by Marie Carrière
I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.
But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.
In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.
Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:
ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.
This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.
Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?
So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”
What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”
Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.
And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.
(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)
I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.
Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.
Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.
This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog, feministkilljoys.com.
To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.
It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:
She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).
That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.
Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.
Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.
Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.
The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.
To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.
So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?
Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).
In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.
To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.
· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.
· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.
· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.
· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t.
Which brings me to this:
· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).
· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.
· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.
To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.
· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.
· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.
· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.
· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.
Some general advice:
· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.
· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.
· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.
· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.
· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.
· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.
*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.
Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.
My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: email@example.com. I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university: queensu.ca, uoguelph.ca. We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.
When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: firstname.lastname@example.org. The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address email@example.com. That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: firstname.lastname@example.org worked, but so did email@example.com. People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.
None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.
Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.
It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.
My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.
Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.
This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?
It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.
We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.
Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?
What do you want training in?
Last week a short article was making the rounds on social media. The article was about how women in the Obama administration managed to make their voices heard. The interviewees in the article noted that initially it was difficult to even get into the important meetings. And, when they did get into the meetings they were often overlooked. Or their ideas were not heard and credited as theirs.
|Peggy accurately captures my feelings.|
So they made a plan.
The women got together (hello, shine theory!) and decided that each time a woman made a suggestion in a meeting other women would repeat her suggestion while naming her and giving credit.
There they were: women boosting other women’s ideas and demonstrating how to give credit where credit is due. Think of it as amplification.
I love this idea, and since I read the article I have been thinking about how to bring this more deliberately into my practice in scholarly writing. So here is the beginning of a list of ways to amplify work by women and other marginalized people:
If you’re on advisory committees or in department meetings or have any opportunity to influence who gets brought to your campus then speak up! Bring in women. Bring in women of colour. Bring in Indigenous women. Bring in differently abled women. Bring in trans people. In fact, bring them into your classroom! Skype and google hangout are free. Departments often have some sort of funds for guest lecturers. Getting invited to speak, getting paid for your public thinking, and getting your work introduced to a new group of people is invaluable. So speak up and suggest names when you have the opportunity to do so!
In one of my other writing lives I chair the board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts aka CWILA. Every year we do a gender audit of book review culture in Canada and one of the things we’ve found that doesn’t show up in the metrics (yet) is that reviews matter in terms of how books and ideas circulate. You know: buzz. It is a real thing. And here is something I have found, though again anecdotally: there’s not as much buzz around academic writing by women and other Others. So pitch book reviews! And feel good about the crucial contribution you’re making to a richer, more diverse and representative discourse of writing happening in academic circles. Hype books you’re excited about (I for one cannot wait for Professor Karina Vernon’s book to come out, for example). And speaking of hype…
When you’re in a conference Q&A or sitting in the department lunchroom talking to colleagues or speaking with graduate students and the inevitable “do you have a text to recommend?” question comes up… recommend with relish and enthusiasm and care! Reference diverse work in your lectures! In your conversations! And…in order to do this, challenge yourself to keep a current sense of new and archival work by to draw on. When’s the last time you had Mary Ann Shadd on your early Canadian Literature syllabus, for example? Or what about Tanya Lukin Linklater‘s work on your Performance Studies syllabus? Referencing and referring feels awesome and it is awesome.
Liz Tetzlaff is an MA candidate in English at Dalhousie University, and running coach for Running Room, where in addition to coaching, I give outreach talks around the city encouraging others to get involved in the running community. My research interests mainly focus on poetry of the female Great War poets and their engagement with radical pacifist movement. In addition to running and war poetry, I enjoy playing with puppies, listening to Sarah McLachlan, and watching BBC mini series.
Kaarina Mikalson is a PhD student in English at Dalhousie University, and the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War. Her research interests include literature of the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the intersection of gender and labour in Canadian literature. Besides roller derby, she enjoys sewing, comics, and lipstick.
|I said I would dance anywhere. That includes near Parliament Hill!|
When I talk about dance, unless I am referring specifically to my time inside a studio rehearsing a piece or working on my technique, I am usually speaking about improvisation. Though I enjoy these other aspects of dance, and recognize they are necessary to expanding my control over my body, and consequently, my ability to express myself as limitlessly as possible, I find the most solace in improvisation. Give me a dark room and some music, and my body takes care of the rest.
|Throwback to high school.|
I thought I was going to use this much appreciated opportunity to write out some kind of overarching argument for the importance of the intersection between athletics and academics, particularly for women. But as I’ve thought about this issue over the last month, it turns out I can’t in good conscience make this argument at all as women still, by far, undertake the majority of both service work in the university workplace and caretaking at home, a dreary and undebatable fact that means I’d be truly wrapped up in my own privilege if I were to say, “hey all you women, you really need to try training for something on top of all the other duties and responsibilities and drains on your time! I mean, it’s really great and you’ll feel good about yourself!”
