Writing abroad (Dispatches from the end of summer…)

I’ve not posted in this space in a couple of weeks, partly because it’s the end of the summer (oh blessed goddess, where did the summer go?!), and partly because I’ve been writing and posting elsewhere. I’m very happy to be part of a couple of different online communities, and I’m also very happy to share my contributions to those communities here with you.

I’ve taken on a new monthly gig with Fit is a Feminist Issue, run by my two colleagues and friends Sam Brennan and Tracy Isaacs; I reblogged my first regular post with them at the end of last month (check it out here), and this week I contributed my second regular post, on the exercise challenges my mom faces as a person living with dementia in a wheelchair, and how she and I are addressing those challenges using retail therapy. This one is called “Shopping is my cardio (no, really!)”, and you can have a look at it here.

Last Friday I also reviewed a piece of local theatre for Keith Tomasek, the brains behind Stratfordfestivalreviews.com. Keith does his utmost to draw much-needed attention to local performance work in Southwestern Ontario, beginning with work showcased at the acclaimed Stratford Festival of Canada and branching off from there. I’m both grateful to Keith for what he does for the arts in our communities and keen to support his commitment to thoughtful, engaged, critical theatre reviewing whenever I can. My review, of Troubadour Theatre Collective‘s terrific production of David Hare’s classic 1995 play Skylight, is available here.

That’s it from me for now! I hope these treats make tasty end of summer reading, and that your days at the beach aren’t quite done…yet.

sunset-at-the-beach

Next week I’ll be back to start the semester with that promised post about costume dramas, redux – featuring thoughts on Outlander season 2, Orange is the New Black, and Strange Empire. Feminist historical fiction, here we come.

Till then!

Kim

2015-16 in review, pt 1: on mental wellness

It’s mid-April, and that means I’m a week and a handful out of the classroom. I’m feeling ok, but not exactly great (let alone euphoric): it’s been one hell of a year. And though prep and term marking are now over, dealing with struggling students and coping with them writing their finals is not.

Also not over: the edited collection of essays I’m due to deliver in 15 days; the conference I’m co-chairing that takes place end of May; and the admin related to the degree program I help to run, which is ramping up again in time for student course selection in June.

In other words: I’m still pretty unbearably busy.

And I’m emotionally as drained as can be.

Unleash-your-mental-wellness

That’s why this year’s reflections on the year just past – for last year’s reflections, start here – need to begin with a post on mind-body wellness. Quite apart from the fact that I have honestly had a year from hell, and thus all reflection on it is coloured by struggle, this is also the time of year when many of us both rejoice in the end of classes and face one of the toughest mental tests of the term: the exam period.

During the exam period students come face to face with what they have, and have not, done to accomplish their goals during the academic year. They freak out; they stay up all night studying (or not); they beg for mercy in emails and in office hours. Simultaneously, faculty members struggle to cope with the onslaught of marking and end-of-year admin (aka meetings galore), as well as the sinking feeling that our lives are no longer structured by (and our lack of research output no longer excused by!) the courses that we teach, which by default shape our working lives from September through March. Plus, of course, students’ stress leaks out all over us, as we do our best to support them through their end-of-year challenges both administrative and emotional.

Put it all together, and you have a crucible of volatile emotions flying across campus – and a hell of a lot of work to do just managing them.

This exam period was preceded, for me, by a flurry of interest in the matter of mental health on campus. This may have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it. First, I received a number of emails from University Affairs, a Canadian academic-industry magazine, showcasing a mix of articles on the topic (and including compelling pieces from students on how teachers can help, here; and from the perspective of graduate students, from the always-perceptive Melonie Fullick here). Then, one of my students organised a long table, as part of her final project for my performance studies class, focused on student mental health and what our university can do better to support struggling students. Finally, one of my colleagues circulated information about a terrific new book on wellness for university faculty, The Slow Professor (which I immediately ordered up from the publisher. For your own copy, click here).

We’re getting worked up these days about mental health on campus for good reason: it’s a challenge that has been building since we began to conceive of universities as job-training and job-creation hubs, rather than as the sites of scattered, accidental, incredible intellectual imagination and discovery that they have long, long been. This isn’t the place to rehearse the false consciousness that tries to claim for universities the role of job-prep robot; instead, I want to point specifically to the kinds of emotional breakdown that often follow from this flawed logic – for students, but also for profs and support staff.

