Saturday, September 29, 2007

Tears of Rage Against the Machine

I'm at work today. Not the main work place, but the other one, where I've managed to pick up more work than I should ever have agreed to.

Actually, I didn't think I'd be marking these assignments at all. This is what has gotten me into the sense of trouble I'm feeling. I agreed to do the marking at the end of last semester, but then I didn't hear from the convener for ages, so I assumed he'd found someone else and I accepted other work. I didn't think that the convener would wait until the assignments were due to organise the paperwork for the appointment. Then I didn't feel as though I could say I've got too much on, because, technically, I had agreed to do the work. Well.

So between trying to marking these 80 or so assignments, I'm taking a series of short breaks by doing some blogging. I should warn you that I'm feeling a bit melancholy, which is my way of trying not to take responsibility for what you'll read in this rambling post, but, I suppose, the truth is, I've been thinking about various things along these lines for some time, things that have confused and upset me, whether it's needless emotion, I don't know--here, I think of Kate's byline from Moment to Moment: 'over thinking everything since 2005'--but I think I have to somehow get these thoughts out of my head, and I wouldn't mind some feedback from the more regular readers and commenters of this blog, because I value your insight.

To some extent, I've been prompted to write this by a couple of Oanh's posts, specifically those where she has discussed relationships between women, that is, her relationships with colleagues and school friends and her sense that she hasn't quite fitted in with them. On both occasions, on Oanh's blog, I made some obscure comments that I had felt the same way and that I would eventually work up the courage to write about it on my own blog.

Around the time I was responding to Oanh's posts, I had not long discovered that someone whom I had tried very hard to be friends with 'in real life' removed me from her blog roll. Being as honest as I can be, I have to say I took this personally; I was upset at what I interpreted as quite a public rejection. It isn't that I think anyone else necessarily noticed the deletion but more that I began to wonder what I had done to prompt the excision. Attempting to think rationally, I know that I likely didn't do anything, but I still can't convince myself that it wasn't a comment on something about me that was lacking. Or refining the nuances of my thought process even more (you see how my mind works?), I concluded that the person in question's action was a quite deliberate exclusion of my person from her network, and I became angry.

Let me explain. There's a bit of a history.

I had read this person's blog for a while. I had a link to it on my blog roll from the moment I became brave enough to link to people I knew irl, who didn't know I had a blog. Sometimes I found her blog tough going, in the sense that I suppose I do still make a distinction between academic sites and social sites, and the blog in question isn't necessarily the kind you read for social banter or laughs. It is an extension of the blogger's professional life.

Perhaps this is where much of my confusion lies. See, when I read on this person's blog that they were feeling lonely and isolated, I responded, not really as a colleague, but more as a potential friend (not that the two relationships are necessarily incompatible), saying we should do something social together irl. Well, that never really eventuated, and any common attendance at social occasions only came about through group decisions to go for drinks after work related events.

It was after several of these thwarted attempts to initiate friendship that I eventually came to the conclusion that anything I had read on this person's blog--from the feelings of loneliness and alienation through to the dissatisfaction with Brisbane's cultural life--was in fact a case of purely professional theoretical musings. I still don't know what else to conclude in light of my experience with this blogger: the words were an Affective articulation of the working conditions of a young, newly located, researcher. She is a very good writer. But it seems that there was nothing more. Nothing that could be responded to outside of the blog, an academic reading group, a conference or seminar presentation. Nothing that couldn't be turned into a research project.

What makes this situation worse, to my mind, is that even after discovering that I'd been re-evaluated as not-blog-roll-worthy, I still attempted to engage with the blogger on line. (Although it's not my efforts that make it worse, but rather the topic on which I attempted to engage with the blogger). I commented on her criticisms about a conference she had attended, where she suggested that the majority of the conference attendees had been self-indulgent, talking far too long in question times, and just generally apolitical and nostalgic. I responded to what I interpreted as a fairly sweeping dismissal of a large number of colleagues with a question. I hadn't attended the conference under discussion, but my question wasn't about the conference exactly, so much as my confusion about an apparent lack of generosity in the comments.

I asked the question, as well, because I knew a couple of the initial commenters who had concurred with the blogger's perspective (although I did not know the commenter who took me task for asking my question with a lecture about the alienating nature of academic discourse!), and when I read their assessment of the conference too, something just got stuck in my craw and a whole well of bile just wanted to spew forth.

It didn't. I tried to be calm and direct my question towards the pessimism expressed about the older generation of scholars who attended the conference (there's almost something Oedipal there), but it's true to say that there was something else in my question. And it wasn't just the freshly minted feeling of rejection I was experiencing about the blog-roll snub; no, I admit my question was informed by something a bit more putrid and festering than that.

