Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I'm at a bit of a transition point, and a fairly significant one. Earlier this week, I sent off two book manuscripts to the publisher with whom I signed a contract back in the spring, more than ten years after doing the first of the oral history interviews with long-time Canadian activists that became the basis for the books. I know they're far from done -- editorial suggestions, copy editing, proofing, indexing, building a new website (see the old one here), promoting, and probably a few bumps in the road I can't foresee still lie in the future when it comes to this project. However, this milestone is a big one, and it marks the end of an intense period of cutting, reorganizing, and editing that took the vast majority of my productive time over the last four to six months, and of a period of creating largely focused on this work that has lasted for years.

I am not, however, at a loose end. Next week I'm starting an interdisciplinary Humanities MA program. This is just a one-year thing, and for all the reasons I've written about before (plus the fact that I can, in practical terms), I have no intention whatsoever of shifting my activities such that the academy becomes my homebase for doing intellectual work over the long term. Still, for all that it will be short-term, it will be a peculiar transition for me nonetheless. For one, I haven't been a student in 13 years, so that will take some getting used to. For another, I've never been a student quite like this before -- my undergraduate degree was in Biochemistry. My partner (who is herself an academic) refers to my work on the books, and the sometimes-related intellectual work that appears on this blog and elsewhere, as "graduate unschooling" on my part, only partially tongue-in-cheek, so I'm not worried about the work. It's more that I'm going to need to learn the cultural norms and the expected forms of work in a way that other incoming students might not. And overall, it has been awhile since I've had so much of my time shaped by external demands rather than self-imposed ones.

All of those are relatively minor, I think. However, the last one ties into what I think is going to be a more difficult adjustment for me: It has been a number of years since I last had to spend a significant proportion of my waking hours within-and-against a formal organization. Which, I fully recognize, is an immense privilege. But having that privilege, and getting to spend that time away from such experiences, has made it even clearer to me that being present in an organization which has a certain amount of power over you -- an employer or an educational institution that you are committed to sticking with -- has a cost associated with it. It imposes a mindset that requires a certain kind of underlying tension that you can't get away from, a constant navigation of the never-exact fit (and sometimes spectacular mis-fit) between your own needs and desires and the demands of the institution. It imposes moments of bureaucratic ridiculousness. It mandates actions that make perfect sense from the standpoint of ruling regimes but that are dissonant with the impulses and organization of everyday life. The compulsion to stay in the organization and to make choices that don't impede your ability to function and survive there means that you will constantly be faced with moments where you must balance accepting some kind of indignity, some kind of imposition of a logic contrary to your own needs and desires, with the consequences of refusing to accept it. There is a constant dance of what to tolerate, what to challenge, what kinds of risks to take, when to speak, when to be silent, how to present self, how to build supports and safety. And I recognize that, on the whole, I experience a very mild form of this, middle-class white guy that I am. Everyday life outside of organizations forces us to make such choices and trade-offs too, of course, but the organized ruling that happens in a formal organization and the pressure of your compulsion to be there (the need to stay employed, the goal of finishing schooling of some sort) makes it more intense, somehow. At least, that's my experience. And -- again acknowledging the privilege of this -- I'm out of practice in navigating such spaces. (For a list of 10 academic survival tips grounded in the experiences and analysis of radical women of colour but with lots of insight to offer the rest of us, see here. Thanks to A.S. for that link.)

I'm looking forward to the program, though. It'll be good for me. It'll ease the social isolation inherent in being a writer. It will give me a chance to read and think about things that I hope will feed into future (extra-academic) writing projects. The credential will make some of my skills and capacities a bit more legible to people who might want to buy my labour in the future. And for the first time in my life I'll be a union member -- it won't be for long enough that I'll be able to do a lot with it, but it is stil something I'm kind of savouring.

And in terms of this blog, I'm not entirely sure what it will mean. I think there will be moments, at least, when I'll be able to blog quite a bit more frequently than in the last few months, though there will be other moments when I'm swamped and won't post much. I'm also toying with the idea of trying to use this space to keep myself grounded in the political orientations and priorities and sensibilities that are important to me. I'm not quite sure what that might look like and it might end up being just too much work. It also might result in the proportion of stuff I post that is too obscure to be of interest except to a select few increasing more than I want. But it could also be a neat sort of experiment. So stay tuned.


SR said...

Eloquently put. I totally see my own relationship to my workplace reflected in there too.

One small correction though: I think I referred to you as having "home-graduate-schooled" yourself. Which is cuter sounding than what you said.

Anonymous said...

I dunno....some musings around the SPRC that I recall goes something like this.....Scott Neigh is the only person that already has a PhD and doesn't know that he does! Good Luck buddy! XO CSM