Sunday, October 26, 2008


my sister's firm just laid off a bunch of people (it's heeeeere, the global recession) and she got called to toronto for a meeting at the same time as her husband is at a conference in chicago. "no problem!," i said, breezily (i was sweating on the inside, but what help is that to her?), "we'll take care of the kids for a couple of days."

it's not all four of them, allah be praised, just morgan (4) and everett (2). when i arrived, the house was spotless and the kids were in a great mood. nobody cried when mom left, perhaps because i'd already sat them down in front of the TV. i left them quietly amusing themselves and went upstairs to put a chicken in the oven for dinner. working in my sister's kitchen, the sun pouring in the wall of west windows onto their shiny new hardwood floors, i thought: maybe i shouldn't be so terrified of children. i'm always thinking how tiring they are, and how i've never wanted to be anybody's mother. i never consider this feeling, the quiet sense of peace and love that most people associate with 'family.'

at which point everett walked into the kitchen and projectile vomited.

we are all familiar with the phrase "projectile vomit." but the reality? whole other thing. as my friend aimee says, you think it's a dead metaphor, but it turns out to be a cold, clinical description. i haven't seen anything like it since elementary school. he stood in one spot and spewed puke, three times, in a one-metre radius. there was barf on the cupboards and barf on the floor. his clothes were soaked, and his shoes. his sister's clothes. her shoes. i couldn't imagine his little stomach could hold so much, yet there it was -- and still coming. my sister wasn't even at the airport yet.

five minutes later he was bouncing on the bed in his PJs, the entire episode forgotten.

and where was mo for all of this, you ask? hockey. we made a deal: she'd go to her hockey game in the afternoon, and i could go out to the big exposure party tonight. however, i find that the evening's events have quite sapped my urge to disco.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Grumpy old professor rant

remember dana carvey's grumpy old man? turns out it's hard to write a rant like that, but here goes:

i’m old, and i’m not happy. everything today is “improved,” and i don’t like it. i hate it! in my day, we didn’t have social networks. we didn’t have e-mail, or facebook, or google. we didn’t even have friends. if you wanted to be a professor, you took your pencil and went to the library by yourself, looking for a stray idea in the card catalogue, until the librarian shooed you out with her cane and you went back to your underground apartment to eat a cold can of beans. that’s the way it was, and you liked it. you loved it! look at me, i’m a phd, i made terrible life choices.

in my day, we knew how to take it like a man. we didn’t have writing groups or reading groups. our supervisors didn’t talk to us. we never saw the light of day and we didn’t need it. we could stuff our dreams into a box in the dark. we didn't whine about employability or making a living. you stayed in the program for ten, eleven, twelve years, until you were so miserable and pathetic they couldn't kick you out, so you stayed in the academy, with other freaks like you. that’s the way it was and you liked it. you loved it! hallelujah, i'm a professor. and i'm gonna make you pay.

The fear of doing it differently

i have grading on my desk, so i’ve taken the opportunity to prepare a meaty missive "on the question of a second-year doctoral seminar," a hot-button issue in our department right now. essentially, we're exploring the possibility of developing a year-long, team-taught doctoral seminar that will provide structured support for students, help them prepare a thesis proposal, and engage with each other, and with a group of professors, on a topic of general interest (conspiracy, the book, e.g.).

here's what i have come to. what follows is long, which you might welcome if you, too, have a desk full of deadlines and a passing interest in academia. if not, wait for tomorrow or sunday: i'm working on a "grumpy old man" episode on this very theme.

point 1: the “timely completion” issue is disciplinary
according to the research on canadian graduate studies, the problem of long doctoral degrees is disciplinary, not program- or university-specific: “On average, it took doctoral students in canada 5 years and 10 months to complete their studies. However, while all required more than five years to graduate, only social sciences and humanities students required six years or more” (Garth Williams, Doctoral Education in Canada 1900-2005, available at

in part, degrees can be shortened by reducing degree requirements. but CAGS research tells us that it’s not the number of program requirements alone that determines timely completion, but the ways in which students are supported. one of the 12 recommendations in The Completion of Graduate Studies in Canadian Universities: Report and Recommendations, 2003 (rev. 2004, and also available at is: “Foster academic and social integration into research teams, scholarship discussion groups, teaching and other departmental affairs. This is especially important in areas of scholarship where graduate students have typically worked in relative academic isolation, engaged in solo scholarship.”

point 2: we should prepare students for a big job market
too often, arguments about graduate studies become anecdotal. professors cite their experience (“i loved being left alone!”) or their assumptions about who their student are and will become (“this is the only unstructured time in an entire career!”).

