Monday, October 24, 2016

Repost: The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

It's hard to believe I've been writing for Hook & Eye for well over two and a half years now, having joined the team in January of 2014. Sometimes I go back through my old posts and, shockingly enough, find inspiration from them. I say to myself: you're pretty wise, past me! Tonight, after having enjoyed a semi-proper weekend doing weekend things (the extravagance!), including taking a long hike in the woods up the Hudson river with my partner, and now sitting at home facing a large stack of neglected papers and experiencing the dawning realization that a job app is due tomorrow...pulling out an old rant about the cult of perpetual productivity seems apropos.

Taken today, Oct. 23 2016, from the George Washington Bridge connecting NYC and NJ.

(originally posted March 11, 2014:)

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a follow-up to Jana's repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to "take the time for self-care." The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive "culture of acceptance" that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I'm concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I'm now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I'm finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive. Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to "this chocolate bar with help me work, right?" Or reminders that breaks are important because they'll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do--even the breaks we take--have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can't we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for its own sake? How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

 Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)--at the Armory Show 2014 

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marveled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

I guess I still don't have answers to these questions, but think them important to raise. Readers, do you find yourselves struggling to enjoy allotted time off? Do you have advisors who indeed encourage and enable this kind of thinking? Please, share your stories. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university:, We memorized each other's weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name "Aimee Morrison" attached to the email address That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: worked, but so did People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won't check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won't use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we're useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You're 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn't get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don't even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can't we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn't have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn't speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I'm going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there's got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

Monday, October 17, 2016

From the Archives: The Good Enough Professor

It is mid-October. Energy? It's lagging, maybe. Stress? Creeping up, probably, if we are frank. So it seems like a really good time to bring back Lily Cho's post on being good enough. It seems relevant that she wrote this almost a year ago to the day.

Guess what? You're good enough:

Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interview with Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me. 

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough. 

The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin's incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true. 

So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me. 

But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think. 

First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties. 

So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 

We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries. 

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy. 

How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor? 

Lily Cho
York University

Thursday, October 13, 2016

We're Asking the Wrong Questions About PhDs - or Rather, We Aren't Asking Them Any Questions at All

