Sunday, October 31, 2010

This month in sexism: October

  • Why, when my male colleague is out of the office, do students expect me to know when he'll be back? They don't ask him the same question when I'm away.
  • I'm the only woman at a meeting along with one senior male academic and two junior male academics from the same department. We're discussing a grant we have recently received. When I make a suggestion, it is ignored. Until the senior male academic says *the same thing* and the junior male academics say gushy things like 'excellent point -- very strategic.' Now I know what you're thinking: this is too much of a cliche to have actually happened. But it did...three times in the same meeting!
  • On one of the student evaluations, in response to the question "What aspect of the course and/or the instructor's teaching did you find the least valuable": "prof's loud, shrill voice."
  • On the weekend, the subject of being a stay at home mother comes up in conversation and this woman says to me - "But if you were a stay at home mother, what kind of role model would you be? I mean, who would your daughter look up to?" Wow.
  • Directly copied and pasted from "BEST PROF EVER, AND WHAT GREAT GAMS!!" (and what is even more embarrassing is that I didn't know what "gams" were until a colleague of mine explained it to me...I naively assumed that it was a comment about my sense of humour in the class)
  • Being referred to as "Miss." This is a pet peeve of mine, but a default option (at the very least) should be "Ms," and I'm sick of feeling guilty or elitist if I correct people and say "Dr."
  • By the end of the first year of a tenure track job I started taking pre-natal vitamins. One clock was ticking louder for me than the other one. When one of my senior (female) colleagues found out she said, "You better not get pregnant. I could be on your tenure and promotion committee, you know. hahahahahahaha." So not funny then, and it still annoys me. But: I now have a kid, tenure, and promotion. hahahahahahaha.
  • I had a meeting with a senior partner at a law firm to finalize some documents we began drafting in April, when I was a few months pregnant and just starting to show. When I met with him in September, his first words weren't "Hello, how was your summer" but rather "Wow, you really were pregnant last time I saw you - you look way better now."
  • I learned that my son's grade five teacher will insist that we use Miss. Yes, that's right, Miss. Not Ms. and not Mrs. as she's single (and, BTW, maybe 25, at the outside). Apparently it matters whether she is married or not. I also learned that this concern is based on MY (said, with capitals, by the accuser, "YOUR") value system and does not reflect on her teaching skills or style.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Multitask? Or multipurpose?

I don't know about you, but I seem to be getting busier every day. The more established I become in my field, my department, my university, and my community, the more my name seems to be top of mind when someone needs a paper reviewed or a chapter written, a committee seat filled, a report written, or a public talk delivered. People ask a lot more of me now than they did, say, when I landed here in Waterloo with a freshly-framed diploma and my excellent collection of ironic t-shirts. And yet, my time available seems to have dwindled significantly in the interim, just like that Astroboy shirt doesn't quite seem to go over those yoga-powered deltoids and that pregnancy-'enhanced' belly roll.

That is, I have way more to do but seem to have less time to do it.

It's a pickle, it is. Right now, for example, I'm sitting on my couch in my polar fleece pajamas, sipping gin and decompressing after my second public lecture of the week. Next week, I have an article draft due to a peer-reviewed journal, and soon after that, a deadline for my draft of one chapter of a writing handbook revision. I just handed in a SSHRC SRG grant, it seems.

I used to think I could do it all, if only I would be important enough for people to ask me to do it. I said yes to everything, to increase my profile and test my mettle. My mettle, it turns out, is not unlimited. I am, perforce, shifting my work philosophy from an ethic of multitasking to one of multipurposing.

Here's how it works: Got a contract to revise a writing handbook? Angle to teach a first year course, then assign them the current version of the handbook. BOOM! It's teaching, and it's work on the revision, all at once. Scheduled to give two public talks on something about your research and teaching interests in two different towns two nights in a row? Give a thinly reworked version of the same damn talk (apologize profusely to the one graduate student who attends both events). Bonus points if the talk can use as one of its four case studies the survey results that form the backbone of that article that's due ... next week. Bonus bonus points if you've organized your grad class to have as its assigned readings material you need to complete this current research. All of this work should be drawing liberally from the literature review from the SSHRC SRG bibliography. Doing university service? Can it be on a web design committee that is great fodder for your digital design seminar?

I am so. frigging. busy. that it is a matter of some urgency, lately, try to wring the maximum amount of product from every research activity I undertake. Perhaps this is a 'well, duh' insight for you. Not for me. I used to think (ha!) that every talk, every class, every committee, every article had to be something new. I had this idea that it was somehow cheating to do otherwise, like how students are told not to submit the same paper in two different courses. For me, it's only ever rarely the 'same' paper, but I have really needed to stop creating everything from absolute scratch for every occasion.

So now, I don't multitask anymore. I multipurpose.

In that vein, if you want to know more about social media and privacy, why don't you read this newspaper article? The writer wanted to talk to me about my ideas, but I handed him the paper copy of my lecture when it was over and told him to quote as liberally as he liked. No extra work for me, and, bonus! he quoted me exactly, from my own script. (God bless him, he's made the whole presentation sound coherent, to boot.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Are Conferences So Bad?

I'm sitting in a dark room with 13 colleagues who've gathered to talk about pedagogy. Or so I was led to believe. But now I'm not sure, because the guy at the front has been meandering around ... something ... for over a half hour now, and shows no signs of wrapping up. Painfully, we can see that he is on slide 7 of 12. The slides are so packed you can hardly read them - but I suppose it doesn't matter, because he can. And he does. Every word. Then he decides to show us something on the internet. When he opens safari, there's the site for my presentation, primed and ready to go. He blithely closes it and then starts rummaging around for the URL he's after.

It's like watching a "How Not To" video, all the way through.

