Thursday, April 13, 2017

Try on Someone Else's Life

I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they're one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else's life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 
After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You'll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You'll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 
Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If not you, then who?

"I'm so glad you're talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this."

"You told us we could come talk to you, and I don't know who else to go do."

"I can't believe I'm in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time."

"I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I'm just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses."

These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They're flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.

But you know what? I'm not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I'm feeling--can I be honest?--resentful and burnt out.

Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. "No one" else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I'm the "only one" of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don't know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?

I'm doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it's killing me.

There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you're taking on too much, you can't baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can't manage work and classes that's not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own 'merits.'

This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I've come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here's the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn't do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.

I'm proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I'm truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I'm too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you're in my classroom per week. Everything else is ... not my problem.

Maybe what those professors are doing is not "not making more work for themselves" but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don't think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone's office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that's true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it's not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.

I can do this work, and I want to. But I can't do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be "the only professor" who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students' real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.

How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don't see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it's just not sustainable.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Guest post: She's Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

This post by Andrea Eidinger was originally published on and is reposted here with permission.
I would like to acknowledge and thank the many female instructors who got in touch with me over the past week, not only for their bravery in sharing their experiences with me, but for their strength in continuing in their dedication to the field of history and education. I am profoundly grateful and honoured. 
“I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”
That comment comes from my student evaluations from one of the first courses I ever taught, back when I was still a graduate student. At the time that I read that, I burst out laughing. I mean really, how else can you react to that kind of statement? But many courses and student evaluations later, I am starting to think that this is reflective of a larger problem in the world of academia, and history in particular, with respect to female sessional instructors and course evaluations.
Over the course of the past year or so, there have been a number of studies that have emerged detailing the gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations.  According to one study, male professors routinely ranked higher than female professors in many areas. [2] For instance, male professors received scores in the area of promptness (how quickly an assignment was returned) that were 16% higher than those of female instructors, even though the assignments were returned at the exact same time.  Another research project, which examined word usage in reviews of male and female professors on “Rate My Professor” found that male faculty members are more likely to be described as “funny,” “brilliant,” “genius,” and “arrogant,” while female faculty members are more likely to be described as “approachable,” “helpful,” “nice,” and “bossy.”[3]
While many of these studies discuss the negative impact that this bias has on tenure and promotion few consider how devastating they can be to sessional instructors, particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female. Most of these individuals have Ph.Ds. and will spend roughly 4 to 5 years working as a sessional instructors with the hope of securing  full-time positions within academia. During these 4 to 5 years, 53.2% of these individuals will secure contracts that are less than 6 months in duration while the next largest group, at 18.2% will not have any current contract at all.? And declining enrolment in history courses across the country means that jobs of any type are becoming more and more scarce.
The effectiveness of sessional instructors is often evaluated based primarily on student evaluations, particularly when it comes to questions of hiring, contract renewal, regularization, and promotion to tenure-track positions. (This is in spite of solid evidence that student evaluations are not good measures of teaching effectiveness). Consequently, female sessionals often face a serious disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Here is a quick sampling of some of the more problematic comments I’ve received over the years:
  • “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”
  • “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”
  • “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”
While these remarks only represent a small percentage of the student comments that I’ve received on evaluations, they are extremely troubling. They also appear to be fairly representative of the types of comments that female instructors, particularly those who appear to be younger, receive on a regular basis. While writing this piece, I put out a call on social media for Canadian female instructors who teach history to get in touch with me if they were willing to share some of these comments on an anonymous basis. Eight women came forward and shared their stories. These comments and stories generally fell into five categories: bias, inexperience, unprofessionalism, behavior/appearance, and sexualization.
One of the most common critiques is that of “bias.” You can see several examples of these types of comments that I’ve received above. Many female instructors are heavily criticized for including women and gender history in their courses, and this is often described as them imposing a personal bias on history. They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”
For instance, one instructor had a student that complained, “it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”
Related to this problem are comments about female professors being “inexperienced,” “new,” or “too young.”  Female instructors often have to face criticism from students who don’t feel that they are qualified to be professors. This is particularly a problem for female professors who appear to be younger than they really are or who happen to be short. Several of the instructors shared comments from students about them being “newer,” or just “getting started in teaching.” In one case, an instructor relayed that, “I also recently had an issue with a mature male student who made comments about me being “early in my career” and that he may be able to “help me” through his own line of work. He also expressed unsubstantiated doubts about my qualifications for teaching the subject matter after admitting to doing an online search of my background.”
On a related note, this can often result in direct challenges to female instructors in classes. Recently, a colleague related the following exchange on Twitter:

Another common complaint is that female instructors behave “unprofessionally.” The reasons for this can vary significantly, but often relate to references to one’s personal life. For instance, one instructor I spoke with had been forced to cancel a class because her child was sick. She joked about it in the following class. Then, on her student evaluations, she noted the following comment: “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”
Female instructors are criticized on everything from their behaviour to their appearance. Many are told that they should “smile more” or be “more approachable and friendly.” One student wrote, “she sounds like a dictionary with all the words she uses.” In some cases, students comment on their clothing choices in student evaluations, with comments like, “I like how your jewellery[sic] matches your clothing” and “I would love to know where you shop. You have some great dresses.”
More pernicious are the sexualized comments that female instructors received. These ranged from comments that “she’s hot” and “the prof is not hard on the eyes” to “I would really like to get you into a room alone and have some fun.” Finally, one instructor was told “I like how your nipples show through your bra. Thanks.” As the instructor herself noted, “this one led me to never wear those bras again. I now wear lightly padded bras exclusively. I was horrified when I got this one. Horrified. And not because my nipples were showing. Who the eff cares? But because someone was looking at me that way and sexualizing me while I was teaching a class in political history.”
Instructors have handled such comments in different ways, but nearly all of the instructors that I spoke with have stopped reading comments on student evaluations entirely. This is particularly the case in more recent years, as student comments have become increasingly aggressive and at times violent. Not only are these comments not helpful in any regard, but also they are profoundly unfair.
The end result to these kinds of comments is a situation that puts female sessional instructors in an un-winnable position. Their job performance is judged on teaching evaluations that are significantly biased against them. And yet teaching evaluations are used to make hiring decisions, where female instructors are ranked alongside with their male peers, on the assumption of an even playing field. And when there are no second chances and bad teaching evaluations can spell the end of your entire teaching career, female instructors get the short end of the stick.
Further, there are few support systems in place for female instructors to help them deal with these kinds of comments as well as misogyny in the classroom. While some departments and department members are sympathetic, others are less so, and some are openly hostile to even the suggestion. Female instructors are routinely told to just “ignore” these comments,[4] or are reluctant to even raise concerns for fears of being accused of “not being able to handle it” or of not being sufficiently “grateful for having a job.” Most of us end up feeling entirely alone. The situation is often worse for women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGTBQ+ instructors.
However, it does seem that at least one Canadian university is starting to take this problem seriously. In May of 2014, the University of Waterloo initiated the Course Evaluation Project Team, to “assess the current practice of course evaluations and provide recommendations for improvement.” Their draft report was released to the university community in November 2016, recommending the adoption of a cascaded course evaluation model that would be consistent across all faculties. More than ninety associations and departments responded, and the final report is pending following a full review of this feedback. Three groups of faculty in particular submitted the most detailed responses, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, the Status of Women and Equity Committee, and faculty members from the department of psychology.[5]
Each of these responses recommended that student evaluations should no longer be used to evaluate faculty members due to the significant gender, race, and other biases. They all specifically refuted the idea that careful design can be taken to counter the gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Instead, these reports advised that written comments in student evaluations should only be for the instructor’s use, and that alternative assessment tools be used instead, such as teaching practice inventory or correlating teaching with in one course with student grades in later courses. It remains to be seen what the final report will say.
While I can’t provide recommendations about what kind of system should replace student evaluations, what I can say is that based on the feedback that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with other female instructors, gender bias in the classroom, and academia, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed openly, with honesty and compassion. Not only do these biases end careers, but they also deprive students of superb instructors.
Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.
[1] Special thanks to Joanna Pearce for her comments on the piece!
[3] Scott Jaschik, “Rate My Word Choice,” Inside Higher Ed (February 9, 2015). You can use the tool itself, which was developed by Ben Schmidt, here. For information on how he developed the tool, click here.
[4] Thank you Christo Aivalis for the suggestion of this example.  The comments section of this article (and many similar articles) highlights the prevalence of the ‘just ignore’ attitude.
[5] To see the background research for the study as well as some of the other responses and commentaries, including those from students, click here. Interestingly, of the responses posted that website, only the Federation of Students was fully supportive of the draft report’s recommendations.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Learning to Love Being Edited

I had this professor in graduate school who was notorious for being a brutal grader. You would submit a paper for her class, and know that you would get it back with nearly every word marked up, plus a page of razor-sharp, painful comments at the end. We all dreaded the day we knew she was returning our work. We all learned to get our papers back, quickly check our final grade (they were often quite good, despite the reams of criticism), and then tuck the paper away until we could come back to the edits with the ability to actually process them, not just with tears and adrenaline.

Later in graduate school, I had a supervisor who didn’t want to see work until it was as close to polish perfect as I could get it. I was stuck on the first big section of my research project, and would have loved to share the draft work I had in hand so that we would work together to figure out why I was stuck and where to go next. But that wasn’t an option, because I was expected to figure it out on my own, and so I stayed stuck for a long time. It was a moment when I really could have used a generous editor to move things along.

