Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Rex Murphy again, and Against a Disembodied Academy

In case you weren't aware, Erin's open letter to Rex Murphy from last week was a major online hit. Currently on H&E has 5472 hits, and it was cross-posted to rabble.ca, generating lively (and sometimes awful) commentary. In fact, the post gained so much mileage so quickly that it received on the same day a misogynist, vitriolic backlash piece published in the Halifax-based tabloid magazine Frank, entitled "Wunker of the Week." In that piece, Andrew Douglas slings mud at our beloved H&E cofounder, corroborates Murphy by questioning Emma Sulkowicz's rape, and ridicules women's studies generally:
Not only is Dalhousie enrolling record numbers into its various femme-babble gender studies programs this year--much to MSVU's chagrin, I'm sure--I see that a Dal prof has taken it upon herself to loudly condemn National Post columnist/CBC troll doll Rex Murphy for (gasp) making fun of that silly girl at Columbia University who's been dragging a mattress around behind her all year. 
So patronizing, so dismissive, so sarcastic, really hardly even worth a close-read. A bit of research on this publication unsurprisingly revealed that Douglas has traveled in or somewhere near rape apologist circles for awhile, dating back to the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013, when he claimed that there "wasn't enough evidence" to charge the boys accused of her gang-rape, and proceeded to level blame at Parsons' mother. In 2011, Frank Magazine was involved in another seemingly anti-feminist scandal when Douglas fired one of his employees for "questioning a column on sexism." With 14 000 followers on Twitter, this guy is certainly not a nobody.

In this post, I'd like to stand behind Erin and the urgent, brave work that she does for this blog, which itself is an outlet for women to express our outrage with the system that makes it possible for national news figures to publicly mock the "vacant head[s]" of educated women who dare to speak out in ineluctable ways about misogyny, victimization, and their own experience with rape. Additionally, however, I want to unearth the implicit violence that Douglas and Murphy themselves enact on female bodies insofar as they both strive for an erasure of affective, embodied approaches to education and to literature. It is notable that the two main pop culture figures Murphy cites in his mockery of modern educational practices are Madonna and Beyoncé, with her "hermeneutic hip tossing grinds." In this latter instance, Murphy not only targets a female pop culture icon, but a woman of color, drawing attention to her hips and her gyrating body in a way that subtly reinforces misogynoir stereotypes. This in addition to his transphobic opening rant against categories like "cis" and "hetero" or pronouns like "ze" and "xe." 

Andrew Douglas, in turn, derides Erin's reference to "Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women" (which, yes, is a Thing, a horrifying and urgent Thing), and ridicules one of her class assignments in which she incorporates the study of affect into digital mapping technology--the very kind of "Thinking Through the Body" practice about which she has recently blogged. Murphy claims that the goal of the discipline of the humanities is "to teach what is worth knowing; to train the intellect; to acquaint students with, and help them appreciate, the glories of the human mind and its finest achievements." In proposing that the university system must draw us away from popular culture to that which he deems "the glories of the human mind," in objecting to Sulkowicz's use of her body as a locus for protest and change, Rex Murphy implicitly calls for the erasure of disruptive female bodies from university campuses. This form of sexism, epitomized in Murphy's and Douglas's articles, does not simply involve slut-shaming or antiquated approaches to literature, but additionally involves an internalized discomfort with women's bodies as topics and subjects of engagement in humanities classrooms.

My vision of the academy involves Jane Austen, John Milton, and Madonna, and accepts that honest educational encounters with contemporary culture and with the past will uncover unpleasant truths, truths that lie far below the "glories of the human mind and its finest achievements" (which are implicitly, in this context, gendered male). My vision of the academy incorporates womens' bodies into the conversation and exposes the ways they are systematically attacked, erased, murdered, and raped. My vision of the academy embraces embodied practices and approaches to literature, and resists the neoliberal urge to reduce what we do as scholars to impersonal numbers and metrics. Basically, my vision of the academy wants nothing to do with the twisted vision offered by these offensive online attacks against women in major Canadian media outlets.