The kicker is that all conferences are like that. This summer I explored both ends of the rigor spectrum. One required a 2500-word proposal plus citations and generated four sets of feedback. Reviewers graded us out of 100 (range of marks: 35%-98%) and said things like, "Although it was helpful to have a list of works cited, I would have liked a more representative bibliography. I'm not convinced these scholars are acquainted with the full history of GIS-based scholarship." Bibliography? Did I mention this was for the proposal? for a poster?

The other conference asked for a four-sentence summary and responded within 90 minutes of submission: You're in!

Both conferences were equally bad, and bad in the same ways. By bad I mean, principally, boring. Let me get this out of the way: most academics are nicer - more tolerant, more polite, more attentive, more forgiving, more generous - than I am. Regrettably, this chronic condition shows no sign of improving. In fact, the older and busier I get, the less forgiving I am of having my time wasted.

For instance, by being read to. I have reached my lifetime limit of sitting in a room being read to. I learned to read when I was 5 and I have a PhD in English. Reading is something I can do for myself. So, please. Stop.

If you can't stop, if for some reason you cannot imagine any other way to reach your audience (for instance, if you have spent your entire life in a media deprivation tank), then read. But for the love of all things holy, run through your presentation first, and if it takes longer than the 15 minutes allocated to you, it is too long. What to do? Shorten it. Yeah, that's right: take some stuff out.

Being timely would meet my minimum standard for conference presentations. Not everybody can be brilliant, but everybody can read a clock. If you're ticking that one off Ye Olde List of Lifetime Accomplishments, then I challenge you to the relevance test. Before you present a point-by-point elaboration of an obscure novel dredged from the depths of your field, stop and ask yourself this question: Who cares? Look, I'm sure the use of ellipses in pre-colonial Spanish poetry is fascinating, and I bet you're right that you can only truly understand its implications by contrast with post-colonial Spanish poetry's elimination of ellipses. I'm prepared to concede all of that. In fact, I insist: let me concede the technical details of your argument and give me the good stuff - the punch line, the implications, the reasons I should care.

Finally, a word to session moderators. Moderate! You are the only person in the room who can shut this gong show down. We rely on you to do so. No polite "2 minutes" signs passed along three times. Once: fine, even I can be that polite (or, I can try). But once those two minutes are up, clear your throat, stand up, and interrupt. Reach over and shut off the mic. Start to clap. Not only the other presenters, but every member of the audience will thank you for doing so.

Until that happy day, you can find me in the back row, where I'll be checking my email.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Guest Post: The game's afoot

Getting my blog fix this cool but lovely fall weekend, still a little high after Calgary managed to elect as our mayor Naheed Nenshi. Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia definitely raised their ugly and omnipresent heads during and after the election, and yet…I feel that collective pride in a job well done. Many of my students wore their purple t-shirts and tweeted non-stop @nenshi.

There is a but coming, and you know it.

However, when I take stock, as I frequently (over)do, of my academic life in all of its contexts, I know that my impatience this year overflows at work. And why? I have designed an ace course (“The ethics and politics of gaming”) and the students are, gamely, attempting to work out all of this inquiry-based stuff and perhaps have some fun too (this weekend, watching them try to complete a tournament, has been a blast, which again gives the thoughtful pedagogue in me pause: when did I stop having real fun with students? did I ever? do other professors have fun? perhaps I am not a fun kinda gal, just plain prone to grumpiness). In my older-middle age, aka wisdom, my recent and more frequent fits of mini-lashings out, polite refusals, strategic-if-not-always-clever complaints—as well as inner sighs and eye-rollings at many twists and turns—are triggered by how increasingly and dauntingly our academic lives are slowed down by processes of numbing inefficiency, form-filling (paper, in this day and age?), be-there-or-be-square organizing (sure, I can make that meeting at sunrise), querulousness, posturing and (hear it in this post), defensiveness.

In the end, I worry politically about the inculcation of these values in the first-year students I feel both protective towards and so deeply frustrated by (hear the old cry of the inquiry-teacher: where is their curiosity? their drive to find things out? their connectedness? their gratitude?). Well, duh. Where has ours disappeared to in this place of performance indicators and whoever gets most bums in the seats wins and have we survived the term yes or no? My most memorable moments from the last two weeks have been to hear what is usually unvoiced in our carefully-articulated academic free state. “We will do this because we have been told.” “We have to.” Worse, I realized that I fully accepted that logic, and then turned on my heel, entered my classroom and expected students in their first term at university not to, to ask the tough and confusing questions while I chatted to them about structures, rules, liberatory pedagogy, and asked them to play card games without rules. [Wonderful game, Fluxx, for the curious.]

Sure, I am having great fun this weekend, but that overlays my jittery anxiety about an ongoing and increasing trend in an academic game (in its most serious sense) that really has forgotten to ask questions that many activists brought to the academy in the first place. What an irony that women, particularly racialized women, or women with illnesses and disabilities (the list is much longer of course) are being overseen and thus overlooked, a trend that is mirrored in the classroom. Back to playing the game, though. One of my students has completed the quest and the blog is abuzz, if confused. Someone has suggested a games night. Hallelujah!

Aruna Srivastava

Monday, October 25, 2010

Thinking about what I need: Notes on the concept of 'Slow Academy'

About a week ago we as an editorial collective wondered to one another whether or not we should worry about the slowing number of comments. Is this a dark portents? we asked each other, Or is it October? My vote was for October. (Though I did think, lord, just wait for February, that "month with rue at its heart," as an old mentor of mine once wrote).

On Friday Aimée asked readers to think about what we need now that we're here in the "trough of the semester" (awesome phrase! I'm co-opting it).

No one answered. Too busy? Too Friday? Too difficult, wishful, naive, hopeful, fearful, to write a list of needs?

So today I find myself reflecting on what I need, and especially what I need from this blog.

When Heather and I first spoke about her idea for a feminist academic blog based in the Canadian context she mentioned 'slow academy.'
"As in Carlo Petrini?!" I exclaimed
Now I have to admit that my memory for exact details starts to falter here, but I'm fairly certain her reply was in the affirmative.

