<![CDATA[Tara Cater - Blog]]>Sat, 30 Jan 2016 04:51:13 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[The advice I wish I had received as a first year PhD student.]]>Thu, 21 Jan 2016 16:43:10 GMThttp://www.taracater.com/blog/the-advice-i-wish-i-had-received-as-a-first-year-phd-studentPicture
Today I have been asked to speak to a first year PhD class at Carleton University, to talk about “the advice I wish I had received as a first year PhD student.” Thinking back on my mess of a first year I really wanted to think about the ways I had grown, and to humbly extend some lessons I had learned along the way in the hopes that other PhDs may find them useful.

  1. Practice Self- Care
One of my committee members is a professor in the School of Social Work at Carleton named Susan.  She calls the university an “insecurity factory.” Last summer, post proposal defence, when I was at my most stressed and frustrated point in the program, she urged me to “re-align my head and my heart.” She encouraged me to focus on self-care and to cultivate daily practices, which would help me live better as a scholar. Some of these practices she recommended including journaling, practicing yoga, cultivating strong friendships, writing poetry, playing music, etc. She told me that the only way to do good work with others was to care for myself.

 This lesson is not often shared in grad school, especially not in first year when coursework, proposals, applying for scholarships, and getting adjusted to a new department/school/supervisor is often the major concern. But Susan was right. She gave me examples of seminal scholars in my field and how they coped with the pressures of academia. One top scholar had a dog that was her companion species and she would take everywhere. Another one would play music. And Susan advocated for journaling.

 Academics have a high rate of mental health disorders. Long hours, isolating work environments, and increasing job insecurity rack havoc on the already over-productive mind. There is also a “culture of acceptance” around mental health disorders at university campuses. Taking care of yourself as a first year PhD student means both a) being responsible for your own happiness and health (as neoliberal discourse-ish as that sounds), and b) holding others accountable for investing in your well-being and success as both a PhD student and well-rounded human.
One way I would like to see self-care implemented into first year PhD programs is to start an open discussion about “the insecurity factory” in academia. By talking about unhappiness, stress, and depression and addressing it within the course of the program, we can help students to develop strong rituals of self-care, cultivate mutually- supportive relationships, and ground their work in heartfull and healthy places.

 Ultimately, when we teach and practice self-care we are pulling back the veil of academia and showing the hard struggles that come with this career path. Through this unveiling, we create a forum to discuss ways to make academia more humane. Most importantly: practicing self- care is not just about the ‘self’ but about how care ripples through the work that is produced, as it is grounded deeper and deeper into better ways of communicating, caring, and understanding others. This is revolutionary work stretching our accountability to others and ourselves even as this neoliberal mentality pervasive on our world today tells us we are individual and alone in our journeys.
2. Find your mentors

My second piece of advice is to find your mentors. Don’t assume that your supervisor or committee members, or coursework instructors will be the mentors you need. My supervisor seemed amazing on paper, but after switching universities to work with her, I realized that we are not compatible as mentors/ mentees. We can still work together well, but I needed more support to bring my ambitious doctoral project forward.

This is why I urge first year students to attend conferences, seminars, and courses at other institutions. Go out into the wide work of academia and look for your mentors. Mentors are those people who, a) care about you and your work and b) are willing to put in the emotional and intellectual work to help you realize your potential and become the academic you need to be. For me, I met one mentor through my Master’s supervisor (my first academic mentor). Her name is Gerti and she is an Austrian academic. Gerti has consistently been an encouraging force as I shape my doctoral project. She has extensive experience studying labour migration in the Canadian Arctic, her methods are incredibly unique and inspiring, and her warmth and joy echo throughout any space she occupies. Regularly communicating with Gerti is really helpful to discuss my results, methodology, and future work. My third mentor I met at a PhD course in Arctic Finland. He is top Arctic anthropologist working in Greenland. We have become pen pals, and these regular communications keep my love for working in Pan- Arctic regions alive through the hard and often boring daily struggles of the PhD program.

 Ultimately, I urge first-year PhD students to explore the wide world of academia and to look for mentors away from your home institution. Always be looking for the next person who could help shape your life and work and don’t worry too much if this isn’t your supervisor. In Mindy Kaling’s book “Why not me?” her mentor Greg Daniels writes,
“You take your mentoring where you can find it, even if it is not being offered to you. Have you ever used your neighbor’s WiFi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their Wi-Fi” (Kaling 2015, 89).
So, get out of town and find those mentors. You find them through sharing your ideas widely and moving through the various communities of scholarship available to you.
3. Exude confidence and be kind

The university as a place is filled with brilliant people who question their brilliance everyday. This is called impostor syndrome—basically, the inability for brilliant people to internalize their own accomplishments. As a PhD student, I think the most necessary thing you need is to be confident: in yourself, your work, your purpose, and your needs. Being confident links up to the first and second lessons (practice self care + find your mentors). When you are confident you can ask people to be your mentor, protest unfair grades, apply for major scholarships, present your work at international forums, TA a class of students who are only a few years younger than you, etc. This confidence and belief in yourself and your own abilities is what will help you to move forward as an academic.