I have been in reading groups and master classes with these young researchers, and quite frankly, I have never felt more alienated or more dismissed in my entire life, while collectively they have monopolised the attention of the visiting expert scholar, engaging them in conversations inaudible to the rest of the class's participants, while remaining entirely oblivious to their slight, and completely unreceptive to any attempt to get them to reflect upon their actions. I have had conversations where I've felt like I've been assaulted by Judith Lucy wielding a base ball bat as sarcasm after ironism has been smacked to the outfield, leaving no room for response. I have had the repeated experience of having to practically reintroduce myself every time I encounter them since there is absolutely no flicker of recognition on their faces to suggest that they've ever seen me before. To say nothing of outright moments of snobbery.

Let's talk about lack of affect, shall we?


Are you still reading?

I needed a moment.

I'm not sure where to go now.

I want to say something about hypocrisy, but I don't think the situation is as simple as that: academics of all generations are quivering masses of doubts wrapped up in poor social skills that present as snubs and slights.

Another thing that prompted this post was an invitation I received to a birthday party this weekend. It was offered with the codicil that it would be good if I could make it because unlike many of the birthday person's friends (who are perfectly lovely people) I was able to talk about something other than shop, and right now, for this occasion, that would be very welcome. At the time I laughed and said that I could be invited anywhere and relied upon to talk crap, however, I was also pleased by the observation, because I don't want to spend every waking moment consumed by work.

That said, I have little problem talking about things other than work. I wonder if that isn't some of the source of my reaction to the anxieties that I've been discussing in this post. I find it really difficult to sustain for long periods of time the level of thinking required to do academic work, so I am nonplussed when I encounter people who seem to be able to operate on that level much of the time. I'd be less worried if it wasn't true that every aspiring academic compares themselves and is compared to these people who are pathological, in the most benign sense, ie 'not normal'.

I guess I have two things to say here. The first is that by removing the link to my blog from her blog-roll the blogger in question has demonstrated that she does not consider me to be one of her colleagues. I thought I was, so that's been quite a hurtful thing to realise.

Following on from that, and more vaguely, I am drawn to wonder about a forthcoming work event where the topic for discussion is about social networking sites and blogs as forms of collegial networking for contemporary researchers, who often work in isolation. I'm curious about the ways these networks are being extended, or not, to those who research fields other than the internet, but who experience similar working conditions.

If some deliberately exclude others from these collegial networks online, refusing reciprocal exchanges and deleting links, what are the consequences for collegial relationships between individuals within and across institutions in the same physical location? What happens when you encounter flesh and blood colleagues researchers, who are in the same general field, in the corridors and cloisters, or by the lift well of the physical world institution you inhabit?

Can you always dip your head and take the stairs?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Girly Bits

I went to the doctors today. Yes that's doctors, plural, there's no missing apostrophe there.

I went to the first doctor because I had to get my referral to the second doctor renewed. Nothing life threatening, just part of my current life. (If you've been reading this blog long enough, you'll know).

Anyway, I prepared myself mentally to see the first doctor because I knew I wouldn't get out of her office without having to submit to substantially more than the polite writing of a referral letter. I knew this because a few weeks before I had received a letter in the mail informing me that it was time for me to have a pap smear.

When I got that letter, I groaned. Don't get me wrong, my GP is the best. People tell me horror stories about pap smears and I know that I've had it good. Dr M is constantly reassuring and gentle throughout the whole awkward procedure, talking me through every step. But you know, it's still not terribly pleasant.

And somehow she manages to make me laugh too. About my response to her enquiry about what I'd been up to--'Same old, same old'--she said, 'What do you mean, 'same old, same old', you're having a pap smear!'

Then she casually mentions that I'm approaching 40. I tend to think that I'm going to be 40 in the same way that Billy Crystal responded to Meg Ryan's worries about turning 40 in When Harry Met Sally: 'When? In eight years!' Meh. But truthfully, I'm turning 40 in the way ThirdCat will be turning 40. Not so long now.

The significance of 40 for Dr M is that it means I'll have to start being vigilant about checking for lumps in my breasts. And since she is not one to miss an opportunity to administer preventative medicine, suddenly I had my shirt off and more poking and prodding ensued. Apparently one of my breasts is more fibrous than the other. (Oh, was that too much information?).

Anyway there is a point to this post aside from embarrassing self-revelation. I asked Dr M whether it was possible for women older than 26 to be immunised against cervical cancer. I wasn't sure if you had to be a certain age for the vaccination to be effective. I've seen the advertisements on bus stops encouraging young women to be immunised, and since the fellow who came up with the vaccine is a Professor at the University, I'm particularly aware of the development in preventative treatment for cervical cancer.

