Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This month in sexism: November edition

  • SSHRC's mat leave policies
  • I'm collaborating with another prof (also female) on an edited collection. One of the contributors (male) continually refers to the two of us as "ladies" in his emails, but to the male contributors as "professor x" or "professor y." It's driving me up the wall.
  • From my friend's teaching evaluations: "She should spend as much time on her lectures as she does on her outfits."
  • Which is the worse form of sexism?: A female colleague tells the honours seminar, "All men are rational, scientific." When challenged (by a student, bravo!), she responds, "Yeah? Are men ever called irrational?"
  • After showing a film clip to her class my friend is asked by a student to "complete the lecture in a sexy voice like the woman in the movie."
  • "Be sure to put on your application that you only took a 6 month maternity leave. That makes you look more serious."
  • The most terrible and egregious act of sexism this month was the Harper government's decision regarding the "renewal" of funding for Sisters in Spirit, a Native Women's Association of Canada initiative that has documented 582 missing and murdered aboriginal women and is developing policy recommendations on violence against aboriginal women. In true Harper style, the feds reduced funding by one third for the next five years and made "renewal" subject to the following conditions: that the initiative be called Evidence in Action and not Sisters in Spirit; that their well recognized Grandmother Moon logo not be used; that they cease doing "research" on the missing and murdered women (to focus on action); and that they not maintain their database.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I Write: A Response and a Meditation

I’m a regular reader of University of Venus. I like the mission statement, I love the variety of voices, and I appreciate the range of perspectives the writers offer. My post comes by way of a response to Mary Churchill’s post Why do Academics Write? from a few months ago. I guess you could say I’m a percolator: I think think think about something for quite some time before I formulate a response to it.

I’ve realized that one of the reasons this post has stuck with me is that it begins with a consideration of how the writing of blogs differs from the writing of academic, discipline-specific texts. Throughout this thoughtful piece Mary returns to a question which was both posed to her and which in turn she poses to her readers: why do you write?

Inevitably this question led me to thinking about why I felt so strongly about writing this blog with Heather and Aimée, which in turn led me to thinking about why I feel so strongly about collaborative writing. (& don’t forget the link in Aimée’s post that, as she discusses, is just one of many that suggests collaboration is detrimental)

Here's what I've realized: regardless of the readership--be it small, large, or wholly imagined--I write because I love collaboration. Yes, I know that the single-authored manuscript is what might get me the interview for the tenure-track job. And I know that I can churn out a single-authored article over the holidays when I’ve a small break from lecture planning more quickly than I could draft a book proposal with a co-editor. But I can’t help myself. I love collaboration.
A few years ago when I was a graduate student I learned about a collaborative peer-editing and writing group happening between two universities. This program was organized by two senior female faculty members; it paired students from the two departments and they wrote and thought together. I was green with envy! Writing and thinking in collaboration was something that I dreamed would happen regularly at the graduate level. The reality, at least for me, was that it didn't.

Later in my PhD I had the amazing good fortune of collaborating with several other graduate students to put together a panel on the pros and cons of collaboration for the annual ACCUTE meeting. When we first started writing and thinking together we were truly just acquaintances. Over the course of a year, after many long-distance phone calls, countless emails, and experimentation with digital-conversation platforms, we were definitely friends. While we didn’t get much more than a line on our CVs for the disproportionate amount of work we did, the experience of writing and thinking together was exhilarating.

Around the same time I began writing with a friend and a colleague. She was studying for her candidacy examinations, and I was writing my dissertation. She was in the creative writing stream I (obviously) was not. We started getting together at each other’s houses for writing sessions. Mostly these sessions took place in separate rooms at first, the idea being that we’d each write and then break every now and then for coffee and conversation. But eventually these conversations revealed the ways in which our scholarly thinking was in conversation as well. We started writing to and towards each other as a way of thinking through the relationship between the critic and the poet. We ended up publishing a section of our collaboration in the fabulous special issue of Matrix called New Feminisms, which was co-edited by the eminently talented Karis Shearer and Melanie Bell. Like the earlier collaboration this writing likely won’t earn me a job interview, but it feels as necessary as the academic writing that will might.

Which leads me, finally, back to this site: I write because I believe in collaboration, and I hope—however naively—that the writing we do does indeed foster some kind of collaborative thinking.

(More on specifically feminist collaboration next week…)

Why do you write, dear readers?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Boast Post?

