Friday, January 23, 2015

Smelling the roses... unwillingly

This morning, the universe had a message for me that had to do with 'practice what you preach', 'get a taste of your own medicine', or some such cliché. You see, I had scheduled myself into an early start because my courses required my undivided attention: between the marking, and the setting up of essay topics, and the *all new* class prep, I was in for a busy day. And that's before even doing the actual teaching. However, either I was getting ahead of myself, or the universe had it in for me: either way, it was not meant to happen.

I managed to get the kids out the door in time, and you should know that I count that as a victory every morning. Whoever said anything about herding cats clearly had no kids, because getting them dressed and out the door in any decent amount of time, and without pulling all of one's hair should have made it into the popular saying instead. Never mind the snow pants, and the scarf, and the mitts, and the hats, and the backpacks, and the boots... oh, wait, did you not put the socks on yet? Then take the boots off. Where did you leave the socks? Upstairs? Fine, I'll get them, but you stay here. No, you cannot play with the trucks in the kitchen. Why? Because we'll be late for school. Why? Because that's how time works. Why did you have to take your jacket off now? I know you're hot, that's why I'm trying to get you out the door faster... Well, dear reader, if you don't already experience--or have in the past, you lucky creature, you!--then that was a 2-second snippet of what takes place in my house every single morning for about 15 minutes. Can you see now why I count getting the kids out the door in time as an accomplishment?

That episode behind me, the glow of victory over tiny bodies with outsized wills propelled me up the stairs to get ready for work. I even put my audiobook on in celebration of the luxury that is alone-time [It's Ali Smith's There but for the if you're curious, and it's keeping me on edge]. I managed to get myself dressed with the efficiency that is characteristic of adulthood, all the while patting myself on the back for reaching that stage. Then I went to the kitchen to--you guessed it!--even pack myself a lunch for the day. If that isn't the apex of responsibility, I don't know what is. I rummaged in my freezer for some frozen falafel I knew had been lurking there since last month, found even a bonus frozen pita, and called it triumphantly lunch. Then a quick and efficient glance at my watch told me it was time to go catch my train.

I scramble to collect all the paraphernalia I'm likely to need today, and out the door I bolt, with the tiny habitual prick of worry that the red light might just make me miss my train. I pat my pockets to ensure I have my fare card, my house keys, and I hasten to position my earbuds, and resume my audiobook. I start sprinting just to make sure I get to the train station with a least two minutes to spare. And then I look up. And I stop running. The sun shinning makes even the bare January trees glow, but should they really have such an aura at the edges? I look around, not in admiration of the beautiful day, but in apprehension that I am surely missing my train. Inertia makes me take another step in the direction of the station, but then I stop. There is no way I can teach without my contacts on.

I exhale the long breath I had held in since the realization gripped me, and retrace my steps home. My morning victory refuses to turn sour, because, what the hell! the sun is shining, and I'm not even late for teaching. I would in be half an hour later, and I can totally live with that. Universe or not, something sometimes has to force me to slow down, or else, I'll just forget my contacts, and have to start over. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because "Room Service Charge" is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it's a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin's work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here's an ad that really stuck with me:


This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn't matter what field you're in, but we'd like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are "helpful" but not required, so you can't compare candidates on research record. You can't distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn't be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I'll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu) is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 
Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master's and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] media.mit.edu. 
MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in "undefined discipline":

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 
We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 
This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 
  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 
Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 
Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.
So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there's a personality-based assessment--be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you're not the right fit. Except you'll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits--and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:


Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get "iconoclastic"--and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God's Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I'll tell you right now it'll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I'm all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I'm lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who've just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it's nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let's not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what's wrong, got angry--righteously so!--about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking 'what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.' Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o'clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I'll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague's generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include "a liberalness in sharing or giving," and "willingness to give value to others." In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari's blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.
But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari's whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, "My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour" here
Tsabari isn't the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I'd love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Pace Yourself

