Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How to Find a Supervisor

As I've been tracking graduate student progress through our degrees, it very often happens that students don't secure a supervisor by the required date. Invariably, when I contact them to ask what's going on, they admit to embarrassment and confusion about how, exactly, they're supposed to get someone to agree to be their supervisor.

Hence this post.

Securing a supervisor is hard. And you have to do it on your own, taking charge of a process where you're asking people, basically, to be in charge of you for a couple of years, but you're in charge of asking them to do this and so it all feels weird. You may have the sense that you yourself are an unimportant worm. You may feel that profs are unapproachable gods who are too busy and remote to meet with you (some profs may cultivate this feeling, which doesn't help). You may feel your project is underdeveloped and you have no right to talk to an expert about it since you will be revealed as a fraud. You may be afraid of rejection. You may be afraid of office hours. You may just generally be afraid.

I have a formula for you! Just follow the script and you will be favorably impressing everyone with your professionalism, and you won't have to wonder if you're doing it wrong!

Important things to remember:

  • You and the supervisor ultimately choose each other: you both have agency
  • A conversation is not a commitment
  • You will likely have to talk to several potential supervisors before choosing one
  • Begin as you mean to go on: be prepared, take feedback, meet deadlines
What you need to begin:
  • A one-page description of your proposed dissertation project
  • Access to the department web page
  • A dose of courage and self-efficacy
Choosing a supervisor is your first real act as a truly independent researcher: it takes courage to tell the world, or some small portion of your department's tenured or tenure-track faculty, that you have a book length project to create and you would like their help with it. Acknowledge your nerves as natural, but don't let them stop you. You will need the description of your project to share with prospective supervisors so that they can get a sense of what you want to do. Bonus: if you get nervous talking with authority figures, a document is a great thing to hold onto with your hands or to let speak on your behalf. You will need access to the department web page in order to scour profiles to drum up the maximum number of people to consider as potential supervisors.

Next, write some emails to ask for a meeting. Here is a template for that email:
Dear Prof. Morrison,
I am a first year PhD student, and I [took a graduate course with you / am taking a graduate course with you / read your profile on the department web page / know your research].  
I am in the process of looking for a dissertation supervisor, and I am trying to meet with faculty members whose research interest intersect with my own. I am proposing a dissertation on the use of fake mustaches as a pre-text for duck-face-making in Instagram selfies among 8-10 year old boys. Your own work on digital autobiography, particularly addressing methodology, seems relevant to my own work. I have attached a one-page description of my project (in very early stages!) if you would find it helpful to understand what kind of work I'm interested in. 
Might you be available to meet with me to discuss my project? 
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request,
Full Name

Please note:
  • This email is short and direct and a little bit formal
  • You can write to profs you've already met, as well as those you haven't
  • You want to be clear you're not asking them to commit to being your supervisor by return email, but just asking if they're willing to meet with you to discuss the possibility
  • You want to be specific enough in noting why you're interested in meeting this professor that she doesn't feel you're just emailing everyone.
  • Don't send more than one page of writing, because nobody has time for that.
I encourage you to write to several professors at the same time. It will take time to arrange meetings, so you just fritter away time meeting everyone sequentially. Do a blitz of all the likely candidates. When you meet with each of them, you should ... oh hold on. I'll make a list.

Discuss this at your meeting:
  • Are they interested in your project?
  • Would they be willing to take on any more students than they have?
  • What kind of working relationships do they tend to have with students? This means:
    • frequency of meeting
    • mentoring support for the degree
    • help with writing as well as research
  • Would they be willing to work with you, as a supervisor or as a committee member?
  • Can they suggest anyone else as a possible supervisor or a committee member?
After you've met all the faculty members on your list, as well as any suggested by any of the faculty members you've asked, you should have a good sense of who you click with and who you don't, what their availability might be like, and if they're willing to work with you. Then you can send another email to the faculty member you'd like to choose as your supervisor:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 
Thank you for meeting with me last week to discuss my proposed dissertation project. Your comments were very helpful. I feel like your expertise is a really good fit with what I want to do: would you be willing to be my supervisor? 
If yes, I have a form for you to sign, for my file. If no, thank you very much for your time in meeting with me. 
Best wishes,
Full Name

Please note: no one is going to be heartbroken if you meet with them, but choose a different supervisor. Many of us know very well when your project is a better fit with someone else. Many of us already have a ton of students and aren't pinning all our dreams of supervisory fulfillment on you. Really, it's totally okay. No one is going to take this personally. They will be impressed by your professionalism, and probably ready to serve as a committee member on down the line.