In my post last Friday, I celebrated 50 posts and a new community here at Hook and Eye. Earlier in the month, I told other people how awesome I am. In October, I "gave it up" (as the kids say, meaning, I think, "applauded") for my students, in a tryptophanic fit of thanksgiving.

It was easy to brag about my students, and not that hard to whoop it up for Hook and Eye's little milestone, but it was very very hard, as I noted at the time, to boast about myself.

I think we need to boast a little bit more, generally, as women in the academy. Why not start here? What would you think about a regular--maybe monthly?--"Boast Post" feature where we could applaud one another's accomplishments? The trick would be this: you have to nominate your own accomplishments. That's the hardest part, I think, so I'm willing to let you boast about yourself anonymously if that's what you need to do in order to get the words out. We can compile them into an omnibus of fabulousness, glorying in our own accomplishments, together.

It's easy to complain. Hell, there's usually no shortage of legitimate stuff to complain about. But there's a lot of good out there, too. Why not bask in some sunshine? Or, if you want to make a self-improvement project out of it, consider this an exercise in overcoming what I imagine to be a pretty widely-shared collective aversion to self-promotion.

Own it, sister.

Why don't you try it out in the comments? Or if you're not ready to boast, let us know if you think it might be a neat monthly feature. If you'd like to submit a boast 'anonymously,' you can send it to our email, at editrixes@hookandeye.ca.

I'll start: I just handed in the final revision on an article that has been accepted for publication. I'm proud of how the paper turned out: I worked really hard on it, and really pushed my research and my thinking. It's going to be published in the coming weeks. Woohoo!

Now, you ...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Guest Post: Dear Professor, I Don't Want to Be Your Facebook Friend

Here's a post by Janna Flaming, a student in "English 108D: Digital Lives"; she wrote this in September, for a response paper assignment, and it was just so great, and so related to what what happening on the blog (remember those posts?) that I wanted to include her ideas in the conversation. Thanks to Janna for being the first student guest poster!


In the article, “Dear Professor, I Want To Be Your Friend” Denise Horn writes about allowing her students to befriend her on Facebook. However, it is my position that student/professorial relationships should not include Facebook friendships. This is because there are possible issues that can arise from a Facebook friendship between professors and students. For example, the policies and procedures reinforcing professors’ governance, in the unknown geography of cyberspace, are poorly defined. Also, favoritism for students that have access to Facebook could inadvertently reinforce a previously established social digital divide. Therefore, Facebook friendships have no place in student/professorial relationships.

In the current digital age there have been many problems that have occurred because of unclear boundaries in the geography of cyberspace. Since student/teacher relationships were traditionally built on the university grounds, the hierarchy and boundaries between them were clearly defined. However, in cyberspace, because geography is ambiguous and professorial governance is unclear, when professors and students become Facebook friends, the established hierarchy starts to waver and the boundaries between personal and professional lives are blurred. In Denise Horn’s article, I agree with her colleagues who express concern about privacy when connected to students on Facebook. A breach of privacy in cyberspace may also change professors’ ability to have authority over students. It is better to leave Facebook out of professor/student relationships, because professors allowing students to befriend them on Facebook raises questions that have no clear policies or procedures to provide answers.

Professors should also not befriend students on Facebook because there is a social digital divide. Those professors who allow students to befriend them on Facebook may be giving disproportionate time and attention to those students who have a lot of access to technology. Professors may therefore find it difficult to give poor grades to students with whom they have built a personal relationship through Facebook. As a result, professors should leave Facebook out of the classroom, as it might reinforce already present social class divides between students.

Professors should not befriend their students on Facebook since this relationship may inadvertently heighten an already present social digital divide and have an impact on professorial access. Furthermore, because of unclear geography in cyberspace, professors’ ability to govern students may be compromised when issues arrive online. I believe that professors should not allow students access through Facebook to prevent any possible issues that could occur because cyberspace is changing traditional university relationships.

Call for submissions to November TMIS

What's colder than Edmonton in November? A climate of disrespect. Tell us about it. sexism [at] hookandeye.ca.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Working like a Woman

What's hard about my job isn't the work, and it isn't the people (though believe me, I have my days). What's hard about my job is me - specifically, the fact that I have never learned how to not take things personally. Part of this is A Heather Problem: I tend to be intemperate, drawn to extremes. I love what I like and I hate what I dislike, and there is a special place in my heart for the Brussels sprout (a mean little vegetable). So, sure, part of it is me.

