On moving your body, and relaxing your head

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Jess and I attended an acro-yoga workshop. (What is acro-yoga? You might well ask!) It was, among other things, incredibly liberating: I did not know, until yesterday, that I could handstand-walk backwards over the spine of a stranger; I did not know that I could support another person as she stood on my thighs and then flipped over into a handstand in my lap; I also did not know I could reverse-pike-straddle onto the legs of the talented Blox and dangle, effortlessly, in mid-air upside down. It’s amazing what our bodies can do.


(Thanks Blox!)

Blox reminded me, as I attempted (and failed the first couple of times) that reverse-pike-straddle, that one of the keys to succeeding in the trick is relaxing your head. (Actually, what he said was: “relax your head. relax your head. RELAX YOUR HEAD!” Apparently, I was panicking.) Frankly, I thought later, this is amazing advice, applicable whether you are upside down in a yoga studio or not. And it’s perfect advice for right now, aka THE END OF TERM. If you’re a student, chances are you are in full-on panic mode: too many papers, too little time. If you’re a prof, you’re thinking “just three more preps! just two more preps!” while trying to ignore the stack of marking. If you’re a staff member at a university, you are probably looking at the coming exam period, replete with applications for clemency, mountains of paperwork, and appeals of term grades, and dying slowly inside.

In other words: now is a perfect time for all of us to relax our heads.

I wrote about this very thing recently on Fit is a Feminist Issue, one of my favourite crossover (scholars+others) blogging communities. (Though that post uses different language – thanks to Blox, “relax your head” has now entered my personal mantra bank, somewhere near the top.) The post is about exercise as a means of coping with extreme stress: how moving our bodies can support the unwinding of the over-wound brain. The link is here, for anyone who would like to read more; the context of the post is the personal trauma with which I’ve been dealing this winter (regular readers will know all about this already; if you’re not a regular and are curious, there are links you can follow in the post), but its application is wide. I think more than a few of us would class the end of the university school year, for example, as a time of extreme stress and potential trauma!

End of term is the time when we often tend to forget how to move our bodies; we are trapped at desks, our shoulders hunching into “scholar” pose, our guts pulled tight into low-level agony. It’s easy to say: too many papers! No time to go for a walk! But that’s the very reason we should go for that walk, or ride, or swim, or – gasp! yes! – massage. Because this time of year is so hard on our heads, it is also hard on our hearts, our lungs, our legs and arms. Cognitive stress is psychophysical: we ache in our bodies when we do not relax our heads, and the results can range from not writing our best term papers, to not doing our best jobs of grading, to sustaining musculoskeletal injuries like carpal tunnel, to getting really, really, really sick as soon as term ends.

So let’s do it, friends, together: let’s relax our heads.


On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

It’s term paper time: cue panic! As one of my students in History of Performance Theory told me earlier this week: “I am stressed to my core!” Enough said.

This year, term paper time coincides for me with a host of seemingly unconnected events that have me thinking anew about the old saw of a question, “what is good academic writing, anyway?” First, the eminently sensible and always provocative Melonie Fullick, regular contributor to University Affairsweighed in on the politics of academic style and the erroneous argument (much repeated) that all uni profs write indecipherable, useless theory-speak. Then, my friend and colleague (and soon to be guest-post author!) Kat Low told me about the most recent issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, edited by Joanne Tompkins and Maria Delgado, which focuses on the labour, the value, and the challenges of academic editing – an area of our jobs that is so, so important and yet receives far too little credit and attention. Finally, my performance theory students and I read the heartfelt preface to Diana Taylor’s landmark 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, and spent half an hour “appreciating the text” (more on that later). During that class, I realised what I’d long suspected: that the most creative, most intimate, most personal academic writing is also the stuff that resonates most clearly, sticks with us, influences us, makes the most sense, and means the most to us. So why don’t we write more of it?

