Friday, December 12, 2014

License to sloth*

I woke up this morning and decided that enough is enough with the lists! I have enough of those, and we here on the blog have many. They do make me survive the day, and get me through the most hectic and crazy periods, pretty much like the ones at the end of a Fall term would be. But do you know what happened to me yesterday? I caught myself fantasizing about the ALL THE THINGS I would do during this break, and--gasp--actually sat down to make a list. Of the fun things to do during the break. Really? Really!?! Is that what it's come down to? Is that what I've become? Has my life really been reduced to making lists of the fun things to do during the break? To scheduling my supposedly free time? Enough is enough I say! No more lists.

Source
Granted, I know where else this impulse to catalog all the leisure aspirations comes from. Stress management. Ever since my undergrad days, during exam season, I'd run through a list, in my head, of all the things I'd do when exams were over. The list seemed endless just like the exam period, and yet, when exams actually ended, I was at a loss as to what to do with ALL THAT TIME. As as result, I ended up feeling like a failure for not only not enjoying my break enough, but not even remembering what that enjoyment should entail according to my own self from a few days back. Hence, the perpetual stress-time promise to make a list of ALL THE ENJOYABLE THINGS TO BE DONE DURING A BREAK. But not this time. No lists.

So, instead I will take a break from my best habits that have anything to do with work. Breaks, by definition, should be different from work, so I will attempt to structure this one as little as possible, rather than make it into a game of tick-that-line-on-the-list. I will read books at random from the collection I've amassed throughout the term in hopes of just such an opportunity (I might not even add them to the running list of books I've read this year). I will pick up my knitting, but set no goals as to finishing any projects. I will peruse recipes at random, and cook whatever I feel like. I will get together with friends, and go to wherever my fancy strikes at that moment. Hell, I might even turn on the TV during the day.

Just like that: no pressure! When's the last time you allowed yourself to sloth? Think you'll join me in spirit? What are some things that you've always promised yourself you'd do during a break--do share! And then go and ENJOY THE BREAK!

*Why, yes, I did just use sloth as a verb. I am claiming neologizing as a PhD superpower!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust, or, an End of Term #Altac Update

I've got 5.5 working days left in 2014--less, if today is a snow day like it might be. It's hard to believe that another term is over, that I've been working full-time in FGS for nearly a year and a half now. It's very hard to believe how agonized I was about leaving academia, to remember the long, awful time (years, really) of not knowing what I would do with my life post-PhD. It seems silly now, all that agonizing, but it really wasn't. It was a symptom of not knowing who and where would value my graduate training, of not knowing that there were workplaces that could be as, or more, fulfilling than an academic department. I'm learning about more and more places and people that do value what PhDs bring to the workplace every day. And I'm as convinced as ever that leaving academia was exactly the right decision for me, and could be for so many others. I've spoken to quite a few readers over the last couple of months--thank you, you lovely people--who have expressed their appreciation for being able to see what an #altac job, and an #altac life, looks like from the other side, from the inside. I wish I'd had more access to that kind of information and perspective myself, and I thought it might be time for an update. How's this #altac thing going, a year and a half later? What's it like?

It is, in short, pretty great.

Yesterday was a excellent example of my new normal, and pretty representative of why I love it. I woke up, as I do, at 5:15 and worked on my dissertation for a couple of hours. The lack of pressure--not feeling like my entire future rests on this one document--means that I enjoy my writing time most days, and I definitely look forward to it when I wake up in the morning. (Say what? This was definitely not the case when I was writing full time). Yes, writing can still be excruciating, but I know what a bad writing day feels like (oh, do I) and it's been a long time since I've had one as bad as those I had before I took my #altac job. I relish writing as time for creativity and independent work, in contrast to the more collaborative and administrative work I do when I get to the office. And just needing the dissertation to be defendable, not appealing to some mysterious hiring committee, means that I'm taking risks with my writing that feel very right but that I never would have taken had I been taking this dissertation to market. Instead, I'm hoping to publish it as a work of popular literary history, which means that more than three people might actually read it. Huzzah!

