Category Archives: Research

Field Research

Unlike other academics, this particular English professor does not usually travel for her research. Oh yes, I have travelled to attend conferences or to give talks (let me name the countries: Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico & Hawaii and other parts of the USA, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, all over Canada—and more). But my basic research has not required me to travel. Many of my colleagues work in British literature and travel to England to conduct research. Others are searching in archives here in Canada and abroad. But I do not need to go away to do research. My work is on the literature of my own country, and generally focused on the present or the recent past.

Until now.

You will recall, gentle reader, that I have been researching my mother’s childhood and her experience as a refugee during WWII. She was one of the millions of people who either fled Pomerania and other German territories in the East in advance of the Russian occupation or were forcibly removed from their homes when the territories transitioned to Poland. I have known this story all my life, but only in my middle age and towards the end of my professional academic career (well, I’m not done yet, but I’m getting used to the thought of retirement) have I taken up this story as a research subject. And for the most part I have done what I have always done: I read. I read books, journal articles, and periodicals. I scoured the Internet. I watched movies and documentaries. I pored over maps. I read and read and read some more. But I did not move from my office, my computer, my reading chair, my desk.

Until now.

While on sabbatical in Europe I went to Kępice, the Polish name of the village where my mother was born and where she spent the first eleven years of her life. To her it was Hammermühle, and it was home. I did not know I would be able to visit the place, but then an extraordinary circumstance made it feasible. My friend and colleague (let’s call her Sylvia) happened also to be on sabbatical and in Poland at the same time that I was in Zagreb. We determined that there were three days when our schedules overlapped and that a trip that we had talked about long ago could happen. So we booked it. I flew to Gdansk, met Sylvia at the airport the next morning, and then we travelled by train first to Słupsk (formerly Stolp) and then by a very rickety local train on to Kępice.

At Gdansk Station

At Gdansk Station

On the train

On the train

This train

This train

I cannot say strongly or often enough how grateful I am to my companion on this journey. Her fluent Polish and unwavering graciousness opened many doors for me/us. I don’t speak a word of Polish (well, I know a couple of words now) so without her I would have been wandering around not really knowing what I was looking at and gaining no significant information about the history of families, including my own, in that place when it was part of Germany.

So what did we find? Enough for another essay, which I will write this summer. But the most amazing and heartening discovery was the fact that the local Poles had gone quite a way towards not just acknowledging the history of Germans in Kępice but honouring that history. This monument speaks volumes.

IMG_1542 IMG_1543 IMG_1544

It was in the “old German cemetery” behind the church, which our landlady had told us about as we ate her excellent food. There was only one restaurant in Kępice; luckily it was a good one. She listened to why we were there (Kępice is hardly a tourist destination) and felt moved to try and help us. The doors began to open with her. But she did not mention this monument. It was erected in 1999 to acknowledge the shared history of Poles and Germans in the village. It is placed at the back of the cemetery in the very centre. The graves themselves are overgrown, and only a few headstones still had discernable inscriptions on them. The most common headstones seemed to have the names and dates, etc. written on ceramic or porcelain plates attached to the stones. These were missing from all of the headstones we could see. But look closely. At the base of the monument are fragments of those plates, now set in another stone. Were they broken deliberately? Were the names and the general presence of Germans deliberately effaced? Perhaps. But the people today have collected whatever fragments remained and have ensured their survival. Traces of the past. Traces of people “aus Hammermühle.”


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Sabbatical adventures

There is no doubt that the opportunity to spend my sabbatical in Europe also brings with it many tempting distractions. Especially travel. By the time I leave I will have been in seven countries: Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Poland. Hungary and Slovenia are also possibilities. We keep thinking—it’s so close! The trains are so excellent (fast, cheap, comfortable, convenient, frequent—oh, the trains)! Why would we not go there?

So we do.

A couple of weeks ago we went to visit my aunt and uncle in Germany. They live in the village (now incorporated into a town) where my mother’s family landed after “die Flucht” as refugees and about which I have written. They lived on the second floor of this house.


Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

I am speaking with the departed. I am recalling their life stories.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Before I leave Europe I am planning to go to the town in Poland that was my mother’s ancestral home: it was then Hammermühle, then part of Pomerania; it is now, post WWII, Kępice in Poland. I consider this trip to be part of my research—my academic research. Because one of the projects I will be working on is another piece about German immigrants who once lived in the East and were expelled, especially people now living in the Kitchener Waterloo area. This is part of an oral history project that my colleagues in the Department of German and Slavic Languages have been engaged in. I have been asked to write a chapter of what will eventually become a book of interviews. I am thrilled to be part of this project, and I am looking forward to getting my head into it.