If you're not familiar with Petrini, your might be familiar with his Slow Food movement. Here's an excerpt from the book:
"Slow food seeks to catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive efforts of an industrial food system and fast life; toward the regenerative cultural, ecological, social, and economic benefits of a sustainable food system, regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life."

When my co-conspirator mentioned slow academy I immediately started to imagine what that might mean, and I have to admit, I didn't really get very far. But as I return to Petrini's book in an attempt at nighttime reading that has nothing to do with last minute lecture prep (the result of which, for me, is almost always anxiety dreams involving missing class or showing up without some item of clothing or some equally transparent-yet-unnerving scenario) I find myself reinvigorated by the movement's aim.

Notice that while the lynchpin is food, the aim is cultural change. While I would like to believe that those of us working in the academy at all levels are doing so because we want to effect some kind of positive cultural change, the fact is that is really, really difficult to feel, see, and...maybe...accomplish. You'll notice that one of the most oft-used tags in our posts is 'turgid institution.' Le sigh.

So, using Petrini's text as inspiration, here's my attempt to start imagining what a slow academy might be trying to do; I've replaced 'food' (& a few others) with 'academy' (or the like):

Slow Academy seeks to catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive effects of an industrial education system and fast life; toward a regenerative cultural, ecological, social, and economic benefits of a sustainable education system, regional education traditions, the pleasures of the university environment, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of discourse.

Hmm. Not bad. What would 'sustainable education systems' that are built on both 'regional education traditions' and the 'pleasures of the university environment' (which I read as a site of potential multiplicitous engagement) look like?

They would certainly need reflect the people that make up this country. To do this they would also need to take into account various kinds of epistemologies, languages, learning practices, and traditions. Sustainable education systems would need to think through how the classroom is constructed, how work is evaluated, how labour is valued and remunerated. They would have to rethink hiring practices and curriculum...

In case you're wondering, here's how my musing about Slow Academy fits into my opening observations: despite being busy and in spite of the potential of being branded a Pollyanna writing for this blog has become a way of opening space, of creating the possibility of engaged encounter without expecting that invitation will be accepted (or, if accepted, that it will be accepted in good spirit).

Which is to say: I need the possibility of change, and a place to imagine how to effect that change (however slow, however wishful).

I need the possibility of a Slow Academy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Call for submissions to October TMIS

One week from today you can drink - sputter - spew - your coffee over the October edition of "This Month in Sexism." Sitting on a story you want included? Drop a note to sexism [at] hookandeye [dot] ca. We'll run whatever we've received by Friday morning.

Reminder: stories are short, anonymous, and related to our lives as women of all ranks and roles in the academy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What do you need?

It's the end of week 6 for me, midway through the term, or as I like to call it, the trough of the term. The energy and potential of early September has wilted like those impatiens that reproach me from my sad looking front porch. Ambition falls away like all those leaves dripping wetly off the maple trees on campus. Early assignment, first papers, midterms have been written, graded, and returned. Some people are elated: students who have done well, professors who have successfully graded everything that's been handed in. Some people are demoralzed: students who have done poorly, professors irritated by late papers, poor results, cheating. We're in that kind of void now before the big push of final papers, final assignments, final exams.

We're all, it's fair to say, exhausted.

What to do? I can't change my deadlines, or my students, or my workload, or the weather. I probably can't change your deadlines, or your students, or your workload, or your weather, either. But how are we going to get ourselves out of this pit, and maybe with enough energy to spare that we can maybe our students up into the light with us?

Here's the question that's animating my climb: What do I need?

I can be flip and say "I need a sabbatical," or "I need to assign self-grading papers," or "I need an invisibility cloak." However, when I can articulate more seriously to myself what I need, I then can start to think of the steps to take to get it. My mid-term needs, it turns out, involve time and freedom from details, and since I can't magic time out of nothing, I have instead taken my family out for dinner twice this week, which saves me the time involved in cooking, and cleanup, and dishes, and leftovers, and the stressful management of the details of shopping and menu-planning that I just, frankly, don't have it in me to deal with right now. I have also temporarily given up bed-making and laundry. I have enough clean underwear to go for another two weeks, and I just might. This leaves me a bit of energy to take my girl to dance lessons, and to watch The Ultimate Fighter with my husband, and to write two public lectures and bring some life to my teaching.

What do you need to make it to the end of term? It feels great to write 'em down and share 'em--then they seem like goals, and from goals we can create plans, right?

I was pretty sure my first year class needed schooling in Awesome Music as well as New Media Art, and I surely needed a mid-afternoon dance party so you can rock out to this while contemplating what you need:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Guest Post: Academics and Motherhood: Can We Have it All?

My partner and I chose to have a baby during our graduate studies – before I hit the job market and before the start of his medical residency. We wanted to ensure we’d both have time with the baby, despite the missing financial comfort of maternity or paternity leave. Although we are known for our high energy, determination, and multitasking skills, our decision sparked some gossip amongst our peers. I was barely four months pregnant when I overheard the following conversation take place in the staircase that unites the two floors of our department:

I heard Veronique’s pregnant.

Yeah, me too. No surprise there, given she just married that doctor. She won’t need a job now. They can easily live off his salary.

No kidding. I was kind of relieved, you know. Now I won’t be competing against her on the job market.

She told you she wasn’t applying?

No, no. But a baby leads to more babies. Universities won’t hire unless she publishes the next big study on CanLit. And with a baby on the way, that’s unlikely to happen. How many women do you know who have successful careers and families?

Not many. God, I can barely handle my dog.

Indeed, having a child in grad school could jeopardize or delay a career. Common concerns revolve around the delay of the doctoral thesis, the disappearance of promising publications, and perhaps even the abandonment of the PhD altogether. In my prenatal naïve haze, however, I never worried about postponing my thesis or dumping my career. Rather, I was predominately concerned with writing as much as humanly possible prior to my daughter’s birth in order to enjoy a bit more flexibility once she arrived.