NB: A version of this blog post appeared a week ago, under the title "Solidarity with Dr. Wunker," but I removed it soon after posting because it wasn't quite fully developed. Thanks are due to Andrew Ferris (Department of English, Princeton) for reading that earlier draft with a generous eye, and helping me clarify and expand some of my ideas regarding the proper role of the academy.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Writing a Résumé, Part I - The Master List

Let's dismiss one big lie right off the bat: no matter what mygradskills.ca or your university tells you, there is no such thing as turning your C.V. into a résumé. Career professionals who work with PhDs phrase résumé writing as converting your C.V. to make people who have only ever written a C.V. feel more at home and less like they're starting from scratch, but we're stretching the truth by using words like "converting" to describe the process. Yes, a C.V. and a résumé are both documents that contain lists of things you've done and degrees you hold. Yes, they both usually follow some sort of chronological order. But that's about where the similarities stop, and their differences are major.

A C.V. is intended to be a catalogue of your professional accomplishments, and a comprehensive one. It is intended to show what you did, and when. At most, it has a few columns, some subheadings, and a little light bolding and italicizing as formatting. In all likelihood, it contains no qualifying or descriptive information about any of its entries. A résumé, on the other hand, is not comprehensive but highly selective. It is intended less to demonstrate what you did but how, using what skills, and to what effect. It qualifies and describes almost everything, normally using CAR (challenge-action-result) statements. And it can have formatting ranging from the generic to the highly graphic. To attempt to turn a ten or fifteen page C.V. into a two-page résumé is not only nearly impossible--it is, from my experience, counter-productive and results in a résumé that is both harder to write and not nearly as good.

So, let's start fresh.

Keep your C.V. open, because you're going to want to remember things that you did during the job that was the PhD, but we'll let the résumé be it's own thing. And for the moment, a résumé isn't what we're going to be writing. What we are going to write is a skills and experiences master list. This is the master document of all of the skills and experiences you've amassed in your life thus far, along with descriptors of those skills and accomplishments and, ideally, with quantifiable outcomes of your actions. Here's how to start creating your master list:

1. Collect

Write down all of the things you do in your current job as a graduate student/postdoctoral fellow/contract or tenure-track academic faculty. Don't forget to think about the whole breadth of your job: teaching, research, writing, administrative work, editing and publishing, conferencing, writing funding applications, service work, supervision and mentorship, etc. 

Do the same for any jobs you've had outside of academia, or in academia but in academic administration. At this point, keep the things you've done grouped together by job--there are a number of ways you can choose to arrange them later, some of which will divorce your skills and accomplishments from any specific job, others that will keep them grouped together under the umbrella of one specific role and employer.

2. Assign skills 

Assign skills, or multiple skills, to each of those things you do or have done. Include both hard and soft skills. For example:

  • conferencing and teaching should get associated with the skills of public speaking, tailoring communications to the needs of a diverse audience, oral communication, and using online learning technologies like Moodle or Blackboard
  • administrative work might get associated with ability to prioritize and meet multiple and competing deadlines, attention to detail, ability to manage high volumes of work, and proficiency with Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite of programs
  • writing and publishing articles requires skills like written communication, ability to take and make use of feedback, editing, using LaTeX, and synthesizing and communicating complex ideas to a varied audience. 

If you're having a hard time figuring out what skills are associated with each of the things you've done in your working life, it's often useful to look at job postings in fields that are of interest to you and see what skills they specifically look for; you can also look at general lists of résumé skills for inspiration.

3. Frame as CAR statements

Then, start framing the things you do and the skills you use to do them as CAR statements--challenge, action, result. These are accomplishment statements that frame things you do in terms of the skills you employ to do them, and the tangible outcomes of your actions. The "challenge" part of CAR statements is a bit misleading, as the challenge is usually implicit in the statement by the time you're done composing it, although it can be useful to spell it out as you begin crafting it. You'll also find that your skills sometimes become more implicit than explicit once they're framed as CAR statement. Here are a few examples of how to go about turning a "thing you do" into a CAR statement; these are things from my actual résumé(s):
  • Thing I did: identified the fact that my university wasn't nominating enough PhDs for high-level doctoral scholarships, and figured out ways to get more applicants
  • CAR statement: Conceived and implemented creative communication, recruitment, and proposal development processes and strategies that have increased Vanier and Trudeau PhD award applications by 1200% and tripled number of Vanier award winners 
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: communication, process improvement, strategy development and implementation, grant development
  • Thing I did: researched and wrote academic articles and reports for work
  • CAR statement: Performed sophisticated qualitative and quantitative research and analysis that informed policy/program development (including the creation of York University's Graduate Professional Skills program), furthered institutional research objectives, and expanded knowledge in the fields of Canadian literature, digital humanities, and higher education studies
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: qualitative and quantitative research, policy analysis and development, written communication
  • Thing I did: co-founded a peer-reviewed online journal
  • CAR statement: Co-founded and managed an open-access digital peer-reviewed journal that created skill-building opportunities for graduate students, enhanced the reputation of York University's graduate program in English, and created a needed venue to showcase innovative interdisciplinary humanities research that averages over 100 downloads per issue
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: initiative, project and people management skills, coordination skills, computer skills 
Note the use of language in all of the CAR statements--they are never full sentences (bullet points only), never use the first person (or pronouns of any kind, actually), and always start with an active verb (conceived, implemented, performed, managed, etc). If you get stuck varying your active verbs, there are lots of lists out there to give you ideas. 