But I suspect that it's also A Gender Problem. Having been "made" a woman (Beauvoir), I am now someone who acts, and feels, and responds, like a woman. What does that mean? Among other things: I want my colleagues and students to like me. That's certainly not the only thing I want, and I wouldn't say it's what I want the most - but do I want it? Yeah, I do. Also, I work to make people happy. When they are unhappy, I don't shrug it off; I work harder. Although I don't mind honest confrontations, it upsets me to be in the middle of intractable discord, particularly with people who have no interest in working things out. Other examples: when a journal turns down a publication, I think I'm stupid. When a colleague attacks a process I've put together, I assume s/he speaks for everyone. When I find myself in a why-do-the-wicked-prosper moment in public, my blood boils, my face reddens, and my voice shakes. The strongest emotions - fear, rage, frustration, incredulity, resentment, envy, homicidal PMS - are disfiguring for everybody; for women, they can be professionally debilitating. Angry men are respected; angry women are shrill. Etc.

Understand, please, that this is not an intellectual problem. Philosophical disagreements?: you win some, you lose some, you change your mind on some. I am fine with the fact that we academics make our living on principle. Nor am I asking for therapeutic advice. I don't wish to be a different kind of person. I don't imagine the academy to be my world; my job is not my life; I know that institutions have no soul. I know all of that, in my head. But in my heart? I've never figured out how to park my emotions at the committee room door. I can't seem to find a way to care less.

And here is the real kicker. The very things that make me susceptible to bruising (bruise = internal bleeding, remember) are the things that make me really good at my job. As a woman, I have developed exceptional emotional intelligence. I can read the feel of a room within seconds. More importantly, I can work with that. To tension I bring peace, to shyness I offer inclusiveness, and I ease social awkwardness with good humour. When I'm confronted by someone who is angry, or upset, or frightened, I know what to do - I know intuitively, I want to say, though what i mean is: I know because I have been made a woman.

I believe these are important skills - important to the individuals involved, but also important to the institution, and therefore important to all of us. (See "cycle of abuse.") But these so-called soft skills play in the most undervalued aspects of our universities: teaching, meeting, mentoring, supervising. When it comes right down to it, whether by reputation, by conviction, by tradition or by culture, the university still values the disembodied thinker above all.

And that - I find enraging.

(Okay, readers: some hefty claims here, I know. Bring it!)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Righting Writing Wrongs

Let me be right up front with you: writing is difficult for me.

I'm not talking about article or lecture writing (both of which are also difficult, but in more specialized ways). I'm talking about writing right. Good writing. Utilizing the kind of style that would make Strunk and White proud. I've been guilty of almost all of the writing mistakes that make top ten lists. And what's more, I don't like talking about how difficult I find putting words together on a page to convey meaning.

However, I find myself wanting to talk about writing now in part because I've done so elsewhere this week, and in part because my department has started discussing pedagogical strategies for teaching writing to first year students. We had out first brown bag pedagogy session this week, and quite frankly it was a highlight of my entire week (yes, I realize that is mildly pathetic. What can I say? I like my colleagues). It isn't often that I get together with colleagues to discuss teaching strategies, and I can tell you that as a new teacher I am more than a little excited for any new (or tried and true) ways of teaching first year students to write.

After the session I found myself wondering who else was talking about student writing. Turns out lots of people are talking. One of the things I find so troublesome about many of the article about student writing skills (or lack thereof) are their titles: Students Can't Write and They Can't Spell. While there are a myriad of great articles out there suggesting proactive ways of curtailing bad writing, the consensus tends to be the same: writing is getting worse.

I managed to miss grammatical instruction as an elementary student. I'm one of the whole language generation, which may explain both my interest in close and critical reading, as well as my need to look up what the future anterior actually means. Or, perhaps the wholes--I mean holes--in my writing education are a result of moving from the Canadian education system to the American one as an elementary student: I simply slipped through some cracks and missed the joy that is sentence diagramming in both countries (& yes, I do actually mean joy). And while I managed to makeshift my own grammatical education (mostly through university Italian language classes: absolutamente fantastico! Grazie Senor Sergio) I'm less interested in the whys and wherefores of how student writing has reached this point. After all, I'm not trained in elementary and high school curriculum development.