After writing comes getting dressed in real clothes, which I still like doing (it helps that I'm a total pencil skirt fetishist and love an excuse to buy beautiful ones and wear them every day), and then about 45 minutes in transit, which I used to read Nigel Slater's delightful The Kitchen Diaries and make grand baking plans for the weekend. The idea of spending at least an hour and a half every day commuting was probably the most worrisome thing to me when I got offered my job, but it's turned out to be no big deal--I go north when most commuters are going south, so the train is usually quiet, and I mostly just read and relax. At the office, I spent most of my day reviewing the final draft applications submitted by our eight Trudeau Foundation Scholarship nominees and compiling their final packages, which is very fulfilling work. I've been coaching and supporting these students since May, and they are, without exception, brilliant, kind, committed, and interesting people who are doing important research, research which I've taught them to write and talk about in ways that are compelling and direct. Working with them is definitely the best part of my job. Of course, I also spent a good part of my day answering email, and then polishing up a PowerPoint presentation about the research being done by our top doctoral students for our annual Scholars' Reception. At lunch, I curled up with a book at the campus bookstore, which is actually a very cozy place to hang out. I love how much time I have to read now, and how I don't feel guilty about reading things that aren't dissertation-related.

In the afternoon, I got to hear the Provost say lovely things about those same top graduate students (things I wrote for her, which is pretty fun), hang out with many of the students I helped win major scholarships this year and last, and spend time outside of the office with my co-workers, all of whom I like rather a lot. At the end of the night, a very senior administrator smuggled me a giant piece of blue cheese from the cheese tray to take home. When I got home, a home that was sparkly clean because I can now afford some help around the house (as Aimee says, we have more money than time) and full of fresh produce (CSA delivery FTW!), I made dinner while my partner finished his last assignment of the term (like me, he works full time and studies part time). After dinner, I continued re-reading Sandra Djwa's biography of P.K. Page--I'm on a big Canadian literary biography kick, which is really driving my writing at the moment--with my cat in my lap, and got so cozy that I fell asleep on the sofa. I didn't think about my day job once.

It was a great day, and I have lots of days like it in my #altac life. Of course, not every day, or even every month, are like this. The fall rush is a real challenge, especially this year when I was developing a dozen Banting postdoc applications and forty Vanier and Trudeau applications simultaneously, while also executing the launch of our Graduate Professional Skills program and coordinating all of our normal scholarship competitions. There were some 18 hours days and many weekends spent working. Sometimes, when 7:30 am rolls around, I do really wish that I could sit and keep writing just a few hours longer. I've figure out how to make time for writing despite the fact that I come home from work mentally wiped out, and don't get home until nearly 7, but I haven't quite figured out where exercise fits into this schedule.

But now that I'm doing most things at work for the second time, my anxiety level is so much lower, as is my understanding of where and how to prioritize. I've found ways to stay engaged with my same academic community, just in a different capacity--I'm still doing the MLA, Congress, and DHSI this year, but I'm now speaking about graduate professional development and careers instead of poetry, and I'm teaching, instead of training, at DHSI. Even better, work pays for me to do some of this. I've got a bunch of exciting research projects and conferences in the pipeline, and opportunities for more come my way as part of my day job. I get paid well, I have great benefits, and I live exactly where I want to. I am convinced that no tenure-track job would give me all of this, and when a position in my field, in my current department, came up earlier this term, I didn't feel even an ounce of envy. It also makes me really happy to talk to others, who I hear from more and more often, who have taken #altac or #postac jobs and are totally contented with their decision. Many of them, including me, have written transition stories for From PhD to Life, which I encourage you to check out if you haven't already. Where are All the PhDs? is another great resource.

So, that's me, reporting from the #altac. Another term bites the dust, and I'm off for three weeks to do all the holiday things and hang out with Erin in Vancouver at the MLA. Wishing you all a restorative winter break and the happiest of new years. See you in 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say "you're welcome" for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. "You're welcome", I suppose, somehow just doesn't quite seem to cut it. 

Perhaps it's because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they've taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they've made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I'm grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I'm grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 

My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 

For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two "non-criminal student deaths" on campus. I can't imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.

Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they'd decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they'd to travelled off-campus to their friend's home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn't answer the door.

When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources--contact info for the chaplain's office, peer-support centre, and others--to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don't know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.

I've always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students' concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.

I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I'll know what to say. A simple "thank you" in response will probably suffice.

Have your students taught you something valuable this term?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Guest post: Life Chiasmus! How Smart You Are vs. How You Are Smart

Today's guest post is from Victoria Leenders-Cheng. Thanks, Victoria!
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This fall, I appeared on a CBC television show called Canada’s Smartest Person.