When I interviewed for my current job we got onto the topic of alumni data tracking. My program had an exit survey on their website, one that suggested they were collecting contact information and checking in with PhDs in the years after they'd left our institution to see how and what they were doing. (It turns out that no one knew the form was there, and it hadn't been used in many years.) We then got to talking about program evaluation, one of my favourite subjects, and about how we could start assessing if the professional and career development work we were doing--if they hired me--was having any effect on the post-PhD lives of our graduate students and postdocs. 
"What we don't need to do," I argued in the interview, "is worry about the percentage of our alumni who get jobs after they leave us. In Canada, PhDs have the highest employment rates of any educational level. We know that PhDs get jobs after they graduate. What we don't know is how hard it is to find those jobs, how long it takes, if those jobs are fulfilling and pay well and use the skills we've worked to help them acquire. We don't know if the work we do teaching people how to develop their careers and transition into new fields works. The success of our programs can only be measured by our success in helping with all of those other things, because we can't take credit for PhD employment rates. They're great without us." 
That employment data wasn't what we needed, that we had it already and it told us something promising but frustratingly incomplete, was a bit of a revelation to the people who would become my new team, just as it is to the conference panels and PhDs and graduate chairs with whom I often share this bit of information. It shouldn't be a surprise--this is Statistics Canada data, after all, there for anyone to find and analyze (and, with the reinstatement of the long form census, being collected once again). But my organization is clearly not the only one to still think that employment data is the place we need to start in understanding the lives of our PhD alumni and the value of our programs, academic and otherwise. As Gary McDowell writes in Science this week, higher ed is still furiously mining for what he calls the fool's gold of PhD employment data. And what they find is fool's gold not only because it doesn't have much value, but also because it looks shiny but is tarnished at heart. In the US, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctorate Recipients stands in for the StatsCan data that we tend to use up here, and like the StatsCan data, it tells us only so much. It tells us that PhDs are employed, and roughly where. But it doesn't tell us anything about the quality or nature of employment that PhDs are finding, and that is ultimately what we really need to know. 
As an alternative to census data, the other popular approach at the moment is the old "let's Google it," and that's the approach taken by HEQCO,* the Chronicle Vitae Academic Job Tracker project, and the American Historical Association. It's not a bad approach when done carefully and well, as it at least does allow us to see what specific jobs people in different disciplines are ending up and, if we have things like CV data, the path they took to get there. The better studies, like the AHA and Chronicle Vitae projects (both, not coincidentally, run by Lilli Research Group), limit their Googling to sources that are arguably accurate and verifiable.** But people lie on the internet all the time, or job titles are misleading (is that Assistant Professorship a visiting or a tenure-track one? No way to know from your vague university bio, and no one has bothered to ask you), or people just can't be found (this is especially true for people who move into non-academic employment).
And these data-collection exercises for the most part still don't tell us what we really need to know (or at least what I really want to know): What kind--in qualitative terms--of employment are PhDs finding? What was it like finding a job? How long did it take? How much did you make in that first job? Did it use the skills you gained in your PhD? How long did it take you to get your first raise? To get promoted? Did you do any career development workshops in your PhD? Did they make you feel more confident in embarking on your post-degree job search? What is your employer's perspective on hiring PhDs? And for those of us who work in graduate careers, professional development, support, graduate program reform: is our work doing anything? Are we helping people minimize the transition time between PhD and enjoyable, valuable employment that makes use of their skills? Are we reducing the emotional whiplash of being thrust out of the academy and into the non-academic working world? Do people feel confident in their ability to identify and deploy the skills they've learned in the classroom and the lab, in our seminars and in their own work to broaden and deepen their skill-sets? Are we doing anything at all? The TRaCE project running out of McGill University is taking steps in this direction, but major issues have already been raised with the validity of its approach and the data that comes out of it.*** 
The problem with seeking answers to these questions is the difficulty of reaching those who can answer them, and then making sense of those answers. Googling someone is easy. Reaching them by email or phone to ask those questions we want answered is far harder. It takes person-power and time and more money than any of us as individual organizations have. It also takes the buy-in of our PhDs, sometimes long after they've left our organizations, and that's the place where these exercises often fail. Figuring out a baseline against which to measure our efforts is perhaps just as difficult--how hard was it to find a good post-PhD job before we started offering graduate career development programs? Did our PhDs find good jobs faster after we launched that internship program? How do we qualify or quantify what "easier" or "better" or "better aligned to my skills" looks like? How do we adjust for the fact that PhDs and postdocs, who are underpaid and undervalued during their training, might think a first job a godsend that years later seems like ill-fitting, underpaid grunt-work? 
We don't need more employment data. Quantitative data is not what we need. Perhaps my humanist is showing, despite the fact that I now work almost exclusively with STEM researchers, but this is a qualitative research problem. What we do need is contact information and to talk to our PhD holders--actually talk to them, systematically and en masse so that our data is comprehensive and valid and comparable against that useful but incomplete quantitative data--and ask them those questions I noted above. I wish someone had called me up and asked me these a couple of years after I took my first post-PhD job. I could have told them a lot. Instead, I use my experience--and that of the PhDs I talk to, every day, at work and online--to try to do more, and do better. Still, that's anecdote, not data. We're never going to be able to do our best in helping PhDs to find well-paying, engaging places to put their knowledge and skills to work in the world if we don't start asking a whole lot of people the right questions. And start figuring out how to do that in a way that's sustainable. 
I'm in the midst of scoping out just this kind of project to be undertaken by the centre in which I work, and we're hopeful that, if we're smart and careful, we can come up with a model for PhD data collection that goes beyond the quantitative, and that uses qualitative data and its analysis not just to inform the work we do locally, but also to inform real change in how we go about the business of graduate and postdoctoral training more broadly. It's early days yet, but stay tuned.  
* For a useful take on the major issues with the HEQCO report, see Melonie Fullick's Speculative Diction post. Her post on the Conference Board of Canada report, which contains the most comprehensive analysis of PhD employment data collected via the Canadian census, is also interesting and illuminating. 
** Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also doing some interesting work with alumni records and tax data that looks promising in terms of answering the money part of these questions, but that again only gives us part of the picture. 
*** For a thorough critique of the TRaCE project, I direct you once again to Melonie Fullick