4. Collect evidence of results

Collect quantitative and qualitative results of your actions wherever possible--did your redesign of the online course you took over reduce the drop rate by 10%? Did your grant writing skills net you and your collaborators over $1M in research funding? Were your teaching evaluations 5% better than everyone else in your department? Did your article get cited 142 times? Did your students praise your teaching and mentorship skills in your course evals? Collect that data, and add it to the results part of your CAR statements.

5. Decide how to organize 

Now that you've got your master list of CAR statements and employment experiences, you have to decide how you want to organize them all. Do you want to leave your CAR statements grouped in relationship to a specific job title--Researcher, Instructor, Tutor, Professor--or do you want to group them by skills? There are advantages to both, and resume types that align more closely with each one. For people looking for their first #altac job, I often think that grouping CAR statements by skill makes things a little easier. Job descriptions and postings are, after all, most often organized by skills required, and having your own skills grouped together in the categories that might show up in a job posting--oral, written, and interpersonal communication; organization, planning, coordination; leadership and team building; research and analysis; technical skills--can make seeing the connections between your experience and the job you're interested in clearer.

6. Take a breather

For now, you're done. Overwhelmed? That's understandable. But you've now got a master document that's going to allow you to effectively and efficiently create a perfectly tailored résumé aimed at each job you're applying for. And that's what we'll talk about next time. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I got this: duration, persistence, expertise

It's my twelfth September as a faculty member at Waterloo. A lot of those Septembers were spent agonizing with imposter syndrome, or struggling to craft a syllabus like an expert, or building new courses from scratch, or trying to teach someone else's ideas, and failing to manage my email. Teaching is always front and centre in the fall for me--after the summer research term, I find I'm out of my teaching rhythm and prey to all the same insecurities as ever.

So I was surprised to gather my first grad class of the fall, and to teach them something, easily, on the first day of class. And then last week, they really took to the material and asked all kinds of hard questions about it and I was amazed to hear supportive answers fall out of my mouth: "ah, read this person who works on that very question!" or "oh, I know where you went astray there, let's look at this page" or "we're taking that up next week!" or "that would be a good research paper, and I have a ton of stuff for you if you want to come to my office."

My syllabus came together really easily. I wasn't trying to shove All The Readings in there to mask my lack of expertise. I wasn't afraid that there wouldn't be enough material, either. I just somehow started to really understand the constraints of a 12 week semester and how much we can take on and how much we just have to leave for another time. I'm assigning canonical texts--but now I know their authors. Sometimes the canonical text is by me.

I'm not scared. I'm not nervous. I'm not worried about being unmasked as a fraud. I'm confident about the assessments I've devised. I've got guest speakers. I seem to have the pacing under control.

What the hell happened? I don't wish to come across as braggy--I'm listing the above simply to note that this feeling of ease and peace did not used to be my teaching reality. And now it is. And I like it.

There's something to be said for growing into a role. A dear colleague of mine once counselled a much younger me that it takes three offerings of a course to get it right. And maybe it takes 12 years to become comfortable professing. I am tempted here to undermine myself by saying "I'm not too comfortable, don't worry, there's lots that's hard or challenging" and while that's true, I think that's a pretty common idea. Rarer is this feeling of having the time and liberty to grow into a kind of grounding expertise and to have the freedom that comes from not being terrified or overwhelmed.