Our students feel, increasingly, as though their educations are meant to land them not just jobs but careers. And many of them are only 18, 19 years old! The pressure this need generates for the young people in our charge is overwhelming, and all the while many of them lack the skill sets to cope with it. The result of this pressure, plus this lack, can often be collapse of a significant magnitude: as I learned from some of the students who attended the long table organised by my student Rebecca King, plenty of them are using alcohol as a coping mechanism more than they should do, and plenty are (of course) using a mix of other drugs to numb the anxiety and fear of failure. All of them know someone struggling with mental health issues, and many of them struggle themselves.

mental-health

Sitting at the long table Rebecca organised, this information resonated with me, but not just because I care about my students and how they are faring. It resonated in large part because I saw myself in the conversation, too: as a front-line student support worker (all teachers are!), the emotional labour of supporting increasingly anxious, depressed, self- or doctor-medicated students has become one of the hardest, and most constant, parts of my job. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it seems to me the numbers of these students moving through my office is increasing every year (certainly I have statistical evidence from my own classes that more and more students are not handing work in at all). And as the emotion-management part of my job increases, my own emotional wellbeing becomes increasingly fragile.

We make a lot of noise now, for very good reason, about student mental wellness at university, but we still do not talk nearly enough about faculty and staff mental health. Profs are the authority figures and the power-brokers on campus, and so our struggles to cope with anxiety, depression, and related issues can often go unseen. But many of us are medicated, and many of us are struggling every bit as much as our students. I know very few colleagues not taking prescription drugs just to cope. And I don’t believe that’s because high-functioning troubled folks self-select into the academy; I believe the academy does to us as good as we can get, and then some.

Student mental health is rightly near the top of our radar; after all, the young people we teach don’t have the same experience managing complicated working lives as we do, and for many the culture shock of entering the university system, with its neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and bootstrap-pulling, can be overwhelming after a childhood of helicopter parenting. But truth be told, the unwatched movie of campus life is the one that reveals the number of faculty drinking too much wine each night, needing Ativan or Zopiclone just to sleep, and crying in their offices before and after class – trying their hardest, of course, to show none of this to their students.

Universities across Canada (and far beyond) have long since taken steps to support both students and faculty (as well as non-academic staff) who struggle with mental health issues; if Rebecca’s long table provides any evidence, however, those steps are often (perceived as) inadequate. Students are promised support, but the wait for genuine counselling is long. Students need accommodation for mental health issues, but doctors’ notes are expensive, and can be harder to acquire for problems without physical symptoms. Meanwhile, faculty (like many students) often suffer in silence, whispering quietly to one another what they take, or how much they drink, or both. It’s all shameful, until we share the story, and realise we’re not alone.

Sure there are supports on campus for faculty too, and I know from personal experience who in my department I can go to if things get really bad for me. I’m fortunate to have a chair with tonnes of sympathetic HR experience who knows how to advocate for staff, and I have a handful of colleagues I count as family who are there for me. But I also know that sharing mental health issues openly, especially for women faculty who still battle gendered perceptions about being “too emotional”, can be incredibly difficult, and even genuinely risky. A lot is at stake in opening up.

By strange and perfect coincidence (OK, once again, prob not actually a coincidence), the day after I wrote this post I had dinner with close friends who work at nearby universities, and we spent a large part of our shared meal talking about our shared struggle with labour overload, work boundaries, and the mental health fallout from it all. We were brutally honest together because we could be – but we also reminded one another that such honesty can’t always obtain at work. Because even though we’ve become better and better at talking with and to students about their challenges, and increasingly students are accommodated for their mental health problems (as it should be), it’s still pretty rare for faculty to share their issues and experiences with one another, or with those (chairs and deans) who can – and should – support and accommodate us.

I have, for a while now, made a point of sharing with my students my own struggles with mental wellness: my mom’s dementia, as well as the fact that I take doctor-prescribed meds in order to remain functional. And I encourage students to visit me in office hours if they have anything related to mental wellness they want to talk about. But that, I know, is a privilege: I’m still high functioning and productive, my students respect me, and my boss both supports me and knows he can rely on me. So my risk, in talking mental health matters, is minimal. In fact, the people I’d really like to hear from, and share health and wellness stories with, are my colleagues. That conversation feels urgent, yet also unlikely.

Fotolia_20130956_Subscription_Monthly_XL-400x230

I’m thinking of taking a page out of Rebecca’s book and organising a faculty mental health long table in September on my campus. And I’m going to create another post about women’s particular struggles with this stuff, because my chat with my friends reminded me how much more there is to say on that score.

Meanwhile, though, I would love to hear others’ experiences and perspectives on this one: what supports on your campus exist to help faculty struggling with emotion management and mental health and wellness? Do you feel you can share your stories openly? Where and with whom?