The difficult thing I find is that, as a PhD student, your supervisor and committee expect that you will already have the confidence to speak up to them about what you need. Your committee sees you as a peer and holds you accountable to be at their level. Yet, no one really teaches PhD students the importance of being confident (not cocky) and asking for support and guidance as they grow into academics.

So to take motivation from Mindy Kaling my favourite comic: “People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That's a mistake…I don't understand how you could have self-confidence if you don't do the work…Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” Put in the time to learn your topic. Study for your comps like your very life depends on it. Know your field site in and out. Dress professionally, always be on time, volunteer for departmental committees, and take notes at departmental seminars. Show that you are a confident force, and ask like a colleague. Kick that impostor syndrome in the face and push down that voice that says you are too young/ stupid/ unprepared to be an academic.

Once you have mastered your confidence, remember this advice Professor F. J. Foakes Jackson (a Cambridge academic) gave to a new arrival at the University in the early 1900s, “It’s no use trying to be clever—we are all clever here; just try to be kind—a little kind.” Academia is a largely impersonal and competitive discipline and being kind to people goes a long way in showing your worth as a scholar and your potential for collaboration and friendship.
Those are my three biggest lessons thus far: Practice self-care, find your mentors, and exude confidence and be kind. Good luck on the journey ahead.

<![CDATA[Update! ]]>Fri, 10 Oct 2014 15:24:04 GMThttp://www.taracater.com/blog/updatePicture
I thought in this blog post I would give a brief update on my progress thus far in the PhD program, and then discuss my potential research questions, and goals for the comprehensive exam.

So, at this moment in time, I have completed my first year of coursework in Geography and Political Economy, conducted my preliminary field season in Nunavut in November of 2013, and am studying for my comprehensive exams. 

During the summer, I attended the International Congress on Arctic Social Sciences at the University of Northern British Columbia. At this conference I presented in a topical session on labour mobility and community sustainability and discussed my working conceptual framework for understanding the impacts of fly-in/fly-out work arrangements in the Canadian north.

The response I received was really positive. In addition, I have been working closely with my research assistant in Nunavut and an organization called the Kivalliq Mine Training Society to get a better idea of relevant research questions and areas of focus.

My doctoral work focuses on fly-in/fly-out work arrangements in Nunavut. And at the conference an expert in my field, Dr. Keith Storey, asked me to summarize my research in one sentence: I decided on “Surviving Mine work.” My research objective is to explore coping strategies, motivation for, and objection to long-distance commuting, across the multiple spaces of the workplace, travel time and spaces, and the home and community. I’m attempting to bring together literature on northern development, political economy, and multi-sited ethnography to examine the dynamics of labour migration between Northern (so above sixty degrees latitude) and Southern regions of Canada.

While engaging with literature on fly-in/fly-out work arrangements in Canada, Russia, and Australian contexts I began to realize that there is a persistent focus on the workplace as the key site of analysis. This narrow focus leaves the relationships between mining work and families and communities largely undeveloped. This is where I hope my research can make significant insights.

My emerging research questions are: What are the implications of the predominantly temporary and flexible needs of FIFO work organizations, for workers, their families, and communities? And How have various actors taken up the work of social reproduction of workers, families, and communities?

I want to use multi-sited ethnography as both a method and as a way of seeing and asking questions. I don’t want my research to simply examine northern communities and the impact of mineral development activities, as that is what I covered in my master’s research, but rather I want to look at how mining towns came to be transformed to fly-in/fly-out work camps, how neoliberalism and the neoliberalization of Canadian economies has impacted mine workers and the companies, and how ideas about Canada and the Canadian north are being constructed and brought into being through mobile and flexible work in arctic areas. 

My comprehensive exam focused broadly on geographies of work. My goal is to situate this this topic within the discipline of Geography and within broader theoretical and methodological literatures. I also want to take my passion for ethnographies and cultural geography and ground myself into political economy literature.

My sub-themes are Feminist economic Geography and geographies of social reproduction and Cultural Geographies of Work/ Ethnographies of Work. As of now, the deadline I have set is that I will get my question in mid-November and will write until mid- December, then defend in early January.

Currently I have worked my way through the list on cultural geographies of work and am just getting into the Feminist economic geography. Happy Reading!  

