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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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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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The thrill of being invited

Moments ago I received a letter INVITING me to give a paper at a conference on autobiography. The conference will be–wait for it–in Puerto Rico in July 2013. The invitation came from one of the co-editors of a journal in which I published an article–almost two decades ago. But they’ve been doing their homework, because the letter indicated that they knew about my more recent work on multimodal texts and genres, such as graphic memoirs and personal websites, and that’s what they want me to talk about.

Woo Hoo!

I can hardly tell you how thrilling it is to be invited.  Is this what it means to be mid-career?

I love, love, love my colleagues in autobiography. And this conference promises to be a precursor meeting with a longer view of forming an association of autobiography scholars in Canada, the U.S. and Latin America. Awesome!

And yesterday Arlequino and I booked our travel to Cuba in April 2012, where we are again invited to give papers and participate in a teaching day in Cuba.

Note to self: learn Spanish!

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The craziness that is October

What is it about October? In the academic year, October is when the tempo speeds up! The gentle and gradual beginnings of September, the delights of new courses and new students is over. Enthusiasm remains but is tempered by tiredness. Now, students are more stressed, professors are busier, and everyone could use more sleep. Getting up at 6:00 now means not only getting up but leaving the house in the dark. It’s chilly and often wet. The blue flourescent lights on the iXpress bus are not flattering to anyone. Riders clutch coffees, disappear into their iPods, read. or doze just a few more minutes. Hardly anyone talks.

As October sets in there are a few more empty seats in the classrooms. Students don’t bother to come to class or they are working on something else, something more important than being in my class that day. But I have to be there. I have to talk. I have to keep the momentum going even if the students are happy to sit back and be talked at (or sit back and do Facebook). I often don’t feel that I have the energy, but I almost always do. I perform. I’m a trouper. And besides, that’s what I get paid to do.

And then there are the weekend work activities, like conferences and workshops. This past weekend I was at this one at the TransCanada Institute at the University of Guelph:

I wasn’t participating–or at least not giving a paper. I went to observe and to learn. And very interesting it was too. I learned that some issues just never go away in the study and teaching of Canadian literature. A partial list:

  • The divide between French Canadian literature and English Canadian literature remains, and is a source of anxiety, doubt, and guilt for many. Only in Montreal do Canadians, whether Anglo or Franco, move easily between the two languages. As institutionalized literatures in Canada, the two solitudes are very real.
  • Does the nation still matter? Is it possible to think about literature in Canada rather than Canadian literature? Is it possible to think about a literature anthology that is not organized around the nation?
  • Why are we all still so fussed about the canon?
  • Is the book dead? If it is, is that okay? Are you a digital enthusiast?
  • Who owns the text? What is an authentic text?The invisible hand of the editor is everywhere. Necessarily so but sometimes problematically so.
  • Editors, at their best, are mentors.
I thought a lot about my own experience of being an editor (which includes marking student work, as well as publishing books and special issues of journals). I thought a lot about the collaborative work I have done and which has given me so much personal pleasure and satisfaction.
So, it was a good conference/workshop, even if I was not presenting. I got to see some old friends and to meet other writers and academics. I was particularly delighted to meet Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, poet and publisher of Kegedonce Press. I ordered three more books from her press using my iPad while she was giving her presentation. Cheeky. By the way, have I mentioned how much I love the iPad?
But the workshop went from Thursday evening through to Saturday afternoon. I left at lunchtime on Saturday to do other family things, but it still meant that I lost a whole work day and then some. Yesterday afternoon it was all about prepping for this week’s classes. So I’m more tired than usual on this Monday morning towards the end of October.
And I have two more crazy busy weeks ahead of me.
Dear pile of midterms: please grade yourselves.
Cheers!

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