It is great. And it does make you feel good about yourself. But the time I’ve spent as a competitive cyclist and now runner/occasional triathlete have shown me how the barriers to participation, let alone access, are still very high. I’ll return to this point toward the end of my post but to explain how I’ve come to this point, I’m afraid I need to indulge in some autobiography about my history as an athlete.
I’ve always been active and in love with running around and doing things, whether kicking or catching a ball, riding my bike on dirt or on roads, running around a track, or running on trails. But I always did this activities without any support network, with no understanding of training or technique or even nutrition, and – with the exception women like Missy Giove that I’d see in glossy magazines – with almost no role models. This isn’t surprising considering I grew up in the 70s and 80s, on what was then the isolated world of Vancouver Island. Still, I had this lurking belief I could be good at sport – that I was capable and strong, even if there was no real evidence for this belief.
Maybe it’s no coincidence my history as an academic followed a similar path, guided by my belief that maybe I could do this thing even if no one else around me thought one way or the other. So, after a few nerve-wracking years as a perpetually insecure, workaholic PhD student, I decided I’d try to build up my self-confidence from having almost none to, hopefully, at least having some. I started by coming up with an arbitrary amount of body fat I wanted to get down to at the local gym (incredibly, my personal life remained completely divorced from the work by Susan Bordo I was teaching at the same time), moved on to trying to do a sprint triathlon, and then – when we moved to Boulder, Colorado – trying what was for me the most intimidating of all: road bike racing.
I threw myself into training and racing road bikes for five years and, for those years, the sport gave me everything I was missing in the academic workplace. I wanted community, friends and connection and I found these things in spades, especially as a beginning Cat 4 racer. These women I trained and raced with, week in and week out for months at a time, were incredible – we pushed each other harder than we thought was possible; we learned together; we cheered each other on; we suffered together. It was a remarkable experience, especially compared to the profoundly isolationist and individualistic culture of academia.
Those years racing and training also made me a more interesting person, one who became capable of talking with lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, marketing managers, and sales associates. Not only did I learn about and engage with communities outside of academia but I also developed a more expanded sense of where exactly I stood in relation to my local and global community. It’s such an obvious revelation, that existing only in a university environment makes one uni-dimensional. It’s also obvious one cannot and should not work as many hours a day and days a week as one can hack. But somehow, academia – largely made up of type-A personalities who cannot stop striving seven days a week because of the lack of clear work-life boundaries – makes access to these obvious revelations very difficult.
I quit training and racing road bikes a couple years ago when I realized I’d achieved the goal I’d set out for myself (all I wanted was to become a Cat 2 racer, because somehow, narrowly, I thought that would mean I could finally tell myself I was “good” at this sport) and I was finding the 15 hours of training a week onerous rather than empowering. But still, the act of training taught me one lesson in particular that still hasn’t left me: the value of having clear and bounded goals coupled with an acceptance of what I have today, who I am today, instead of who I could be or would like to be or should be.
Eventually, the tiny, daily acknowledgements of what I had to give, given the circumstances of the day, turned into tiny, daily triumphs and then these triumphs came to influence both the way I go about my work as an academic and the way I think about my worth. Eventually, I came to ask myself, “Can I write 500 words today? Can I teach my classes with the knowledge and the energy I have today, rather than what I would like to have? Can I do this work in this two hours I have, before I spend time with my husband or my friends, rather than the eight hours I wish I had?”
All I have to offer here are my personal revelations about why my personal and professional life would be so much less if it weren’t for sport. I especially can only speak for myself here, as I’m reminded of the day I showed up for my first cat 2 race and I saw only women who were either professional bike racers or women who were retired or women whose children were now in college or women who were fortunate enough not to have to work at all. It’s a tremendous privilege to have the time and the resources I have to train, to hire a coach, to travel to races, to set goal race times and so on.
I know countless women who are tremendously gifted athletes but who cannot possibly add training to their already nearly impossible schedules involving work, committee meetings, student supervision/mentoring, not to mention their own childcare and housework responsibilities. I only wish we could find a way not so much to say, “You can do it! You can train for that event and compete in that race!” but rather, “We value your health, happiness, and sense of well-being! We support a shorter work week and after-school child care! We support a more even distribution of childcare and service responsibilities across genders!”
Then imagine what women could accomplish.
Lori Emerson is amateur runner, cyclist, and fresh air lover in Boulder, Colorado. She is also an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab.
|The Author! Photo credit: Martyn Boston|