i’m sympathetic, but i’m not convinced. the thing is – graduate student readers, stop up your ears, put your hands across your eyes! -- most of our students are not going to get the jobs we profs currently hold. my job is marvelous: the dep’t is collegial, our students are talented, our teaching load is reasonable, our research profile high. sadly, most academic jobs in the country today are not this plum. so i think a seminar that provides opportunities for students to negotiate complex ideas with people unlike themselves could provide essential collegial skills.

moreover, we might want to think about a doctoral degree as a bit broader than pre-professorial. to paraphrase williams (cited above): graduates from engineering and the life sciences routinely find employment beyond the academy as well as within it. HSS doctorates, on the other hand, are prepared for academic jobs alone. as a result, only 34.8% of humanities PhDs make over $55,000 per year (2005 figs). i have read this report many times, and still can't believe i've read it correctly, but those are the numbers.

that can't be the best we can do. as i watch world capitalism crumble, i worry that a doctoral degree in english is about to seem as wise an investment as a fannie mae mortgage. i wrote the metaphor lightly, but it works: it's like a subprime mortgage, a don't-pay-now-pay-later boondoggle on a life without the market value you might prefer.

which leads me to my next point:

point 3: humanities research matters to public intellectual life
this wasn't my point; a colleague made it; but it's a good one. all the thinking i'm aware of suggests that we need labile lateral thinkers if homo sapiens are going to live to see the twenty-second century. my sense is that people in other disciplines as well as non-academics in general are interested in the perspectives that students of literature and culture have developed through long study (and i mean "students" here in the broadest possible sense, the sense in which we are all students of life). my worry is that we sell ourselves short, hide behind obfuscation and the fear of getting things wrong, fret about the impurities of politics, and put the safe thing (that batch of papers, that editing deadline, and so on) ahead of the messy and imperfect engagement in public life. hardly surprising, since we haven't been trained for it. why not start by giving graduate students a chance to try out their voices as public intellectuals in a (relatively) low-stakes seminar?

the peroration:
if the problems at the root of our doctoral programs are disciplinary, i’d love to see us take this opportunity to re-imagine our discipline’s possibilities. if we were to offer the heather zwicker school of doctoral studies (takers? anyone? uh, hullo, is this thing on?), students would work in inter-disciplinary learning partnerships for the entire four years of their degree. we would abolish the standard dissertation-as-monograph requirement; instead, students would work in genres appropriate to their specific area of research and the contours of the problem they’re taking on. there would be no courses and no exams, but plenty of colloquia. and, of course, these innovations would attract fame and funding enough that I could retire at, oh, 51. but I digress.

can a single proposed seminar accomplish these things? of course not. but to the extent that it carves out a space for students to work with each other, and not just with a supervisor; for students to collaborate intellectually across fields within the discipline, if not beyond it; for doctoral students to develop the networks of support that might sustain them through the grind; and for all of us to think just a wee bit more imaginatively about how to educate ourselves and each other – to the extent that the proposal carves out a space for all of these possibilities, i am in favour of it.

or, to put this slightly differently, particularly for those of you whose eyes glazed over some time ago and are searching for the punch line: yes, we need to teach our students to research; yes, much of this work is solo; yes, we all made it through our own doctoral programs, sinking, swimming or treading water – but I can’t believe that’s the only way to do things. If we remain committed to virginia woolf’s harsh dictum that “we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone,” could we not put it off for just one more year?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Extraordinary evening

back about a year ago, i got a note from a colleague alerting me to the fact that a well-known lesbian writer from the UK was moving to alberta and wouldn't i like to befriend her. i wrote immediately to valerie mason-john to say hey let's get together when you're next in town and don't worry, it's a dry cold.

she hasn't moved here yet, but she emailed in september to say she was coming to visit her partner who lives in ponoka. we bandied about various ways of getting together (how about lit fest on thursday night? no, can't do that -- but i'm going on friday? no, that won't work for me, etc) until she said, "look, we're having a dinner party on saturday night. if you and another person wanted to come, we'd love to have you." i demurred politely -- we were supposed to be working on my sister's new house all day, so we'd be tired, plus i know how precious visiting time is, you don't necessarily want to share it with strangers, and is it really environmentally, which is to say socially, acceptable to drive all the way to ponoka for dinner? -- and picked up the thread of other possibilities: tuesday afternoon? breakfast on wednesday?

she stopped emailing and immediately phoned all three of my numbers, from london, to insist we come for dinner.