My PhD supervisor gives her graduate students an article she’s submitted for publication, along with the peer review reports, and has them read and summarize the most useful feedback for her. It means that she doesn’t have to read the more scathing (and infuriating--we all hate the reviewer whose point is just “you didn’t do it how I would”) reviews, and her students learn how peer review works and how to respond to requests for revision. It also means that she never has to cry over reviewer reports so critical and uncollegial that their writers would never say those things in person.

Given my experience, it’s no wonder that I hated getting feedback and being edited when I was still in academia. As teaching assistants and professors, so many of us aren’t trained in anything like the way that substantive and copyeditors are--to give useful, kind feedback that the writers we teach will actually respond to and act on, not just shut down about. Some of our ranks hide behind the anonymity of peer review to provide feedback that is unnecessarily harsh and potentially damaging. We’re also (for those of us in traditional humanities and arts programs) trained in a system that privileges originality and sole authorship over so much else. We don’t learn how to see writing and publication as a collaborative act.

So it’s been a surprise to me how much I love being edited these days. Many of my current writing projects--selected poetry editions, articles for major online publications, ghostwriting--require me to work with professional editors, and to have my work go through at least one, sometimes many, rounds of substantive, line, and copy editing. Sometimes my editors are really happy with what I send in, and it gets a minor tweaking. Sometimes I’m told to go back to the drawing board and try again. In either case, I genuinely appreciate it, and that’s a huge change from my experience in academia.

Why is that? Here’s what I identify as the key differences from my past experience that make being edited such a generative process now:

  • By virtue of our working relationship, my editors and I are in this together. We’re both working toward the common goal producing high quality content for the publication or press that they ultimately for, so they’re invested in (and work to promote) my success. 
  • Working with an editor takes the pressure of sole-authorship off my shoulders. While my name is (most of the time) still the one that appears on the cover or byline, I’m no longer solely responsible for how my writing turns out. It becomes a collaborative endeavour, and one that benefits from multiple perspectives and sets of eyeballs. 
  • I’m working with consummate professionals who know and are good at their jobs. Academia doesn’t always do a great job of training us for key parts of faculty jobs (most parts of faculty jobs, some would argue), and editing (which is a part of grading, peer review, and providing feedback on thesis and dissertation writing) is certainly one of those things. I trust my editors quite a lot, and I know that they’ve been trained--both academically and on the job--to elicit from me the best writing I’m capable of giving them, in the most productive (which often means kind and generous) way possible.
  • My editors make my work so much better. It is such a surprising pleasure to write something that I’m already happy with, then have it come back to me tighter, more elegant, more on the nose, better structured. Often my editors are only suggesting minor tweaks, but they’re changes that I couldn’t see my way to on my own and that make a world of difference to the effectiveness and style my work. 
What about you, dear readers? How are you feeling about the editors in your lives, good and bad? How can we do better at teaching people to give and receive useful criticism in academia?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Feeling anxious? Try safe mode!

I'd like to break my silence on this thing to introduce you to a small productivity concept that has resonated strongly with me. 

Do you sometimes wake up feeling anxious? Depressed? Rundown, disoriented, and nondirectional? Do you poop out of parties?

Or, did you have a little too much fun last night, and can't afford to take the day off? Feeling overwhelmed about all your myriad projects, big & small?

Why not try putting yourself into what my good friend Allison calls "safe mode"? 

"Safe mode" is a diagnostic state in computer operating systems in which the computer runs tasks and completes operations at a slower, less efficient rate. This is because something is wrong with the system and it cannot fully function, so it runs basic functionality including only the essentials until the larger problem is addressed. It is perhaps akin to low battery mode on iPhone, when background refresh, automatic downloads, and certain visual effects are deactivated. You can still text, check apps, make calls--but nothing fancy, important, or overly taxing.

When I wake up feeling anxious or otherwise, I go into safe mode. I make a list of small, easily executed tasks that perhaps I have been putting off. Emails, stray response papers that need grading, an online training course I've been avoiding, scanning PDFs for my class, updating the format of my CV, setting up Grade Center on Blackboard, ordering books for next semester. (Did I mention emails?) Nothing that involves too much active energy or engagement, nothing that deals in high stakes. These are arranged in a sequential order such that the small feat of completing one task enables you to pass onto the next one - like passing on to the next level in a video game. 

I prioritize things that will make me feel better about myself, reinforce my competency, and translate the nebulous work of much of academia into itemized tangibles--or, dare I use the language of assessment, deliverables. I end the day with a sense of satisfaction that I honored my need for some distance from my major, stress-inducing responsibilities, while having crossed a number of items off a list, clearing space for greater focus once I feel well enough to reenter normal mode. 