I have a personal history with the battle over “proper” academic writing, and the longstanding anxiety that the personal has no place in it. I was fortunate to arrive in graduate school with a superb education in reading and writing: I took my primary and secondary schooling in Alberta, in Western Canada, where I received intensive training in the rules of English and French grammar; I progressed through the International Baccalaureate program during high school, learning not just to love literature but to write creatively (in fact, my IB extended essay was a series of short stories); and I wrote constantly during my first university degree, where I both unlearned some bad, earlier habits and became comfortable with critical theory as well as secondary research in literary criticism. In all of this I am privileged in ways that many of my own students today are not. But this eclectic background has also meant that I rarely feel compelled toward the kind of formal, proper, academic prose that I have long been told I “should” produce. Instead, I prefer to write creatively, even at times performatively; as often as possible I get personal in my academic essays, spelling out what is at stake for me and why. (A recent example I’m quite proud of, about the superb Theatre Replacement show BIOBOXES, is here.)

But I’ve run into some trouble with my urge toward personal, creative, “crossover” writing. That same essay I link to above went through multiple drafts and a number of different peer reviews, some of which were furious, even vindictive; one anonymous reader was enraged I should dare to be so personal in an essay that was not “about me” but about the show, and about the ethnic minority subjects that comprised it. Another accused me of sounding racist – in a moment in the paper when I was trying to come to grips with a difficult, but honest, reaction of my own to the performance I had attended. In both cases, as in many others I could cite from my own and colleagues’ writing histories, I was being challenged, even attacked, for daring to insert my own human fallibility, vulnerability, and culpability into writing for an academic audience.

I know well this challenge: my students remind me of it every time they approach me, tentatively, and ask me if it’s ok for them to use the pronoun “I” in their essays. Of course students learning to write formal essays often need to be trained out of the habit of defaulting to their own personal, anecdotal experiences as “evidence” for their arguments – our worlds are so much bigger than the boundaries of our bodies, and it can be hard, but essential, for young scholars to develop the skill of looking outward with compassion and some objectivity. But I’m a strong proponent of nevertheless returning to ourselves, in order to understand how the things we explore in our writing impact us personally. Which means I always tells my students that yes, they absolutely may use “I” in their papers, and their personal experiences too – just as long as they also consider the perspectives and evidence of others alongside their own. And as a reader of manuscripts for academic journals and presses I take the same approach, lauding colleagues whenever I can for taking the risk of being personal and professional at the same time.

Being personal as well as professional; regarding the two as interlinked: women know this is a constant challenge, burden, and privilege, one in which feminist movements have been invested for decades. There is ample research demonstrating the difficulties women face in academic professions as they attempt to balance personal responsibilities with professional expectations (curious? Look here), and my own experience of trying to be myself – a flawed woman scholar, warts and all – in print has suggested to me that the harsh backlash that accompanies “personal” academic writing can often be gendered. It’s true that outstanding women scholars are among those who have paved the way for many of us interested in creative academic non-fiction (I’ll name my favourite two here – Jill Dolan and Peggy Phelan – though I could name many others), but on balance it’s harder for women – in the world at large, let alone at university! – to express opinions based on personal, gendered experience and be understood to be sharing sincere evidence about what it means to navigate a human life. By way of contrast, I recently peer-reviewed an article for publication by a much-admired male scholar that contained an extensive, arguably excessive, amount of personal detail, some of it quite sexist; in my review I supported the author’s desire to be personal while resisting some of the assumptions the article made, but I privately noted the tone of secure authority with which the author reproduced his experience as proof of a much broader worldview. Time and again, male scholars have regarded their “personal” and the “professional” as coeval; no wonder women who dare to tread this ground, even today, fear being rebuffed!

So what can we do, those of us who value creative academic prose, to further encourage the expansion of “good” academic writing? I’d say we need to listen more carefully to our students! When my performance theory class and I looked together at Diana Taylor’s preface to The Archive and the Repertoire, we tackled the text with an exercise in “appreciating”: I asked them if there were moments in the piece that they had found surprising, or even inspiring; I invited them to highlight those moments and then reflect on them, in writing, for two minutes. (Write about the thing you think for two minutes: this is a favourite free-writing exercise of mine in all of my classes. Conversation is much easier as a result!) Afterward, I asked them if they would describe their chosen passages as “good” academic writing, and why or why not? They reflected for a further minute on paper, and then we shared our thoughts. Their choices were eclectic: from the fanciful to the relatively theoretical, but of a piece they were moved by the combination of a personal tone and a genuinely provocative argument. And they generally agreed that their choices might not be considered “good” writing by the powers that tend to judge these things, but perhaps they really ought to be. Because they had been moved to imagine, to grapple with, even to cherish, Taylor’s points as a result, rather than to throw their books against the wall in frustration. Surely that’s a win for us all.


