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In my opinion

Party or perish

Why I won’t be attending your seasonal party.

BY J.N. LITTLE | NOV 07 2011

I’ve done some very social things in my life in the name of work. I was employed as a karaoke waitress to pay for most of my master’s degree. I dressed up as Wonder Woman for a conference presentation, marched in demonstrations with students, and drank plenty of coffee with mentors and mentees. When I’m not on campus, my neighbours can be assured a friendly smile and chat, and fellow dog-owners at the local dog-walking park can expect the same. Aside from the one time I hid below my living-room window to avoid the census taker, I like to think of myself as pretty approachable.

Yet, despite this well-adjusted picture of me, there are seven words that strike fear into my heart. Those words are: “Are you coming to the staff party?”

Parties, as a rule, do serve a purpose in professional realms. I realize that. They are important for marking transitions – things like welcoming new faculty and staff, honouring retirements, and acknowledging signposts in the yearly teaching cycle. Their intent, I know, is to promote a sense of cohesiveness despite our disparate roles in an often fragmented workplace.
But recently, a mentor encouraged me to be “more social” as a means of making me more “tenure-track friendly” in this era of endless sessional appointments. And then when I heard, along with her advice, the seven deadly words, this recently minted PhD began to panic.

Why more social? After all, I have been the epitome of social grace when compared with my Chaucer professor who, when I was an undergraduate, would only answer my questions through the opening of a crack in his office door, framed by his impressively large hands and appropriately long fingers that braced the door from any undergraduate attack.

But it is precisely the paradox of being a contract instructor and clinician that precludes me from becoming “tenure-track friendly.” I cannot attend academic events when they coincide with my community-work contract hours. I am woefully absent from student celebrations and reviews because I am busy doing the very work I train them to do. Similarly, I cannot attend planning days with my community work team when I am busy teaching. When the choice comes down to meeting my student and client obligations or attending a staff function, I will always choose the former.

To be sure, people want a sense of connectedness with their colleagues at work, beyond sharing a discipline, theories and students. This makes sense. But now, it seems, these events are also considered to be character assessments. Combined with my own healthy level of social anxiety, this leaves me even less inclined to attend.

There is an assumption that those of us who thrive in a classroom also will bloom in a calendar-driven social greenhouse. But consider: Living the life of the contract worker means that I might get invitations to more than two staff parties each semester, each with its incumbent gift exchanges, potluck contributions and required cheeriness quotient.  And although I am committed to each area of work I am contracted for, I find myself unable to go the extra social mile for this same commitment. Even if I could attend, I probably wouldn’t be the life of the party.

What I propose instead is that everyday acts of generosity should also receive recognition for “being social.” I like to think that the daily climate of my multiple work spaces benefit from my appreciative presence. I do acknowledge those who make my work life easier, whether it’s with an occasional thank-you note or fresh flowers from my garden or an open door when I’m there. In my experience, such gestures result in more genuine relationships that last all through the contract. So please don’t judge me on whether I attend the staff party.

As for the Chaucer professor, imagine my surprise when I met him at the grocery store, after he had retired. (This venue, as it happens, was also the site of my best informal graduate supervision when, racing to buy some food between contracts, I lingered in the aisle to discuss qualitative methodology with a student who lives in the neighbourhood.) I recognized Dr. Chaucer in the parking lot by his large hands as he pushed his grocery cart to his car, framed by his long fingers. I thought to ask him something about Chaucer, but had nothing clever to say, so instead I waved. He waved back, no door between us. And I thought: without social obligation, we professors can be very social indeed.

Dr. Little works at the University of Victoria as a sessional instructor, course writer and research assistant. She is also a clinician specializing in eating disorders.

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