I feel like I have space to breathe. Room to move. Like, now that the voices in my head are not so insistently shouting my own incompetence at me, I can really listen to my students, really be in the moment. It's a great feeling.

From duration, and persistence, and expertise, I have become both a better and a happier teacher. For those of you starting out in your teaching journeys, I will say: it gets better. For those of you running staffing and hiring at universities, I will say: this is why we need long term teachers, because this is a career, not piecework.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Guest Post: My #postac Life: From #tenuretrack to #essayjack

5 years ago I wrote a guest post for Hook and Eye about my difficulties with what we in the academy glibly refer to as “the two body problem,” or what to do when academics dare to have personal lives that might include spouses with academic jobs. 

What I grappled with back then was a desire for bureaucracies and universities to be able to provide solutions; I focused on spousal hiring as one potential solution, but there could be many others, not limited to but including increased salaries, housing allowances, or travel costs, all common in industries that acknowledge travel as an adverse condition of work.

Since then, my journey has been an interesting and winding one, and I have a hard time remembering that woman who wrote with such pain the following words: “if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit.”

I guess the good news is that my broken heart is so fully mended that I forgot it even broke. The professional academy is now like an ex who I look back on with fondness and affection, but I can’t really evoke or fully recall those feelings of love anymore.

A few months after I wrote those broken hearted words I submitted my resignation to the University of Waterloo and jumped off the tenure track. I didn’t know exactly what things would look like, but I had a research grant to get me through that first exit, which allowed me to continue on with some of my academic work (including hosting a symposium in the spring of 2011 and co-editing a book that is coming out with the University of Toronto Press in 2016).

That freedom to jump into the unknown and start figuring out what my #postac life might look like allowed me to do many interesting projects between 2011 and 2014. For instance:

More important than what I actually did during those few years was how those years allowed me to see the world differently. I reclaimed both my courage and my confidence, and I began to see life’s possibilities rather than its limitations.

It was liberating, freeing, and exhilarating.

Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t anyone tell me that leaving the tenure track could feel so good? Why did I believe that I was making a sacrifice? Why did I think anything other than being an English professor was somehow a failure on my part?

I have a number of potential answers to these questions (and the many other related ones), but I think one response can be summed up with the following oft-repeated bit of advice that I was told as I grappled with my own decision-making process, and that advice is some version of: “it could be worse.”

“Most academics never get a full time job; be happy; it could be worse.”  “You and your spouse both landed jobs; it could be worse.” “You are both in the same country/time zone/province; it could be worse.” “You landed at a good university; it could be worse.” “Your job is in Canada; it could be worse.” Etc. etc.

And, well, yes, things most certainly “could be worse.” But by that same logic, things most certainly “could be better” too. And that was a truth I discovered and allowed to be my lodestone, guiding me forward on my own journey into the #postac unknown, seeking something “better.”

So back to my story…after three years as an independent consultant (where I literally gave my business card to everyone I knew; went to every single “wine & cheese” event I could, and shamelessly slogged my services as a “brain for hire” to anyone and everyone), I made enough money for the seed capital to start my own business. As of July 2014 I became the full-time co-founder and CEO of EssayJack. 

EssayJack is a web app that prestructures student essays and allows for educator customization and feedback. We did pilot testing at the University of Toronto, and our first paid institutional license for this coming semester is the University of Toronto Schools.
Basically, students struggle with the form and structure of academic essay writing, and I wanted to use technology to help. EssayJack is the result of those efforts.

Students can sign on as of this September for monthly and/or annual subscriptions, and educators can get in touch to unlock the educator functionality that allows for customization of the essay template as well as an integrated feedback system to speed up the essay-marking process. 

The 2015-2016 academic year is our beta year as we make sure the technology is sound, that we can meet (or exceed!) our targets, and that we respond to what educators and students want out of essay-structuring help of the sort that we are able to provide.

I never could have possibly guessed when I left the tenure track that I’d find myself as the CEO of an educational tech start up. Never. Not in a million years. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I find that things I’ve long cared about from my past professional life as an academic do, in fact, transition into my #postac life, and while I have no pat and easy answers for anyone else considering a transition out, I simply ask you to ask yourself: can it be any better? If the answer is “yes,” then go for it; you deserve it!

Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, OCT
(B.A. hons., B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D.)
Co-Founder & CEO, EssayJack Inc.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Open Letter to Rex Murphy and the National Post

Dear Mr. Murphy:

I am an assistant professor at Dalhousie University where I teach in the Department of English. Some of my colleagues are trained as Shakespeareans or Victorianists. Others are trained in Modernist literatures, or American literatures, or post-colonial literatures. I myself am a Canadianist, which means I study, research, and teach literatures of Canada. I also teach my students about Canada's colonial legacy, about the violences of Canada's historic and contemporary relationships with First Peoples. For example, I strive to teach my students about what an ongoing national failure to meaningfully acknowledge and address the ongoing crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women has to do with early narrative representations of First Nations peoples in settler-colonial literature. Oh yes, and I teach my students from a feminist and anti-racist perspective.

I wanted to tell you some of the places from which I teach so that you can be very clear about my deep concern with your article "Institutes of Lower Education." 

Here's the thing: it is easy to the point of being banal and boring to take uncritical potshots at university curriculums and especially at the arts and humanities. Moreover, given that this country is in the midst of an election campaign, taking cheap shots at the humanities is a thinly veiled partisan trick at best. And you can bet that students who have been taught to close read and think critically will have seen this. It irks me that another national newspaper is willing to thoughtlessly toss humanities education out the window, but that isn't what has enraged me enough to take time away from preparing my lectures to write to you here.

No. What enrages me, Mr. Murphy, is your seemingly blithe attitude towards gender inequity, rape culture, violence against women, and, frankly, real rape. Add to that your willingness to dismiss outright creative modes of consciousness-raising, analysis, and collaborative learning and you have me not only angry, you have me deeply concerned. If you haven't noticed, Canada is in crisis. There are many facets of this crisis, but the one I want to draw your attention to is our national crisis of violence against women. Let me explain how your article undermines the severity of this crisis.

You begin your article asking "Who can be considered a highly educated person in today’s world?" After making reference to a few touchstone pop culture icons you quickly move from sounding like an angry old man shaking his fist at the clouds* to simply being hateful. You poke fun at crucial interventions into heteronormative language as a means of undermining university education. Just in case we're not clear, what you've done is denigrate linguistic attempts to make space for trans identities and denigrates the spaces and classrooms where some of those discussions take place. All in the name of suggesting that university education isn't what it used to be back in the day with Mr. Darcy.
Are you kidding me, Mr. Murphy? 

And then, despite your attempts to hinge your hateful tirade on a public figure's woeful historic ignorance, you slut shame a young woman who was allegedly raped. In fact, you more than slut shame her. You put Emma Sulkowizc's rape in quotation marks. You make her experience of physical violation ironic and mockable. And then you take her thesis project which, by the way, operates in a genre called endurance performance, and you mock her. You mock this young woman, her bravery, and her attempt to translate her experience of violence into both art and activism. You mock her in a national newspaper. Shame on you. 

Let me tell you a bit about Ms. Sulkowicz's project, because it isn't clear to me that you did your research. 

In the fall of 2014 an art student at Columbia University by the name of Emma Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress with her to class. This act of endurance performance entitled “Carry That Weight” was her senior thesis project for her Fine Arts Degree. It was also a public acknowledgement of her experience of sexual assault on campus. Sulkowicz was sexually assaulted in her dorm room at the beginning of her second year of university. She began carrying her fifty-pound mattress with her around campus—to class, to lunch, to study—as a visual and physical statement both of her assault and of the fact that her rapist was still a student at Columbia. He was unpunished despite several complaints of assault from Sulkowicz and other women. She, meanwhile, was carrying the weight of her assault as she moved through the same space as her assailant.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Murphy: we—by which I mean culture at large—don’t know how to talk about rape. We don’t know how to differentiate between different experiences of rape which, by the way, can require a shifting use of pronouns. We don’t know how to address the perniciousness of rape in history as a calculated tool for violence and subordination any more than we know how to discuss rape as a sometimes-facet of consensual sexual relationships. And we certainly do not know how, as a culture, to talk about rape culture on campuses. 

You wrote this article nearly a year to the day that the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke. You published this article nearly a year after the Dalhousie Dentistry Scandal Broke. And let's not forget that nearly a year ago the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported trended to such a degree that it became the opening page of the Huffington Post. You published this article less than a week after three women were murdered in Ontario by a man they all knew. And you pretended that this article was about the failure of humanities classrooms specifically and university curriculums more generally. That is not just reprehensible journalism, it is faulty rhetoric.

