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A reckoning

Today is the last day of my sabbatical and I’m feeling contemplative. This has been the best sabbatical I have ever experienced. Although I might not have done as much work (read: writing) as I had wanted to, I have done some significant personal and intellectual work. These are the accomplishments, successes and resolutions:

  1. I have determined that although early retirement seems tempting, I am not ready to stop working at the university just yet. There are things I still want to accomplish in both my teaching and my administrative roles. A new course on indigenous literatures. Better funding packages for doctoral students. More traction on non-academic career building for all graduate students in Arts. Writing too, but that is always going on in the background.
  1. Strengthening my network of international colleagues has been a true delight. I am now in meaningful and regular contact with colleagues in Croatia and Poland in particular. Facebook helps! But so do other gizmos and software such as smart phones and WhatsApp. We communicate, build relationships, make lasting friendships as well as work collaboratively on projects. I will be going back to Zagreb in October for a conference organized by V. Awesome. I will stay in the apartment we rented and which felt like home. Excellent.
  1. Including a recent holiday trip to Cuba (where I also have connections with the University of Holguin), I have travelled in eight countries in six months. What a rare pleasure.
  1. Living in Europe for four of the six months has deepened my sense of myself as a European person. It is odd that this is happening after spending most of my life in Canada—45 years! And ironic considering my academic specialization is Canadian literature. But it’s true. My soul responds to Europe. I was born either to pick potatoes in Eastern European fields or to sit in cafes talking. Probably both. I walk the streets of villages, towns and cities and I feel at home. I recognize it; it recognizes me. This morning I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming in German—with the same level of proficiency I actually do have, not as a fluent German speaker. But stil, isn’t that odd? IMG_1675
  1. Books can weigh you down. I sent a box of books I intended to read (those autobiography theory and indigenous literary theory books that had been collecting on my “to read” shelf) from Canada to Vienna. They arrived safely. I sent a box of books from Vienna to Zagreb. They never arrived. Lost in the customs house no doubt. Abandoned and now unread by me. I miss them, but it is also strangely freeing not to be followed by books. Although I am not ready to retire, I am ready to start divesting myself of books.IMG_0892
  1. I have had the privilege of spending whole days reading. Most of you reading this blog will understand how truly splendid and rare that is. Right now I am reading yet another book about WWII and Eastern Europe: Walking Since Daybreak by University of Toronto historian and Lativian-Canadian Modris Eksteins. He embeds his own family story (going back to his great-grandmother) within the larger story of the war and in particular what happened to Latvia. His purpose is larger than that. He argues that “The year 1945 stands at the centre of our century and our meaning.” Get that? “our meaning.” That resonates with me. And I am learning so much from Eksteins’s book because he is a historian and he looks back centuries to the pagan tribes that settled in Eastern Europe. Oh, and did you know that Catherine II, Catherine the Great of Russia, was born in Stettin Pomerania! I didn’t. I have also just read the latest Kate Atkinson novel, A God in Ruins, which is partly about her [fictional] protagonist Teddy’s experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, involved in the relentless bombing of Germany. On the ground, cities burn and civilians die. Hamburg. Nuremburg. Bremen. Berlin. The two sides of my family—English and German—are defined in relation to that war, with which I am completely obsessed. IMG_1635
  1. My visit to my mother’s home village (now in Poland and about which I have already written) has prompted more writing. I am writing what I think might become a book one day. Child refugees during 1945 and what they pass on to their own children. I am involved in the Oral History project being conducted by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and have discovered that many German-Canadians in the Waterloo region are, like my mother, originally from the East. Many of them emigrated and settled here in the years after 1945. Many of them share similar stories of flight and living in deportation camps or under Russian occupation before they could finally leave Germany. I would like to talk to their children.
  1. And finally, my marriage has been strengthened by spending an extended period of time with Arlequino. We were never more than a few hours apart for most of the four months we were in Europe. And we loved it.
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How to fall in love with a city

Zagreb has my heart. How did this happen? I was here for three months three years ago, and now, having returned, I do not want to leave. After the glamour and order of Vienna, Zagreb initially felt dingy. There are cracked and broken sidewalks, potholed streets, many closed up shops, graffiti (not the Bansky kind of street art) scrawled on buildings, buildings that seriously need bits of them to be repaired and restored. I hadn’t remembered this aspect of Zagreb. The grey, even shabby side. I had remembered this:

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But after a week I was in love. In love with the streets, the café life, the slow pace of the pedestrian sidewalk waltz, the innate civility of the courtesies and greetings strangers show one another.

