Category Archives: conferences

Zagreb 2.0

It is the middle of a teaching term. My work as Associate Dean is plentiful. Scholarship season is upon us. Graduate student recruitment is upon us. And at the Faculty we are working on new programming, strategic enrolment planning, and student experiential learning opportunities. Blah diddy blah. It is mid-October and busy!

Nevertheless, I took six days out of the term to attend a conference in Europe. Where, you ask? In Zagreb. Why, you ask? Because it was a Canadian studies conference sponsored by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies, and I like to support the study of Canada by scholars working overseas. But mainly I went because the conference was organized by my dear friend and colleague V. When Arlequino and I were in Zagreb while on sabbatical this past spring, I told V that I could not travel all this way for a conference in mid-October. Nevertheless, I did.

And I am SO. VERY. GLAD. I. DID.

V organized this conference almost single-handedly and she did a brilliant job. I am not the only one who applauded her efforts. The topic was “Beyond the 49th Parallel: Canada and the North.” It attracted scholars from various disciplines (History, Literature, Sociology, Languages, Geology, etc.) and from at least 10 different countries, maybe more. There were Canadians there—quite a few of us—and the papers were generally (and much more than usually) rich and provocative.

Here is how you can tell when a conference is good.

People commit to it. There were about a hundred delegates and three keynote speakers. People came out to sessions and speeches and readings. People stayed at the university and participated. Okay, it was raining, so perhaps the wet weather kept people inside, but usually at a conference in a big, interesting city academics will skip out of sessions to do other things. I have been guilty of that myself—many times. But at this conference the sessions were full, even the early morning and late afternoon/early evening ones. Everyone attended the opening ceremonies. Everyone ALSO attended the closing ceremonies and the conference dinner. People were just there, having a good time. Catching up with old friends, making new ones, continuing conversations that had started in sessions.

The keynote speakers did not disappear either. They attended sessions. They chaired sessions. They talked to young scholars. I was proud of my Canadian colleagues on that score. The only other conference where that routinely happens is at the IABA conferences: life writing scholars are really, really nice people who care about mentoring the next generation. I felt that here too.

Presenters stuck to the 20-minute time limit. Wow! That’s a biggie. People hate it when presenters drone on and take up too much time. Here I heard excellent papers, efficiently delivered, often even talked rather than read. And there was PLENTY of time for discussion.

The food was excellent. I remember many years ago when I was part of a team organizing a conference and we noted that people talk about two things after the fact—did people go over time and how good or bad was the food. We academics care about our stomachs, but it also takes energy to spend a whole day listening, concentrating, talking, thinking. Paying attention. We need fuel. Coffee is crucial too, and it was good.

Oh, and I got to have dinner with the Canadian Ambassador to Croatia too.

Attending conferences in beautiful locations is one of the perks of our jobs as professors. But to be able to travel back to one of my favourite places in the world and to talk seriously with colleagues both Canadian and European was a special treat. More projects will follow from this conference. Research networks spreading across the oceans. Plans for collaboration are afoot.

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The rhythm of our days

We have found our rhythm. We have approached sabbatical as writers approach their work: set a time of day and number of hours for working and then do something else for the rest of the day. Mornings are our best time for thinking and writing, so we get up early (which is no problem since the nearby church bells wake us up at 7:00 a.m.), fiddle about with correspondence, social media, and games. Shower. Eat breakfast. Begin.

Arlequino is reading plays written by Canadian soldiers in WWI for his next paper and also writing an external examiner’s report for an Australian PhD thesis. I am reading for and outlining a conference paper that I will give at the University of Brno, in the Czech Republic, at the beginning of February. The paper is going to be about Stories of the Road Allowance People, a well-known work of Metis literature. I am going to talk about what other critics have not really commented on: the fact that the text is multimodal (i.e. it is composed of words and also visual images—paintings—and music and voice—it comes packaged with a CD). I am thinking about how so much of indigenous literature is actually multimodal and how literary critics need to develop analytical approaches that can address their generic and formal complexities. We literary scholars do tend to be word-focused. I’m trying to extend my critical and theoretical apparatus beyond the word. I have done some of this thinking before—a paper on how an author uses photographs in her memoir of residential school experience, for example. I have done some work on personal web pages. One of my recent publications is on a graphic autobiography. This is my next step.

