Barred owls

Barred owls

I’ve been married now for over 21 years and last spring I fell in love. My marriage is safe, however; the objects of my devotion live in Indiana and I’ve never seen them in real life. One day into my Twitter feed came a tweet about a barred owl camera, I clicked on it, and that was the end for me. This year I was delighted to discover that the same owl parents were using the same nesting box. The three eggs have not yet hatched.

Last spring the nesting box was inhabited by a mother owl, her three owlets and the shadowy figure of the dad, who made occasional appearances with crayfish and worms in the dead of night. When I first met this family, two owlets had hatched and the third egg was still sitting there. When the mother owl left briefly to hunt, the tiny white owlets snuggled up to the sibling egg and slept. Then, on April 10, very early in the morning, the smallest owlet was born.

In those early days, the mother owl stayed with her young almost all the time, leaving only briefly to hunt. I left the owl cam open on the computer, with the volume up, so that I could hear if anything were happening. As I went about the house, I could occasionally hear the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” hoot of the owl, in response to her mate. They would chat briefly, with the female puffing up her feathers every time she called, and then she would settle her wings carefully around her owlets and resume her rest. 

Barred owls are mainly nocturnal, so much of her hunting took place at night. Tiny owlets need frequent feeding, so she and her mate would stock the larder overnight and then she would feed them about every 3 hours all day with the rabbit, or frog, or fish that lay in a corner of the nesting box. She snoozed much of the time, but occasionally would have her gorgeous huge dark brown eyes open. She changed position from time to time, allowing me to admire the lovely fluffy white feathers that are usually hidden under the stiff striped feathers of her tail.C9ovjVXXoAMsR95.jpg

It turns out it’s actually pretty loud inside a nesting box 30 feet up a tree in Indianapolis. The day shift is busy outside, with the jays calling, the woodpeckers hammering and the male cardinals singing enthusiastically to their modest brown mates. I already hated loud landscaping equipment, and when I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine as it is experienced in a nesting box,  my rejection of such machines was confirmed. That this poor dedicated mother, trying to snatch a nap in between feeding sessions of her young, should be so disturbed!

I was much taken by the beauty of the birds: the striped softness of the mother, the white down and tiny winglets of the infant owls, and now their brown and white fluffiness. The facial disk so characteristic of many owls, in which the feathers are arranged circularly around the large eyes, were evident even when the owlets were tiny. It has been a pleasure to see the daily activity of animals so close up.

But it’s not just a question of beauty and biological observation for me. I realized as I watched this mother that I was experiencing profound fellow-feeling with her.  I was remembering my experience with my babies as a physical experience, as a creature. After she fed her tiny owlets and preened them carefully, she settled her wings around them to provide warmth and shelter, and closed her eyes. (Click on the link for an adorable video). I remembered sitting in the nursing chair, nursing my infant, both our eyes closed and peace all around and between us. We were warm and dry and fed, and nestling together was all there was to do.

I saw the owlets, usually huddled together when the mother is off hunting, hear her approach. They stretched their wings, often almost toppling over, shot out their necks and generally got terribly excited. I was reminded of walking up the stairs to get the baby out of bed, after a nap, and hearing a sudden rustling in the bed clothes and shaking of the crib against the wall as the child wriggled in joy at my impending arrival.

I saw the frenetic motions of the owls as they eat, and the stillness of their bodies as their mother preens their tiny feathers, and I remember one day when my youngest was one or two. She was profoundly upset, her body shaking and hot, and I opened my arms to her. She came into them, pressed her trembling body against mine, and was suddenly quiet and still. I thought, “Only I can do this. Only I can be her mum.”

I saw how busy this mother owl was. When the owlets are about three weeks old, they are much more active in the nest. They eat much more, and she and her mate spend a lot of time hunting, leaving the owlets alone. As they have done from the beginning, they snuggle up to each other to keep warm. The smallest owlet is often jammed between the elder two. As they sleep, they sway on their feet trying to keep their balance. Often they lose the battle, flop over and then right themselves. This swaying motion reminds me of nothing more than graduate students trying to stay awake during an afternoon seminar. The mother is so careful with them, and takes such good care. This reminds me of the incredible amount of energy it took for me to care for my human babies. Sometimes it was hard to put their needs above my own. The mother owl spent a long time feeding her young one rainy day with the feathers on her own head wet and bedraggled. Once they were settled, she preened herself.stretched out

I admire this barred owl mother so much. She shows me that I am an animal mother too, and that my focus on the children to the virtual exclusion of all else when they were very young is natural. It makes me feel better about my extreme discomfort at leaving my babies for longer than a few hours when they were very small, and my reluctance now to have them away from me now for much longer than the length of a school day. When they come home, although they are all so much older now, they each want a hug and a cuddle and some quiet time. We all like to be near each other.