But right now I am getting ready to move from Vienna to Zagreb, where I will pick up on a life I enjoyed during my last sabbatical three years ago. Remember Lady Professor in the Balkans? This time I will not be teaching, but I will be giving a guest lecture and reuniting with Croatian colleagues.

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How good it feels

Every academic reading this post will know this feeling. You get an idea for an article that you want to write. It might be part of an ongoing research project or a new one. You do the research (which to me is the fun part). You spend hours working through your research material trying to put it in some sort of logical order. You begin writing. You hate writing (or at least I do). You force yourself to write. Then you have to edit and revise until you can’t change one more sentence. Then you give your essay to someone (maybe) who will say nice things about it (maybe) but will also (hopefully) suggest how you can make it better, clearer. You revise again. You finally send it off to a journal. You wait. And wait. And wait. Then the happy day comes when you get an email from the journal in your inbox. There are butterflies in your stomach as you open it. Relief! They like it! BUT there are three readers who have written reports and want you to revise again. You go back into the essay and painfully rewrite. You send it back to the journal. They’ve accepted it! it will appear in at least a year . . . which gives you plenty of time to acquire permissions to reproduce images, get digital copies of them, fiddle with abstract, keywords, and author bio.

Then, one magic day, the issue that contains your essay is published. Yay! Celebration! But also immediate (if minor) trepidation, because now that it’s out there you have made yourself vulnerable.

Dear readers, if you are interested in “Flucht und Vertreibung and the Difficult Work of Memory” (aka “my mother’s story”), you can read it here, if you have a U Waterloo login. If not, it’s in volume 10 issue 3.


By the way, Life Writing was an awesome journal to work with. Just wonderful

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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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Do you remember applying for scholarships?

I am so old that when I was a Master’s student I filled out my Ontario Graduate Scholarship application form by hand. I am so old that when I was applying for SSHRC doctoral fellowships I was using an IBM selectric typewriter, typing on GREEN paper, having to scrap everything and start again if I made a typo, because “neatness” was important. First impressions and all of that.

Despite glitches in the early days of online application forms the situation is now much better. Form fillable PDFs rock!

I was lucky as a student. I got those scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships. Now I’m on the other side. Now I’m not applying for scholarships but adjudicating them. Dozens and dozens of them. And for all the various competitions and councils–SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR, OGS, Vaniers, Bantings, and QEIIs. [by the way if you are not an academic this will sound like gibberish; my language has been infiltrated by acronyms]. I spend a LOT of time reading applications on my computer screen (squint, squint) trying to make sense of spreadsheets, trying to be a responsible reader of proposals in subjects and disciplines that are entirely foreign to me, and trying to do due diligence at the meetings where rankings are determined and decisions are made about which applications leave the building and which do not. Filling out application forms felt like a lot of work when I was a student. Reading and ranking them felt like a lot of work when I was on the graduate committee at the department level. Now that I’m at the university level the workload has grown enormously. It’s exhausting. Just the sheer number of application packages to read can feel overwhelming, and very tough decisions have to be made, so sometimes there’s an emotional hit as well. This work will occupy me until December, which given that it’s still October seems like a very long time.

So how do I cope? Do I moan but get on with it? Do I access my inner Calvinist and do my duty without complaint? Or do I bring to the forefront of my mind what a privilege it is to see the work that young researchers are doing? Yes, that’s it. I might not have any clue how one would use nanotechnologies to recycle and clean polluted water in Canada, but I’m glad someone is trying to do it. I don’t know what quantum computing systems really are, but I’m glad someone is going to make them more secure. I don’t have any idea how children learn to distinguish how the same adjectival phrases mean different things in different social contexts, but I think that’s worth knowing. And it may not be possible to get grades of 100% in my discipline (or any Arts/Humanities discipline) but it’s pretty impressive that someone can.

So go forth young researchers. I am proud of you! And if you get a scholarship, please remember to thank all of the people who supported you along the way. Mine’s a glass of red, by the way. Thanks.

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The perks of associate deaning

Yes, there are many perks; this administrative position is not just about processing paper, attending meetings, doing email, attending more meetings, making sometimes difficult decisions ….