So there you go. It's a formula, and it's got form letters. Get used to being in charge: you've got a whole dissertation to write, that you're going to have to take the lead on everyday. Securing a supervisor is the first step: put your best foot forward. You can do it!

Monday, February 8, 2016

On Rereading Nicole Brossard

I have this distinct memory of reading an essay by Nicole Brossard back when I was a graduate student. The essay, "Writing as Trajectory of Desire and Consciousness," outlines some of Brossard's key terms. Her title, she tells the reader, contains some of the words to which she returns and returns. These words -- writing, trajectory, desire, consciousness -- contain everything that gives meaning to her life. For Brossard, whose multiple subject positions are central to her decades-long career, writing is a "wager of presence." For her, writing -- from the position of woman, of lesbian, of feminist, of French speaker, of mother, of friend -- is a risk one takes in the presence, as a means of quite literally bodying forth the future you wish to inhabit.

I love this idea. When I read it as a graduate student it absolutely cracked my world open. Here was a writer who could name her different identities, and then talk about how writing and talking and thinking about those different identities was an actual, proactive means of pushing against oppression. 

I returned to this essay last week, when I was feeling the physical weight of misogyny in Canada, in academia, in everyday life. I returned to Brossard's essay on Monday, when Jian Ghomeshi's trial began and when I heard the news from my colleagues down the road that the administration had gutted their Women and Gender Studies Program. I returned to Brossard, as I return to Audre LordeSara AhmedMaggie NelsonSachiko MurakamiDionne BrandEl Jones, (and the list goes on) because she articulates so clearly her own way through the tangled and oppressive inequities  we each live through in our own bodies. She articulates her own privilege, and her own outsider status. She writes about how hard it is to name abuse, or misogyny, or racism, and then she continues writing. 

The physical weight I was feeling last week hasn't dissipated. Every time I go on social media, which I seem to do obsessively, I encounter either innumerable headlines violently questioning the testimony of witness #1 and Lucy de Coutere, or I encounter brilliant, but also unavoidably heavy accounts of women who have also had their experiences of gender based violences questioned. I feel the weight of my own responsibility to witness the hurt of others, and to use my training as a teacher and a writer and a reader of culture to try to articulate why we need to trust victims even when their way of surviving doesn't look like what we have been taught to demand of them. I feel the weight of my own experiences of gender based violences -- big and small, physical and emotional. It's heavy. 

Brossard talks about that bodily experience of heaviness. She calls it an effect of "ritual with shock"

...the necessity of ritual with shock is especially linked to a discomfort, a profound   
dissatisfaction, a revolt against the monolithic patriarchal sense which seems to shatter fervour, aspirations, memory, and women's identity. In your head words crash into each other: the word, woman, is thrown against Man, the word insanity against reason, the word passivity against violence, the word intuition against logic. Ritual with shock translates a conflict of values, repeatedly bumping into the binary, antagonistic, and hierarchical structure of misogyny and patriarchal sense. 

Constantly bruising against the systematic oppressions of patriarchal culture actually changes how we move through the world. For Brossard, that realization is shocking. Turning the shock of recognition into self-sustaining and world-making energy is where the ritual comes in. She writes

When a woman invests a word with all her anger, energy, determination, imagination, this word crashes violently into the same word, the one invested with masculine experience. The shock that follows has the effect of making the word burst....Thus the word regard can change into vision, woman into lesbian, love into identity.