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

This is a repost of a timely how-to. Just this morning I noticed it zip across my Twitter mentions again. It's reference letter season, and once more I'm coaching students on The Ask. This post is one of the most-read pieces in the archives, with nearly 18,000 page views as of this morning.

Refinements always welcome, so add your advice in the comments, and please share!


I'm writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I've obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I've talked to a LOT of other students about the "ask."

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It's awkward: "Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you're not too busy, but I know you're busy and I'm not sure I'm awesome anyways?" Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end "And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?"

I thought I would put in a post what I'm repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I'll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask

Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you're asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment

The form letter

Dear Prof. [insert name here
I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 
The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.
I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 
Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 
Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can't remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters ("I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY"). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what's happening ("Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won't tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie" [no last name whose email is][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can't figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones ("Hi, I've attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I've joined your program that would be great.") If you make it hard for me to like you because you're so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don't give me enough information, it's going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.

My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don't know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that's why I wrote this today.

Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I've suggested? What's your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you'd like me to do a post on?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tweeting the Classroom

Students have more to say than we realize. And we do them a disservice when we don't give them an opportunity to contribute their wit, critiques, and independent inquiries to the course.

That's what using Twitter as a teaching tool does for me. Of course, classroom time allows for critical and creative discussion, and I design many exercises that encourage the voicing of student opinions and perspectives. But invariably, some voices become heard over others, and some quieter students relax under the comfortable knowledge that other, more confident, and louder students will speak up if they don't. For the two sections of Composition & Rhetoric that I'm teaching this term, each student must tweet four times per week. I state on my syllabus that "tweets may be creative, inquisitive, analogical, humorous, playful, critical, and/or informative," offering suggestions for questions that could be asked or YouTube links that could be given (you can view my full syllabus on I must confess my indebtedness to Megan Cook of Colby College for her generosity in sharing her syllabi, upon which some of my Twitter guidelines are based). Tweeting makes extra-sense for this class because we spend our first month discussing the communicative advantages of social media, so in a very real way we're performing what we're theorizing. In case some of you are wondering how on earth I keep track of everyone's individual tweets, I don't--I require that they keep a personal log of their required 4/week, which they will submit at the end of the term. It's pass-fail.

Even though I don't monitor and record every tweet, I do follow along using columns on Tweetdeck, "liking" posts, responding to particularly thoughtful or provocative points, and often integrating the content and material of the tweets into classroom discussions. It's a perfect enactment of the decentered classroom that I describe in my Teaching Philosophy Statement: students learn to exercise their own voices and actively contribute to the evolving dialogue of the course as it unfolds.

Last week, for example, I had assigned the second of three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcast dealing with higher education, on the relationship between dining facilities and financial aid for low-income students at Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges (both elite liberal arts schools on the East Coast). Leading up to the class, I could identify a few problems with his narrative but in general found it convincingly and effectively told, offering some important commentary on the amenities war currently inflating university budgets at the expense of better funding for students' education and faculty salaries. The night before, one of my students posted an article in Inside Higher Ed that essentially blows apart the logic of Gladwell's approach, showing that the correlation between enhanced dining services and low-income students is not as direct as Gladwell indicates, and outlining the lopsided nature of his investigations. In class, then, we were able to establish the admirable qualities of the podcast and then I pulled out the article the student had tweeted as a contrasting critique. This made for an effective classroom discussion of the pros and cons of Gladwell's storytelling approach, and it was almost entirely student-driven. Twitter thereby serves both to keep students engaged outside of class, and can also repopulate classroom discussion.

