“I am blessed with one of the richest lives of anyone I know”
BY REBECCA KENDALLl
When Prof. Karen Houle, Philosophy, first set foot on the U of G campus 20 years ago, she had her sights set on going into medicine. Nearing the end of her fourth year as a biology and chemistry student, she realized her mind was filled with questions that had little to do with the periodic table or understanding the behaviour of molecules. Instead she pondered issues related to the ethics of science and the politics of research funding.
“Rather than analyzing the data or cleaning the pipettes, I'd be asking: ‘How do dogs feel?' or ‘How do we know what animals think?' Philosophy suits my brain because it takes things apart and makes connections between things. There's a natural fit between the way my mind bounces around and the kinds of questions I have.”
At the same time her focus of study was shifting, her personal life was changing as well. In the summer of 1988, with one credit left to complete her B.Sc., Houle headed off to the wilderness to plant trees, something she'd been doing for a number of years. This year was different, however, because as she gave life to row upon row of saplings, she was also in the midst of giving life to two children — her twin daughters Cezanne and Kuusta — who would arrive the following January.
“I never questioned this or asked myself how I was going to balance graduate work with caring for these babies,” says Houle. “I told myself I just had to make it work. I cared about having a job like the one I have now in the end, and quitting simply wasn't an option.”
She admits it wasn't easy juggling classes, research, teaching and motherhood as she pursued an MA and then a PhD in philosophy. She received her master's in 1992, winning the Governor General's Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement, and her PhD nine years later. “It took me twice as long as everyone else, but it was all worth it in the end.”
Money was tight when the babies arrived, so Houle continued to be drawn north each summer for the lucrative wages the tree-planting camp provided. The infants spent their first summer with their parents at a camp two hours north of Chapleau, Ont.
“People worried about what we were doing, but we tried to think of everything that could go wrong and everything we'd need ahead of time,” says Houle. Their preparations included making a custom-designed mosquito net for the babies' sleeping area to protect them from bugs.
“It was beautiful because we were outside, and I'd walk with one strapped to my front and one on my back and I'd do the camp dishes and spend time with my friends, who were all very supportive and helpful.”
For the next 13 years, Houle spent September to April studying and teaching at U of G and each summer travelling north and west with her young family. After several years of washing dishes and planting trees, she and the girls' father, Gordon, became cooks for the entire camp.
“The money was great, and it allowed me to support our modest lifestyle while I was a student and not be away from my children. Now I'm great at making huge vats of just about anything. I'm the only academic I know who can cook for 80 people in the middle of a forest on generator power.”
She was also happy to get away from the pressures of academic and city life each summer and to immerse her family in nature.
Although students are generally advised not to do all their degrees at one university, Houle says spreading out her education wasn't a realistic option for her.
“I became a single parent when the girls were five, and it would have been much more expensive and isolating to move somewhere else to study,” she says, noting that Guelph could guarantee two important things — continual research funding and excellent subsidized on-campus day care.
“The day-care workers are really the ones who got me through graduate school,” she says.
After completing her PhD, a move was finally in the cards for Houle and her daughters when she accepted a post-doctoral teaching position at New Brunswick's Mount Allison University in 2000. From there, she was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, where she taught for two years. She joined the faculty of U of G last year, glad to be back with her daughters, who had decided to live with their dad in Guelph while their mom worked out west.
“It was just too hard to be away from them. I was coming to Guelph as often as I could, but my heart said it wasn't enough.”
Although Houle hasn't been tree-planting for a few years now, she stays connected to the great outdoors by surrounding herself with greenery and plants in both her home and office. At the office, she says it's a nice way to bring nature into the indoor space she spends so much time in. At home, she maintains an organic garden that supplies her from June to October with all the produce she could ask for.
“I don't see the sense in buying things you can grow yourself,” she says. “If you've got a yard, you can grow things to eat. We eat fresh fruits and vegetables that grow in my garden and put the effort into canning and preserving them for the colder months. I've been doing this for the past 10 years.”
As an academic, Houle has research interests that vary from the political to the personal and include environmental health, property law, intellectual property and reproductive technologies. She's currently working on a book about abortion.
“I'm not shy to say this book is personal,” says Houle, who is using the framework of Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida's work on responsible mourning and what it means to be responsive in bearing witness to a death.
“It will speak to the experience of abortion, but also to giving a child up for adoption, miscarriage and the choice not to have children,” she says. “There's a whole nexus around the choices you make to not be in a relationship with a child. I'm going to take the plunge and I'm going to make the statement that there's something for all of us, not just women, to learn about loss and being ethical in grieving.”
In addition to her scholarly writing, Houle is finishing a second book of poetry that will soon be published by House of Anansi Press. It follows the 2000 release of Ballast, a 96-page book of poems that illustrates her views and perceptions of the world. Drawing from a diverse range of subjects, the work is bound by her commitment to the natural world and the experiences and relationships that are created within it. The book was nominated for the Gerald R. Lampert Award for Best First Book of Poetry by the Canadian League of Poets.
The sense of commitment to relationships and the environment conveyed in Houle's poetry translates into her teaching as well.
“I wouldn't say I'm a member of any particular group, but I'm most definitely political,” she says. “I think we have to make a concerted and conscious effort to change, and I support individuals in their various struggles, especially on behalf of the vulnerable. Because of this, I'm inclined to teach about concrete and immediate political issues in my classes: race and reparations, reproductive rights under siege, the looming water crisis, etc.”
This semester, she led U of G's first-ever course exploring the ethical and political nature of disaster-making and disaster response. It looked at conceptual, political and public responses to tragedies. This included so-called natural tragedies like hurricane Katrina and cultural crises such as the depiction of Islam in the West and the treatment of persons of aboriginal descent by the law. It also included more localized “disasters” like political apathy, abuse of women and biodiversity loss. It engaged students in dialogue surrounding what issues gain prominence out of disaster, which disasters get coverage and how they're covered.
The course included a one-day World Café event in March, which brought together students and community members in a sustained conversation about the meanings and effects of crisis to them and on them.
“Every single life insofar as it can should be sustainable spiritually in deep friendships and in encountering and making creativity and beauty, and environmentally in living as modestly as possible among and with other forms of life,” says Houle. “I can't imagine not integrating this basic personal belief into what I teach and how I try to live.
“Getting involved in the world and the issues that affect it enriches your life. It also makes it impossible to focus on just one thing or one idea or to get things done as quickly as other people do, but because of this, I am blessed with one of the richest lives of anyone I know.”
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