i'll confess, i agonized a little. for one thing, what to wear? i've seen valerie's photo online and in the tellingly-entitled femmes of power, so i knew she'd be nearly six feet of gorgeous, from boot-tips to hair. all i knew about her partner was that she's cleaning up in alberta's oil patch -- "cleaning up," i took it, in the metaphorical sense, not like some kind of ecodyke. so, once i was dressed, there was the question of wine. why, oh why, am i such an oenological dunce? in my mind's eye, i had us spending the evening in witty repartee around a formal dining room table trimmed with this season's accoutrements. i thought: it will be a new-built country estate. i wondered: will there be servants? from what i hear, oilpatch people burn bricks of money to warm their cold, cold hearts.

of course, i was completely off base. it wasn't oil people, it was country people. there were ten or eleven dykes, all smart and creative and edgy and intriguing and warm. we came from various places -- BC, massachusetts, UK, edmonton, ontario, the michigan womyn's music festival -- to this sweet '40s bungalow in ponoka. the house, it turns out, was built by an architect who saw a magazine picture of a california bungalow and set out to recreate it. cheryl has been restoring it by hand since she bought it a few years back. among her friends were ranchers from nanton and some sheep farmers en route to nova scotia. another couple there had just returned from running a wilderness outfit in the chilcotin. everybody was a writer and a reader; everybody was friendly and funny and sexily self-possessed. the food was tasty, by which i mean: it tasted like food. the smoky beans were cooked with fresh young coconut chunks and .... mmmm, are those artichokes? ours was the only wine, since everybody else opted for valerie's fresh-squeezed carrot-and-ginger juice. there were no clamshell greens. instead, tiny cherry tomatoes fooled around with seedy figs on a bed of hand-torn leaves.

there was a forthrightness to the evening that even this morning fills me with wonder. imagine inviting total strangers to an intimate dinner party. it's not that we might have been axe murderers -- that's unlikely -- but we might have been awkward, or pretentious, or dull. next to my sense of wonder is a sense of ... well, happiness. i love those women. i'm totally committed to the exposure brand of queer, but there's nothing like a lesbian of a certain age to really make me swoon.

the dyke dinner party in ponoka made my world a little bit bigger. i'm not quite ready to stop dyeing my hair, but i am seriously considering michigan this year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting out the vote

my mother is a mensch. she went to see aunty jo a few times in the hospital, especially when mo and i were in argentina, and has been threatening to pay her a visit at home ever since. last week, she made good on it. joyce is in fine form these days, probably the best we've seen her in ten years. for all that she demurs, i think she likes having her laundry done for her, and, allah be praised, she's using her walker. "i don't know if you knew this," she confides, "but i didn't used to care for the walker." "no?," i ask, ordering the muscles in my forehead to raise my eyebrows. "but, you know, it's actually very convenient. if i go to safeway, i can put things right into the basket." she points to the basket. she throws an accusatory look my way, for holding out on the best part: "also, if i get tired, i can sit down on the seat for a moment."

you don't say.

anyway, jo being in fine form, she enjoyed my mom's visit, which is also to say that she got her to check on a doctor's appointment, pick up a few things and then stand unsteadily on the bed in her bare feet to change a burnt-out bulb. having thus softened her prey, she -- i think the verb is "hornswaggled" -- mom into coming by again yesterday to take her out to vote.

mo and i agonized when we heard. see, we know two facts about jo and elections. fact one: four years ago, joyce announced that if she lived in the US she would vote for george bush "because his wife is really pretty." fact two: jo lives in a swing riding, the one riding in alberta that might not go conservative. mo and i whipped over to the elections canada site to review the candidates: conservative incumbent rahim jaffer, liberal candidate claudette roy, and NDP contender linda duncan. how would joyce vote? what was she thinking? we figured the french name put paid to the liberal. we know she'll always go for the man, in this case particularly if she saw a picture of RJ, who is politically odious but in a dishy sort of way. but would handsome trump white? could you get any more good old-fashioned anglo-saxon solid-citizen than "linda duncan"?

as it happens, we needn't have worried. mom writes:

As Joyce is putting on her shoes, she says something about voting, which I didn’t catch so I just did the discreet “Hmmmm.” Then on the way up the ramp – what a trek – down the sidewalk, around the building, circle the flower beds, round the stairs to the ramp, up the ramp, the wind blowing icily around our ears the entire time – she says something to me about McBain. Catching on, I explain that Mr McCain is in the US election. She looks a little confused. So I tell her we have Mr Harper and Mr Dion, Mr Layton and Ms May. No help. We shuffle behind the cardboard shield – which I proceed to knock over - and I read out, in a good strong voice, the names and the parties – no doubt to the consternation of the scrutineers. She looks a little more confused and whispers to me “what should I do?”

to my mother's credit, she couldn't bring herself to have the dear old soul vote for the marxist/leninist party, so they "chose someone else."