It makes me feel better about my initially astonishing lack of desire to pick up my intellectually-based ambitious busy life after the children were born. The physical reality of motherhood is more profound than I had ever dreamed. Thank you, barred owls.


Teaching Kids to Cook: Stir-fry

A nine-year-old made this: Baked tofu, rice and stir-fried baby bok choy. It was delicious. She was very proud of herself. These recipes are of course perfectly suitable for adults to cook too. Here’s how:

Simple Baked Tofu (based on the recipe in Moosewood Restaurant New Classics) and known in our house as Tofood, thanks to toddler pronunciation

1 package extra-firm tofu
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375°C. Cut the tofu into bite-size cubes, and toss in a 9×13 baking dish or a cookie sheet, with oil, garlic and soy sauce. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring about every ten minutes. We like ours really chewy so we turn off the oven and leave it in there while the rice is cooking. It is delicious and moreish and one of my sisters calls it crackfu.


Boiled rice, as taught to me by my dad, who remained convinced, even after he had five children, that one cup of rice would always be enough. He is otherwise a completely marvellous cook.

Use 1 cup of rice for every three people. Add two cups of water for each cup of rice, and put pot on high heat. When the pot boils, turn it down to low. Check it after about 15 minutes. Once there are holes in the surface of the rice and no water is visible, turn it off and leave the lid on.

So, you see where this is going? Two out of the three parts of this meal can sit happily and wait while the stir-frying takes place in all its splattery goodness.

Stir-fried greens in oyster sauce, from the Young Thailand cookbook. Young Thailand is a restaurant in Toronto and going there was one of our favourite treats when we lived there. I have not been able to find gluten-free oyster sauce, so I just use soy sauce instead.

A bunch of any kind of greens, such as bok choy. We used 6 baby bok choys and doubles the sauce quantities for five people, one of whom hates cooked greens.
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tbsp cold water (As you mix it, you and the child can talk about how it’s a non-Newtonian liquid in that the pressure of the spoon causes the liquid to act like a solid for a few second. Newtonian liquids, like water, don’t do this).

20180130_181700.jpgChop the greens into a size you would like to eat. Heat oil until very hot in a wok or large frying pan. Add garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds, making sure it does not darken. Add greens and water and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until the greens are starting to wilt. Add the sauces of your choice and cook for about 1 more minute. Add your non-Newtonian liquid and cook briefly until the veggies look shiny and you have a little sauce around them.

Serve your masterpieces!

Our younger two (nine and twelve) started learning to cook in January. The teenager started cooking one meal a week when he was ten. He has always been interested in food, and he started complaining that my cooking was getting boring. “Be my guest,” I said. It would be inaccurate to say I taught him to cook. I prevented the occasional conflagration, but this is a child whom it has always been difficult to instruct. He wants to puzzle out everything for himself. In the early days, while he was figuring out that recipes gave quantities for a reason, we ate some odd meals. The Japanese noodle salad with a whole package of dried seaweed in it, instead of a quarter of a cup, lingers in my memory as one of the saltiest meals I have ever eaten. He persisted, and last week he made homemade macaroni cheese based on a beautiful cheese sauce. When I’m ill, I know he can step in and make sure the household is fed. And that’s the goal. Yes, we want the children to be able to look after themselves, but what they really need to is to be able to look after other people

It’s a different story with my younger children. They relish the idea of cooking lessons. Little has hers on Tuesday and Middle’s is on Wednesday. We start at 4;30 at the latest, for a 6 pm dinner. Cooking takes a lot of time for beginners. I’m trying to teach them useful menus to have up their sleeves, as well as the art of making what it is in the house. Little’s first meal was chicken noodle soup, made from homemade stock and leftover chicken from Sunday dinner. I showed her how to serve it with chopped vegetables, herbs, lime juice and hot sauce in little bowls so that everyone could make it to their own taste. After struggles with the garlic press, she exclaimed, “I didn’t know you had to be a body-builder to cook.” Once the meal was ready, she professed surprise at how hard on the legs cooking is, and how tiring. I concurred, remembering the joyful days of bathing the toddler, putting the baby to bed, and getting supper on the table, all by 6 pm. That first week, Middle made meatloaf and baked potatoes and broccoli. Once we were sitting at the table eating their meal, each of them had an expression of delighted disbelief: “I made that, and it’s good.”

Cooking has made them notice the work others do in the kitchen, and appreciate it more. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware that there is activity in the kitchen that results in a meal, and quite another to produce the meal yourself. It’s like watching Olympic snowboarding and then trying to snowboard on your local hill. It has made them think about food differently. Middle, always, shall we say, a discerning eater, decided to try out the lettuce he had torn and washed himself, and he actually liked it. He was completely thrilled to be using the salad spinner all by himself. He also suggested a lesson on roast chicken so that when he was a grown-up he could invite people over for dinner and cook it for them. One Sunday his dad taught him how to do it, along with the roast potatoes for which the spouse is renowned.