Remembering that Brossard wrote this in French allows us read more into that word "regard," which in the French means "to look" and in English means "consider or think of." Brossard carries that bruised language to another place and transforms it into the means by which women and others left outside the strictures of patriarchal culture can see and consider one another. What a thing, isn't it? What a thing, to be able to carry language through to another place. What a thing to have been taught to read this way. I wouldn't have learned to read this way without classes in feminist theory...

Here is what Brossard's writing reminds me: It reminds me that we need to learn how to read context into events, and that language is itself an event. Take, for example, they ways in which many mainstream media outlets are questioning the testimonies of women. Take, for example, the way an administration guts a women and gender studies program without a thought to anything more than a budget line (or worse, that they did). Take, for example, the fact that we still don't seem to have a public language to speak the nuances of experiencing gender based violence. Learning to read Brossard and other writers like her has given me some tools to name the micro- and macro-aggressions of living in a patriarchal culture. 

It has given me the language to try and help my students learn to read context for themselves. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

From the Archives: Why We Need Women's and Gender Studies Programs

After @darmiuth made a splash on Twitter this week by writing about male scientists as though they were women, the idea of the Finkbeiner Test was bandied about again and made me think of my take, back in 2012, about the Finkbeiner Test and how we talk about women writers. I thought about reposting that piece today.

And then RooshV decided to plan (and then cancelled) a bunch of meet-ups in Canada.

And the OED defined feminism as rabid.

And SFU posted a totally sexist video for Sweater Day.

And Mount Allison announced that they were defunding their Women's and Gender Studies Program (despite their track-record of gender violence on campus, and its arguably minimal cost to the institution).

So I think it's time to revisit a whole bunch of our past writing on gender and sexism in and out of the academy, also known as some of the many reasons that we need women's and gender studies programs:

Boyda generates some productive anger on the subject of gender bias in teaching evaluations

Remembering back to David Gilmour and sexist syllabi

Aimée on the sexist microagressions of university homepages

Challenging unconscious bias in reference letters for women

Margrit on sexist microagressions and the power of exposure, naming, and visibility

Aimée on the relationship between "merit," casual racism, and gender balance on campus

Sexist fails at academic conferences

How to change the fact that 80% of the "experts" we see in the media are men

Guest blogger Andrew Bretz on the rape culture pervasive on Canadian university campuses

On not getting out the the way for men on the sidewalk

And, of course, Erin's Monday roundup of posts on rape culture and the Ghomeshi trial

Monday, February 1, 2016

From the Archives: To Build Sustained Discourse on Rape Culture is a Feminist Act

If you're in Canada you will know that today marks the start of the trial of former CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, who is being accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.

We have been thinking about how to have mindful, generative, public discussions about rape culture for a long while here at Hook and Eye, and our thinking is built on our identification as feminist academics.

If you're looking to think with us I have pulled some of our writing on the subject from the archives, as well as one brilliant piece by Lucia Lorenzi which was originally published at

Lily, on silence, forgetting, and being at the Ghomeshi bail hearing.

Erin, on social media, slow academe, and building sustained public conversations about rape culture.

Lucia Lorenzi at on how the burden of healing is still placed on women.

Erin, a year later, on the how the Ghomeshi scandal changed her.

Erin, asking what it is going to take to have sustained and generative public discourse about rape culture.

Jana, on reading the comments.

Erin, on healthy communities and mentorship in the wake of public revelations of misogyny in Canadian literary circles.

And Erin again on restorative justice, social media, and why it is important that #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral.

And Erin once more, with an open letter to Rex Murphy about why language matters when we are talking about rape culture, racism, and systemic violence.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A pedagogy of provocation

Boyda's excellent post from yesterday, on how to cultivate a healthy detachment in teaching, got me thinking about my own pedagogy of care. I've long since made the move that Boyda describes, of sticking to her guns and not over-explaining or apologizing for decisions on deadlines and readings and attendance policies.

