Friday, October 24, 2014

Addicted to thinking

If you're an academic, how often do you reminisce about what brought you to grad school? My story starts with a longing for the kind of deep, analytical thinking I was lucky to experience in some university seminars, which entailed sitting down for a few hours to discuss great literature--in English and in German--and the ideas around it. You know, things like what's in there, but also where it was coming from historically, ideologically, and how it led to other places, other people, other times. Things like how Goethe's Romantic young hero Werther initiated a string of copy-cats, in fashion and in action, in spite of his ghastly outfit and drastic denouement. I came back to school for more of that kind of thinking, which, in spite of having had sworn off school forever after undergrad, proved too enticing to renounce.

It's kind of the same if you've ever had to be a caregiver for an infant. Even if you haven't, you know adults in that situation crave less baby-talk and more adult conversation. To my mind, it comes back to the same issue: a desire to think more deeply about meaningful ideas, and thus surround yourself with a life of the mind that can enrich the repetitiveness of an infant's routine. Not to mention drown out inevitable screaming matches, and possibly enliven the dull fuzziness of sleep deprivation.

As Aimée pointed out yesterday, carving out time for thinking can be a challenge in spite of the best planning and organization you can devise. However, a drearier situation takes shape when that plan is out of the scope of your activities altogether. So, here it is: I miss my research. I miss planning and making sure I carve out time for deep thinking about one focused issue. I miss looking for connections, sleuth-like, and I miss the thrill of identifying them. As much as I congratulated myself on being able to say no to going to a conference last week, I experienced the pain of withdrawal, of the inability of taking a couple of days to think through other people's arguments, contentions, and discoveries. What a luxury!

Well, kick in the behind, meet the step forward! As my students have embarked on the path of their own research projects, which I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in a few weeks, I have come to face my old yearning again, and to understand that I need this type of labour as I need air to breathe (not to be dramatic or anything); that it's not about love, but more about need. Just like with many other longings, we can debate whether it's inborn or whether it has been drilled into me by my background--what else does grad school, or post-secondary education more generally, do than teach you how to think, in a way that is irreversible? Irrespective of its origins, this need for thinking is intrinsic, and its lack manifests with all the power of withdrawal. Conversely, it signals its presence with the same tingling sensation of the first sip of wine seemingly coursing through every single artery down to the farthest capillary.

At the end of the breather that has been Reading Week, this is my resolve: to make time and find space for thinking consciously and systematically. And here's the clincher: unlike grad school days, when the aim was the writing, the dissertation, the end of the program, I have no other goal than allowing my mind to wander, and my thoughts to run wherever they would. I do not aim to be productive. I want to heed my visceral need for thinking without having to show anyone else the result. Hell, there might not be any. And that's it: time and space for my mind to wander. Oops, did some of young Werther's sorrows rub onto me, too?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I've slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I'd got done in a month. I feel awful--I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don't even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don't seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials--so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there's a new edition of the textbook. I'm prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who've already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband's job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I'm near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I'm too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You've probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I've done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It's all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN'T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what's not working, and try again. It's refinements big and little, and constant, that'll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I've fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I've missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thirty Seven Things: Trying out a Capsule Wardrobe


Maybe it's because our house is small, and we're still trying to integrate the possessions of three households (my mother-in-law's, whose house this was; my partner's, who had his own place before we moved in; and mine, since I had my own place too). Maybe it's because my working days are full and I'm feeling the need for a little more emptiness when I get home. Maybe it's because we're in the middle of a renovation and the contents of the room next door are crammed into the one I'm sitting in. Maybe it's because having less means having less to take care of. Whatever the reason, I just need less, and I'm starting with my closet.

It now contains, including shoes and bags, 37 things.

I've written before about my search for an efficient and sustainable early morning practice (that phrase makes me think I've been reading too many Strategic Mandate Agreements) that will let me get out the door looking professional and presentable in the least amount of time. I finally figured out the hair thing--turns out I didn't need to change my haircut, just accept the fact that my hair is actually (gasp) curly. Aimee has her go-to boots and her back-of-the-door blazer and her Serious Person Glasses (me too!). Erin has her Fluevogs and gorgeous big scarves. We all think about how we present ourselves in our classrooms and offices, and we're all pretty fluent in the grammar of clothing so that we can make deliberate statements with how we dress. But I was thinking about it too much. Like the strategic deployment of my academic credentials, I know what to wear to make people take me seriously at work and to make me feel like myself. It's always my uniform: a pencil skirt or sheath dress + blouse + cardigan + funky shoes. Imagine Joan from Mad Men in 2014, and you're headed in the right direction. And yet getting dressed became a chore, an over-long deliberation and a Sisyphean struggle to keep my wardrobe (and, okay, sometimes floordrobe) from exceeding the confines of my exceedingly tiny closet. Being efficient in my morning prep has become extra important of late, since I'm now on an adjusted schedule at work so that I can write more in the morning, and I'm trying to cram in all the words I can before I have to leave for the office.