When our daughter was born a month ago, I began finding pockets of time to get work done; I sent myself email messages with ideas from my iphone as I fed her at night – I transformed my baby buddy pillow into a laptop desk - I read articles aloud to get her to sleep instead of Goodnight Moon. After a month with a newborn (albeit a very calm and content newborn), I feel I can get the thesis written by the end of this year as planned – at least, a full draft – and although I’ve had to readjust my schedule and writing habits, I certainly don’t think I have to give up on my professional goals and writing ambitions.


What I didn’t expect, however, was the obstacle of a baby (and breastfeeding for that matter) when it comes to public academic engagements. I may be writing, but participating in academic discourse beyond the page has become more difficult. I no longer have the luxury of attending every talk hosted by the university (I missed the Markin-Flanagan “passing on the torch” reading for the first time since I moved to Calgary), and I won’t be jumping from reading to reading at Wordfest this year. I’ve had to sacrifice my spontaneous academic interactions, and although none of them are “requirements” for my degree, I do consider them essential to my overall experience. Sure, I can organize childcare when necessary, but this requires pre-planning and money – and even then, sometimes, pre-planning fails.

This month, for instance, I missed my first conference – a conference I was looking forward to for months. I’d registered during my pregnancy and I knew I’d have a one-month-old baby, but the conference was in Edmonton (not too far and where my mother-in-law lives), which seemed manageable at the time (and it should’ve been). Worst-case scenario, I figured I’d only attend my panel and the plenary talk. I wrote a draft of the paper prior to delivery, and my husband organized his schedule to accommodate mine and watch Lalina as I enjoyed the conference. Then he got sick. He was in no state to drive to Edmonton, let alone watch Lalina under a flu medication haze. My mother-in-law had a dance show, my family is in Quebec, and because of her young age, I couldn’t take Lalina to a drop-off day care. Hence I failed to attend the conference and cancelled my presentation.

Never once did I consider taking her to the conference, despite her easy disposition. Not once. It would be unprofessional, no? To show up at my panel with a sleeping baby in a sling? Even if my paper was on balancing motherhood and writing – even though it was a women’s writing conference and should, from an outsider’s perspective, be supportive of my predicament. But no – I didn’t even think to ask or explain what had happened to the organizers. Instead, I said I had a family emergency and missed the conference. Only when I told one of my husband’s colleagues why I hadn’t attended the conference and she asked “why didn’t you just take Lalina with you?” did I find myself wondering why the thought never crossed my mind. My immediate response was, “well, it would be unprofessional.” She said, “I don’t think so. You were stuck, so why not? We have a preceptor who just had a baby and she brings her to class, and once she even breastfed while teaching.” I was filled with envy – this preceptor was comfortable enough with her roles as mother, doctor, and teacher to breastfeed in front of her students. Until that moment, I’d always considered medicine far less accepting of women balancing motherhood and profession – I was wrong.

I still think that showing up at the conference with a newborn would’ve proved unprofessional. After all, it’s not like Lalina was a registered participant and therefore had a right to attend. My problem isn’t with how it may have been misperceived if I’d showed up with her, but rather with my assumption that my profession, in this instant, had to be put on hold because of circumstances that seemed on the surface to be beyond my control (husband’s illness); and yet, there were options that, unfortunately, never even crossed my mind as possibilities. Was this my subconscious telling me that I can’t do it all? Is this post, perhaps, my refusal to admit that academic superwomen are an abominable myth and that women can’t balance career and family? But what about that preceptor breastfeeding and teaching? She’s got it together – isn’t this the type of professional I need to be to raise a daughter who will forge ahead and believe, not in Santa, but in the fact that she can have it all? And I use the word “fact” purposefully because I want her to have it all – and I believe she can have it all. The “all” just needs to be confidently claimed by herself and those around her – starting first and foremost with myself.

Veronique Dorais Ram, PhD Candidate
Department of English, University of Calgary

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'm wearing purple on 20.10.2010

Of all the feminist actions I might take in a day, none is more invisible - to me - than being out.

Mostly, I just live my life. I live the better in 'it gets better.' Although the process of coming out wasn't easy, my family, my employer, and my nation all settled this business long ago, leaving me to ponder big questions like, did I reply to that email yet? or, is this skirt tighter than it was last time I wore it? or, should I have stuck with Plan A, long haul trucking, instead of going to graduate school? As you can imagine, that kind of deep thinking doesn't really allow 'oh yeah, and I'm a lesbian' to come to the surface very often.

But this fall's horrific rash of stories about queer students taking their own lives has brought me back, powerfully, to the perilous fragility of these lives we lead in the midst of such reckless everdayness.

For many people, these stories are visceral reminders of how harrowing it can be to come out to your family and friends. For some, they bring back hideous memories of being bullied. The stories are almost certainly about mental illness or, less clinically, the dark pull of a high bridge: I've been there too, and it does get better.

For me, though, these stories are primarily about students. They remind me of how fundamentally hard it can be to be a student, how difficult it is to succeed in a game you don't necessarily understand, how tough it can be to feel overwhelmed, and anxious, and uncertain, and exposed, and shamed, how hard it is to be away from home, to be out of context, out of your depth, out of touch, out of solutions.

But these stories also call me to the dream I hold for university life as a place where you can be yourself and remake yourself, a place where you can think new thoughts and try new things, a place to start over, if you want, and over and over. A place to figure things out. A place to be creative. A place to be.

