Friday, October 28, 2016

Those Illusive Characters (Time and Balance) in the Life of a Grad Student

It's Friday morning and I'm drinking coffee. I don't have class on Fridays. I am sitting on my new couch, a comfortable reclining love seat where I spend about 40% of my time. "Farmhouse Rules" (a Food Network TV show) is playing in the background as I jump from tab-to-tab on my laptop: from Twitter, to updating my Goodreads account to include my PhD reading list, to the public library website, to my grant and conference applications, and now to writing this post.

Image result for the productivity project

Before starting my PhD program in September, I read The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. One of the takeaways from that book was the "Rule of 3." He recommends writing down a daily to-do list containing 3 items. It's a technique that is meant to keep you focused on your priorities for the day. I do it every day in my bullet journal, and I end up with something that looks like this:


(There are so many beautiful, artistic bullet journals. Mine is all business. Journalling artistically is something I admire, but it's not my strength.)

But most days, I end up with way more than 3 things to do:

Rule of 3
  • History readings
  • Exercise (run or yoga)
  • Draft conference proposal
but also...
  • Groceries
  • American Studies readings
  • Tidy apartment
  • Pedagogical exercise
  • Email
I've heard from so many graduate students and academics how hard it is to manage time and maintain a balance in their lives. Perhaps naively or optimistically, I thought that returning to graduate school after 8 years in the work force would play to my advantage: if I maintain my 9-to-5 foundation, doing school work during those hours, I could use my evenings and weekends to spend time doing my favourite life things, like reading, yoga, watching TV, healthy cooking and meal prepping, and time with family and friends.

Simple, right? Unsurprisingly, it didn't turn out to be quite that easy. 

Another lesson from The Productivity Project was the role your brain plays in all this. From what I remember, there are basically two parts of your brain that control your motivation: prefrontal cortex and limbic system (something like that). The prefrontal cortex is where your brain processes complex and difficult tasks (e.g. reading academic texts and writing assignments) and your limbic system is the feeder for procrastination, where you passively absorb fun things (e.g. a Netflix binge or, in my case, an inexplicable new addiction to YouTube makeup channels that coincides with the first year of PhD studies). 

The more you exercise your prefrontal cortex, the easier it is to get cracking on the productive things you know you should do and, in many cases, really want to do to keep your life together. Because it's so easy to feed your limbic system and you get a little buzz from doing so, it is often the stronger muscle.

Thankfully, the act of writing this post pulled me out of my Friday morning limbic activity. I've worked my prefrontal cortex by flexing my writing muscle and producing something. 

So, as it turns out, I'm not some kind of Time-Balance Grad Student Superwoman. And that's okay. Like many before me, I am struggling with self-discipline and managing open expanses of time.

I am committed to winning this time/balance battle, starting by doing something many grad students would think is bananas: Reading a book for fun.

To be continued...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anishinabe Scattergories

The first time I realized that the answer to a question didn't have to be obvious was in grade two. My teacher, Freeda, asked: "What is your favourite season?"

Each student had the chance to answer and a chorus of "Summer!" rang through the classroom. One of the kids responded, "Winter" and was met with looks of horror or disgust.

"My favourite part of the year is the change in seasons," said Freeda. "I love it when the first snow falls and then thaws to reveal fresh plants and flowers. It's a beautiful cycle and we get to witness it again and again."

Intrigued by how the answer stood outside of the standard responses us seven-year-olds could think up, I tried to employ this new technique later in Algonquin language class. We were playing a handmade board game, basically an Anishinabe version of Scattergories.

The teacher read from a list of categories and we had to silently write down our responses on a piece of paper, hoping that no other student would have the same answer and leave us both pointless.

Of course, we all knew there were four colours in the medicine wheel: white, yellow, red and black. But I remembered my grandmother explaining to me why she always hung a purple ribbon on her medicine wheels: "Purple is a very sacred, spiritual colour," she explained.

When the time came to read our responses and count up the points for each unique answer, I proudly responded, "Purple!" to the medicine wheel question, convinced that I had bested them all.

"There's no purple in the medicine wheel," said my teacher. "Wrong." I began to protest, but she was already moving on to the next kid.

Much to my dismay, my constant companion and competitor in class was the only student to answer white and received one point.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Privilege of Being a Rez Bookworm


The highlight of my life as a ten year old was when the Scholastic Book Fair came to town the rez. I can still remember the anticipation of its arrival (second only to the anticipation of receiving a Scholastic Book Order), begging my parents for as much shopping money as they would give, and seeing the poster boards up around the school, the date written in black permanent marker.