I didn't realize how much this clothing conundrum was bugging me until I stumbled across Un-Fancy. (The capacity of the human mind to internalize habit and fail to see inefficiency never ceases to amaze me). Caroline's style is nothing like mine (okay, we do have the same glasses), but her concept of a capsule wardrobe was so appealing. Every day she wears something different, but that something different is simply another combination of the 37 things she chooses, and then wears exclusively, for three months. I've long known that exceptional creativity often emerges in response to arbitrary restriction (I'm not a reader of the Oulipians for nothing), but here were those principles applied to a closet. I was immediately sold, and I packed up my extra clothes the same day. The fact that it took me all of 10 minutes to create an inventory of the 37 things I wanted to keep told me that this was just what I needed to do.

My closet now contains: 15 shirts and sweaters + 7 skirts and dresses + 2 pairs of jeans + 3 jackets and blazers + 7 pairs of shoes and boots + 3 bags. C'est tout.

It's only been about a week, but I'm glorying in fewer choices. Getting dressed takes all of 3 minutes, because I can see all of my choices at one glance and pull what I'm going to wear from the back to the front before I go to bed. I'm wearing things I haven't worn for ages and love, because I'd forgotten about them amidst a wealth of choice. I'm not staring down clothes that don't fit well or that I don't love, which is a depressing way to start the day. I'm being more creative in the ways that I combine the things I do have. I'm not wasting my finite daily decision-making capacity on which sweater to wear. Truly, this is only the illusion of a lack of choice. If every outfit I make has three elements (top + bottom + shoes), I've got the ingredients for something like 5000 unique outfits here. Oh, and the other benefit? It's an easy way to limit the amount of shopping I need to do. I'll wear these 37 things until the end of December. At that point, I'll keep some of the things I'm wearing now, pull others out of storage, and perhaps buy a few things I'm missing or that need replacing. But then I'll live with those 37 from January to March.

Now that I've got the closet under control, I'm moving on to the kitchen--it's time to put a hiatus on grocery shopping for a little while and see what we can make out of a half bunch of spinach, some cornmeal, and an egg. I'm feeling inspired already.

What about you? How do you keep your closet under control and your mornings simple?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Tweet at a Conference

A couple weeks ago, we had a guest post from Danielle J. Deveau on "Conference Etiquette and Privilege." Danielle told a personal anecdote of a terrible conference panel that she attended (not the one she presented on, notably, as I imagine that would be a little too risky) in which a speaker rushed into the room 50 minutes late and then presented for 5 minutes on his research interests, proceeding afterwards to become defensive during the question period. While this story was bad, sadly it is not completely unusual, and Danielle's post established some baseline guidelines for, well, how to present a paper at a conference, about which apparently many [especially white, male] conference presenters are unaware. As Danielle's post implied, perhaps we should be talking more about who gets heard at conferences, and for how long. There are countless tales of panels whose presenters who drone on, who are underprepared, whose moderators do not intervene, whose "roundtable discussion" turns out to be more of a self-aggrandizing insular dialogue between eminent scholars who barely glance at the audience. I have a friend whose moderator did not show up for the panel she was on, so they just recruited some random passerby from the hallway.

As scholars devoted to questions of privilege and equitable representation, whose work is often primarily concerned with giving voice to those whom have not previously been heard, these issues should concern us. We should be noticing, when we're at conferences or public talks, who is qualified to speak, who is being ignored during the question period, whose panels are being attended and whose aren't. Perhaps we should be more actively engaged in making sure all panels are adequately populated, and should take it upon ourselves to--for example--attend at least one panel per conference that we normally wouldn't. As we all know, speaking to an empty room is just as bad as having to compress one's 20-minute talk into 5 because of lackadaisical timekeeping.