Write on!


On reaching out

Canadians know that February is, most years, the cruelest month. The snow that was pretty is now pretty dirty, road-salted and ice-encrusted; the groundhog never emerges, let alone sees shadows; and March only brings more wintry blasts. So it has been this year, here in Southern Ontario; and so it has been for me.

Regular readers will have noticed that it’s been a month since my last post (which, incidentally, I also began by harping on winter). The accidental hiatus has been the result of some significant shifts in my personal life. My mother, who is suffering from dementia as well as very serious problems with mobility, has been in hospital for the past 15 days: first recovering from surgery, and now awaiting a permanent bed in a long-term care facility. My father and I have been working together to ensure she is not too lonely, while also attending to our own feelings of anxiety, fear, and sorrow. And on the other side of the ocean, another extremely important family relationship has changed for me, and left me grieving.


(This beautiful image by Amos Chapple can be found, among others, here.)

Why am I sharing all of this with you, many of you strangers? Does not this kind of thing qualify as TMI (too much info)? Perhaps. But I’ve always been an over-sharer (I’ve also always been a drama queen). And truth be told, I’ve lately learned that the price of not sharing – of not reaching out when in need – is far too high to pay when you’re already hurting.

Not too long ago a cherished friend of mine received some personal news that was extremely difficult to bear. Hurting, frightened, and knowing she needed support, she reached out to a group of us who have been friends, colleagues, and family since graduate school. She explained what had happened as clearly as she could, and then she said just as clearly what she needed: our support, spiritual and material, as she struggled to come to terms with the life-changing news she had received. I reached out to her immediately in love and friendship, but I was also struck profoundly by the nature of her message to us. Rather than suffering in silence, or relying only on close family to bear the burden she had been handed, she anticipated what she was going to need in the weeks and months ahead and asked it frankly, directly of us – of those of us she knew she could trust to hold her in her grief. Put plainly, she was forward planning: she reached out to us in order to set up a network of care to help her navigate as normally as possible the rough road ahead.

My friend’s example stayed with me, and when I returned from a journey to England last week I took it as my model. Coming home to bitter, extreme cold, heavy, relentless snow and the looming exhaustion of the end of term, I wrote messages to groups of friends and colleagues letting them know what was happening in my world. Like my dear friend, I asked for help and support. I stated as plainly as I could what I might need; I asked that people reach out to me even when I didn’t think to reach out again myself. The outpouring was immense: everyone I contacted returned my message with loving kindness and plenty of invitations, from walks to dinners to coffees to acrobatics classes. Friends told me I was loved. Loved ones told me they were there. I felt supported and strengthened.

I managed to go back to work, and to get on with work pretty well.

Those of us who have grown up in Christian cultures know that suffering in silence is as often lauded as chastised; many of us, even those who don’t identify as faithful, so easily default to the “TMI” mode of grieving and seek to bear our burdens alone, as much out of habit as out of fear of shame. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, shameful about asking for help in times of grief and loss. And more: there is absolutely nothing shameful about asking for help in anticipation of the grief and loss we know is coming. My clever friend imagined in her grief that she might yet reach a nadir; she told us all so that we could be there to help her survive, and then thrive once again, because she knew that’s what we would want.

That kind of planning is no less important than planning for our next due dates, our next sabbaticals, our next conference obligations, our next lectures. In fact, it’s much more important than all of these combined.

We need to remind one another, and regularly, of the importance of planning for life’s hurts, and of reaching out to all of those willing to support us in our grief. And we need to remind our students of this, too.