And so here in this blog post I want to give a shout-out to the amazing queer students I've taught over the years. Yeah, Kristy, I mean you - and the other Christie, and the Four Corners Press gang, and the brilliant RB, and Cynthia (I still miss you), and M. Almodova, who was in the first class I ever TA'ed for and who came out to me by confessing he was into erasure (and he didn't mean Derrida). I'm thinking about Kim who left grad school to take care of her girlfriend's kids, I'm thinking about HK the public intellectual, slippery A, and all the queer kids in the Edmonton course a couple years back who just up and outed themselves on day one: do you have any idea how thoroughly that blew my mind? I'm thinking about you in the back row with your ball cap: you don't fool me for a second, but don't worry, we can play it that way. I'm thinking about the ridiculously talented Trevor, who understands the couture call of white designer jeans and the siren call of suicide and just recently made a brilliant film about it. And I'm thinking of a whole bunch of other people who might not be comfortable being named.

To all the sissy boys and the gay men, the lesbian feminists, the brave transgenders and the sex-positive grrls, the womyn-identified-womyn, the high femmes and the bears, the gossipy queens, the Real Lesbians, the pretty boys, the hard butches and the soft butches and the baby butches (especially the baby butches):

I'm wearing this kicking purple dress today for you.

Peace, Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Asher Brown, Cody J. Barker, Harrison Chase Brown, Billy Lucas, Jeanine Blanchette, and Chantal Dube.

The rest of you: be careful out there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Feminization of Education? Nah, dearth of critical thinking.

This week the Globe and Mail published a small article called “Five Reasons Why Boys Are Failing.” A friend of mine sent me the link to the article and, as I read it, I was more and more astounded. Here are the five reasons boys are failing:
1. Role Models
2. Video Games
3. The Boy Code
4. Developmental Differences

And, wait for it,

5. The Feminization of Education

I’m going to speak to the last point, but I have to say that one of the things that concerns me about this article (which is written about elementary school and high school boys specifically) is its dearth of critical thinking.

Don’t get misread me. I’m not implying that I don’t want boys to do well in school. I am, however, certainly implying that this article suggests the shift to more single-parent homes, the emergence of stars as role models, the masculinization of “toughness,” and the size of one’s brain cannot be the only factors in an individual’s education. If the system isn’t working, it isn’t working for everyone. The underlying message in this article seems to be that if these five issues are solved boys will do better.

Huh. Which boys? Where? Boys in Hobbema? Boys in Bella Bella? Boys in the G.T.A? Boys in Yarmouth? But I digress.

OK, let’s look at section five: This section is accompanied by a still from the 2008 film remake of Anne of Green Gables. Referred to as “the darling of English teachers everywhere” Anne of Green Gables is also a good way to stop boys from wanting to read. Well, as performance artist Dayna McLeod has shown, Anne can also make you gay. So watch out.

The argument in this section claims that boys don’t like flashbacks, but prefer linear narrative; they don’t relate to their English teachers who are “mostly all women,” and they prefer male protagonists. Disregarding for the moment the lack of evidentiary support here’s my issue: making declarative claims about choice seems, oh, I don’t know, presumptuous at best. At the worst it is myopic and deterministic. These claims shut down the potential for making choices, they disregard those boys (and men!) who don’t prefer linear narrative (or girls and women who do...), and most insidiously, these claims assume that a teacher—male or female—isn’t teaching his or her students the critical thinking skills they need to think through a text’s construction.

The Globe article is by no means the first to talk about the feminization of education. As one of the commentators notes, Christina Hoff Summers has been writing about this for a while. Yes, this C.H.S...

I’ve only started to touch on the myriad of issues here. As I see it this article indicates a gendering of education that is binary, Anglo-centric, and dangerously conservative. But maybe I’m being grouchy. What do you think?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Why is peer review so slow?

A couple of weeks ago, an article of mine was rejected by a journal, and that was pretty depressing. But what was shocking about it was that the rejection only took eight weeks. I have never before had anything at all come back to me, positive or negative, in fewer than six months.


Most of the journals I submit to and review for have web interfaces that manage the submission, review assignment and tracking, communication of decisions, and editing of manuscripts. There’s no lag for postal service, no random piles of papers on desks into which an article might fatally fall. Hell, these tools even create sorted pools of potential reviewers in their databases. My experience might not be the literary norm--I am, I admit, a new media and digital humanities scholar and we always have nicer toys.

However! It does not take six months (or eight, or eighteen) to competently review a paper. It probably takes some time (a week? Two weeks?) for a submissions editor to find and secure an appropriate reviewer or two for a paper. It certainly must take a little bit of time (a week? Two weeks?) for the journal editor or editors to read the reports and settle on a decision. The papers I review take me anywhere from an afternoon to a day to read and report on a submission, and I can fit this into the week or two after it is assigned to me.

By my count, peer review is a process that should take, generously, about eight weeks to do.

I do about five peer reviews a year. Maybe that’s too many. Maybe I get asked more frequently because I’m fast and thorough, and write good reports. Maybe everyone else sits on their reviews for six months because they are prioritizing their own research at the expense of service in ways I should be emulating. Maybe they are cannily doing just enough peer review to get some kind of merit credit for it, and no more (and certainly, no faster.) Maybe I’m falling into gendered Mommy-to-the-profession behaviour by taking my reviewing so seriously and doing it so assiduously.

Nevertheless, peer review has to get done by someone, and so I beg of you, colleagues at large: if you agree to do a peer review, just get it done. Don’t put it off until the end of the month, the end of term, the end of time. Don’t wait until you get an email from the submissions editor telling you it’s already late, and then ask for a six week extension. Your colleagues are counting on your feedback to help them advance in their thinking and in their careers. Because I don’t want to get stuck doing the reviews you flaked out on, and I also don’t want to get stuck in ‘under review’ limbo for a year when my tenure committee is evaluating my research effectiveness.

* * * * * * *

I wrote up this post as a draft in August, and I'm just coming back to it now. And do you know what? I've got two late peer reviews on my desk right now. Yeah, karma's a bitch, and now that the shoe of righteousness is on the other foot, I guess I'm the bad academic. My high horse has thrown me into the mud. How did that happen?

