The Summer of Reading

It is the last week of the semester and I’m turning my thoughts to my spring/summer work plan. Like many academics, I normally start off this “research season” with very long “to do” lists and lofty plans. “This year will be different,” I say to myself, “this year I WILL DO ALL THE THINGS between April and September.”

Yeah right…

One thing I am normally doing at this time of year is finalizing my spring/summer travel plans – ’tis the season for for research trips and conferences! However, this year I plan to spend most of my spring/summer here at home in Niagara. There are many reasons for this – we are getting some much-needed major renovations done to our home. Also, we live in a pretty excellent part of the country for kayaking adventures, and I certainly hope to be doing a lot of paddling in the coming months.

Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)
Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)

I also have been dealing with some rather mysterious health issues lately. It has been incredibly frustrating and stressful, and we are still trying to get to the bottom of all of it. I feel like it is important to stay close to home right now as we are working this out.

In terms of my research and writing, the book I have been working on for the past decade will be out later this month. (Yay!) This project has been such a big part of my life for so long, and it feels a bit weird to not be actively working on it any more. I still have tons of material that didn’t make it in to the book – my archival explorations turned up much more information than I’d ever imagined I would find about how animal advocacy groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used art and visual culture. I certainly have more writing to do on this front, but I’m also thinking about new avenues and directions for my research – related avenues, but they would be spin-off projects that require me to dig in and do some reading.

I have, therefore, decided that my research focus this summer will simply be reading. I know I will feel like I need to be doing more than reading, but I’m going to try to quiet that part of my brain. Sure, sitting on my front porch reading a pile of books isn’t quite as exciting as being at the British Library, but it is what I need to be doing right now. I’m looking forward to it!

I’m surprised at how many people have asked me what my next book will be about — my latest isn’t even out yet! I’m going to draw on the wisdom of my colleague Dr. Barbara Seeber who, along with Dr. Maggie Berg, wrote the wonderful book, The Slow Professor. One of the main points they make in this book is that the scholarly work we do requires time – we need to spend time reading carefully, thinking, making notes, etc. I am not going to give in to the pressure to get the prospectus for my next book project whipped together in record time. I really feel that right now I need to immerse myself in the literature related to some of these new avenues I want to be exploring. I need to slow down, to read, to think, to figure out the next steps.

I’m excited about the #summerofreading – I think it is just what I need right now.

Some of the books I want to read this summer.
Some of the books I want to read this summer.

The Identity Politics of a Full Bookcase

Happy New Year! Hard to believe it is 2018!

Over the holiday break we started doing a pretty serious decluttering project at home. We have some major renovations coming up later this year, and in preparation for that we have to get organized. This feels like a daunting task, but a colleague recommended we read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Of course, I had heard of it (references to it pop up everywhere and parodies abound!), but I had dismissed it without even looking at it. “Nah, not for me!” I thought. But the colleague who recommended we take a look at this book is someone who I really respect and, not coincidentally, someone who has a beautiful home, the kind you feel instantly peaceful in. So, we gave it a go. I’m not going to say that I’m 100% sold on every single point in the book, but she does make some really good, thought-provoking points. The end result is that I’m looking at the things in my home with a very different set of lenses now — “Do I really need this?” “Why am I keeping this?” “Why do we even have this?” As we gear up for our renovation project this is a good thing.

Today was the first day back to work after the holiday break and I guess I brought those lenses with me to the office today. I opened my door and instantly thought – “oh my gosh. This place needs a good decluttering!” I have a lot of work to do — the start of term is always busy! — but I just couldn’t even focus because of all the piles and piles of stuff everywhere!  I was itching to get to the decluttering. So, I have spent the day alternating between my “to do” list and getting my office cleaned up. I feel like it is helping me think clearer and to get my mind around the upcoming semester.

For me, the biggest barrier to a clutter-free office are the piles and piles of books I have accumulated over the years. Like most academics, I love books. I love reading them, touching them, looking at them, flipping through them, sharing them, talking about them, etc. Books are so much a part of my identity that I feel weird if I’m not surrounded by them.