Welcome back to the new term! Were *your* holidays refreshing? Did you manage to take time to yourself without guilt-tripping yourself every two seconds? Or did you spend the break fretting about not working, and missing out on responding to that CFP or procrastinating from writing your Major-Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless paper? No matter where you fit on the spectrum, we all know the promise of freshness in the New Year/New Term combo does not  materialize in our bodies, and that we inherit the fatigue of both the Fall term and the holidays (family! travelling! all the food!). My take? Better be realistic about it, and stop pretending mountains will be moved by sheer willpower and perilously low energy levels (it's cold. it's dark a lot of the time. it's January, *then* February before any colour comes back into the world).

Grey January skies over Lake Ontario

So, what is there to do? I'm not one for sports metaphors in general, but it looks like the running one is a refrain here at H&E, so I'll just re-iterate it. We're in it for the long haul, so we might as well pace ourselves. The Winter term has only just started, so I know it feels like if you don't write that proposal, you'll be written out of that Conference, which is so germane to your larger research project that missing it will cause an irreparable gap in your CV, and potential questions from your doctoral committee, hiring committee, peers, etc. But really? Chill! Unless you're on the organizing committee, nobody will question your absence, especially these days. Why not take that time that you'd frantically put to inking yet another argument to letting your brain do some unguided rambling? Take the resources you'd put into going to that conference (money, time, physical effort, missed sleep) into translating your brain's free ramblings into writing. No, I mean it literally: how long would the travel take you? Translate that into writing time over multiple days. Actually sleep the sleep you'd otherwise miss by going to the airport at ungodly hours because you can only afford the 7 am flight. Take it easier on yourself, the environment, and the academic ecosystem.

Try ditching one of the major academic events that you engage in per year, and do the accounting on it, bank those resources, and use them elsewhere. Then do the tally. [I know economic metaphors are not much better than sports ones, but that's all I got just now, when the lesson plan for the class that starts in two hours, for the course I'd never taught before, beckons. See how I'm pacing myself here?] If there's one thing I wish we could do more is turn inwardly, and actually understand what it is we want to do. As researchers, we spend so much time trying to make sure we're abreast of what everyone else in the field is saying. As teachers, not only do we have to prepare the material, we also expend an immeasurable amount of emotional labour ensuring our classes are open and our students feel welcome and engaged in the process.

So, at this begging of term, instead of resolving to work more, be more productive, write more, do more grading, please ask yourself "What's the healthiest way to accomplish what *I* really want?"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Feeling More Welcome on the Fringe


I just got back from the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, one that was held in the beautiful conference centre in this photo, a space that was almost as gorgeous inside as it was outside (ocean! mountains! I grew up in Ontario!).  This was my fourth MLA, and definitely one of my favourites. It was wonderful to get to spend some serious time with one of my co-authors (shoutout to Erin Wunker) and a treat to be at a conference somewhere that I could still use data on my phone (it's the little things). But for reasons that I didn't anticipate, that this MLA was great had just as much to do with changes to my profession, and changes to THE profession, as it did with geography or excellent choice of roommate.

I want to go back in time for a minute to think through why this is, at least a little. A Hook & Eye reader got in touch with me a couple of months ago, and we met for lunch at a favourite local restaurant to talk about our experiences of being academic staff, and about the work I'm doing on Hook & Eye to advocate for, and demystify, non-professorial careers for humanists. She, like me, is a humanities PhD who now has a job in an academic staff role, although in her case she left a tenure-track job to take it. She, unlike me, hasn't been to an academic conference since she made the switch from professor to administrator, and her experience of leaving the tenure-track has been, from what I gathered, far more isolating than mine has.