There will be some readers, I'm sure, who will tell me I shouldn't have read your opinion, that I should have known what I was in for. But here's the thing: when a national newspaper chooses to publish openly misogynistic opinions it tells us something about our cultural climate. As my students and I discuss in our classes the historical and cultural context out of which a text is produced can tell us as much about a cultural moment as the text itself. We have incredible discussions about how language reveals systemic injustice and inequity. You're welcome to join us if you'd like to do some research for your next article on what actually happens in humanities classrooms.


Dr. Erin Wunker
Dalhousie University

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Guest Post: Let’s talk about women and public discourse

I’m thrilled to be involved with the Speaking Her Mind conference, running October 20-22, 2016 at the University of Calgary, and that’s because of the experience I had at the conference’s precursor last fall.

When my supervisor, Aritha van Herk, asked me to help out with the Discourse & Dynamics conference last year, I figured it would be an interesting experience on an intellectual level. The conference, after all, was about women as public intellectuals. But I found myself drawn into discussions that resonated with me in deeply personal and practical ways – discussions about issues I think about every day, issues I’ve struggled with ever since I entered the work force and became a mother.

I should have recognized the signs that this would be no ordinary conference. After a warm greeting from co-organizer Christl Verduyn of Mount Allison U, I found myself drinking Scotch with Margaret Atwood and her lovely husband. At that point I should have known that it would be a weekend of unexpected – and often profound – moments. I was trying to find the right moment to corner Atwood, who had just traveled to Sackville from Europe via New York, to go over the complicated logistics of her schedule, when she sat me down, handed me a glass and told me it was time to get the housekeeping business out of the way.

Problem solved.

I didn’t make it to all of the research panels, not because I’d had too much Scotch, but because I was busy chauffeuring, gofering or wrangling the amazing keynote women of D&D. Meanwhile, scholars gathered across the Mount A campus and dug into the gendering of public discourse, unpacking issues related to technology, feminist poetics, globalization and academics, to name just a few.

I did attend all of the discussion sessions, which featured women like Margaret Atwood, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek, activist Judy Rebick, writer Nicole Brossard and historian Charlotte Gray. The discussion sessions ranged organically through myriad topics, from how academics should speak to the public, to why professional women cook more often than their male partners.

Political scientist Janet Stein, who is one of the most articulate and accessible speakers I’ve ever heard, described a paradox about academic discourse, saying that “we have in our department some of the most brilliant theorists who are concerned with democratic theory, but they write for 500 others. And the public is excluded from the conversation even though it’s about how do we make our democracy more vibrant.” Later, I found myself nodding when I heard journalist Shari Graydon say, “the trouble is that women much more often decline opportunities to speak publicly than their male counterparts … [who are] willing to pontificate almost regardless of the topic.”

Backstage at Convocation Hall, I found myself thinking about conversations I’ve had with female friends and colleagues about the struggle to balance work, learning, family and friendships. I revisited fundamental questions like: 

Why is it important for women to work? Will women ever stop running their households? Why does our political system discourage women from participating? How can we change that?

These are big questions, too big for a single conference. And that’s why I’m excited about Speaking Her Mind. Like this wonderful Hook & Eye blog, Speaking Her Mind will keep us talking about the challenges that shape our lives as academics, feminists, mothers, partners, writers, students and workers. We’re often impossibly busy just getting from day to day, and we need opportunities to step back and look at life through a wider lens.

So I encourage you to attend Speaking Her Mind next fall, and I hope you’ll propose a paper for the conference. If you’re looking for inspiring ideas, check out the Discourse& Dynamics YouTube channel, where you can view the discussion sessions I’ve mentioned above. Hope to see you in Calgary next fall!

Jane Chamberlin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. She is vastly over-qualified to write about the confusion between public and private life, having worked for two large corporations, raised two sons, freelanced from home and returned to school.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it's not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

"Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying."

Aimée's post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can't really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 

This summer, coincidentally, I've spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn't seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.

There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.

But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I'm offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I've found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it's not perfect).

One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it's better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as "perfect" as you think it needs to be. 

So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?

1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don't have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I've had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.

2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is "perfect": If you're anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don't be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don't tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.

3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don't wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.

How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.