I had a relative come visit me not long after I had moved to this city, and on that trip he asked to see my new office. I took him there, but I warned him it was messy as I hadn’t really unpacked yet. When he walked in he saw my almost bare bookshelves (remember, I hadn’t finished unpacking!) and said “you need more books! You can’t be a professor with bare bookshelves!” I know it was meant in jest, but I have to tell you – it hurt! I was an unsure new graduate already wondering if I could make it in academia and here was a relative was telling me I didn’t fit the mould! While my current collection of books is not exactly a direct response to that comment, I can’t help thinking of it time and time again when I pile yet another stack of books on the floor of my office because I’ve run out of bookcase space.

Today as I sort through my books I have found many that I simply don’t have a use for. In some cases they are the free textbook samples that publishers keep sending me. In other cases, however, they are books that I felt I “should” have when I was a grad student and junior scholar — key texts that everyone kept telling me I should read, but that just didn’t hold my interest. Of course on my shelves there are also several key texts in my fields (and sub-fields) that are completely dog-eared, marked up, etc., but I’m not going to lie — some of the “must have” books just don’t do it for me. Years ago I would beat myself up over this — “I need to read these,” I would think, so they would stay on my shelves taking up space. Now, however, as I purge and weed my shelves to make room for the piles of books that I genuinely want to be reading I’ve decided “enough is enough.” I have enough confidence in my scholarship and research now to know which books I actually should read and which can be sent over to the used bookstore. I hope their new owners find joy in them!

books

 

The End (of Sabbatical) is Nigh

And just like that, we are at the end of 2015! I’m always amazed at how fast a year whips by, but I was especially aware of it this year. When I began my sabbatical year back on January 1, 2015 a year felt like a nearly endless expanse of time. Perhaps I thought that this year would be different. Perhaps I thought that being on sabbatical would slow down the passing of time, that if I took the time to read, to savour, to think, that I wouldn’t feel as though the weeks were flying by. I was wrong.

So, now I’m in the final days (7 left!) of my sabbatical, although as my friend and colleague, Gregory, pointed out the other day, I am, in actuality, “like everyone else at Brock now, on holiday break.” I suppose he has a point given how quick I was to jump in to sabbatical mode this time last year.

It has been a good year. It was a busy year and when I look back at where my days went, the list looks something like this:

Over the course of the year I also was constantly reminded about what sabbatical (in an academic context anyhow) is and isn’t.

  • It is a gift. I felt so grateful to have so much dedicated time to work on my book manuscript. I sat with it day in and day out for months. I immersed myself in the project in a way that would have been impossible without sabbatical. I put in long hours and worked 7 days a week on the manuscript for a good chunk of my sabbatical time. People kept telling me to “take a break,” but I had been gasping for time to really sink myself in to this work and I wasn’t going to tear myself away from it until I had a full and polished manuscript ready to send to the press.
  • It is a privilege. If you get to take sabbatical you are very, very privileged. Do not forget this. It is important to check your privilege and to be careful how you talk about your sabbatical with others.
  • It isn’t a vacation. I am sure I had friends and family who were genuinely baffled by the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and come for a visit or go on a leisure outing this past year. As mentioned above, I am sure that I actually put in more hours at my desk this year than I regularly do during the years I’m not on sabbatical. When you are on sabbatical you are hyper aware of how rare and precious this time devoted to your research is. I know I won’t get another sabbatical for a while and I didn’t want to waste a single second of it.
  • It isn’t a magic “cure all.” I think I was guilty of imagining sabbatical to be this blissful, stress-free year. I might have imagined that I was going to sit at my desk, think lofty thoughts, and become a better person. When I imagined my sabbatical I didn’t imagine the days filled with writer’s block, panic, and stress related to “imposter syndrome” (“what if I don’t have anything interesting to say after all?”). My imagined version of sabbatical also didn’t include getting sick, debilitating migraine headaches, sick pets, sick friends and family members, bad weather, travel woes, and financial worries. But, guess what? All of those things were also part of the year–of course they were, because sabbatical isn’t a magic bubble!
  • It is a limited amount of time. At the start of sabbatical it may seem that you have SO MUCH TIME to do ALL THE STUFF. But, in reality, it is only 365 days, just like any other year. I did get many of the things I set out to do crossed off my list, but there are other things (clean out the basement, reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories) that I’ve not yet managed to accomplish. I guess I still have 7 more days!