One of the things I am really enjoying about this new position is getting to know more people at the University of Waterloo–faculty, staff, students, and other members of this huge campus network. When one is “just” a professor in one’s own department it’s great if you like your colleagues–which I do–but you tend to stay focused on your own little bubble. We become tribal. Moving to the faculty level brings you into contact with people at all levels of the university–I haven’t met the President yet, but I have met, for instance, the Vice President/Provost. But that’ s not important. I don’t really care about the real higher ups (as long as they do their level best to keep this institution functioning, or perhaps even flourishing–do not read the THE University Rankings :(). What I like are the day-to-day interactions with  people in other departments and other units whom I’ve never met before. There are some wonderful people working here: smart, funny, irreverent, sincere, passionate, engaged, cynical, optimistic, and all those qualities mashed together. I can’t tell you how much I LAUGH at some of these meetings. I can sometimes even make other people laugh. Amazing! And now when I’m out and about in town I see lots more people whom I kind of know, and that makes me feel more connected not just to the university but to the city.

Another perk is getting invited to attend more things, and now that I’m not teaching I have more time to do them. Last week I was in Toronto for a day. The week before that I was at a exhibition opening. There are and will be lots of lunches and dinners with visitors of all kinds. This week I attended a presentation made by some MFA students who were talking about their experiences working with professional artists. Not only did I learn about some really interesting contemporary artists: I also learned about how they work. But best of all, I saw and felt how truly life changing this experience was for the students. The Department of Fine Art at U Waterloo has an endowment that sends MFA students anywhere in the world to work with an artist of their choice–assuming the artist agrees. The experiences these students have over the weeks they are with the artists is invaluable. They basically shadow a professional artist every day over an extended period of time. They could be doing anything from running errands, to cleaning up studio space, to helping install or take down exhibitions, to stretching canvases, to organizing paint tubes, to preparing surfaces, to keeping track of media coverage and the business aspects of the artist’s work. They truly learn what it takes to be a professional artist.

Two other tangible things for me came out of hearing those presentations by MFA students. One, I learned about this guy’s work: check him out! Jonas Burgart. Unforgettable, monumental, epic, mythic paintings with a street art/graffii vibe.

Second, the MFA student who worked with Burgart has a family history that originates in East Germany and she, like me, is doing research and critically and creatively engaging with that history. Maybe eventually she’ll be part of the larger research project I’m planning. Wow! Who knew that a day in the life of an Associate Dean could be so rich. Not me.

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Where did the voice go?

I am having trouble switching gears between administrative tasks and academic ones. I can’t write anymore. There: I’ve confessed it. This isn’t writer’s block so much as (temporary?) loss of academic writing capacity.
Perhaps my brain is being retrained because of the incessant need to attend to immediate matters and multiple issues. Perhaps I’m actually being re-subjectified through the endless rounds of meetings, emails, more meetings, hallway discussions, emails, more meetings. I’m a talking person rather than a writing person these days, except for the genre of the pithy email.
And my whole sense of the rhythm of the working day has changed. At work, time flies. I’m usually at my desk at 8:30ish and don’t really leave it until the end of the day. I don’t even get up and go somewhere for lunch but eat a homemade lunch at my desk.  This, I know, is not good, and I’ve been trying to at least walk somewhere to get a coffee. But I can’t sit still in an on campus café without checking email on my iPhone and quickly returning to my office. Once the day is over, I gratefully but rather heavily slump into being at home. Tired, hungry, thirsty for that restorative glass of wine, eager for the debrief conversations that Arlequino and I both need and enjoy. Then something nice to watch for an hour before the comfy bed and instant sleep (at least I’m sleeping well!).
Last week I suddenly realized that I have an academic paper due next month. That is, in a couple of weeks. Yikes! Although a short version of it exists as a conference paper, there is LOTS of work that needs to be done on it. Panic sets in.
How will I find the time to enter that other headspace? How will I get that writing done? I’ve posted before about how I need to be a home in order to write, but at the moment my home is in chaos because of renovation work that is going on. The dust alone makes me crazy, but the noise of workers (lovely men whom I much admire for their strength and skill and general ability to do good work) chatting, banging, running power tools , crashing about, listening to country music radio all day long makes it impossible to work at home.
So I’m spending the day first in a café and later at the public library trying to work on my paper. With mixed results. For while the research materials I need are here and I’m reading them, while the paper file is open on my laptop, my attention is constantly torn away from the book, the open Word file, the downloaded article.
And now, of course, I’m blogging. (Note: I do not seem to have any problem blogging). How to find that deep thinking space again? How to find the writing voice again? I feel distracted, stalled, incapable of writing smart sentences. Well, I have written two. Wheee! Plod on, plod on, plod on.

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