I'd never consciously thought about it before that lunch, but my transition plan was very effectively, although mostly accidentally, designed. I started writing and publishing about higher ed reform and graduate career development about the time that I made the decision not to go on the academic job market, and when I moved into my staff role, I gradually started pitching conference presentations on those topics. My first year as Research Officer, I gave a paper at the MLA on alternative dissertations, a panel which inspired the first cluster of Graduate Training in the 21st Century, and another at ACCUTE on my usual work on Canadian modernist poetry. This year, now that paying work has required that I scale back on my CanLit work, I was an invited speaker on an MLA panel about careers for humanists, I'm giving a talk about skill development and graduate reform at NeMLA, and I'm co-organizing a panel on related topics as part of ACCUTE's Committee for Professional Concerns. I'm not giving any papers on CanLit at all, and yet it hasn't been necessary for me to stop attending the conferences I've always attended, because I made a space for myself at them that reflects the changing nature of my academic and career goals (and that let me expense my attendance to the occasional one as a work gig). I've never had to stand on the sidelines and watch my academic friends gallivant around exciting new cities, and drink bad free wine at the book exhibit, without me. I'd be terribly sad if I did. And that's in large part also because of the fact that alongside my work to make room for myself at these conferences, they've made room for me. When I started attending the MLA, any panels on career development and professionalization were almost exclusively geared to the academic job market, and it was never certain that the paper or panel I was pitching would be accepted. This year, there were three panels and a half-day workshop devoted to careers for humanists in the broadest sense, in all job markets. They had the institutional authority of being organized by the MLA and co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, and instead of worrying if my paper on mid-century modernist Canadian poetry would be too out in left-field for the American-centric MLA, I was invited to speak. I'm not attending DHSI any more, but I still get to go--just as an instructor. Quelle différence! 

Even just a few years ago, I bet that this smooth transition from PhD to staff while maintaining a close relationship with my academic community would have been much harder than it is now. PhDs who moved into non-professorial careers were largely invisible to North America's largest scholarly associations, and those careers were still considered the booby prize, the Plan B. People I know who made the transition much earlier, and have maintained their research profiles since, largely did so because they took staff jobs that provided them with an ongoing institutional affiliation. But as those same scholarly associations begin to recognize that only 18.6% of PhDs (in Canada, at least) become professors, the more they realize that they need to serve those people who make up the majority of their constituents--people like me who will not become academics--if they hope to stay relevant and to meet the needs of their membership. Moreover, the more they realize that people like me, who can talk about the realities of life in a non-professorial careeer, are necessary to this project. In fact, I can say that I've had precisely the opposite experience of that reader I had lunch with. In moving off of the professorial track and into a position that once would have been considered on the fringe (and is still considered such by many, I'll admit), I feel far more connected and central to my scholarly communities that I ever have before. I'll admit that I'm in an oddly privileged position, working in an #altac position that is in many ways concerned with graduate careers and training while also researching those subjects. But many of the non-professors at the MLA were doing vastly different things than what I do, and they were sitting on the panel right beside me.

It's strange to me that I had to get myself to the outside--into a position that I thought would guarantee that the powerful and traditional in academia would see me as a second-class citizen, or not see me at all because I'd become invisible--in order to really be invited in. It's an odd place to be, and yet I'm not complaining. Mostly I'm just revelling in the fact that life is good on the other side, and that more and more people--from grad student to full professor--are recognizing that my experience is not at all anomalous, that there's plenty of fulfilling and financially rewarding work to be had beyond the professoriate. To some at the MLA, I might still be on the fringe, but the numbers don't lie--we are, to steal the NFM's turn of phrase, the new PhD majority. And as assumptions about the goals of those pursuing PhDs continue to change, so will the inclusivity of the scholarly associations to which we belong. The water's warm, and I'm loving that I'm surrounded by ever more swimmers.

Image by TDLucas5000, CC

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Syllabus Matters

Holy moley, has this semester snuck up on me. Since I administered a final exam for my Fall Composition course on Dec. 23, I was grading until the 24th (yep, I whipped through those suckers), and then I had a precious 2.5 weeks before diving back into teaching my new course. I mostly stayed in New York with the exception of a brief, cherished getaway to Philadelphia with my partner for a weekend, and because I did not have the relief (?) of family members being around, it was difficult for me to disengage in continually pressing dissertation and syllabus matters. Ohh, The Trap of Perpetual Productivity. (hence, love Aimee's post on Down Time from last week!)