We are both going to the same conference, so next week is writing week for both of us. We have switched modes from being excited tourists to being professors on sabbatical in a lovely European city.

More church bells sound at noon. I have to explain. As is the case with many churches, the bells sound out the hour and the quarter hours. But at 7:00 a.m. and again at noon they go crazy and for what seem like several minutes. I suppose this is all about marking the time of day when it is a) time to get up and go to work; b) time to break for lunch; and c) time to go to church. One doesn’t need a watch here to know what time it is. That said, we have noticed a plethora of watch stores in this city. Odd.

In the afternoons we go on an outing somewhere. A museum. A park. A market. I will write about some of those visits in upcoming blog posts, but for now let me just give you a few photos.

This is what I brought with me for work. Shipped a box of books.

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This is my working corner of the flat. Arlequino gets the desk; I’m fine with a couch, a table, a laptop.

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And this is out and about in Vienna.

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Autobiography Across the Americas

One of the highlights of the academic life is going to conferences in interesting places. I have been anticipating this one for months and months. It is (actually was, as it ended yesterday) a “by invitation only” conference. The aim was to gather scholars from across the Americas (North, South, Central and the Caribbean) who work on autobiographical texts to talk to one another about their research. The ultimate aim was to establish a regional chapter of the International Auto/Biography Association, titled IABA Americas. At the end of four days we held a business meeting and decided to do just that.

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The conference was held in San Juan Puerto Rico, in the Sheraton Hotel in the Old city, right on the harbor. The hotel was a mixed blessing. The location was fabulous; the beds were comfortable; but the hotel is undergoing construction and sometimes the noise during the day made it impossible to be in the room. Not much of a problem for me as I was stuck in the conference room/s all day, but it was still inconvenient, especially for Arlequino who accompanied me. Plus there was a noisy casino. We were not at all tempted by it.

I spent four days, from 10-4 (at least) in this room. While Arlequino explored the city.

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I was taking notes and trying to listen carefully. It was a special pleasure to make new academic connections with people from various parts of the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, as well as Canadians whose work I knew of but whom I had yet to meet in person. There were also several old friends and acquaintances in attendance.

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Weather was steamy. It was hot, hot, hot, intensified by high humidity and the close packed streets of the old town. The cobblestones are lovely shades of blue.

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On our last night in San Juan, after the conference had finished and after ¾ of the IABA 2014 team had met to talk about the conference we are planning in Banff next year, Arlequino and I encountered this restaurant. We have eaten very well in San Juan. Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Puerto Rican food. We had tasted excellent coffee. We have drunk a few mojitos and good beer from the local craft brewery. But this vegetarian restaurant (albeit with fish) was excellent.

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In the morning we realized that although we thought we had one more day at that hotel we had actually miscalculated (read: Linda messed up). So we packed our bags, went out for one last coffee, and took a taxi to a beachside boutique hotel outside of the city. Thank you Expedia for finding us something gorgeous and available. Now we’re ensconced in this modern, very blue and white hotel.

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Lunch at a rooftop bar. A few hours on the beach across the street. A shower and now it’s time for a stroll.

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Autobiography Across the Americas, thank you for bringing us to Puerto Rico.  I am at the point in my career when I’m not a big conference goer anymore. But these people, the autobiography folk, are my family. I sometimes think that people who work on autobiography are actually pretty decent human beings—because we care about the human. Hasta luego muchachas y muchachos!