It has been a good year, but I am looking forward to going back to teaching  in January. I love my classes and I am excited to teach in the beautiful new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Conference Travel and Some Amazing Vegan Food

I can’t believe it is mid-April! The weeks have been flying by. I’ve been working away on the book manuscript, but I also have been doing some travelling.

First I went to the 2nd instalment of the “Living With Animals” conference at Eastern Kentucky University. I went to this conference two years ago, the first time it was held, and just loved it. It was such a great mix of people–a truly interdisciplinary gathering of people who shared common interests. The second version of the conference was just as good. I heard some excellent papers and especially enjoyed hearing Julia Schlosser’s keynote presentation about her artwork.

One of the things I really like about this conference is that there is a good amount of the program dedicated to teaching animal studies, so there were great presentations about pedagogy (I especially liked Jeannette Vaught’s presentation called “Animal Infiltrations: Teaching Animal Studies in Traditional Courses”) and a roundtable discussion focusing on ideas for setting up animal studies courses and programs (both Human-Animal Studies and Critical Animal Studies) at the post-secondary level. As was the case two years ago, we had some excellent discussions!

I also travelled down to Denton, Texas to attend the “Moral Cultures of Food” conference at the University of North Texas. When I saw the call for papers for this conference I knew it was one I wanted to go to. Not only did the topic appeal to me and relate to my current project, but I also knew that the University of North Texas was home to “Mean Greens,” the first all vegan dining hall. Ever since I first heard about Mean Greens I was trying to find an excuse to go to UNT, so this seemed like a conference I had to attend! The conference was great and, like the “Living With Animals” conference, it featured scholars from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds.

Both conferences had such a good, collegial atmosphere–when people asked questions you got the sense that they were genuinely curious and interested to know the answers. (sadly, not at all the norm at most academic conferences) I met some really interesting people and came home feeling enthusiastic and energetic about working in this area. The “Moral Cultures of Food” conference also included excellent keynote presentations by James McWilliams and Carol J. Adams. (sadly I had to miss David Kaplan‘s closing keynote presentation due to an early morning flight)

I had the honour of being Carol Adams’s houseguest while I was in Texas, and it was there I discovered the recipe for the world’s most delicious vegan mac and cheese recipe. Honestly. This stuff is out of this world. It is a recipe that Carol veganized from a cookbook that her family used. She promises to do a blog post with the recipe, so I don’t feel comfortable sharing it here, but keep an eye out for it on her site. [Update: here is the recipe!] It is so ridiculously good. I’ve made it twice since returning home. In fact, all the food she served was incredible–she even cooked up a full vegan version of a Texas barbecue.  Amazing!

And speaking of amazing food in Texas, “Mean Greens” at UNT absolutely exceeded my expectations. I was excited about the fact that there was such a thing as a vegan dining hall on a university campus. I hadn’t stopped to think much about what precisely that would mean, but figured it was the novelty of the experience, not necessarily the quality of the food that I was going for. Let me tell you, the food was incredible! And it was really affordable too! I went with a group of conference attendees at lunch and it was $7.50 for as much food as you wanted to eat. There was a breakfast bar, hot dishes, a salad bar, a dessert tray, and even a ice cream sundae bar. And the food was really, really good! I also loved the environment. It was bright and cheery, and had quotes about veganism and compassion for all species painted on the walls of the dining room. There was even a sign on the door declaring it an “meat free zone.” This was full on, unapologetic veganism gone mainstream, and the place was packed! We even got to talk to one of the chefs who told us how popular the initiative has been and how it is, in fact, saving UNT money when compared to other meal options. I hope to see more campuses following this lead!

Mean Greens was a "Meat Free Zone"
Mean Greens was a “Meat Free Zone”
2015-04-03 12.21.36
No animal products used in this kitchen!
2015-04-03 13.05.40
There was even a sundae bar!

2015-04-03 12.26.55 2015-04-03 12.57.15 2015-04-03 13.25.01

The Art of Animal Activism: Critical Parameters

I am really pleased to be co-chairing a session with Alan C. Braddock on animal advocacy and the arts at the next College Art Association Conference in Washington D.C. I’ve included the call for papers for our session below. More details on the conference and how to apply can be found on the College Art Association’s Official Call for Participation. Please share widely.