I am of course not the only one who has used Twitter in (but more properly outside of) the classroom. Others within my field of medieval literature set the social media platform to various creative uses. Reading through these posts, I realize I am still very much a Twitter novice. Just as a sample: Kisha Tracy (@kosho22) has created a great video account of her experience, complete with student feedback; Sjoerd Levelt (@Slevelt) had students write out tweets as different characters of The Iliad, and Laura Varnam (@lauravarnam) did something similar for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. A number of scholars have translated medieval texts into tweets, beginning with Elaine Treharne's translation of Beowulf.  Twitter offers ample opportunities to reveal the continued relevance of centuries-old texts in the present, help students feel more confident articulating their own perspectives, and counter the condescension that, in my opinion, is rampant toward undergraduates amongst professors and instructors (the sense that they can't comprehend complex issues, that quietness is a reflection of ignorance, that the teacher naturally has a better grasp of course material).

Students, as Tracy's video shows, are inspired and further motivated when reading their peers' tweets, producing an enhanced and more cohesive learning community. In my class, inside jokes have formed, such as a photo of ice cream my student posted with the tag #relatable, which makes an ironic play on our in-class discussion about "relatability" as a distinctively modern and generally narcissistic phenomenon that encourages passive thinking. Twitter also aids memory retention and helps students become more active thinkers and readers; even something as simple as posting a line from an article that resonates with you involves critical processes of selection and amplification.

Admittedly, my students' tweets do not always contribute productively to classroom content. I had to give a gentle reminder in class the other day that posts like "I'm so excited for my presentation tomorrow!" or "off to the museum to complete my assignment!" don't really count toward the required four, even as they might be fine posts on their own. There is a difference between normative social media use and classroom use, and we are learning to distinguish between these different rhetorical situations while also discussing the meaning of rhetorical situations in-class. I also need to find ways to encourage students to respond to each other more, as I'm not always sure they're reviewing the course hashtag. Finally, it's a little bit personally stifling to have my own Twitter account so exposed amongst my classes. But after a bad experience last year with a tweet gone awry, I decided that it's better to embrace the openness of social media and accept the fact that students read what I post, though this inevitably means fewer angry political rants or off-handed comments about my own work-related exhaustion. Since I'm on the job market, though, maybe this increased self-censure is necessary.

Sometimes students' off-handed banter does express a sophisticated understanding of issues we discuss in class, such as this tweet (reproduced with permission; thanks Vera!):

Vera refers to a NYT article we read, "The Busy Trap," that argues against rampant busyness* in modern society, basically suggesting that we should all be hermits in the woods rather than privileging productivity and industry over relationships or creative downtime. While I love the core argument here that we need to set aside time and space for activities that don't build into some productivist superstructure, we all agreed as a class that being overworked is not necessarily self-imposed, and there are unavoidable limitations to setting aside time for self-care. In other words, Kreider's argument is essentially privileged, and students at a place like Fordham face very different challenges and pressures. This builds into my broader sense that we need to be compassionate toward and receptive to our students, and open to hearing their grievances and perspectives. I truly believe, and see all the time, that students at Fordham are beset with anxiety and a pervasive pressure to succeed, mostly because the cost of attending Fordham hovers around $65 000/year ( heard that right, Canada.). And so, yes, students (and their parents) want to make their tuition dollars "worth it" in the form of future gainful employment employment. In her tweet, Vera's hashtags give further context for her case against Kreider, and voice her personal frustration with her heavy college workload while responding in an intelligent way to course content. In this sense, Twitter can also encourage students to engage with course material on a personal level, integrating the messages of readings into their everyday life.

I guess what I'm saying is--I still really like Twitter! It helps me get to know my students better and generally enhances our classroom experience by generating continuities and cohesions. I hope to expand its use in my future literature courses as well.

And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Giving Thanks: Gratitude and Feminist Work

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a workshop on how to address and combat misogyny in the academy. The conference, Consent Culture: A National Forum to End Sexual Violence on Campus, was organized by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students. I was excited by the invitation, and I was also nervous. And so I did what I tend to do: I said yes and then sought out collaborators.