What I am interested in is this: Teaching my first year students university-level writing skills. I'm not of the mind that I shouldn't have to teach grammar or essay structure for that matter (though, of course, I would rather spend the entirety of class time discussing literary scholarship of higher orders). The fact of the matter is that I spend a goodly portion of time on writing instruction. Here's what I do in addition to lecturing about literary interpretation (bearing in mind this is for a first year course that fulfills my university's writing requirement):

1. Assess individual student abilities. On the first day of class I ask them to respond in writing to three questions: Why are you taking this course? What do you hope to learn? What is the last book you read for fun? These questions are in part to help me remember my student's names, but also to help me get a preliminary sense of writing abilities.

2. Develop a class-specific top 10 list: after the first set of essays are due I go through and select examples of the most common writing errors. We workshop these in 15 minute slots each week.

3. Devote 15 minutes of class time per week to Grammar Slammers.

4. Twice a semester we run peer-editing sessions as a part of the revisions process for essays. I do this because I think it is important for students to start to talk to each other about writing, and because I've always wanted to have a writing group myself. It works really, really well. There are many resources online that can help you construct a peer-editing session. I use the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's writing resources as a template, but that's mostly an Alma matter fidelity thing.

I also feel quite certain that students would learn by osmosis if I had The Oatmeal's entire poster series in my office. So if you're wondering what to get me for Christmas...

What about you, readers? What are your proactive strategies for teaching first year writing?

Friday, November 19, 2010

50 Posts! And also, "Ask a social media expert"!

Hey everyone, we're celebrating 50 posts of Hook and Eye! Why, it seems like only just yesterday that Heather launched our first missive into the Ethernet, September the 6th, and 371 of you dropped by to see what she had to say. Since that first post--and those 371 readers--we've added 49 more (counting this one), with 9 guest posts, and two editions of This Month in Sexism. The conversation has been excellent: 297 comments in total, and more every day.

Since our launch, the site has had 13,937 visits, from 4,137 different readers, who've examined a cumulative total of 23,988 pages.

Wow! I'm pretty sure I speak for Heather and Erin when I say we're pretty pleased that what happens on this blog appeals to so many of you. I'm really pleased that we've had nearly 20% of our posts contributed by guest bloggers--please, won't you write for us, too?

One of the really interesting things for me about writing for this blog has been using my own name. I've been blogging for more than four years already, but never out in the open like this and never--of course!--writing about work. It feels exciting, and risky all at once.

I've been thinking this week, too, about what it means to be a professor 'out loud' like this. I forget sometimes what a hothouse a university can be, how it nurtures the growth and development of ideas and interactions and processes that don't seem easily to survive transplantation to the harsh climate of public life writ more broadly.

For example, this story in Inside Higher Education, on viral classroom videos, some clandestinely taken and published, others captured through legitimate means, yet others heavily edited and annotated. I watch the videos and I see ... teaching. I see teachers and classrooms and it all seems so familiar and normal. I see also the danger of taking what happens in the classroom and broadcasting it outside of that classroom.

Inside Higher Ed classifies this kind of video as "gotcha" ... journalism? media practice? These videos remind me, though, of why I don't allow anyone to tape my classes, even just the audio. It's why, further, I don't give out lecture notes to anyone. See, I think that what happens in the classroom is much bigger than what the lens sees: my teaching is built on a relationship I develop with a particular group of students in a particular learning context in which we are all invested. In some ways, we build the class together: "the class" is me and my lectures and the syllabus and the students and their interests and their training and what happened in the news that day or what the weather is like. It is a living thing. A raised eyebrow and a shouted admonition to a student to put down the damn cellphone already elicits a sheepish acquiescence in the classroom ... it might draw a firestorm online. A student challenge to what I've just said leads me to rethink, on the spot, what I'm asking the class to believe. I sit down, change my mind, and tell them so, tracing out explicitly the outer edges where my understanding of a topic has veered towards ... bullshit?

I'm proud of my teaching. I'm proud of my students. I'm proud of the teaching spaces we create together, spaces that are sometimes challenging and sometimes awkward and sometimes silly. But you know what? If you weren't there, I can't explain it to you. So I will keep my classroom door firmly closed to digital and other intrusions. That space is sacred to me: it belongs to the group that has committed to it.