Here is a description of the show, from the website:

CANADA'S SMARTEST PERSON is a new television series that redefines what it means to be smart. We’ll shatter the myth that to be smart you need to have a high IQ, be a math whiz or trivia buff. Every week four new hopefuls battle it out in front of a live studio audience in six categories of smarts: musical, physical, social, logical, visual and linguistic. In the series finale eight finalists will go head to head to earn the title!
CANADA'S SMARTEST PERSON: It’s not how smart you are; it’s how you are smart.

You might have heard of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, on which this TV show is based. It tries to move assessments of intelligence away from traditional tests towards seven different measures (musical, physical, logical, visual, inter and intra-personal, and linguistic). Of course, when packaged for television, the theory loses some of its nuance.

During my qualification episode, we did speed math, puzzles, and a social intelligence challenge where we had to recognize micro expressions – that is, look at pictures of people’s eyes and guess what they were feeling. We also did a choreographed dance and an obstacle course with five challenges lined up one after the other.

I won my episode, meaning that I went on to compete in the grand finale, featuring, in the show’s bombastic terms, the eight smartest people in Canada. (There is no prize of any kind for winning, in case you are wondering. Just a title and bragging rights.) To my great surprise, when I walked into the studio for the first day of taping for the grand finale, I found myself staring at seven men.

I was the only woman to have made the finals. 

The show received almost 4,500 applications (mostly self-nominated, mostly men), which they whittled down to 32 participants. Of those 32, almost half were women. What happened along the way to eliminate all the women but one? Or was it just a coincidence and was I making too big a deal out of it? I’m still not sure I have the answer to those questions.

But here’s the thing. Women are underrepresented in domains ranging from entertainment, corporate environments (executive suite and boardroom alike), in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields, and in academia more generally. As a feminist studying human systems, I see my Canada’s Smartest Person experience, and my presence as the only woman in the finals, as a signal to examine this phenomenon.

Another aspect of my participation that made me uncomfortable was how the show dubbed me the "every woman," the woman with a family and job and exciting life showing that you can have and do it all.

A friend of mine who got her PhD from Harvard and is now a tenure-track professor and trying to figure out how to juggle career, family, and partner, while fending off societal pressure, heard this every woman description and sighed, “Is this where we are now? Is this the new feminism?”

I agree with her. When and how can we stop buying into models of achievement and fulfillment that make each other feel inadequate??

Again to quote the show:

Canada’s Smartest Person is igniting a national conversation about what it means to be smart.

I want Canada’s Smartest Person to ignite conversations about what it means to be a woman, about why women keep showing up in lower numbers in so many domains, and what it means to be a woman in a public environment with power dynamics established by our media and corporate agendas. As some people have been saying for decades, the personal is the political; arguably, the personal is the political is also the professional.

It’s all fine and good to talk, but we also need to act, or, as Sheryl Sandberg says, to the dismay of many feminists, we need to lean in.

What is perhaps most disappointing about Sandberg and Arianna Huffington and other powerful female icons of conventional success, is that they don’t seem to acknowledge the role that wealth has played in their own accomplishments. Financial security provides peace of mind and access to more options and opportunities; not every woman has this privilege.

But some things in life cost ‘nothing more’ than your sense of self; that is, the price of admission is psychological – you simply need to be willing to put yourself on the line:

-       To relinquish some control over the conditions of your own success (knowing that many of the conditions are out of your control anyway);
-       To potentially be or feel judged based on the most random of traits – weight, intelligence, motives, personality, appearance, etc. – and to be able to ignore those judgments when they are erroneous or irrelevant;
-       To confront and dismantle the fear that people will “discover that you are a fraud;” (when I lost in the finale with the lowest score, it triggered every single insecurity I had about being an imposter – this has probably been the hardest thing about the experience)
-       To advocate and believe in yourself with the understanding that nobody is perfect – if you aren’t athletic, fine; if your house is messy, who cares; if, like me, you are a terrible cook, embrace the disaster of your efforts. If you don’t like math, though, I strongly suggest you learn to like math…!
-       And then, ultimately, to figure out what you really want to do and do it.
As journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue in The Confidence Gap, men do many of the above without a second’s hesitation.

I know the points I raise here have been raised many times over but I want the conversation to continue, with humour and with love. I don’t want either men or women to feel blamed but I do want everyone to feel implicated: we are all responsible for asking ourselves the hard questions. I want, and on some days, I even dare to hope, for more.