My co-facilitators--Fazeela Jiwa and Kaarina Mikalson--are brilliant, generous, and incredibly expansive in their thinking. When we sat down to plan the workshop I started by saying "Fazeela, meet Kaarina. Kaarina, meet Fazeela."

You see, these two people were willing (immediately, I might add) to work with each other despite the fact they had never met. Work together! On a workshop! About combatting misogyny! Phenomenal, right?

As we sat at a tiny table in the busy cafe close to the university, figuring out how to talk with one another about practical things (how much time do we have? How many people are expected at this workshop? How will we make it feel like a safe enough space to talk about practical tactics for combating misogyny) we were also navigating new relationships. Questions such as "How long have you lived here?" and "What do you like to do in your spare time--wait, what do you do?" interspersed our mapping, planning, and defining of terms such as micro aggression and intersectionality. We each had a different approach to how to think through the material. Each person listened carefully when the others spoke, and then chimed in adding ideas or information, or questioning a suggestion generatively.

To organize our allotted hour and fifteen minute workshop (and to address my anxious need to have a fairly specific roadmap for any class, even if that map gets thrown out in the first five minutes) we drew on our own experiences of facilitation. We also had a veritable archive of material I had gathered when I reached out to half a dozen other women and women-identified people who work, or have worked, or are working in academic settings. When I asked this group of people for suggestions of material, approaches, or best practices, they took time out of their incredibly busy, diverse, demand-filled lives and responded with suggestions. The suggestions included making sure to do our pronouns and let the participants do theirs, if they choose, to not simply make acknowledgement of the Indigenous traditional territory where we were guests, but also to think through how to activate those acknowledgements (Chelsea Vowel has an amazing piece on this), to not just cite terms but to historicize them (for example, remind participants that 'intersectionality" is a methodology that comes from Black feminist thought), to make the space trans inclusive immediately, and to try spatial mapping as a way of doing a lot of conceptual work in a short period of time.

I mean, really. Pretty wonderful and thoughtful, right?

Between the invitation to combat misogyny in a practical way, the willingness of two amazing people to co-facilitate, the wealth of generosity and information from a group of people who also don't all know one another... well, it all felt pretty amazing. And the experience of organizing, asking for help, and then facilitating the workshop (which went well, by the way), got me thinking bout how grateful I am to know all these smart, caring people. It got me thinking about how grateful I am for the thinking that can, and sometimes does, happen in academic places.

We know that the University--as an institution, as a business, and, at its best, as a site of resistance and knowledge-generation--is built on heteronormativity, White supremacy, and class exclusion. We know that in Canada universities sit on Indigenous lands, and that there is so much work to be done in the projects of both reconciliation and resurgence. We know that misogyny takes the form of micro aggressions and violent assaults every day. And we know that racism is harnessed as so-called "humour" and that spaces of higher learning are violent towards people of colour. We know that precarity is damaging to the education mission as well as to individual lives lived in a constant state of crisis. We know this.

Yet, on this day that we take to pause and be grateful for the people and things in our lives, I find myself being grateful for academe. Not as some totemic bastion of knowing, but because all the people I encountered in this one workshop--the conference organizers (all students!), my co-facilitators, the friends and acquaintances and colleagues who shared their own hard-earned knowledge, the participants, the keynote speakers (who were Indigenous women and women of colour) who preceded us and spoke of the complex and viscerally raw project of decolonization--I encountered them all through academe, in one way or another.

And so I am grateful for the possibility, the fortitude, the resilience, the resolve, and the hope of people working in academe, or against it, in the service of a more equitable world. I am grateful for books, for the expansiveness that I see in my students' faces when they read certain writers. I am grateful for my new colleagues. I am grateful for my old colleagues. I am grateful for people calling out and calling to question all the hard questions. And I am grateful for Hook & Eye, for the voice this space has given me, and for you, readers, who bear witness and work, too, from your own subjectivities and situations. In another week of horrifically violent, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, and racist news, I am grateful for you, readers.

Let's take pause, and then, let's get back to work.