Well, it turns out that anyone can have it, but the government will only offer it freely to girls and young women between 12 and 26. The cost for older women is $150 per injection and three are required, one initially, another after 2 months, and yet another at 6 months.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about the imposition of an age limit on this potentially life saving treatment. On the one hand I feel outraged for older women in lower socio-economic groups. My doctor explained that many women were choosing to have the vaccination, but she knows I'm on a limited and irregular income, so she was quite subdued as she told me about it. I told her I'd think about it, but really, when it comes to my long term health, is it an option not to?

I think if I make it a priority, dip into my savings, since this is the kind of thing they're for, I probably can afford it.

Hope you and your loved ones can too.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Strangers To Ourselves

Every now and then you get the opportunity to see your city through another person’s eyes. In the case of friends who might be visiting, it’s not unexpected that they will comment on things they’ve never seen as they take in the sights that distinguish your town from any other. It is surprising (or at least I found it so), however, when people who are in town as part of their working lives point things out, things that comprise your everyday life, as strange.

The first time I was aware of the potential strangeness of my everyday life was on an occasion when one of my Sarsaparilla colleagues, David, was visiting
Brisbane for a conference. We met up, and he commented on the ibis, or was it the indigenous scrub turkeys, that populate the university campus where the conference was held, and which I attend. I’m not sure if it was the ibis or the scrub turkeys that David commented upon, because around the same time, I had lunch with a visiting scholar—his work was relevant to my thesis—who also made a comment on either the ibis or the scrub turkeys.

In the case of the comment on the ibis, my response was to say that they were a problem in Brisbane. Due, no doubt, to the loss of their natural habitat in water ways, perhaps because of the ongoing drought, ibis have increasingly sought food in public parks and in eateries that border on green areas. The university is an ideal site for scavenging ibis, as are the parks across the CBD. To counter the problem, in addition to ‘Do Not Feed the Ibis’ signs, the council employed the services of an eagle to swoop the ibis, and so deter them from menacing people in public areas.

The surprise expressed about the presence of scrub turkeys was that they roosted in the trees. It’s my experience that the scrub turkeys scavenge far less than the ibis. (I’ve seen an ibis use it’s curved beak to extract the filling from a sandwich). The scrub turkeys occasionally jump on tables at one eatery on campus, but everywhere else they seem content to dig holes in the gardens and nestle in for their dust baths, or rearrange the mulch into piles for their nests amongst the bamboo near the lakes, and roost in the trees too, I guess.

This past week, I’ve been introduced to some further apparently strange things about the life I take forgranted. I organised an academic symposium where many of the participants were from other parts of Australia. As part of those arrangements I chose the caterer and approved the food that was served. It was a fairly easy process. I thought the caterer offered fairly standard fare: gourmet sandwiches and wraps on the first day, a choice of lamb and couscous salad or chicken Caesar on the second (with vegetarian options), and the usual tea, coffee, and juices for drinks, while the morning and afternoon teas were various combinations of muffins, scones, Danishes and fruit platters.

Perhaps it wasn’t so strange that the symposium participants commented on the differences in the food from that which they were used to eating on such occasions, given that one of the concerns of the symposium was about regional cultural differences across Australia.

From the beginning, the people from Darwin pounced on the strawberries that are currently in season in Queensland. I was told that they just didn’t get decent tasting strawberries in Darwin, and while I had a vague recollection of never really having strawberries as part of my Far North Queensland upbringing, I suppose I had forgotten about the rarity of certain produce in remote areas. Even the presence of the fruit platters was commented upon; it was an enormous treat when one was used to being served biscuits at conferences. I am sure that fruit platters bursting with strawberries, grapes, watermelon, rock melon (cantaloupe), honey dew melon, oranges etc, have always been part of the Brisbane conference landscape.

The other unfamiliar moment that struck me about the response to the catering was when one of the people from Melbourne commented that we had pineapple juice in the selection of juices that were available. I said, ‘yes, don’t you?’ I learned that it wasn’t considered standard fare. And, again, when I thought about it, I realised that of course it wasn’t. Looking at the bottle I saw that the juice was from somewhere on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, just north of Brisbane, where fields of pineapples abound.

I suppose, the thing is, that many of us are used to thinking of Australia as a fairly homogenous society, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) the rhetoric of Multi-Culturalism. And suddenly, in the most banal of circumstances, over a table of food, shared between, it must be said, a fairly homogenous group of academic and industry researchers, there were differences that I hadn’t contemplated. My world was made unexpectedly strange.

And that was before I saw the woman from Melbourne pouring pineapple juice into her coffee.