Here's something I've found, as I grew comfortable teaching that way. When the rules of engagement--the contractual parts of the course--are clear and consistent, it creates a boundary around the classroom and students come to feel more supported and more secure. Everyone knows there are going to be five quizzes and they'll all be about the textbook. Everyone knows there is a final exam. Everyone knows that every day there will be informal writing, and group work. Everyone knows I'm actually really serious about having the reading done before class, and that I will in fact answer absolutely any question if someone bothers to come to my office hours to ask it in person.

From that security and predictability comes the possibility to push into what I call the pedagogy of provocation.

The pedagogy of provocation means pushing back against my students' ideas, letting them work through contradictions, prompting them to consider alternative views, correcting them on facts, asking them to differentiate between opinion and scholarship, to name the methodology or theory from which they draw their arguments.

Yesterday, I provoked my first year Digital Lives students. Just for context, I will note that this is the first time I've taught it where the classroom demographic skews 90% to Math and Computer Science and Engineering students and the vibe in the room is palpably different. Much of the course content interrogates tech culture, from innovation to business practices to digital divides of various sorts to web culture to Silicon Valley. I've never taught a cohort who so clearly mark themselves as invested in the tech industry as programmers, entrepreneurs, or engineers.

We opened class with two questions I'd written on the board:

  1. What happens to your digital stuff after you die?
  2. What is "free speech" on Twitter? What is "criminal harassment"?

I gave everyone 10 minutes to write notes towards answers for these questions, and prompted them to think through some of the material we'd already covered: what do we know from the history of media technologies that sheds light on these questions? What are some different scholarly approaches to these questions? Are there technical answers, or legal answers, or regulatory answers, or geographically specific answers, or cultural answers?

And then we discussed.

The first question revealed that notions of "property" and "ownership" are complicated online, and that regulations about willing property to beneficiaries is not readily analogous to taking over someone's iTunes library. Or that maybe I want to have my Facebook persist as a memorial after I'm dead, but I want some way to nuke my account without my family ever knowing it existed. Students offered their ideas, and I pushed back ("Are you sure?") or I grabbed keywords ("Aha! But you don't 'own' your music on Spotify! How is subscription different from ownership?"). Some of it was frustrating: it turns out there's no easy answer, and not one answer, and that different answers are more or less true in different ways on different services in different contexts.

The second question was a little more contentious. Many of us are free speech absolutists. Others pointed out that in Canada we don't have free speech but rather "free expression." Some were Darwinist in their belief that the strongest Twitter users should set the pace and tone of the service. Others wanted Twitter to act as arbiter in cultural norms disputes. Someone looked up the legal definition of "legal harassment." And then we debated the fuzziness of "reasonable person." I told them about my own Twitter experiences with hate speech, and those of my friends. "Why?" one student asked--"Because I am a lady on the internet, talking about ladies on the internet" I told them. People furrowed their brows, shot their hands up, nodded yes while scribbling. Some crossed their arms and snorted.

It was super difficult and it was great. The discussions managed to address most of the methodological and historical questions from the readings, through the lens of a contemporary controversy (or two). By the end more students were leaning forward in their chairs than leaning back. The material had become interesting and no one, in a first for the semester, began packing up their bags before I dismissed the class.

For me, it was hard. The stakes feel high when an 18 year old with an expressed wish to move to Silicon Valley and work with a startup tell me how progressive social media companies are and I answer "Why do you think that? Because Twitter has more guys named Peter on their board than they do women. And they have zero people of color." I expose my own blind spots when a student from Eastern Europe puts a caveat on our discussion of libertarianism and what it is--a core belief in the freedom of markets is a feature particularly of North American libertarianism, not all libertarianism. Quite right.

There's a chance, of course, that by constantly provoking my students like this I risk alienating them, losing them. They may find me disagreeable or biased (although I try to poke holes in my own favorite arguments as well). I hope to make this pedagogy feel a little safer for them by showing them how dependable, consistent, and fair I can be by crafting a detailed and full syllabus with all readings and tasks and due dates in advance, by having the quizzes and papers graded so quickly, by affirming everyone's efforts, particularly those students who want to challenge something *I* have said. I never let myself get upset by things they say, but to always remain detached enough from my own emotional responses and preferred outcomes that I can stay attuned to what they need to say and to hear in order to learn.