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Cuba-Canada Connections

Last year Arlequino and I attended a conference and gave a teaching presentation at the University of Holguin, Cuba. This year we did it again. The experience was even better this year. Why? Partly because we took the kids with us. Partly because there were more Canadian academics with us–seven professors in total. Partly because we were better prepared, having learned from last year’s experience how to pitch our material to a group of really interested Cuban professors and students who have few resources in Canadian studies and little extant knowledge about our topics. Probably the best thing that happened was that we finally understood that the books we should be sending are primary texts–novels, anthologies, works of poetry and drama (in multiple copies), not the critical texts we have been sending or taking with us. A presentation by a Cuban professor made clear to us how difficult it is for their students to be interested in Canadian literature when they have no books. Nor can they photocopy the ones they do have. Photocopiers can’t be fixed when they break down; maybe there is a shortage of paper; maybe the cost of toner cartridges is just too much. It is such a useful reminder of how much we have and how much we take for granted. I commented last year in a blog post how Cuban universities, professors, and students are much the same as academics everywhere. We all share the love of learning. But our work and study contexts are so very different. Ever optimistic and enthusiastic, and incredibly resourceful, Cuban academics nevertheless work in buildings that are crumbling, desks and chairs are rickety or broken, air conditioners don’t work. Even the plumbing was not functioning this time. No working toilets. Yeah.

It’s good to get off the resort. Even the bus ride into the city is revealing. Cubans riding horses and donkeys as often as in old cars and makeshift buses. Goats grazing in fields that are dry. Houses in various stages of construction or demolition. Farms producing the fruits that are in abundance at the resort restaurants. After the teaching day we were generously taken for lunch at a nearby restaurant. The lunch conversation revealed more important realities: for example, the Cubans are not permitted to buy seafood at the markets, as it all goes to the tourists. The restaurant was a local place, but since it converted its business to the convertible peso (the tourist currency) few ordinary Cubans can afford to eat there.

Playa Esmeralda was as pristine as ever. The sea was warm and inviting. The whole experience was divine. With useful reality checks.

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In the chill mid winter

Minus 14 today and it feels like Minus 27. Lucky me I didn’t have any meetings scheduled for today so I can work at home. This is beginning to feel like a luxury. When I was just a professor, I had a flexible schedule. Although not the practice at all universities or in all departments, it’s generally acceptable for faculty members in my shop to work wherever they want to when they are not in the classroom or in meetings. After all, we’re constantly connected anyway, living in the cloud, and if someone really needs to talk to me rather than sending an email s/he is free to phone my mobile—which is always with me. So I’m “there” even when I’m not. The work all gets done. Because I’m teaching this term I also need to carve out some time and quiet space to get the readings done—which is impossible if I’m in my office. Even after all these years I still have to re-read every single book and article every single time. I need the prose to be fresh in my mind and I need to be able to discover new things about the works I’m teaching, even if I’ve taught them several times before. But of course, I’m also constantly refreshing reading lists and that means I not only read and reread but also write lecture notes.

This is what today looks like so far, written from mi casa:

• Constantly check and answer emails.

• Write emails on topics such as scheduling meetings, requesting information, reviewing a new graduate program proposal….

• Pick up voicemail message remotely and phone the person back to consult about an academic grievance case.

• Read this book, which I’m teaching next week. It’s good. I recommend it.

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• Make gulaschsuppe which we will eat for dinner tonight.

• Throw a load of laundry in.

• Cuddle a cat or two.

• Check out the websites for a upcoming trip to Washington, DC—The Museum of the American Indian, The Library of Congress, and TripAdvisor for hotel recommendations.

• Update calendar, marking off the time when I’ll be at conferences—in Cuba in April and Puerto Rico in July (yes, I love that my work takes me to interesting places).

All of this before noon.

I have been thinking a lot about how important our workspaces are. While I love my big bright office at the university I can only do certain kinds of work there. Sometimes I just need to be alone, inside my own head, reading and absorbing, thinking. I know that this work is invisible to others—those who think professors are spending their work-at-home days napping or watching movies. I can’t do without this quiet time. And if dinner is ready when Arlequino gets home then all the better.

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Another year of blogging. Yes, yes I will.