Sending good vibes out to y’all,

Kim

 

Is it really about what you know?

About eight weeks ago I wrote an open letter to my colleagues at Western University as part of the alternative “100 Days of Listening” tour curated at noahconfidenze.tumblr.com in response to the controversy surrounding the compensation packet of our president, Amit Chakma. Noah liked my post, and asked me back; this time around – why? Maybe it’s the humid summer air! – I’m feeling optimistic, and the tone of my letter (addressed to Dr Chakma this time) is forward looking. Call me a naive optimist if you like, but I still believe we have the chance to shift the neoliberal juggernaut driving through the heart of liberal arts education in Canada. This letter, reproduced below with Noah’s kind permission, suggests an important reason why we need to keep pressing the point.

***

Dear Amit,

I’m writing today as a colleague who also loves stories. During your brief meeting with my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities back in April, you talked a bit about your personal library, and about how much you valued having not only engineering books on your shelves there. I found your description of your library inspiring; it was a heartfelt reminder that we all need stories in our lives, in part because stories are the raw material we use to live our lives: to look backward, forward, and all around us as we plot our routes through the world.

storytelling

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately, even more than usual. As I’m a professor in English and Writing Studies, stories are my stock-in-trade; further, as I’m one of the founding faculty members in Theatre Studies at Western, stories for me are more than words on paper or even oral narratives; they are embodied tales of the worlds we inhabit, built in intimate collaboration with the other bodies and narratives that surround us. So stories are a huge part of my life.

My mother, however, is struggling these days to retain her stories. She is living with dementia, and more and more the stories she remembers cling to her like spring water, feeding her from the rivers of her past as she copes with each new disappointment in each new day. My mom never got a lot of education, though she was bright and full of potential; WWII got in her way, and then followed the quotidian vagaries of making a living and helping to support a family in the new world to which she fled. But I know that, had she gone to university, she would have been filled up with stories. And she would have carried those stories with her like treasures through her life.

My mom was a math whiz; she would not have gone into English or even into Theatre Studies. But I have no doubt that she would have taken loads of liberal arts courses, given her lifelong love of storytelling. And that’s something I’ve learned from her as she navigates this difficult new chapter in her life: that stories are not just for the English-oriented liberal arts kids, far from it. In a new article called “Changing How We Think About the Goals of Higher Education,” Chad Hanson, a sociologist at Casper College, argues that the most important take-aways students receive at university have little to do with the specific content they absorb, and much more to do with how they absorb it, and with what the nature of their learning experience helps them to discover about themselves. Hanson is arguing for a much broader approach to assessing student learning than cognitive science and similar mechanisms can gather; he is insisting on the social, rather than the statistical, value of storytelling to the way we measure what students carry with them as they walk across our stages at convocation.

I can attest to the common sense of Hanson’s argument. When I think back to my own undergraduate career, in the English Department at the University of Alberta in the middle 1990s, it’s not the names and dates of novels and characters I remember; it’s the teaching styles of the instructors I had, and it’s especially the debates about our world, our nation, politics and culture the stories we read provoked. Thanks to those experiences I, long bent on a career as an architect, turned to graduate school in the humanities instead, and then to a PhD in theatre studies. And thanks to those experiences I found I had a built-in model for how to teach effectively: when time came for me to step in front of a class of my own, I brought the nuts and bolts of my favourite instructors’ group workshops to bear on my own teaching practice.

Hanson writes:

When we think of students as a human form of capital, the view potentially restricts our intellectual terrain. We run the risk of limiting ourselves to questions about what students know or how they perform prescribed tasks. We lose sight of the notion that schools allow people to forge new selves.

Amit, regardless of the specific departments or faculties our students choose as a base for their university educations, all seek stories to propel themselves future-ward. And they seek the means to tell those stories, to navigate the tales of others, and to fashion from the mix of emotions and events that make up their university educations the ability to shape themselves into citizens. Those of us who teach in the Arts and Humanities are the ones who help with these challenges, who shape our learners into not just employees but also citizens. Hanson again:

Knowledge and skills are not necessarily the most important factors when it comes to the question of whom a business will hire. Picture a typical job interview. Employers rarely conduct knowledge or skills tests as part of the hiring process. An interview is an exercise in storytelling. Candidates are asked to tell the story of themselves: who they are, what they are like, where they have been, and what their futures hold in store.

There are a lot of reasons for Western to value preciously its faculty in the Arts and Humanities. And stories are a big one.

1412455936347

Yours with respect,

Kim Solga

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.

FullSizeRender_3FullSizeRender_4

(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.

Kim

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.

images

(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.

Kim