The Art of Animal Activism: Critical Parameters
Alan C. Braddock, College of William and Mary; and Keri Cronin, Brock University. Email: acbraddock@wm.edu and keri.cronin@brocku.ca

Today nonhuman animals figure more prominently in cultural, ethical, and scientific inquiry than ever before, thanks to recent research that has forced a significant reassessment of human exceptionalism, or speciesism. Lately some art historians have begun to consider these issues as well. All of this has taken place amid growing popular fascination with animals and backlash against their egregious, often concealed abuse in factory farming, entertainment, laboratories, and other areas. Animals have become subjects of vision, imagination, and activism—but also exploitation—like never before. This session examines the critical parameters of animal activism and advocacy in art since the eighteenth century. Papers should address important landmarks and historical contours of such art, assessing creative techniques used to advance particular goals. Consideration of why the discipline of art history has been slow to map this tradition and challenges involved in visualizing the interests of other beings are also encouraged.

 

Time Machine

I’ve been spending some time in the library, working with old newspapers on microfilm. It has been many years since I’ve used a microfilm reader and it took me longer than I care to admit to get the thing up and running the first time. In my defence, there was a bit of a connectivity issue between the reader and the computer that scans and saves pdf versions of the pages. (I don’t recall this additional bit of technology from the last time I used a microfilm reader!) I was very grateful to the staff at the James A. Gibson library at Brock for helping me get this sorted.

2015-01-15 10.23.25-1

I love reading old newspapers. They are so interesting and so bizarre. I often get distracted by the ads and articles other than the ones I am trying to track down. In some ways it is kind of like I’m playing with a time machine!

Sabbatical Panic (Really?)

It is Wednesday, the third day of the winter semester and the third “real” day of my sabbatical. Sure, it officially started on January 1st, but those days between the 1st and the start of term on January 5th were still part of the holidays. I got ready for the real sabbatical work to begin on those days — organized my desk, sharpened my pencils, etc. But now there are no more excuses. And it isn’t easy. I know that this is likely not a popular thing to say, but stay with me. First of all, I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical. I truly am. It is a gift and I want to make every moment count. But that is the rub. I want to make every moment count. What does that even mean?

I began on Monday morning in a state of panic–there is not enough time left in my sabbatical (only 52 weeks!) to get it all done! I grabbed some books from my ever-growing “to read” pile and started ploughing through them, wildly taking notes and barely stopping for lunch. At the end of the day I felt worse. There are always going to be more books! I also realized that if the goal is to simply get through them, I’m not really absorbing what is written in them. What is the point of that?

I fear that the past decade or so in academia has conditioned me to the idea of getting throughgetting it donechecking it off the list. To what end though? There is always another hoop or deadline. Academics are skilled at multi-tasking–juggling grading, meetings, grant writing, committee work, lecture prep, report writing, form filling, etc. But when, if ever, is there time to read for the sake of engaging with new knowledge? This, it seems, should be the starting point for everything else. How have we lost sight of that? Part of this sabbatical may be about unlearning some old habits. Quinn Norton has written a great essay called “Against Productivity” that reminded me that the fast-paced, multi-tasking way of being in the world is not the only way. I’ve filed this essay away in my Evernote. It is one I think I will want to return to throughout this year.

Yesterday I tried a different approach. I opened up the book manuscript that I have been working on for far too long, the manuscript that is going to get finished on this sabbatical if it kills me. It was daunting. It had been a while since I sat with it, but I went back to a trick that helped me get my dissertation done when I was in grad school–I set the timer. 20 minute sessions in which the only thing to focus on is the document itself. Have to look up a reference? Too bad! Wait until the timer goes off. As anyone who has used this technique knows, by the time those 20 minutes are up you are in to the task of writing. You have found a groove and want to keep going. Get up from the chair, stretch, get some more tea and set the timer for another 20 minutes. I did this a few times yesterday and it felt good. I also gave myself permission to sit and think. Towards the end of the day I shut off the computer, grabbed a book and sat in my reading chair to read. I didn’t take notes. I simply read. The panic started to subside. It isn’t gone completely, but this seems to be a much better approach.

Sabbatical-cartoon1