Oh man. How do you tackle peer review--the deadlines or the waiting or the procrastinating or the report-writing? And how do you handle both yourself and the review when you find yourself, like me, failing so spectacularly to live up to your own standards?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's the small things

What kind of collaborator would I be if I didn't follow my lovely colleagues' generous lead and write about my many blessings? This frantic month of October, it's the small things that count.
  • I am thankful for having thick long hair, so that when I trim it on my own with a dull pair of kitchen scissors, because I can either find the time to make an appointment or go to a hair appointment, but not both, my skilllessness doesn't really show.
  • I am grateful for a biggish turnout at Pilates the other day, so that the teacher didn't really notice I was dogging it.
  • I am thankful that I spent all weekend cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family, 12 in all, not only because we have leftovers to eat this week but also and more importantly because it means my sister will have to take on Christmas. (Sidebar: grateful not to have leftover Brussells sprouts.)
  • I am thankful that I live with a wonderful partner who is approximately my age, so that when I start the same story for the third or fourth time, it still sounds new to her.
  • I am thankful for the kind of pleasant fall weather that means you can wear long skirts with bare legs, which means a) you can get away without shaving and b) you don't have to replenish the stocking supply.
  • I am supremely thankful that a colleague canceled a meeting yesterday morning. There is no gift sweeter than the gift of an hour on a Tuesday masquerading as a Monday.
  • I am thankful for payday, which can come around anytime. Seriously. A-ny-time.
  • I am thankful the farmers' market is over for another year, which also makes me feel guilty because I really really love the downtown Edmonton farmers' market and I believe in buying locally and supporting your small producers, but I won't lie to you, I am already daydreaming about lying in bed on Saturday morning reading the newspaper.
  • I'm thankful for the invention of the combustion engine, through the wizardry of which I can have locally produced food delivered to my door.
  • I am thankful for Dr Phil and Oprah, whose TV guests make me feel better about my life, and in particular help me deal with my white liberal guilt over having local organics delivered to my door by a climate-destroying automobile.
  • I am thankful that I live with a wonderful partner who is approximately my age, so that when I -- wait, did I say that already?
  • I am thankful that we have a working alarm clock, and I swear to god I will remember to set it tonight.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Heartfelt thanks

Following Aimée's lead, I'm giving thanks today.

I am thankful for my incredible partner who gave up a flourishing freelance career to move across the country with me when I took what was at the time only a 10-month LTA. We could have tried long-distance, but he chose to support me. He is a truly wonderful person. I'm so grateful to share a home with him.

I am thankful for my family, far-flung as we all are.

I am thankful for my friends, here and there, without whom I would be a lesser person.

I am thankful for my mentors. Almost speechless with thanks. I will work to pay it forward in the way you have for me.

I am thankful for articulate reminders that holidays aren't neutral, and that we must continue to work for equitable futures in the academy and outside it.

I am thankful to have the privilege of working in a department that is supportive and engaged (I had the opportunity to give a draft of an article to my colleagues and students on Friday: the discussion was thoughtful and the audience worked to help me address some parts of the paper I didn't feel were yet finished. When I walked out of the room an hour and a half later I had solid essentially workshopped suggestions for how to finish the piece. One colleague even wrote a follow up email with her thoughts!)

I'm thankful for my colleague and friend with whom I'm researching a new project.

I'm thankful for my colleague(s) who offer to take time out of their busy lives to offer commentary on my work. I'm thankful our department has such strong, forward-thinking, humane leadership.

I am thankful that I have--and have had--the opportunity to teach such incredible students. In addition to working with students from first to fourth year, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with graduate students and aspiring graduate students.

I am thankful for Halifax's Farmers market, and most especially to the farmers for growing the things I get to buy there, and for the incredible luck that brought my farmer's market pal and I together.

I am thankful for the Halifax Ashtanga Yoga Shala, without which I would be a far more hunched, stressed person.

And I'm thankful for you, readers, who have let us here at hook&eye know there's an engaged audience out there.

Friday, October 8, 2010

I'm giving thanks for my students

I'd like to give thanks--as we roll on into the Thanksgiving weekend like so many wheelie bags dragged out to the Greyhound stop on campus, bumping along inexorably toward turkey, family, a long weekend, a keg-tapping ceremony, a chance to catch our breath or catch up on our work or catch some zzzs--for my students.

This semester is a little weird for me because I'm teaching two courses on essentially the same topic at the opposite ends of the higher education journey--one is a first year course and one is a graduate course. I'm excited to teach these courses as part of two new digital media curricular initiatives in my department. I love the challenge of creating new courses in my area of research, and it's pretty cool how the courses overlap with one another into a seamless digital media dork-out, but what's really making the semester so rewarding ... is the students.

So. I'm giving thanks to my students for:
  • using internet anonymizers to send me reading material related to the course, for fun
  • admitting they don't know what they're doing, and cheerfully asking for help to get better
  • challenging me when they think I'm wrong
  • measuring what we learn in class against what happens in the world
  • showing up to a draft workshop even when their drafts aren't done, because they don't want to miss class
  • coming to my office during office hours, just to talk to me
  • volunteering answers even when they're not sure 
  • doing such damn good presentations
  • taking it seriously
  • taking it lightly
  • laughing at my jokes
  • being open to whatever class brings
  • taking their scribbled-over first drafts home and writing kick-ass second drafts
  • sharing a little bit of the story of their lives with me

I'm giving thanks to other peoples students for:
  • talking about class in the hallway
  • sitting in the sun declaiming poetry
  • hunching together over a textbook solving equations together
  • reading on the bus, while walking, in lineups, sitting on steps

Sometimes we see this student / teacher relationship as antagonistic. They complain about us, we complain about them, someone creates a crasher-squirrel / exam book mashup, and someone compiles a so-awful-it's-hilarious list of exam-answer howlers. There are reasons for all of this, of course. But I'm just really struck this week by how much energy, how much fun, how much smarts, how much talent, how much vulnerability, just how much students bring with them onto campus. Students, I like you guys. I don't want to be friends with you, necessarily, but working with you on this shared project of advancing our personal and collective knowledge? It is the Zippo that sparks my best jokes, my clearest explanations, my most careful editing, my most intriguing ideas. And for that, I thank you.