But it was a nice break nonetheless, and tbh, I tend to maintain a generally higher personal morale during the constantly moving and demanding semester; add that to the fact that I seem to have a mild form of reverse seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as Summer-SAD), and I'd say I'm doing pretty okay, besides feeling the regular senses of apprehension and nervousness about the impending term.

This semester, I'm teaching a transhistorical course on Dreaming in Literature, which is actually the first Literature Proper course I have ever taught (after having taught five different Composition--or mandatory first-year writing--courses, ubiquitous in the American higher education system though perhaps some Canadian institutions have them as well?). My syllabus took a very long time to generate since I was building it entirely from scratch, and although I'm writing my dissertation on medieval dream visions and I'm excited about the broader temporal context this class will give me, I spent a lot of time seeking out dreamy things in other eras in a way that would offer the course both coherence and variety. Turns out there are a lot of texts that deal with dreams in some capacity! In this post, I'd like to A) sample a few points from my syllabus in order to share ideas and solicit feedback from more experienced professors; B) discuss a couple problems with the course that I can already anticipate; and C) crowd-source for more texts on dreaming, should you worthy readers have suggestions. While my reading list is pretty much set, I'm planning to build an additional Google Drive doc of other possible texts that students can sample from for their final papers and supplementary presentations. So if you can think of something major I've missed, toss it in the comments!

A) My course is split into broad (in one case very broad...) chronological units, and its main texts are:
  • Medieval Dreaming: "Caedmon's Hymn," "Dream of the Rood," Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale, and the Anonymous Pearl poem
  • Romantic Dreaming (Renaissance to nineteenth-century): Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel, selections from John Keats and William Blake
  • Modernist Dreaming: Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Hitchcock's Spellbound (film), and selections from Freud and Jung
  • Postmodern/Contemporary Dreaming: Jack Kerouac's Book of Dreams, Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), selections from Rosalind Krauss's Optical Unconscious 
Of my various assignments (you can peruse the rest through the course website if you'd like), I'm perhaps most excited about the "Slow Looking" Museum Assignment, which I discovered through my medievalist Facebook friend Julie Orlemanski: in brief, this assignment requires students to visit a museum, gallery, or other public space, observe a piece of art relating to the themes of our course for at least 45 minutes (key), and then write a response in which they reflect upon their experience of "slow looking." The idea comes from an article by Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who observes that we professors should be thinking more about teaching pace and tempo alongside material and content, about encouraging practices of "deceleration, patience, and immersive attention," especially as our current world constantly pushes students towards "immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity." I LOVE THIS! My students are going to HATE it (many of them), but I LOVE it! One of my most transformative experiences as an undergrad was when my art class took a trip to a Rodin exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and I ended up sitting in front of a fallen caryatid statue for about an hour after other students had left, watching it shift and evolve and emerge in different meaningful ways the longer I chose to allow it. I hope my students derive some similarly surprising insights from this exercise. 