These questions are particularly urgent for graduate students or other precarious workers who have a particular stake in being heard in such professional settings. With the rise of Twitter as a conference tool and alternative discussion medium, there are now other possibilities for making sure everyone's voice is being heard, to achieving that ideal within the humanities of a polyphony of voices and thoughts. Unfortunately that medium is sometimes abused as well, and faces similar issues of silencing, underrepresentation, and/or professional grandstanding. This past summer I had the honour of writing a guest blog for the medieval website In the Middle about the use of Twitter at academic conferences. At the risk of copping out on this post slightly, but in accordance with H&E's recent upsurge of how-to posts (c.f. how to ask for a reference letter, how to read a book, and how to write a lecture), I'm going to adapt and repost here some of the guidelines I established in that blog, under the assumption that most of you are not medievalists and have not previously encountered it (though the original post can be found here, happyface).  I welcome your input and additions to this list, and hope that we can continue to find practical ways to acknowledge and address issues of privilege and silencing within the academy.

*  *  *  *

How to Tweet at a Conference
In six* easy steps. 
I could even tweet these steps, wouldn't that be meta.

1. [This is the Most Important Thing]: Every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea, ensuring that ideas remain securely pinned to their owners rather than let loose online. It is also customary to include the session and conference hashtags (see the MLA's official recommended guidelines here). Formats such as [tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end] are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions in subsequent tweets. If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing other voices in our own scholarly work, and should not be difficult. (sometimes we slip up. That's okay.)

2.     Try not to overtweet. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). Issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

3.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you. Favorite and RT other tweets, make it clear that you are listening and supporting other thoughts.  

4.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture, make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

5.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out and tweeting an underrepresented panel.

6.     Be aware of the form of your tweet. In my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components: local so that there’s substance for your claim, but global so that there's some kind of broader takeaway, and also for the benefit of those who are not at the conference. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument.

Here are a couple examples of my tweets from the New Chaucer Society Congress this summer, which I would like to think contain both local and global elements (y'all go ahead and let me know if they make no sense to you), as well as careful attribution to the speaker and session.


*  *  *  *

What about you, readers? Have you had some particularly bad (or good) experiences tweeting at conferences? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from the list? We're listening.

*This post has been edited to reflect the fact that there are, in fact, six tips here, not five. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

From lapsed, to failed, to recovering academic

Every single Thursday since this semester has started, I have felt like the next day was a Saturday. The joke is on me, and doubly so, because I teach not one, but two three-hour classes on Friday, so my brain's skipping over the Friday probably amounts to denial. This Friday, today, my brain completely acknowledged in a melancholy way, because I was actually supposed to be at the fantastic Discourse and Dynamics conference that Hook and Eye's Erin Wunker has co-organized. Not being there compounds my feeling as a complete academic failure. Ironically, not being there is also key to my recovery, academic and otherwise.

I did not teach in the Winter term of 2014, and having an alt-academic position meant that I felt only partly like an academic: a lapsed one. My alt-ac position allowed me to do important work, and contribute my teaching experience to improving academic processes such as course evaluations. Similarly, my knowledge of students and their needs informed many other aspects of the job I was involved in. What's more, I was still going to conferences, and presenting my original research. So, I was not completely off the wagon. Lapsed, but still hanging on, although I could definitely feel the train picking up speed, while my own clinging strength kept diminishing in inverse proportion.

Then this term came, and back-to-teaching meant, I thought, back to the academy. Teaching and conferencing, although not much time for writing in-between the five courses: still academic, no? I even bought my plane ticket to Moncton to ensure I'd be there to take part in this amazing event. As the term picked up speed, and I was buried deeper and deeper under piles of marking, I also postponed booking a room in or around tiny Sackville. With every passing day, the need to secure lodgings was increasing in direct proportion with my anxiety over how I would get my Friday courses covered, when I would get all the marking done, and how many supplementary hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed on the altar of course prep. And I hadn't even begun to factor in writing the paper.


However, if this decision puts the cherry on top of the failed academic cake, it also signals, I flatter myself, professional maturity. This is the point at which recovery begins. I could have, of course, deluded myself by thinking that "I'll do just this one more thing," or some such, but we all know that's both untrue and unhealthy. I have reached a point in my professional career when I know how I work, and what allows me to perform best. You know what's vital in that equation that belies the facile identification of work and self? Sleep. Time to think freely. Taking walks. Taking naps. Looking inside myself, rather than outside for resources. More generally, taking a break, or--gasp--maybe even a holiday.

How about you, dear reader? What's your midterm recovery technique? General impostor syndrome aside, did you take any decisions that made you feel less like an academic, and more like an interloper?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Healthy Communities and Mentorship

No new post from me, because what I really want you to read today is Erin's most recent essay over at CWILA on healthy communities and mentorship for women. Erin is also looking for contributions to a crowdsourced guide for effective and responsible mentorship. Here's a bit of what she has to say:
Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”
For the full post, head over to CWILA.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Asking for a reference letter: how-to

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 warriornerd@gmail.com][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?