At the recent MLA convention in Boston—as recent as last week—I was following some very interesting conversations that were going on. I was not physically there. I was following the hashtag #mla13 and the various live tweets posted by some people I like to read on Twitter but whom I’ve never met. In particular, I was following discussions about “alt-ac,” or alternatives to academic careers. For example, here’s one presentation. The remarkable thing to me is that I didn’t have to be in Boston or in that room to get access to that presentation; the author posted a link to it on Twitter. Thank you Katina Rogers.
I’m interested in the alt-ac topic because of my admin role as Associate Dean of Graduate studies and knowing that we are taking in way more PhD students in Arts than are going to get full-time tenure-track jobs. We are working on developing their professional skills, skills that are transferable to a whole lot of other careers. This is an urgent need.
On Facebook I often post links to articles I’ve read that I think my FB friends—all of whom I do know in RL, by the way—might also find interesting, provocative, or funny. Facebook for me is more personal; Twitter is really a way of researching and disseminating information, networking, hooking up with ideas and groups that are generating them.
I said Happy Holidays to all of you in my last blog post of 2012. I know some of you who read my blog, but certainly not all of you. Who are you? How did you find me? Why are you reading my blog? It doesn’t matter, in a way. I’m glad to have you here. Blogging as Lady English Professor is both a delight and a challenge. It’s a delight because I like creating this public persona. I like thinking about my readers. I like sharing. But it’s also a challenge because of the same issues. What is this persona I am creating and how careful do I have to be about what I write? Who are my readers and what do they want and expect from me? When is sharing over sharing?
I am more and more convinced that social media—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and whatever else we’ll come up with—are essential to my life not just as a human being but as an academic. I’m also pretty convinced that our graduate students need to be taking much more advantage of social media in preparing themselves for a variety of careers. I know many academics who are integrating digital assignments of all kinds into their courses. Fantastic! For me, blogging has become part of my professional life, but in a limited way. Other initiatives—such as the MLA Commons—are making it possible to disseminate research papers online. This mode might not replace traditional publication in peer-reviewed venues, but it sure helps speed up the process and connect authors and readers in tangible and meaningful ways.
So yes, I will keep writing this blog. People ask me: how do you think of topics to blog about? Well, often when I’m on the bus I’m thinking about something and realize it might make a good blog post. Then I roll topics, phrases, words, and images around in my head. When I’ve got a few minutes I write them down for the blog post. People seem to think that writing a blog is a big time commitment. It isn’t, or at least not for me. And it’s a remarkably freeing kind of writing.
By the way, if you didn’t already know this, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is tweeting images and sounds from the International Space Station. Tweets. From. Space. Here’s a pic of my hometown tweeted by Commander Hadfield early in the year.
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Now that’s cool!

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Slow research, fast explanation

As I mentioned in my last post, I learned many interesting things at the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies conference. But nothing got me more inspired than the notion of the three-minute thesis (© 3MT). Have you heard about it? I hadn’t. So here’s the background.

It all began in Australia (those innovative Aussies who know how to mix work and fun!). At the University of Queensland (hello Aussie colleagues!). The idea is this:

  • It’s a competition.
  • Graduate students compete for glory but also for prizes, including cash.
  • The objective of the competition is that students have three minutes (and not a second more) to describe their research.
  • They are permitted to use one, static PowerPoint slide and no other props, gadgets, sound effects, costumes, etc.
  • They have to explain their research to members of the wider university community BUT ALSO to members of the public. In other words, they have to speak in plain English.
  • They are video taped.
  • There’s a judges’ winner and a people’s choice winner.
  • It’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Here are some samples:

I love this idea, and, silly me, said so out loud. So guess who is now organizing the three-minute thesis competition at the University of Waterloo!?!? Yikes! I’ve never organized anything bigger than a dinner party.

But it’s a good thing to get students involved in. I can see many positive outcomes. Students will have fun. They will be forced to speak to non-specialists, which will help them when they are job seeking after their degrees. Their friends and families will finally understand what they are doing and why it matters. They will develop oral communications and public performance skills—I anticipate much rehearsal time will go into this. And members of the public will have a window into what is actually going on in university graduate programs. We are getting so much negative press these days that it’s important that we can counter with stories that can get everyone excited. Yes, I realize that many of the winners are in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And it’s easier for those students to explain how, for example, a tool or a gizmo will “change our world.” But Arts students tell good stories, and I’d love to hear more from them. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, we’re beginners at this right now, but I’m happy to climb onto this fun train.

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