How to fall in love with a city:

  1. Rent an apartment. Pretend you live there, and eventually you will begin to refer to the apartment as home and begin to long for one of your own.
  2. Shop at the markets and the local stores. Okay, we do shop at supermarkets, but we shop in our neighbourhood. We smile at the ladies at the cash desk, and we say thank you a lot.
  3. Learn the words for the simple politenesses, the please and thank you but also how to say good morning. Learn how to order your coffee as you like it in Croatian.
  4. Walk it. Our host and new friend Andrea has written a “Walking Manifesto” that beautifully expresses why walking matters. Please read her blog.
  5. Walk in green spaces. Zagreb is remarkably green. There are grand boulevards that include park spaces, such as Zrinivac; there are the Botanical Gardens and other large parks ; there are green spaces above the city; there is a mountain behind the city that you can hike up (we did part of it on the day we went to Medvedgrad from Sestine). Look at the gorgeous flowerbeds that are everywhere, and admire the trees and bushes that dot the streetscape. Right now fruit trees are in blossom. Heavenly.
  6. Eat. Seriously. And also eat seriously. Eat the local food. In season and prepared as it comes, with all the sauces and toppings and side dishes that usually attend particular dishes: fish with potatoes and swiss chard; slow cooked veal in a rich sweet/sour sauce with dumplings; chevapi (spiced ground meat fingers) with raw onions and a sauce that is a cross between fresh cheese and sour cream). Eat street food, especially burek (phyllo pastry stuffed with meat, ricotta-type cheese, potatoes and onions, spinach, or fruits). Drink Croatian wines, Croatian beers, and Croatian brandies. You can’t get them in Canada.
  7. Look up and look to the side. There are many open doors and open gates in this city. There are courtyards and passageways. Follow them. Stick your nose in the spaces that beckon. You will find treasures. Including a local craft beer garden where you can sip your excellent pint on a sunny day.
  8. Drink coffee at cafes and frequently. One of the things that drives me nuts in Vienna is the price of a coffee. Four euros! Ridiculous! In Croatia coffee is just as good and one third of the price. But coffee drinking is not just about the coffee; it’s a way of life here.

Yesterday I also had the great honour of teaching a class to undergraduate students at the University of Zagreb. I felt at home.

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European conferences and me

Greetings from the Czech Republic.

You might be thinking that all we have been doing on sabbatical is reading, scribbling and sightseeing, but one major event that we had planned in advance was the 10th Brno Conference in English, American and Canadian Studies. Brno is an easy train ride from Vienna, about two hours away from Prague. This was a large conference, made up of academics who study literature and other media, language teaching, linguistics, and translation studies. The Canadian content, I have to say, was very strong. The conference began with a keynote address by Aritha van Herk (well known writer and professor at the University of Calgary and someone I have met at several other conferences over the years). There were multiple parallel sessions, but Arlequino and I mainly attended sessions on Canadian topics. Both of our papers were well received. Really well received. It was gratifying. When we return to Vienna I will keep working on mine, building it up to be a publishable article. We have also received offers to give talks in Zagreb and also possibly in Vienna and Bratislava.

Arriving at Masaryk University

Arriving at Masaryk University

One of things that I love about these Euro conferences is meeting people with similar interests but who work in very different academic environments. The delegates were from all over central Europe: Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Austria…There were also other Canadians and Americans in attendance. BUT, most of those people were working at central European universities. There were also people from Australia and New Zealand who wound up teaching in central European universities. Which made us wonder: why are we not teaching Canadian literary and theatre studies in a nice university such as the University of Masaryk in the Czech Republic? We missed that memo: you too could live in a nice European city and have a very nice life.

Chairing a session

Chairing a session

Delivering my paper, titled "Stories of the Road Allowance People as Multimodal Text"

Delivering my paper, titled “Stories of the Road Allowance People as Multimodal Text”

Sharing stories with a Canadian postdoc who is at the University of Vienna

Sharing stories with a Canadian postdoc who is at the University of Vienna

We met people who had lived and worked in Europe for 40 years. We met a guy who was a former journalist in Chicago who ended up teaching somewhere in Poland. There was a guy on my panel from Australia now teaching in Germany. There was another guy from New Zealand who teaches in Bratislava. There were a couple of Turkish (?) muslim women who were teaching—somewhere. Talk about diversity. And richness of experience. One lasting impression was the enthusiasm with which people attended and engaged in this conference. Sessions were full. Discussion was energetic. There was a real commitment to sharing knowledge and exchanging teaching and research experiences. These conferences are hubs that academics look forward to attending, partly to see friends again, of course. Our conferences in Canada are like that too, but we have far more opportunities to gather than expat academics here do.

And the conference dinner? FANTASTIC! Lots of gorgeous food (served buffet style) and the waiters kept coming around with trays of beer. Czech beer, as you may know, is famously good.

New friends

New friends

Best love.

Best love.

Post conference we got on another train and headed for Prague, where we are spending a couple of days as tourists. On the agenda: beer, art, theatre, dumplings. Watch for more photos soon.

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Děkuji.

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Sabbatical project number 2

Research and writing is only part of what Lady English professor wants to accomplish on her sabbatical. I also want to learn Spanish. I have tried several times before to learn this lovely language: I have taken continuing education courses and even hired a private tutor. I have travelled to countries where Spanish is the lingua franca and I have tried to increase my knowledge of it through (albeit brief) immersion. But truth be told, I still only have menu and basic tourist Spanish (Donde esta el bano por favor?). So I bought the Rosetta Stone program and have committed to doing lessons throughout the time we are here in Europe. Incidentally, Arlequino is embarking upon the equivalent program in German, so hopefully by the end of our sabbaticals we’ll both be more multi-lingual.

