’d undergone. Of what I’d learned about my writing practice; of how I’d changed my writing practice.

Of what I was liking about my job and what I was hating about my job.

Of what I wanted to write next; of where I wanted my writing to take me next.

As I noted in my unschedule follow-up post in January, the writing experiment I undertook in order to start and finish my book project in five flat months was a huge success: I learned that I am exactly the kind of person who responds really well to the write-two-hours-each-day rule. I am deadline driven and I like a nice routine; I take pleasure in writing and I find that writing really is thinking for me. (For more on thinking-as-writing-as-thinking, click here.) I also tend to free-write in a way that comes out generally comprehensible and useable in a finished product, making free-write time productive for me in more than one way.

My revised unschedule for winter term provided a lot of slack, with large blocks of time only lightly scheduled, and only three writing hours marked off per week; I reasoned I would not be able to fit in much more. And was I ever right: in fact, since finishing the book, I have not written a single word in any of those scheduled writing hours. In a hilarious hairpin turn from my unschedule experience in the autumn, everything else about the unschedule has held – just not the writing.

When I realized this I found myself wondering why; of course the answer is obvious. My 40:40:20 workload* suggests I should spend two days per week on research and writing, all year round – but that’s utterly unreasonable in term, with its huge teaching and administrative commitments that typically spill far over their allocated three days per week. After dealing with students’ (increasingly harried) affect, the performance anxiety and adrenaline and exhaustion that comes with teaching a group of (young, increasingly harried, themselves exhausted) people for a sustained period of time, and the administrative palaver that managing courses with minimal secretarial support brings, one is not just tired; one is UTTERLY DRAINED. Add into that my personal commitment to sports (so that I can really enjoy my summer, I need to keep up my training in winter), and my new commute to and from campus by car (75 minutes; about 120km – each way), and, well, the truth is I had literally NO energy, physical or spiritual or intellectual, left in my body to write.

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My goodness, yes!

This taking-stock has provoked deeper questions for me. Like: am I doing what I actually want to be doing?

I loved writing – and writing a book for students! – so much that it literally changed me last autumn; I became a person with a regular writing practice and a smile plastered on her face. But working at a university – and at a university with at best a very ambivalent relationship to the arts – is also killing my writing spirit.

(I noted to a friend that my commute is new and I’ll get used to it; she noted in turn that the commute, in its newness, is also clarifying, foregrounding for me things I had not realized before. I now have the impetus to ask myself: is what I do on campus worth the 75-minute drive to get there?)

Further, the pleasure I took in writing the book was in large part pleasure taken as I dialogued in my head with the audience I was writing for. Not only does this contradict the things I’m feeling about teaching right now (aka tired; super over it), but it also calls into question what I want to write in future, as I recover the wonderful writing practice currently lying dormant while spring straggles into view.

I wrote a monograph but not a “monograph”; I wrote an academic book for students, which (as anyone who has undergone a REF cycle knows very well) is often perceived to be not a “real” academic book at all. Do I want to write another “academic monograph”? I’m not sure.

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Pretty much a monograph. Yup.

Who do I want to write for? – this is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. As I noted in my post for Gary and Lena in February, I love collaboration; how do I want to write, and with whom? If the answer is – as I suspect it will be – not academic audiences, and not alone – how do I do that in a way compatible with my job?

I had a freakout on facebook about this a while back. In a particular fit of pique I wrote:

“what does it say about me that I have literally no desire to write another academic monograph?”

The reaction was significant, and surprising. Lots of people were on board with my urge to ditch the monograph form and write something else, or maybe just make some art for a change. But a number of people I care about and respect also took offence, suggesting that I was disrespecting an incredibly important form of knowledge transfer in our field.

Talking to one another as academics is hugely valuable, of course, and we need specialist forms and languages to do that. But somehow, I thought, I don’t want to do that myself, anymore.

Or do I? I suspect, looking back, that what I was reacting to on facebook wasn’t a particular writing mode or output, but actually the structures that shape our writing lives as academics.

Academic monographs come with a mental image: they imply a certain amount of solitary reading, research, writing. (See above…) We sequester ourselves or steal time from our teaching or seek leaves to carve out space for this work. We emerge with a product that, if we are lucky, a handful of people read; it lives out its life on library shelves, perhaps inspiring dedicated senior students as time goes on. As for us, we head back into the classroom, back onto the treadmill; we teach and graft and struggle until we can steal some more time, apply for more leave, disappear from campus into our studies, and do it again.

BUT.

Despite my anti-monograph facebook screed, this is apparently exactly what I’m craving right now: to disappear again into a space with my writing and find the joy my work brought me in autumn, a joy I have not felt in my work in a good while. But why, why, must I disappear? Why can’t teaching and writing co-exist for me in a way that allows one to feed the other simultaneously, that leaves me with more and not less energy?

How can I claw away some of the stress that attends my teaching practice and thereby make more breathing room for in-term writing, year-round writing, happy and maybe – but not necessarily – productive writing?

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The truth is that I don’t know what I want to write next. I’d like time to find out, and to find out, I’m going to need to write for a while and just see what happens. In order to permit myself that freedom to write, I’m going to have to reinvent the entire work structure (that is, 40:40:20, research:teaching:admin) that bolsters my new writing practice.

This doesn’t mean making another un-schedule, I’ve realized; as I proved this past month, it’s entirely possible for me to keep to the unschedule perfectly – except for the writing part.

Rather, it means refocusing the emotional attention I pay to teaching prep and teaching stress, admin graft and stress; perhaps it means compartmentalizing carefully some of that stress so that I can really leave it behind when I leave my campus office.

I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’m hoping to spend some time this summer figuring out a plan. Part of my summer will be spent reinventing (in fact: decolonizing) two of my regular courses (more on that in an upcoming post), and also in planning a brand new one. I hope that, as part of that teaching-side labour, I can find ways to weave my writing practice into my teaching practice, bringing these work things often thought to be disparate into a healthier alignment.

I imagine already that this might involve me experimenting with free-writing as prep; it might involve me building more free-writing into class time proper (and including myself in that free-writing, in class!). It may also involve me purchasing a folding bicycle, and writing on the train.

Like I said: not yet sure. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Happy end of semester!

Kim

*40:40:20 = 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Ya, right. ;-/