The rules in our house are simple. Don’t complain; you only have to do this once a week. Cook from scratch; opening a jar and calling it spaghetti sauce does not count. Whatever you serve, we have to eat. Right down to the saltiest noodle salad in the history of the world. But mostly it’s a joy for all of us.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Happy International Women’s Day!

I celebrated this day, as I do every year and indeed every day, by doing unpaid work at home. pipeToday I hung out some wash for the first time this season; I love hanging out laundry and usually put out the first load when snow still covers the garden, as is the case today. Last year part of my celebration was unclogging the kitchen drain at 8:30 at night. I don’t feel unappreciated in my unpaid work. The children and the spouse often thank me for it, and notice how much I do. This work is not invisible nor is it unappreciated.

What I’m thinking about most today is my paid work. You may have noticed the long gap in posts last fall. I stepped out of the slow lane and took a job teaching second-year history  during the fall term at Carleton University here in Ottawa. I had taught there from 2003-2008, starting when the teenager was one year old and I was finishing my dissertation, and stopping just before the birth of Little, our third child. I was inspired to reapply as a contract lecturer (also know as a sessional) last spring, when I took the children to Discovery Day at the Carleton University Library. I remembered how much I love just being at a university; I like being around students and books and learning. Carleton is also an especially pleasant university. There is an atmosphere of kindness, coupled with a rigourous degree of administrative competence that I find very appealing. This was the Christmas decoration in the library this year. Nice, eh? tree

So I applied to teach Early Modern European History, a course I had taught before in a somewhat different guise. I’m a medieval historian, so it’s a pretty good fit. I prepared my course over the summer and in September started to teach my 35 students in a nice sunny classroom. I was able to bike to work well into November. Lovely.

I’d like to get the question of white privilege and intersectionality out of the way right now. I positively reek of the middle class. I am white and university-educated, married to a university-educated man. We live in a detached house. My parents are university-educated, and so are my inlaws. I make no claims here to being oppressed on the same scale as women enduring privation and oppression around the world, coping with poverty and lack of advantage. And yet… and yet I am noticing that I am working in a pink ghetto. The pay is terrible, the benefits are minimal, the pension provisions non-existent, the chance of advancement zero.


The job itself was as I remembered. I was nervous at first but then settled in. My class helped a lot with this, since they were energetic, engaged, enthusiastic and talkative. I was so impressed with them. I had been worried that they would all be on their phones the whole time, but most of them looked straight at me for the entire class, waiting for enlightenment. They were very surprised when one day I enlightened them about types of British medieval sheep breeds. Man, I love that stuff. I became comfortable with lecturing again, and this time because I am older perhaps I allowed myself a more informal style. I can happily confirm that I still know how to think and write and advise, and I still love thinking about history as much as ever.

I can also confirm that being a contract lecturer is just as irritating as always. At one point a few weeks into the term I thought, “Ah, yes, I remember this. Doing a job you love, and pretty well at that, with no job security, poor pay and no hope for advancement is really annoying.”  I am appreciated and noticed at home; at work I feel invisible. The only reason I can afford to work as a sessional at all is that my children are old enough so that our household has no daycare costs. Otherwise, it would not be even remotely worth it. And why do I want this job? I trained for it, I can do it, and I want the flexibility of a part-time job. All those degrees mean that we came a bit late to starting our family. All female academics face this dilemma. The end of the PhD often coincides with the beginning of panic about procreation. The few years that women have left in their thirties to bear children are also supposed to be the years of the further apprenticeship leading to the tenure-track job: post-doctoral fellowships, conference presentations, the writing of articles and books. I chose to spend my thirties in raising children, and now I would like to teach part-time. But I also want to be paid well for it.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail put it very well: “if you pay women less than men, they feel devalued in the workplace….” (Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management). That’s just it; I feel devalued in the workplace.

Let me explain. I make exactly the same amount as my male counterparts who work as contract instructors: about $7000 per half course. Before the latest round of collective bargaining, CIs at Carleton were the second worst-paid in Ontario.  Details of the new contract are not yet available. A full course load for a tenured or tenure-track professor is two courses. If I taught that much, I would gross $28,000. I had a look at the figures, published by Ontario law, of those faculty at the university paid over $100,000 per year. On the low end: $121,000; on the high end, $141,000. Some faculty of course do not appear on this list, since they earn less than $100,000. The starting salary of an assistant professor in 2016 was $68,590. Tenured and tenure-track faculty supervise graduate students, serve on committees and do their academic research. They work hard. But are you seriously trying to tell me that those additional duties are worth at least $40,000 a year more than teaching two courses?