Leave the big tasks for a different day, when your desk is free of the small stuff. Try safe mode! It acts not only as a symptom of anxiety, but also serves as an antidote, for the accumulated little things can contribute to overwhelm in ways that we might not even recognize.

Source: mytherapistsays on IG

Safe mode is sometimes useful to switch on even when you aren't feeling anxious or overwhelmed, because it is so easy to let the small things pile up, and before you know it you've missed a deadline or disappointed a friend or colleague. I guess in that instance, you might be in safe mode and you don't even know it, sloughing off on the tasks that don't present themselves to you as immediately pressing. But at any rate, you might want to try blocking out a section of time on your calendar for safe mode tasks. With safe mode, you can spoon your way to better mental health!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem--in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”--is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.




Know of any great resources that I've missed? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Winter Wrap-up: how to finish the term gently

After three months of winter coldness, t's the final week of term here at Waterloo, although there is a little stub of it left on Monday, I'm pretty much done teaching today.

I've had a harder than expected term, and I know my students are pushed to their limits, too. So I'm trying something new this year, a reflective and possibly even graceful way to wind down the term without cancelling class or generally goofing around. I'm taking some time to create the space for students to tie a bow around their own learning, together with each other and with me. I'm also using these last few classes to prepare students for exams.

I offer this for discussion, two classes I'm teaching right now and two different strategies for Ending the Terms in a Meaningful Way Beyond Dragging My Ass Across the Finish Line (TM). This is what week 12 of teaching looks like, according to my experiment.

First year course: 

They have a final exam, as well as a paper, so I'm trying to help them use class time to do both those things, in a productive way.

Exercise: in-class draft workshop a week before the paper is due. This was a soft-landing from binge-writing at the last minute. A full week before it was due, they had a complete first draft, and they read each other's work using a rubric designed from the way that I would eventually grade the papers, so they learned about what was important, and how I grade, and how hard it is to give good feedback to people. I sat at the front and answered content questions, reference questions, format questions.

Exercise: I give students the exam skeleton. There's a section for terms and definitions, so I make them collectively brainstorm 50 relevant terms from the course. I'll choose 15, they'll define 10. There's a section on technology history, so I make them brainstorm as many historical questions they can think of and how they relate to the course as a whole. There's a section on approaches and theories, so I make them brainstorm all the different academic approaches to new media we've studies.

Exercise: The last quiz of the term concerns the Big Scary Essay Question on the exam, which will be to perform some kind of analysis on a news story about new media. So what they have to do to get full marks on the quiz, is find a news story about new media, and tell me why it would be a good one to use on the exam. I'll then choose the top five and share those on the last day, and pick one for the exam itself.

What I love about this is that all this brainstorming can be done by riffling through the books and notes from the term, can be done on the fly, requires no prep from any of us, and consitutes a really good study session. I love as well that it gets us all, as a class, and together, to go over and review the material from the entire term. It's a great use of class time, that doesn't overwhelm any one. Show up, get something of value for doing it in real time. It's worth coming, AND we tie the semester up with a bow.

BONUS: my students have effectively produced the first draft of the exam for me. I'm literally picking the actual questions and terms from the one's they put together in class. I won't have to spend more than 20 minutes putting the final together. That's a classic win-win, is what that is.


Fourth year course

There's no exam, and they're busy finishing their papers, so I suspect that assigning them a lot of new reading at the end of term is frustrating and fruitless. So I did these things instead.

Exercise: Reflective writing, taking the expressed learning outcomes of the class from the syllabus, and assessing if and how we have met those goals, detailing assignments and readings and exercises that contributed to learning.

Exercise: Reflective writing, answering the following four questions: Most valuable thing learned, Most surprising thing learned, Most counterintuitive thing learned, Most wrong thing learned. This prompts them to review the whole of the semester and to rank and evaluate the ideas presented. They then made groups of three and shared ideas, then I made a Google doc and let people populate it in a discussion. We had a really good chat, and it was great feedback for me on the course design, actually.

Exercise: For the last day of class, when they are handing in their papers and photography projects, each student will take 2-4 minutes to present a brief abstract or example to their classmates. Why should I be the only who knows what great and diverse ideas they're all working on?

BONUS: I have a lot of grading in hand right now, and these types of classes take zero prep, which gives me more time to finish the grading quickly.


As I teach these classes in these ways, I'm noting how good I feel about it. Not gloating over the lack of prep, but really enjoying this group process of processing the whole term, together, collaboratively. Taking a bit of time to see how where we've ended up is different from where we started, what we know now is different from then, how our skills have developed over time. We see where we fit, what we have done and what we have left to do. Celebrating our accomplishments and looking forward. I'm going to do this again.

Do you have end of term wrap up activities that work in your classes? I'd love to hear about them.