B) A couple problems/concerns:
  • One: you may have noticed, oh feminists. I only have two female authors: Virginia Woolf and contemporary psychoanalytical theorist Rosalind Krauss. I'm basically as bad as David Gilmour! (though, who knows, maybe Pearl was written by a woman...??)  I think a lot of this is the nature of the material, the male-driven canon of course but also the question of who is licensed to have access and agency over their own dreams (oh, Freud...), and I plan to make this problem a recurrent talking-point. But nevertheless I could have found more women authors, especially in the modern/contemporary periods, so I am ESPECIALLY eager for some suggestions in that arena in the comments below (women of color or LGBT writers esp. welcome). I have a little bit of leeway with juggling things around near the end of the term.  
  • Two: An introductory writing exercise yesterday during my first class has led me to believe that most of my students chose this course because they want to learn to interpret their own dreams. While I there is a creative/personal component to the syllabus, and self-exploration is one of the themes of the course, I need to figure out how to cultivate such eager, engaged attitudes while keeping the focus of the class on literature, sometimes literature that won't initially seem very exciting or, cough, relatable
  •  Three: I'm worried I haven't assigned enough reading. So many people cautioned me that I need to assign less than I deem possible that I may have overcompensated...hence, tomorrow, we're examining a mere 15 pages of texts. We'll see how things go, I guess. I really have no idea!
Lastly, as I think about my own syllabus and the endless tinkering that went on before I distributed it yesterday, I can't sign off without boosting this article by Rebecca Schuman in Slate, on the question of why syllabi have sprouted in length to something akin to "exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality." Yes, it's the corporatization of the university system, the sense that students are now consumers who by following as many systematic guidelines possible can purchase rather than earn their grades. I love Schuman's suggestion at the end that we should relegate all the "admin boilerplate" to the end of our documents, emphasizing through form and physical presentation which issues actually matter. 




Any suggestions or grains of wisdom from your own syllabi, readers? How are you approaching your syllabi this term?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Solitary or Solidarity?

I don’t know about you, but many of the events over the last few months have left me thinking about feeling solitary. Not loneliness, per se, but a sense of separateness, of needing to take time to think and process while feeling a little isolated in the process. I am talking about disparate events—stories like Emma Healey’s piece in Hairpin, of course the on going revelations of Jian Ghomeshi’s actions and the complicity (is that what we call and open secret in this case?) of so many, but also the Dalhousie Dentistry “Gentlemen’s Club,” not to mention the ways in which the administration has missed an incredible opportunity to take a swift and proactive stand on misogyny and gendered violence on this campus and across the city. I don’t want to rehearse these events, even though I feel compelled to write about the one unfolding on my own campus right now. What I want to think through are the ways in which events like these open up space for solidarity. Events such as these are also isolating. They create the need for reflection, self-care, and, if you’re anything like me, they elicit an almost inarticulable need for solitude.

And yet.

And yet, these events also elicit an urgent sense that I need to act. Now! Five minutes ago! All the time! These kinds of events also remind me of the need for solidarity, organization, and collective action. That word need also reminds me that so often the collective action and solidarity require grassroots and ground-up work. People need to be rallied, priorities need to be identified and articulated, and actions need to be delegated. This kind of work is hard and only possible with a dedicated group of people. Those people are out there, certainly, but they are usually over extended. Take a moment and jot down the names of people you wanted to talk with when you heard about the Ghomeshi scandal. Or, jot down the names of people and organizations you think of when you want to address job scarcity and precarity in academia. How many do you come up with? Why do you gravitate to those names? And how many of the names appear on both lists?

Strangely, I found myself thinking about solitariness and solidarity this past weekend. I was at the MLA in Vancouver where I was representing ACCUTE as their Contract Academic Faculty member on the executive. The paper I gave was entitled “Making ‘Solidarity’ Real: Campus Labour Movements and the Precarious Worker,” which, with some theorizing and discussion of the Canadian context versus the American one, was a narrativization of my own experience of being on strike while precariously employed. The panel was about contingent labour and campus labour movements; I was the only Canadian. Indeed, 80% of the audience was American. So, while everyone in the room was concerned with the same issues, the means for addressing them were radically different. We spent the bulk of the question and answer session trying to hammer out the possibilities of cross-border collaboration on issues of precarity. Practiacally speaking, there aren’t very many.

It was an empowering panel, most especially because it was the first time I have publicly presented on my own experiences. My experience on the panel also reminded me of the sometimes-tense poles of solitariness. On the one hand, I need solitude to process. On the other hand, solitude can be incredibly isolating. It can, I think, at times compound the issues that evoke the feeling in the first place.


My question for you, readers, is this: how do you balance the need for solitary reflection with your own need for urgent and sustainable solidarity? Really?