So my heart goes out to those professors ensnared in their video controversies. Guys, your classrooms look like what I know, and I'm sorry that your sacred spaces have been blown apart. If you want to write a guest post, here at Hook and Eye we--and our 4,137 readers--would be glad to have you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Here's to the House of Arts

One of the things I've been bending my brain around lately is the question of how a large Faculty (mine has 365 TT professors) might best be organized to provide exciting collaborative possibilities, good support systems, and cross-disciplinary teaching possibilities. While there might have been an organic relationship between discipline, department and program back in the days when, say, papal bulls were big news, nowadays the ties between scholarly specialization ("discipline"), administrative unit ("department") and area of study ("program") are at best traditional, the result of historical accretion, and at worst stumbling blocks to the kind of work we'd all prefer to do.

I'm all for reorganizing. But how?

There are examples within the university system. Some have colleges, which allow for at least two simultaneous affiliations among faculty members. It sounds good on paper, but given that a college is, among other things, a building, and since no one has lately written to offer me a building for my progressive think tank (hey, if we're gonna reorganize, let's reorganize!), I'm not sure the college route is the way to go.

We could break up: let humanities, social sciences and the fine arts be their own non-departmentalized Faculties, with disciplinary difference built in (Music is not Visual Art is not Drama). But while that would decrease the number of departments, it would increase the number of Deans, and I haven't heard a loud clamour lately for more Deans. (Kidding! Everybody loves Deans!)

We could organize around objects of study, like Literature, Performance, Cultural Studies, Area Studies. This would potentially solve long-standing schisms like physical vs cultural anthropology, but what are you going to do with the residuum, or as I call them, the people who don't fit in? Arguably, ahem, this could comprise the majority of our colleagues.

We could number ourselves off into administrative units with no relationship to discipline or program, just take 365 and divide it by, say, 7: a kind of Mao-hosts-the-Tea-Party solution.

Then it struck me. Okay, okay, honesty compels me to say, then it struck my partner Mo, who said it to me, who put it in this blog - that the model for rearranging a large and complicated Faculty like ours might not come from another university at all. It might come from a completely different institution, yet one that is similarly longstanding, well-organized, socially vital, self-sustaining and imaginative.

I mean, of course, drag houses.

Remember Paris Is Burning? Drag houses take wayward souls under their wing and bring them into the kind of kinship network that universities can only dream of. The House of Xtravaganza imparts an identity - or a subjectivity - or both - without worrying the differences between them. Tired of academic patriarchy? You're in luck: drag houses are typically matriarchal.

Drag culture teaches significant survival skills for the Balls and, I'm arguing, the Academy: "reading," for sure, but also vogue, snark, thrift, spunk, and shade. Drag mothers show you how to nip and tuck and stuff and paste - and pass. Balls reward you for posing. Just think about that for a second. Drag queens invented the diva. And as for surviving tough times?: the underfunding of the humanities in the twenty-first century has nothing on the redlining of New York neighbourhoods in the 1970s and '80s.

We'd have to modify drag culture somewhat, of course. Not for us the House of Blahnik, but the House of Butler, the House of Durkheim, the House of Marx (categories: Teutonic Pretty Boy, Working It). We'd turn ghetto fabulous into - well, one can always hope.

I'm writing with my tongue in my cheek, but I actually have a lot of admiration for the African American and Latino drag culture of the 1980s and 1990s. I respect its organic connection to both queerness and blackness, and I admire its resilience. As bitchy as drag queens can undoubtedly be, these houses also nail the mentoring/belonging problem. Ball culture's focus on performance is both serious and fun, and drag houses also take up other concerns, like community fundraising and leadership cultivation. I think the academy could use more of all of these: mirthfulness, connectivity, fierceness, and the wisdom of minorities.

So, go ahead: sign me up as the Dean of Realness.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Open Letter to the Baby Boomers

Please, when the time comes, retire.

Three things prompted this post:

1. A longstanding concern for several young scholars whom I admire enormously, and the accompanying desire to be able to wave a magic wand and create them the jobs they deserve.

2. Recently, I attended a conference on Canadian Studies, themed to the 1960s. As an historian, I’m unaccustomed to having the audience be both scholar and evidence; but there were those in attendance who commented on papers about Michael Snow, federal drug studies, or Rochdale by recalling their own experiences (or their own entries into university-level jobs before I was born).

3. News items, particularly this one from UPEI this summer, about how universities (and other institutions) are grappling with the implications of the court rulings that deem mandatory retirement a rights violation as discrimination on the basis of age.

I do not argue that many older scholars remain absolutely capable of continuing to do their jobs and therefore it may be unfair to insist that they cease and desist. I do, however, insist that this is profoundly discriminatory in its own way: discriminatory and prejudicial against younger scholars.