When the Book Fair arrived, our teacher lined us up and paraded us over to the high school section of the school where the fair was set up. I pored over the books for as long as they let us browse--not nearly long enough, as far as I was concerned. I loved the swaths of books of all genres set up in tidy piles across numerous tables. The books were colourful, shiny, and new. Just waiting to be devoured on the couch that Saturday. I would purchase one book from a favourite series like Sweet Valley High or Goosebumps, and save the rest of my money for when I could return at lunch and recess and browse without the pressure of returning to class. In this uninterrupted time I would carefully consider and select however many books I could afford, sure to spend any spare change on a bookmark or two.

I would move through the rest of the day thinking of nothing but the books in my bag, finding any opportunity I could to set them out and just look at them or swap titles with my fellow book nerd BFF.

My love of books was enshrined.

---

A few weeks ago, I returned to my old school on the rez, the one with the book fairs. I was attending an event in the school library and I was hit with a dose of nostalgia seeing a poster for an upcoming Scholastic Book Fair in the hallway.


I walked into the library and it felt so small. It was set up exactly the same as it had been when I was a kid: a magazine corner next to the check out counter; a couple of computers along the wall; and four short stacks of books at the back, with a children's section at the far end.

Granted, I was small the last time I had spent any significant time in this library. And before I'd had the chance to grow up, come-of-age, and maybe explore those library stacks beyond the children's section, I moved. To the city.

And that's when I realized I'd been living in a Book Desert.


It was when my mom took me to the Chapters bookstore in downtown Ottawa. I'd heard about it from one of my new teachers in junior high (a novelty to me, since no junior high existed on the rez but I'd seen it "glamourized" on Degrassi), who told us of this massive bookstore that had two floors! And sure enough right in the middle of the store was an escalator that moved me up to the children's and teen sections where I could spend hours.

How had I gone so long without knowing a place like this existed?

Did these city people realize how lucky they were to be able to buy any book they wanted just outside their front door?

Mom, when can we come here again?

---

On the reserve today, there is still hardly a place to browse and shop for books. In fact, I can't think of one.

My boyfriend's reserve is next to a slightly larger town than mine, so kids and people there could buy books at Wal-Mart. But have you seen a Wal-Mart book section? Sure, it has some bestsellers and, arguably, a true book nerd would make it work--but how can you inspire a love of reading in children with such limited book resources?

Although I've taken to public libraries this year, to this day one of my favourite hobbies is still browsing in bookstores, both small independent ones and massive chains (I have no shame).

The truth of the matter is that to be a bookworm on the reserve is a true privilege.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Canada Worth Celebrating


Kanata by Greg Hill

Tomorrow I'm meeting with people from a university in England and I have the pleasure of explaining to them why my office (an Aboriginal resource centre at a university) exists. Today being Canada Day and all, I got to thinking: What would be a Canada worth celebrating?

Some obvious things come to mind: honour the treaties, stop the Keystone XL pipeline (and other environmentally violent projects), treat Indigenous women with respect, recognize our nationhood.

Tomorrow, I will tell the Brits about why our office exists. It is because colonization is a fact in this country. I will use the example of residential schools as one of its most violent forms (but I won't fail to mention the theft of land, and the destruction of the role of women and governance traditions). And I will explain the way this assault on Indigenous peoples has created a plethora of socioeconomic issues that plague our beautiful women, men, children, elders, and communities.

Will it be a lot for them to learn in 5 minutes? Probably. Will they understand it upon reflection? I hope so. Will it shatter what they think they know about "Indians"? That's certainly what I'm going for.

On Friday I was talking to other activists about hope - Indigenous rights advocates, feminists, and proponents of diversity. We wondered, like all activists do at some point, if the work we are doing is any different than it was 30, 40 years ago. More importantly, is the world better off?

"Should we lower our expectations?" questioned a woman who's been in the field for over 30 years.

To me, the answer is obvious: No. I have absolutely high expectations of Canadians, and the role they must play in decolonization and reconciliation. And I don't plan on lowering them one bit. I also have hope that it's possible, because the majority of Canadians are loving and compassionate people.

This is why my office at the university exists: it is a responsibility. Canada wanted to eliminate so much of what makes our nations great through the residential school system. Apparently, 5 years ago, Canada realized what they did was wrong and issued an apology. Today, all school systems in this country have the responsibility to make space for Indigenous ways of knowing to be reclaimed and to grow and flourish.

When Canadians take the time to understand this history, to assume their responsibility, to respect our nationhood alongside their own, and to take tangible action to decolonize Canada, I will stand with you and say:

Happy Canada Day.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

An Activist Nap

A tiny glimpse into my personal life: I am a napper. Last night, after work, I napped from 5-7 p.m. (Could have something to do with the fact that I'm an on-and-off anemic, but that's besides the point.) After a nap like this, I wake up feeling one of two ways: 1) refreshed and ready to be productive for the final few evening hours, or 2) "WHAT?!? It's 7! How am I going to cook, clean, watch my favourite show, work out, and get to bed at a decent hour? Why do I do this to myself!!!" (Luckily, last night was the former.)