So that's my pedagogy of provocation. Make all the mechanics of the class, from reading to attendance policy to returning marks quickly, very very predictable and stable--but turn the classroom space into one where any idea might come up, and be thoroughly tested, and the outcome might be surprising.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Pedagogy of Detachment

"So, we're supposed to read two things for every class?"

A number of thoughts cross through my mind when a student asks me such a question:
1. Why are they asking me this?
2. Have I put too many readings on the course syllabus?
3. Are they feeling overwhelmed and it's my fault?
4. Am I contributing to a culture wherein students are overworked and placed under undue pressure to succeed and enter the workforce as soon as possible and never have time for themselves or for play? 
In spite of these thoughts, what I should say, when confronted with this question, is simply "Yes, there are a couple readings for every class," and leave it to them to follow up if they have a problem with this fact. But what I did say, following from that thought progression, was something along the lines of, "uhh, yes, there are a couple, but you know, the reading schedule is open and evolving and adaptive to the needs of our course, so if I find that we're getting overwhelmed with work or anything, I'll dial it back--or, conversely, add texts if it seems like too little. Also, other professors assign an essay a week, so my courses are a little more reading-heavy than others, so you should be thankful you're in my class and stop complaining." (ok I didn't say that last bit)

This was not a good teaching moment. It was, in fact, an instance where I faltered in my current pedagogy strategy as I enter a new semester of teaching: a pedagogy of detachment, of caring less, of embodying more authority and not feeling so beholden to the needs and preferences of each student. Rather than adhering to my carefully thought out teaching principles, I nervously rattled off all the reasons I had for assigning 'so much reading,' even though in reality some of those pieces are only a few pages long, and these students are adults, and the readings are important and interesting and diverse and carefully selected.

In essence, my new strategy can be embodied in one important emoji:
I deploy this metaphor of the hammer in my head whenever I need to give fewer f***s. Aided by this emoji (with the exception of the two-readings question), so far I've been maintaining more authority than I have in the past, stuck to my principles more, fought against the urge to externalize the running nervous commentary of feelings and questionings in my head. Past students have written on course evaluations that I am sometimes inconsistent in my assessment standards: I will say one thing in class, perhaps revise proceedings to accommodate the class's supposed needs, but then not be quite so accommodating in my grading. This semester I am going to try to leave things in the same place where I set them down, as much as possible--hammer them into place, if you will. Paradoxically enough, I think caring (and apologizing) less will earn me more respect as a teacher, so hammering things into place is mutually beneficial.

Most people write about the importance of a pedagogy of compassion, of treating students like humans and being sympathetic and flexible when they experience life crises or fall behind on their work. I agree with all of that, of course: undergraduate students, like grad students, are under more stress than ever in this precarious socio-political climate, and we as instructors should be sensitive to the pressures they face. I am not the type of person who could ever be fully detached--even after only a couple classes, I can feel myself growing fond of the students in my classes as unique individuals, and I enjoy joking and chatting with them on a personal level. So in dialing back my propensity for caring too much, I'm just reestablishing balance, fighting against the feminine nurturing stereotype instilled within me, cutting down on draining emotional labour, and attempting to instate a reasonable level of care and compassion while retaining my own authority as an instructor.

Yet I know, and fear, that this approach may have its own host of negative repercussions, as this timely NYT article on the "madonna-whore complex" that still tends to persist in modern academia suggests. I guess with this new tactic I'm trying to achieve whatever the word for the aunt-equivalent of "avuncular" would be, an alternative to the girlfriend or mother affiliation: related, yet detached; skin in the game, but not my whole body. I wish more cultural codes existed for this type of persona for women. I wish I didn't continue to worry that a non-nurturing front will read as overly assertive or abrasive to students, to whom I remain indebted for strong evaluations. I wish I could just enter the classroom and immediately command authority without feeling under scrutiny for my outfit or my hair. I wish things were a little bit easier for us female instructors.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Once More, With Feelings