Still, crasher squirrel thinks you need to work on your penmanship!

[How about you, dear reader? If you are a student, please bask in the glow of the thanks; if you teach, do you have any inspiring story about why you too might give thanks for students?]

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Guest Post: Research between the cracks: when you’re a PhD without a library

Today I heard back from the library of the university at which I completed my PhD a year ago. Sadly, they are unable to offer me online, off-campus library privileges, even with Visiting Scholar status. Only current faculty, staff and students can access the online resources. It took the library two months and countless messages from myself and my former department’s Chair and Graduate Secretary to provide this information.

So if I want to access databases like the MLA, peruse online journals, or see what books are in the library system, I have to go physically to campus and work there, in a crowded public lab filled with undergraduates. That’s a bit of a drag when you’re trying to be an academic researcher in the 21st century, and want to check something on the MLA at 2 in the morning – or briefly at 3 in the afternoon, for that matter.

I don’t have an academic job right now. Like so many recent PhDs, I’m cobbling together what I can, teaching sessional, applying for jobs, looking for other options and yes, grateful for the work I do find. But moving forward is not easy when you’re not affiliated with a university. It’s much more difficult to research and write papers when you don’t have good, unlimited access to an academic library. Heck, the moment my card expired after my PhD I was back to borrowing status as a member of the public: 3-week loans on a regional library card, with no way of accessing interlibrary loans.

My former department has been very supportive, and they tried their best to help me. But university policies, and library policies, are very clear: they’re meant to exclude me the moment I graduate. In the current economic climate for PhDs – and the current employment climate generally, with its rise in sessional positions and cutbacks to full-time workers – universities should rethink their relationship to their alumni, and offer more institutional support to their PhD graduates. After all, the harder it is to publish, the easier it is for us to perish. Ultimately that makes them look bad too.

--Susanne Marshall

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What do women want?

The other evening I was invited to the home of a retired colleague to talk about equity. The idea was to discuss some of the unsettling trends in the Stephen Harper administration and in our own university and come up with a plan for revitalizing feminist struggles.

We failed. Oh, we had plenty to say about Ottawa, and our universities, and our funding structures, and even our colleagues, but when it came right down to the gnarly question of what we mean by equity - well, when it came down to that, we failed. We could not say what we want.

These last few days, I have been pondering why. I will speak for myself, but perhaps what I say here will resonate with you too.

Partly, I find it hard to say what I want in the name of equity because I want so very many things for the profession. Some of them are directly connected to equity, some are loosely associated, and some are entirely distinct. Among the things I want: cheaper tuition; smaller class sizes; a clear job description; the return of my colleagues' telephones; a reinvention of the conference format; more generous and less aggravating support for research; a broader understanding of university-community relationships; recognition of graduate supervision as part of our workload; academic jobs for grad students who want them; time to think; and a Jil Sander suit.

It's also hard to say what I want because I have been trained in a metacritical / hypercritical tradition that means as soon as something is out of my mouth I can see its pitiable inadequacies. Nothing is ever good enough, and when 'smart' is measured by idealist perfection or theoretical rigor rather than the pragmatic dirty compromise of actually existing postlapsarianism - well, then, it's tough to get the ideas out.

But even though it's hard, and risky, and guaranteed to be inadequate, I'm going to take a crack at saying what I'd like in the name of equity.

First, I support the Employment Equity Act that governs private sector employers, crown corporations, federal contractors and the public service in Canada. There are other ways to arrive at equality, and the federal contractors' legislation may not be perfect, but since C21 conservativism's modus operandi, here and elsewhere, often takes the form of dismantling legislation and institutions, I would like to see us stand behind the State on this one.

I would like the professoriate to resemble the demographics of the country in all four protected categories: gender, visible minorities, Aboriginality, and disability. I thought of keying the demographics to our city or our province but both seem volatile enough that I prefer what I take to be the stabilizing influence of the nation as an analytical category. If 4% of Canada is Aboriginal (wikipedia), then 4% of our university should be Aboriginal. Yup, that's right: I'm proposing quotas. I've never been persuaded by the arguments against American-style affirmative action. (Q: What's worse than getting a job because you're black? A: Not getting one.)

One important equity goal would be to see these numbers reflected across the ranks, from undergraduate student to full professor. So maybe until we get it right - about 58% of undergraduates are women but only 18-38% of full professors are women, depending on your discipline, so we have a ways to go - maybe we should build in a buffer: plus two or three percentage points per category, for instance. Anyone out there numerate enough to run the figures?

There has to be a time limit with hard targets along the way. Given how long it takes for an undergraduate to become a full professor, I figure we won't really arrive until 2025 or so: we need to train the best and brightest, and the system requires flexibility. Equity is a long road. Still, every five years, Canada should be about 30% along. If we're not, we take pan-institutional corrective measures. If by 2025 our equity results are as dismal as they are right now, we strike.
So here, in a nutshell, is my equity demand: I want the professoriate to match Canadian demographics by 2025.
There are other things I would like. I would like equity categories to be more broadly understood, as well, so that gender is not just men and women, and "visible difference" (visible to whom?) can differentiate between moneyed immigrants and structurally disadvantaged communities. I wish we had a good way to incorporate social class into these categories. (Interestingly, queer representation doesn't particularly trouble me, though I may be naive about that.) I suspect disability will remain the most difficult for us to wrap our minds around, even though many more academics than you might imagine struggle with invisible disabilities like chronic mental illnesses. On the other hand, how many deaf professors do you know?