Since late March/early April, I've been napping.

I stopped listing to CBC Radio in the mornings and tuned into Hot 89.9.

I finished reading "X-Marks" by Scott Richard Lyons, then picked up "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?" by Mindy Kaling.


I took a time-out from twitter in favour of constantly trolling my never-ending Facebook Newsfeed.

I fell behind reading some of my favourite blogs, like Native Appropriations and mediaINDIGENA, but read back posts on blogs like Suri's Burn Book and Young House Love.

Notice a trend here? I took, what I'll call, an "Activist Nap."

I'm not going to apologize for any of it. I'll still listen to Hot 89.9 when I'm in my car, and Young House Love is on my daily reading list. But this girl's nap is over.

I had an absolutely wild fall season. It was the busiest and most amazing time of my life, as I took on my biggest challenge yet of teaching a college class of 30 awesome Native students.


And after my class wrapped up on Tuesday afternoons? I hit the road to recruit more students to come to post-secondary education!

I expected the winter to be more quiet and a time to regroup, but instead I published my MA research paper, did a juice cleanse, and travelled more for work.

During one of said travels, I was having a conversation with a couple of Native colleagues. We were talking about the work we do in our 9-5's and our activism and community engagements on evenings and weekends.

"It's exhausting being Indigenous sometimes," one bemused.

We got onto the topic of books. After flexing our academic muscles and talking about what books we were reading by Native authors, the conversation quickly turned to "fun" books as we got talking about everything from sci-fi to Jodi Picoult.

"Sometimes you just have to take a time out and read a fun book."

I took her advice. I didn't completely tune out the news, but I allowed myself the luxury of reading for fun, skipping out on a rally or two, and I let myself off the hook for not being the first to know of each major development in First Nations rights and crises.

I napped. But, rather than it being an hour-long after work nap, it was a 2-month long post-activist nap. I was a Naptivist, if you will. I woke up from this one, not kicking myself for falling so far behind, but feeling refreshed, clear and ready to get back on track.

Monday, February 4, 2013

One-Minute Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian

My blog's been quiet lately, and one of the reasons for it is that I was teaching a class at Algonquin College. If I had the opportunity to teach the class again, I would use Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America as the textbook.

King has been working on this book throughout the majority of his career, and he takes readers with him on select journeys. We begin at home with him and his wife, Helen, and their difference of opinions on where the book begins. We go back in time with King to his job as a administrator in a Native American student centre at a university (what I do now!). Later, we're with him in the spirit world as he waits to find out whether the Musqueam Nation will renew the Shaugnessey Golf Course's lease in 2064.

It seems cliche to write a book review admiring King's prowess as a storyteller, but to ignore the way King tells spells out the history of post-contact, colonial relations on Turtle Island would be an injustice. He does it through stories. Imagine that! He, of course, doesn't give a dry outline of the nation-to-nation relationship, and how it went wrong, by essentially listing government acts, court cases and other material we usually read in textbooks. He tells the stories of the people who's land has been stolen, how its affect them, and what they've done about it.

While King certainly brings the book to a close in a powerful way (and I couldn't help tweeting about it--sorry for the spoiler!), what sold me is the epigraph.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Feelings on December 5, 2012

I'm feeling something. The only word I can think to describe these feelings is "overcome." I don't mean for overcome to be accompanied by the negative connotation that usually goes along with it (though generally I don't like to describe things as positive vs. negative because I think it simplifies things a little too much). I feel overcome, emotional, and, most importantly, like Kije Manido is speaking to me and that my spirit is being sent in another direction away from where I am right now.

I was doing  my best to explain this to R.J. over the phone. At this point in my life, he's the only person I feel comfortable talking to about these feelings while I work them out. I'm worried that trying to explain these feelings to even some of my closest family and friends might come out sounding a little kooky. Yet, blogging about it for the world to see is okay. Go figure.

Anyway, R.J.'s advice was to spend time with the land. Go for a walk. See nature. Do something. I remember making a promise to myself when I was travelling this fall that when I got back to the office I would walk down to the river (I can see it from my flippin window!) every day and put tobacco in the water. Like Nanny recommends. But I never did it, not once - until today.

I plowed through the bush. Was careful not to step on pooh (or mud--that goes to show how much time I spend in "the bush"). When I got there, there were four ducks in the water (two couples, I think). A crow flying overhead. Geese honking at a distance. Squirrels climbing trees. If I would've turned around I would've seen the university. But for a moment, I felt better. And the ducks! They almost brought tears to my eyes. (That's along the lines of what I mean when I say I feel overcome and emotional.)

Still working things out. But my spirit is stirring.