<![CDATA[Thoughts on Nomad Stories]]>Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:05:06 GMThttp://www.taracater.com/blog/thoughts-on-nomad-storiesPicture
Thoughts on being a nomad,

“And there are new kinds of nomads, not people who are at home everywhere, but who are at home nowhere. I was one of them.” ~Robyn Davidson, Desert Places

I watched a film yesterday called “Tracks.” This film first got my attention when I saw the trailer on a plane journey from Vancouver home to Ottawa in May. The film is a gift—full of an epic journey across the Australian Outback from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. The main love in the story is the love between a young passionate and independent wild woman and her dog and camels. These animals serve as her companion species, following her on her journey, and helping her with the hard work of carrying packs and supporting her. Her dog serves as a guide at one point in the movie, when in an emotional moment, she realizes she dropped her compass and finds herself separated from her camels searching for the lost and sentimental item. She is terrified to have lost sight of the camels and all her supplies and screams at the dog “Digby, GO HOME.” The dog is confused at first but then takes off across the flat, red earth. She runs after the dog and is lead finally back to the waiting camels and safety. Throughout the movie, the dog is a constant. A companion species in the truest sense: her confidante, her protector, and her travel partner.

And throughout the entire movie, the love story is really not between the National Geographic photographer and the independent traveller, but is rather between this woman and her dogs and the camels. It is only when the dog dies that her journey loses its excitement and she realizes she can’t go on. It’s only then that she realizes that she is lost and alone and scared and perhaps this journey was too much for her. It is only then that we see the human love story evolve as the photographer steps up to prove himself to be a compassionate and honourable soul who helps her finish her journey successfully and ultimately become her love.

I loved this film for so many reasons, but mostly because it was about wandering. About being a nomad and feeling uncomfortable within the constraints of space and time that one is born into. The young traveller left her city, left her friends and family and just wanted to be alone. But more than that, she was irrefutably annoyed be the society which she lived in. She was bored of alcohol, and conversations, and racism and living in an urban centre away from the large open spaces she loved. Much like the seminal story of “Into the Wild” She wanted to be alone, not to prove anything or for the fame of the journey, but to simply stop functioning in a world she no longer appreciated.  She wanted to find strange and beautiful adventures along an uncertain and ever-changing path. Throughout the film we see her flashbacks—the hard memories she is attempting to push down and struggle with as she crosses rough topographies of the earth, heart, and mind.

I love everything about this film. Especially: the movement. The beauty of the landscapes, and the animals and the fierce determination of the actress. I love the commitment to nomadism, to meeting and honouring differences in the Aboriginal peoples the traveller encountered. I love the distain in which she addresses the photographer until he proves himself to be an equally beautiful human being. I love the film’s ability to pose questions I often long about such as: how can I walk more carefully on this earth and do less harm to others and ourselves? (With regard to the ways in which the traveller peacefully left her unhappiness in the city and encountered the people she needed to meet, developing new relationships and new experiences on the move). How can we tell exciting stories of movement (our own camel stories) honouring the importance of our (un)rooted nomad stories? And how can our encounters with animals, and fellow humans, the earth, and our own fragile hearts and bodies become more compassionate? Ultimately this film showed once again, that life is all about connections, disconnections, and the spatial stories we need to share with others.

The author of Tracks and the real life traveller the film is based on, Robyn Davidson, says: “Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they mere change form.”

<![CDATA[Notes on belonging...]]>Mon, 16 Jun 2014 20:55:00 GMThttp://www.taracater.com/blog/notes-on-belongingNotes on belonging…

My master’s research was deeply focused on how a northern community, Rankin Inlet, Nunavut was adapting to a new mine being developed right outside of town. This mine followed a long history of mining and industrial development in the north. In Rankin Inlet this mining legacy has left behind environmental hazards from the mine tailings, rending the seafood found along the community’s shoreline unsafe to eat. I collected stories of orange dust on the snow, worries about human and environmental health, and ‘sacrifice zones’ where no new development could occur. Mining it seems, has left its mark on Rankin Inlet’s physical landscapes—from the scale of the body to the land. This was the story I weaved as I wrote my master’s: an ever-emerging narrative of uncertain environmental and economic futures in the changing (sub)arctic.

Stories of change are important. The ‘arctic’ has become the central focus for not only arctic states such as Canada and Russia, but increasingly non-artic state focus by Italy, China, and Poland. But little is still known about the people who call the arctic home and what these wider environmental, socio-economic, and geo-political changes mean for their daily livelihoods.

The concept of belonging in the north is always present in the narratives I recorded. Belonging to place, to land, to legacy. It is the ties, the attachments to land, and the stories carried on through generations that make shared place identities.  Belonging to the north means caring about sustainable development, and forging life stories through the waves of encounter, destruction, and rebirth.

And we know little of what it means to belong to the north. To commit to living in a harsh and beautiful land. To understand what it means to deal with constantly changing realities. To have Ellen DeGeneres take a selfie at the Oscars and to feel the ripples of destruction throughout the northern seal economies. Understanding what it means to belong in the north, means reordering stories of uncertainty, of change, of adaptation, of encounter, of flows of newcomers. How we understand what it means to belong to the north can only be theorized by paying close attention to the flows of outsiders and insiders co-living in the north and how they both work towards uncertain arctic futures.

To belong to the arctic is to live an uncertain life of constant change. To belong to the arctic is to constantly welcome those who do not belong to build a new resource economy. To belong to the arctic is to redefine what sustainable futures are, as the ice melts. To live a life of change.