So, yes, I would like subtler categories - but I am afraid that at this point I lose the clarity of a simple ask, and so I am willing to work with the categories we have for the time being. I'm pretty flat-footed that way.

Am I prepared to adapt to the changed structures and practices and tenets of our academy in order to help bring about more equitable demographics? I think so. But we would be foolish to think we could foresee all of the changes equity would entail - or to imagine we would necessarily like them. Many English departments are shockingly white, for instance, perhaps even aggressively white, and I'm not sure we would recognize "literature" if we hired more than token minorities. Similarly, it's easy to say that having more women would strengthen arguments for recognizing and rewarding what I've been calling in this blog "emotional labour" - but maybe that's a middle-class desideratum that would not survive equitable demographics. Do we really want mentoring written into our job descriptions? Maybe.... All I'm saying here is that if we go down the road of changing our institutions, we can't presume we'll like each and every alteration.

But I'm certainly willing to find out.

Enough from me. What do you think our institutional equity goals should be?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Change it up!

Well, we’ve made it!

Congratulations, you’ve survived September. Its been difficult, what with the inevitable topsy-turvyness of beginning classes and the seventh-circle-of-hellmouthness of online grant applications. I myself have just flown back to Halifax from a weekend conference in Edmonton. I’m jetlagged and preparing to finish tomorrow’s lecture. This of course has me thinking about my school wardrobe. No, not (only) this kind. In addition to wondering how I’ll patch together a swelter-worthy-yet-professional-and-slightly-edgy ensemble, I find myself thinking more seriously about that other kind of academic fashion: the syllabus. I mean, I remember shopping for courses based wholly on how exciting/scandalous/unusual the syllabus looked.

Am I alone in that?

I have the good fortune to be teaching, among other things, a contemporary theory course. I’ve taught a version of it several times, at two different universities, but this year I’ve given the reading list a huge makeover. Each time I teach this course I find that the students are both excited and a bit apprehensive. They seem to think that the reading material is going to be duller than unsweetened oatmeal (though oatmeal is anything but dull). Some of the time they are right. After all, while intellectually stimulating, sure, the structural anthropologists are don’t generally pop into my mind as paragons of stylish writing.

Obviously the use of theory has been debated over and again and that isn’t what I’m interested in here. Nope. I’m wondering how many of us out there give our syllabi new school outfits. It has crossed my mind that, given I’m on a 3/3 teaching load I might consider recycling some material—and don’t get me wrong, I do (though actually quite rarely...)! But I find myself continually working to pull the reading list together into a kind of cutting edge meets classic whole.

I’ll go out on a limb and say: changing one’s syllabus is as important as changing up one’s style. It gives you a chance to see how you fit your own thinking into, alongside, or against whatever is au courant in your field. And its our job to remain engaged with our respective fields. So despite the fact that I'm wishing I had an old lecture to pull out of my archives for tomorrow, I know its worth the effort.

How often do you change your syllabus?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Go-To Boots

Not "go-go" boots, but "go-to" boots, as in "This pair of black pleather pull-up Franco Sarto stack-heel boots are my go-to footwear for work and fun alike." And they are, they really are.

Beyond a well-made, well-fitting, flattering suit, every academic gal needs a miracle piece of footwear--a boot, a shoe, or maybe a sandal, depending on the climate you work in--that goes with everything. It has to work with a skirt, with a dress, with dress pants, and with jeans. Hell, nowadays it even has to work with leggings. It has to be hip enough to wear in the off-hours, comfortable enough to stand up in for a 90 minute class or two (or three), sturdy enough to have equal purchase on waxed institutional flooring and unshoveled winter bus stops alike, and dressy enough to plausibly wear to a job interview, whether your own or someone else's. It should have enough of a heel to add a little height and keep your hems out of the mud but not so high as to tip you, ass-over-teakettle, as they say, into said mud. A real winner in this department will also manage to be waterproof and salt-stain proof.

I have worn these boots nearly every day between September and April since 2006:

(Imagine that my right leg is wearing a skirt and my left is wearing pants. 
The purse is gratuitous, but I just got it on sale for $35 and it adds zip to every occasion.)

Why place such a heavy burden on one poor set of soles? Why not hip suede sneakers with your jeans? A nice t-strap pump with the skirt, a dressy ankle boot with the suit, and Sorels for the bus stop? There are two main reasons why I at least lean so heavily on my one favorite pair of boots.

First: when I was a poor graduate student, and when I was a postdoc, and like many of my friends tenuously / temporarily / contingently employed, there wasn't money to fill the shoe closet to brimming, and what money there was, frankly, could be better spent. Come to think of it, there was no shoe closet in that bachelor apartment, either. So: cost. I imagine that some among you might face similar constraints. And really, no matter my income level, I would rather have one really nice thing, than three things that will just fall apart before the end of term (I'm looking at you, Zellers sandals that broke my heart!)

Second: now that I'm a faculty member, I travel a lot, to conferences and unconferences and workshops and such. I try to concoct the maximum sartorial variety from the minimum number of pieces of clothing, to minimize, obviously, the size and weight of luggage I am inevitably going to drag from terminal to terminal in Minneapolis or Denver or Amsterdam or Calgary, and then up fif-ty-se-ven-se-pa-rate stairs to a stifling garret room at a bed and breakfast in Brighton (for example) or across a bumpy acre of parking lot at midnight at UVic (for another example). I want to travel light, but I don't want to look like someone who's traveling light. I want to be stylin' and comfortable without carting around my bodyweight in luggage. I know many of you travel a lot more than me, so I'm confident I'm not the only one facing this issue, either.

So tell me: do you have a go-to boot, or shoe? A miracle scarf or pashmina or rain jacket? A pantsuit for all occasions? My boots have already been re-heeled once, and I know they're not going to last forever. I'm looking for inspiration on this front, if you have any to send this way.