I may have been the only woman on the finale of Canada’s Smartest Person this year, but if the show goes to a second season, I hope to see many of you out there.

Here I am on the finale...
...and here I am watching myself on television.


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Victoria Leenders-Cheng is the communications officer for the Faculty of Law at McGill and a master’s student in the Human Systems Intervention program at Concordia University. Find her on Twitter: @vleenderscheng

Friday, December 5, 2014

We know why it happened 25 years ago


Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student
Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the finance department
Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
(Source

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Can't remember, can't forget: what happened in 1989

25 years is a big anniversary. It's been 25 years since 1989, since a man who hated women so much he targeted and assassinated them, just because they were women.

25 years looms, an anniversary, a milestone that demands its recognition, but how? As every year, there will be ceremonies, remembrances, formal affairs documented by news articles and printed programs. 25 years. We will try to remember the names of the women, try to forget the name of the man, that man whose toxic blend of resentment, fear, entitlement seemed unable to handle even the very existence young women who wanted to be engineers.

I remember, but I try to forget.

In December 1989, I was 16 years old. I didn't have my driver's license yet because I was the oldest in my friends and I was waiting for them to be old enough to take the class with me. I was in grade 11, and I was a nerd. My best friends Patti and Megan and Judith and I did everything together, like running the environmentalism club and reading Sassy magazine and doing academic science courses, and spending weekends holed up in each others basements, making grand plans for the future. In the summer of 1990, for example, I would be off at the Northern Summer School for Excellence in Science at Laurentian, a competitive, scholarship-based nerd camp with other kids from far flung Ontario towns, learning minerals science and entering the science pipeline.

In December 1989, I wore t-shirts that said "I love my attitude problem." In true teenager fashion I saw everything that was wrong with the world and that I could fix it, with my attitude problem, and by starting clubs. In 1989 I knew I was smart, and I knew I was going to be a scientist--maybe a doctor!--and that I was aiming for an A+ in life, because I knew I could get it. My mom was a women's libber in the 1970s, a career woman throughout my life, a strong role model who got a university degree as an adult, the head of the household. My best friends were strong-willed and independent. Anything was possible. I was a humanist, not a feminist: women could do anything, and we were all just people.

In December 1989, I learned that even in Canada, you could get killed. For being a smart woman. For being a smart woman at school, studying science.

This was a lesson I didn't want to learn. The news was shocking. I don't remember really talking about it with anyone. I didn't want to. I remember reading and being ... I guess, traumatized: a sharp, shocking injury to my sense of how the world worked, followed by a deep repression of that knowledge. An investment--for my own capacity to continue to operate in the world--in repressing that knowledge. I couldn't learn that lesson and carry on. So I wouldn't.

I knew, but I tried to forget.

It's wrong of me, I know, but I don't want to remember the Ecole Polytechnique murders because to hold that reality in my mind and in my heart makes it hard for me to live.

When I remember, it hurts, somewhere deep and important. "School" and "smart" and "science" and "woman" were keys facets of my identity when I was 16, and that it made me a target for murder was literally unthinkable. I wouldn't think it. I have a strong, self-protective reflex to push it away, even today.

At 16 I was all hope and idealism and energy and ambition. I was also coddled and protected. The murders pierced me, somewhere deep. Something in me changed, and even the act of denying that change, of pushing it away just shifted me further. It made me feel unsafe, targeted, at some fundamental level just for being who I was. School was different. Science was different. Boys were different. Even if I was invested in pretending they were the same.

Nothing was the same.

25 years later, I'm still stuck in that loop. In her book One Hundred Demons, Lynda Barry tiptoes around repressed childhood sexual abuse in a strip on the demon of so-called "Resilience," that bounce-back-ability we assume that children have. Resilience, she suggests, is just the unbearable oscillation between can't remember and can't forget.

This week, I will try to commemorate. But in my heart of hearts, to be able to keep on going every day, I will be trying to forget, trying not to remember.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Being an LGBTQ Ally

This post may be considered Part II of my post from last week, when I wondered aloud what a more "queer" feminism might look like, and proposed that this blog could be a space for us to think through how to become better advocates for the LGBTQ community. Here I share my experience with a recent six-hour course at Fordham called LGBT and Ally Network of Support Training; by participating in this course (according to the website), members of the network
demonstrate their active commitment to creating a campus environment that is open and welcoming to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) students and their allies, in keeping with the Jesuit tenet of Cura Personalis (care for the whole person) and the principle that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect which is explicit in Catholic teaching. 
 Yaaay Jesuits! Plus we get a pin and a plaque with our name on it!