the voting out of the way, jo moved on to the real agenda: how about a trip to kingsway mall, she angled, and then boston pizza for lunch?

and that's really the thing about elections, isn't it. everybody's got an agenda; it's often obscure; somebody's always surprised; somebody's always disappointed (there was no BP yesterday) -- yet sometimes, just sometimes, there's a happy ending in spite of it all.

linda duncan won by 442 votes. and who knows: one of them might have been jo's.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

E-night evil (postscript)

first of all, it's not true that everything here in alberta was a foregone conclusion: as i watch, votes are still being counted in one hotly contested seat. sure, the contest is between two conservatives, but let it not be said we have no drama.

in all seriousness, though, i'm totally heartened by the ND showing. look at the alberta numbers! it's either new democrat or green in virtually every alberta riding. (second, i mean.) even the tar sands' filthy lucre gave some consideration to people, culture and the environment.

and as for my actually-existing citizenship, our on-the-fly solidarity: have these dismal results destroyed it? no, i have to say. just as the numbers started rolling in, i got an email from database matt. next up: electoral reform.

E-day in e-ville

i'm writing this blog post after casting my vote but before the ontario results ironize any westerner's ballot -- wait, i drifted dangerously close to cynicism there, so let me move along, because i want to rave about vote-swapping.

for the 3 of you who didn't do it this time around, here's how it works: you email a guy named matt saying who you like to vote for (NDP in my case), who you're willing to vote for (liberal -- i dunno, elizabeth may was great in the debate, but she's personally pro-life and although she says it doesn't make a difference to the greens' policies, i'm not 100% convinced, and besides, the greens in canada still have some wacky neo-con fiscal policies behind all that concern for the planet). anyway, vote-swapping: matt puts all this info into a huge database and then, a week before the election, sends you your match. if i vote liberal here in edmonton centre -- a swing district! -- my partner casts "my" ND vote somewhere else (calgary, in this case, in a conservative stronghold where layton's party comes in strongly second). at the end of the day, the NDs get the same total number of votes, which translates into money, but the anti-conservative/anti-Conservative vote is deployed in the places where it will make the most difference. it's just-in-time coalition-building, on-the-fly solidarity; it's everything web 2.0 should enable us to do.

that's the theory. in practice vote-swapping is even better. it personalizes the concept of the "canadian electorate" in ways i hadn't anticipated. i emailed my vote swap partner -- christopher from calgary -- and said, "i'm in if you're in." he wrote back to say, "yeah, sure, and good luck unseating the cons." as email exchanges go, this was unremarkable. except: except i now know there's someone out there, a total stranger, who's thinking hard about this election and who shares some of my convictions (that, say, arts matter). more to the point, and astonishingly, given that we're strangers, we trust each other.

which is really what elections are all about, and why they are normally so fraught and difficult and full of betrayal. sitting around on election night and watching the numbers roll in -- remember, i live in alberta -- i find myself routinely bewildered, wandering the metaphorical wilderness in the aftermath of civilization's breakdown. i get glummer and glummer as the night wears on, wondering how on earth my neighbours, my family members, my coworkers (surely not my friends?) can bring themselves to vote for a political party that denies human rights to entire categories of people, that believes torture is acceptable, that loves money more than children, et cetera. i usually drink a lot, on election nights.

but this year? this year it's all going to be different. 'cause this year, i know that while i'm pouring another stiff one here in the swing riding of edmonton centre, my buddy christopher-from-calgary is pulling for the same results. we might win, we might lose, one of us will almost certainly have a conservative MP -- but in the big picture? look out. the left is organized, and we have email.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

No good deed...

in addition to all the work i'm scrambling to do, i'm organizing a birthday party for my sister, who's turning 40. (what do you mean, which of us is older? back to my story!). the deal was, she'd pick the date and provide me with the guest list and i'd do the rest.

since this event will take place a week from today, i made some time on wednesday to send out invitations. shannon had thoughtfully provided everybody's email address in an excel spreadsheet, so all i had to do was cut and paste. the data was dirty, as they say in the biz -- lots of duplicate addresses and so on -- but shannon is working fulltime and mothering four children as well as selling one house and taking possession of another, so i didn't pay this much mind. busy myself, i came up with some wording that was serviceable, if not fancy, and fired away.

i got home from work around 10 that night to a message from a sheepish sister. turns out that somehow she sent me the wrong file. she sent me, in fact, the address of everybody she'd ever sent an email to -- friends, colleagues and family, but also their old UK landlord, some guy they bought a chair from on ebay, and all the parents of the kids she coaches.

so, it's going to be a big party. if you're reading, this, you've probably been invited, and we'll look forward to seeing you next saturday night.