This weekend, as I was scrolling through social media, I came across a post from a colleague at a university down the road. It was announcing a guest speaker -- Harsha Walia, if you're curious -- and I found myself feeling that familiar sensation of vertigo. You know what I mean, the feeling that the floor is getting a bit further away and the room is darkening at the edges. This feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with the guest speaker or my friend who has posted about her arrival. Rather, that feeling of falling, or rather, of being dropped came from my archived emotions. Once more, the sharp realities of my own job precarity reared up and shook my foundations. If you're wondering why the announcement of an activist coming to campus made me look, navel-gazingly, at my own conditions of labour you're not alone. I, too, thought 'what the hell is wrong with you, Erin? Why does this bother you so much?'

And it came to me, once again, my heartbreak on an eternal feedback loop: precarity means not having a place at the table. It means not being a part of the structural and institutional mechanisms that bring people to campus, that build curricular change, that afford you the luxury of teaching the same classes for several years (or more) in a row.

I hate writing about precarity. And yet I feel compelled. I haven't written about it here for months (even though I am the Contract Academic Faculty representative for ACCUTE), and that's been deliberate. I'm making something of an unofficial and unpaid career talking about underpaid and precarious work. While that is hilarious and kind of fun to say, the reality is that it is isolating, exhausting, and lonely. It puts strain on me and on my family. But as we creep towards the one year anniversary of National Adjunct Walk Out Day, I find myself here again, thinking publicly about some of the effects and affects of precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching my brilliant and likewise precarious friends and colleagues try to innovate in their classrooms to make up for the fact that they can't innovate in the long term on their campuses.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching at department meetings while the tenured faculty become more and more tired from shouldering the work that new hires would be able to help with, not to mention bring fresh energy to.

Being a part of the precarious labour force mean not being on the email lists that tell you when the guest speakers are coming, or when the grant deadlines are (if, of course, you happen to be eligible despite your precarity).

Being a part of the precarious labour force means pouring your energies into teaching the classes you get, rather than the classes you're an expert in, and then watching your field advance while you struggle to make comma splices interesting to two hundred non-major undergrads.

Being a part of the precarious labour force also means you really do give a shit about those two hundred undergrads because, dammit, you're trained as a Marxist and you understand how the material conditions of labour reverberate from you to them and back again.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means that if you're in a contract position you're trying to do that service work because a) it might be the only time you get to _________ (teach a grad class, mentor an honours student, do a directed reading, sit on a departmental committee, etc.) and b) because no matter how often you tell yourself differently, hope is a tenacious beast and maybe this service work will matter for reasons other than altruism.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means your colleague lose sight of your areas of expertise--if, indeed, they ever knew in the first place--because you become a ghost. In to teach your class, then elsewhere for office hours or to teach another class on another campus or to work your other job to make rent.

Being a part of the precarious labour force in Canada, where letters of reference are tailored to each job application, means worrying about the time your referees put in to writing these letters. It means wondering why the hell a job ad didn't just say what it was looking for and save you and three to four letter writers the time and energy. And it means knowing that you'll do it again next time; you'll ask for the letters and imagine yourself into this different iteration of what you do, in hopes that someone on the committee sees you for who you are, for your potential, and for your commitment.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you get really bloody tired of people asking you about how the job market is, but even more scared that they will stop asking you. No one asking means no one thinking about you. No one asking rings loud, thought not clear.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means nothing is clear. Not your career, not your plans, not your life choices, not your work.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means making life choices regardless of your precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force does not mean you're not interested in/ aware of/ participating in/ and constantly thinking about the work in your field and your own place within it. But it does mean that the feeling of scholarly loneliness is compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means the politics of childcare, of being a woman, of being a person of colour, of being queer, of being differently abled, of being ______ are compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you are quiet because talking about precarity is exhausting. It becomes what people think you are about, and then you become more exhausted, because honestly, aren't we scholars trained to diagnose and close read systems?

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you're a killjoy, because let's not forget that killing the so-called joys of normativity is a world-making project. A necessary, if isolating and exhausting project.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means finding genuine pleasure in spite of the crummy conditions of your labour.