That fostering a growing ally network is important cannot be understated; at Fordham, the findings from last year's LGBTQ Que(e)ry Student Experience survey reveal that nearly two thirds of the student LGBTQ population felt "uncomfortable or unsafe" in the classroom, and 46% felt uncomfortable or unsafe around their professors (p. 18). The report contains numerous other chilling anecdotes from students, including these: "My roommate went on a rampage about not standing for any of this 'gay and lesbian bullshit' on her campus. As a result, she does NOT know that I am bisexual"; "I don't want to out myself to [my roommates] because I can't deal with their questions and curiosity that is borderline invasive"; and one student reported being out to "Certain friends who could tolerate that information (p. 17). Straight, cisgender respondents were sometimes disturbingly dismissive of the survey, expressing their beliefs that it was not necessary because no space on-campus was "unsafe" (15).

I could go on, but basically--this stuff matters.

The course I took basically consisted of a group of 30 or so beautiful and diverse people sitting in a room together over a couple lunches, discussing challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, and attempting to facilitate heightened awareness, understanding, and knowledge. I'm hoping that in posting here some of the activities we conducted, you can share in some of this wonderful experience too, and perhaps learn a couple strategies for your own classrooms and your own advocacy practices (though this is mostly a recounting of my experience rather than a delineation of inclusivity strategies). If you require a primer on LGBT terminology before proceeding, by the way, I will refer you to GLAAD's "Ally's Guide to Terminology," the PDF of which can be accessed here. From my perspective, some of the most arresting/memorable group activities we did were: 
  • Introducing ourselves with our chosen gender pronouns (ex. "My name is Boyda Johnstone, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers"). We as teachers can implement this exercise in our classrooms in an attempt to create more inclusive spaces for transgender people. Like all new things, it was a little bumpy in practice (I personally am not clear on why we needed to list all three pronouns rather than just one, which made things significantly bumpier), but the more it becomes established, the smoother the playing-out.
  • A circle exercise wherein we were asked to step forward whenever we identified with various statements. The statements began as softballs ("I like to eat sushi"; "I was born in America"), but gradually increased in import ("My family growing up did not have much money"; "I have lost a parent"; leading to "I identify as bisexual," "I identify as gay," etc). I was shocked at how nervous I became even when stepping forward during low-stakes claims; no matter the category, it was scary to break out from the crowd. It's hard to imagine what it's like to step forward during high-stakes claims, especially in "real life" situations such as coming out to loved ones. 
  •  
  • A role-playing exercise wherein we practiced responding to various situations, such as someone using the word "fa***t" in an elevator, or our best friend coming out as gay. In the former case we agreed that it's best to vocally express discomfort, even if the other person doesn't respond well--'planting seeds' that may sprout later on, when we're not around (of course there are complicating factors when we consider intersecting issues such as gender and race, and speaking out might not always be the best option). For the latter case, that of a friend coming out as a LGBT sexual or gender identity, we reviewed and practiced active listening skills:  acknowledging ("acknowledge that you understand what someone is saying by sending verbal and non-verbal cues"), reflecting ("helps you understand and process the whole experience"); interpreting & clarifying ("I hear you saying this..." or "Is this what you mean?"); and summarizing. Such practices, however basic they may seem to us, always merit review: we can never fully predict how we will respond in a given situation. It's never a bad thing to remind ourselves how to shut up and listen. 
  •  
  • A word association exercise where we, as groups, generated 'semantic bubbles' of some of the positive and negative terms associated with LGBT terminology. We built our own definitions and categories but then challenged and questioned those categories, treating terms as living and situation-specific. The stereotypes and negative associations that were brought up made for sobering discussion, to say the least. Here I attach a photo of the posters I snuck with my phone, but it should be noted before reading that some of these words might be triggering or offensive, and were used in a specific context.

As I'm not sure this brief synopsis of events conveys, it was the complexity and diversity of the bodies in the room that made the course truly wonderful; because it was a safe, confidential space, people felt comfortable sharing their personal perspectives and variously heartwrenching and uplifting stories.

What about you, readers? Do you have strategies for making your classrooms more inclusive spaces? How have you practiced allyship to those in the LGBTQ community? Or, if you're part of the LGBTQ community, how can we be better allies to you?