I suppose my language colleagues will be disappointed in me. Rosetta Stone? The software for business people and diplomats? The disembodied voice of recording and static pictures of people doing things? Language learning is best undertaken in classrooms, with other people and with the teacher as guide and mentor, and with contextual knowledge and lots of practice. I agree. But here we have another resource and right now that’s what I’m using. In an apartment in Vienna. On my own.

Rosetta Stone’s approach is about forming sentences straight away. No rote learning, no repeated verbs conjugations, no lists of numbers or days of the week. Their approach is to get you to describe what is going on in the picture. It’s a challenge!

One of the great things about sabbatical is the space in my head and the time in my day to embrace new learning. I feel lucky.

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The Humanities Crisis Industry

My wonderful former doctoral supervisor, Stephen Slemon, continues to lead and inspire.

ACCUTE

The following is an edited version of my opening comments, given as ACCUTE President, to a panel on the “Humanities: Past, Present, Future,” at Ryerson University on March 6th,  2014.  The panel was sponsored by the Ryerson Department of English and organized by its interim chair Nima Naghibi,  with the support of Dean of Arts Jean-Paul Boudreau, Arts and Contemporary Studies; Languages, Literatures and Cultures; History; and Philosophy.  My fellow panellists were Marianne Hirsch, Immediate Past President of the Modern Languages Association, and John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.

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We meet tonight in the darkening shadow of a humanities crisis industry, and here are just a few of the recent headlines. “Humanities Fall From Favour.” “Prestige of Humanities at All-Time Low.”  “Oh, the humanities.  Big trouble, but there’s still some hope.”

Big trouble.  Some hope.  I’m about to argue…

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Stalled

Here it is the end of November and I haven’t written anything for ages. No blog posts. No conference proposals. No revisions to in-the-works articles and chapters. Nope. The only things I have been writing are emails and memos and the odd reference letter for a student. I have, however, been reading a lot. A student’s full draft of her dissertation but mainly lots and lots of scholarship applications. It’s scholarship season around here. In their wisdom the two main granting agencies–the “tri-council” scholarship programs (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR) and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program have downloaded a lot of the work of reviewing and awarding of scholarships to universities. This means that highly paid administrators–associate deans and associate chairs–are spending hours reading and adjudicating scholarship applications. While I don’t mind doing the work, I do mind the amount of time it takes away from other tasks. Things like properly designing the graduate course I will teach next term, reading edited book chapters for a collection I’m working on, but mostly writing, writing, writing. I am stalled. Today I have a day of no meetings and I could be writing conference and teaching abstracts. But I’m stalled. No words come to me.

Or maybe it’s just late November.

By the end of today I will have written more than this blog post. I promise! But how? How? Any advice on how to get un-stalled when it comes to writing would be very welcome.

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Going to ground

It’s summertime and in my former life that would mean that I’d be spending most of my days reading, thinking, writing—with breaks for coffee making, Scrabble playing, laundry, gardening, walking, going to the beach, swimming, cooking, reading for fun. Or just plain goofing off. I’d be at home more often than I would be in my office. And the rhythms of my brain would be slower, more contemplative, more research focused. Those were good times.

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that my brain has been somewhat rewired by administrative work. Everything moves faster; decisions are made very quickly; days rush to an end, as do weeks. It also dawned on me that I have three research commitments to meet within the next few weeks and that I wasn’t finding time to focus, concentrate, think, and write about any of them while being constantly at the office and available on email.

I went into panic mode. Rather than keep that panic to myself I voiced it. I’ve learned that panicking silently is the worst thing to do. Blab about it and people who care about you will offer helpful suggestions. And they did.

So, last week and this one I have carved out consecutive days to do my research work. It has been a pleasure to reconnect with that part of my brain, even though I also always find writing to be hard work. I have accomplished some of what lies before me: revised my part of a co-authored essay that was a conference paper and now needs to be turned into a published article. Arlequino is doing the other half. It’s the first time we’ve written together and that too is a pleasure and a challenge. Anyway, that will soon be done.

I have also prepared for an editing weekend on the book I’m co-editing (on Canadian Graphic Life Narratives) by reading and taking notes on all of the essays received so far. I have also remembered to book my train ticket. 🙂

And over the past two days I have begun the research for the next conference paper. This one is again a new area for me (why, oh why, do I constantly broach new topics in my scholarship?). But the research is the fun part. I love the detective work. I love reading other people’s bibliographies. I love tracing debates backwards. I even spent some time in the library stacks today, just browsing. Ahhhhh. I never feel as much at home as I do when I’m in a library. A recent article in the Chronicle reminded me of the pleasures of browsing in the library. You can read it here.

Panic attack has subsided. For now at least. 

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