It is galling to work as a university instructor with the same level of education (almost all of us have PhDs) side by side with people making so much more money. I bear no animus against tenured faculty. They got lucky; I didn’t. Contract instructors don’t wear signs, so the students can’t tell us fake professors apart from the real ones. I try to bring humanity into my instruction in the humanities, and students respond to that. Over the years I have had people coming to my office hour for career advice (don’t ask me, I got myself into this dead-end job by studying history with skill and enthusiasm) and reassurance. This year, for the first time, a student who had not been in class for a while came in to tell me that he had attempted suicide a number of times over the last month. I sat there stricken with fear for him. Now, luckily, I have a little experience with suicidal people, and was able to treat him as gently and kindly as I knew how. I have worried about him ever since. I’m not teaching this winter, so I never see him on campus. I think that sort of responsibility might be somewhat above my pay grade. I have no training to deal with that; I am not even really part of the institution. Once my contract is up, that’s it.

Among sessionals there is no gender inequity in terms of pay.  The gender inequity at universities exists elsewhere. According to a report on academic staff by gender at Carleton University for 2014-2015, across the university, women made up 40.8% of contract instructors, while their proportion of full professors was 22.1%. The starting salary of a full professor in 2016 was $113,180. We already know what contract instructors make. Recent research notes the following about the situation across Ontario.

A HEQCO [Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario] survey of contract faculty at 23 universities across Ontario in 2014 similarly found that women are overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty, with 63% of survey respondents identifying as female (Wiggers, 2015). The findings from both of these recent surveys of contract faculty show that the overrepresentation of women in low-paid and precarious academic jobs has increased dramatically in recent decades. While the gender wage gap among tenure-stream academics is narrowing, women are increasingly overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty. This dynamic is cause for concern because the number of contract faculty positions is increasing, the availability of tenure-stream positions has stalled, and there are few provisions in place to convert contract faculty into full-time positions. OCUFA estimates that the number of courses taught by contract faculty has doubled since 2000. With women overrepresented among the ranks of contract faculty, their opportunities for career progression and increased earnings potential are greatly limited.

Sarah Kaplan noted that there are serious consequences for devaluing women in the workplace: “They’re more likely to drop out of the workplace. You then lose a productive worker in an economy where we’re desperate for talent … There are plenty of economic reasons why we should have equal pay.” Canada’s economy needs me to work, but it is not to the university’s advantage to pay women well enough to keep them in the work force.

What are the prospects for change in gender inequity in universities? Very dim, I think. Universities control the demand for people who study literary theory, or eighteenth century intellectual history, or Greek archaeology. They also control the supply. In recent years, the supply tap has been gushing out PhDs with very little chance of employment. I started graduate school in 1994. The prevailing wisdom then was that masses of tenure-track jobs would be opening as the baby boomers retired. Then compulsory retirement was waived, and universities started to replace courses taught by tenured faculty with those taught by sessionals.  The students think they are getting real professors, but they are getting underpaid facsimiles. I don’t mean that the quality of teaching or level of intellectual sophistication is markedly different between the two types of teachers; what is different is that one sort is well-paid and can live a middle-class life, and the other is paying off student loans, worrying about saving for their children’s education and not living the middle-class dream available to the previous generation. I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what it’s like to be a university instructor and one statement struck me especially hard: “English departments are the only employers demanding the credentials that English doctoral programs produce. So why do we invite young scholars to spend an average of nearly 10 years grading papers, teaching classes, writing dissertations, and training for jobs that don’t actually exist? English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.”

Universities have created a dual track system. Contract instructors make their budgets go much further. It is in vain to hope that the universities will change a system that works so much to their advantage.  Where I live, the Government of Ontario is in charge of the universities. It is also in charge of labour legislation. I really hope it will take on the responsibility of ending the pink ghetto on Ontario campuses. What I would like to see is meaningful part-time position in Ontario universities, in which the level of remuneration between part-time and full-time positions is aligned. I was astonished to discover that part-time occasional teachers in the Ottawa public school board are paid a pro-rated amount, from the same pay grid used by the full-time employees. Schools and universities both need to pay all employees fairly.

I feel like a fool. I feel like the university is taking my love of my subject and using it against me. I feel even more like a fool because I saw my mother, an anthropologist, go through the exact same thing when I was a child. I am a second-generation sessional. I saw my mother’s PhD hanging on the wall at home; I saw how smart and literate and well-spoken and energetic she was, and I thought, “I want to be just like my mummy.” My eight-year-old daughter announced recently that she wants to be a math professor. Luckily, I have several years to try to sway her opinion.