When older scholars refuse to vacate their teaching positions with opportunities for tenure at universities, they are violating both a philosophy of institutional renewal and, more gravely, a principle of generational justice.

First, institutional renewal. I secured an academic appointment in 2005, after a postdoc and a year in limbo (also known as ‘working for the government’). My department hired three Canadianists in the space of four years, thanks largely to two retirements. I like and respect those two senior professors enormously, and they remain active in research and in public fora, but there is no arguing that the three hires brought new ideas for research and teaching, and new national attention to the department.

It was a healthy step. As an historian, you might expect me to argue more strongly for institutional memory than for institutional renewal. As the story above suggests, I would argue that balance is key. There are many features of the university structure that serve to protect institutional memory already; change is often slow, and highly considered, and that is a good thing. There are fewer features that guarantee renewal and – ironic for an institution that deals with teaching young people – the entry of younger scholars.

Which brings me to my second point: generational justice. This is a phrase a colleague of mine uses in our co-taught class, Introduction to Environment, Sustainability, and Society. In that context it generally means deferring costs we incur – whether economic debts or greenhouse gas emissions – onto subsequent generations. But it would seem to apply here, too.

If we believe that the university exists to generate new knowledge and to communicate past discoveries, then that assumes we need, and need to create, young scholars. After all, every serious research institution will defend to the death its graduate programs, as one means for generating new knowledge. But we then owe those graduate students the right to employment, to let them do precisely what we’ve trained them for. This generational question pertains to those of us hired recently, too, in a different way, since many of the same universities facing the ongoing costs of mandatory retirement are also citing fiscal crisis brought on by pensions plans. At a faculty association meeting last summer on the pension crisis, the man reporting on pensions negotiations ended his remarks with a grin and a shrug, saying something to the effect of “I don’t have to worry about this, since I’ll be retired by then.” Ha ha.

Whether by continuing to work or retiring, those in their fifties and sixties have far greater financial and professional choice than emerging scholars in their 30s who usually are carrying substantial financial if not personal costs derived from their educational path and career choice, and I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. Why is not emeritus status enough? The university signals its respect for professional accomplishment, and offers an ongoing relationship (that allows for part-time teaching and supervision, library privileges, etc; although at my university, no one – not graduate students, CUPEs, or emeriti have enough office space). The senior scholar can continue to research, publish, consult, and engage in the scholarly life of the community. If s/he does not wish to retire gently into that good night, or into an (as I – still thirty years away - imagine it) Elysian fields of leisure, golf courses, and Snowbird migrations, they are free to continue – on a pension larger than the full-time salaries of sessionals! – to work as they wish.

(One caveat: Please, work is not the only thing here; again, balance. A few years ago, a retired member of my department flew up to Ottawa to visit his daughter for Christmas. While there, he was waiting for a bus when he suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died. To my mind, one of the tragic elements of this story is that he was waiting for a bus to take him to the national archives.) Many of us – including your humble correspondent – feel overworked and under appreciated. And we worked hard, and often sacrificed, to obtain the positions we have. But at the same time, we have been incredibly fortunate: beneficiaries to some extent of historical circumstances, of situation, of timing, of fluke. We have a duty to share that fortune with the younger scholars.

So please, think about making room for someone else.

Claire Campbell
Associate Professor of History, Program Director of Canadian Studies

Monday, November 15, 2010

Plan B

& no, I'm not talking about the morning after pill (Pill?)

I'm talking about Plan B: What to do next. What to do in case. What to do if the job market doesn't work out/plans change/you don't want to move/don't want to work in academe after all/can't/shouldn't/whatever. I'm talking about the barrel that I (& many of my friends, peers, and colleagues) am looking down again. And it is a harmful barrel, it is.

OK stop. I can feel you shuddering. And no, dear graduate student readers, this isn't a(nother) person telling you you've made a terrible mistake pursuing your dreams. Moreover, despite the veracity of what seems to me a staggeringly problematic open secret--(PhDs from US schools are more likely to be hired on in Canadian institutions. Sshhh!)--I'm not so interested in going down that road. I love the school where I did my PhD, I received stellar training. Hiring committees may or may not take a second look at me based on where I did my schooling. But it is done, and I have very few regrets. Sure, I've felt the doom & gloom. And yes, maybe I'm feeling some of it now. I'm moody and mercurial that way. But I'm tired of feeling helpless, and I'm not prepared to give up on my career of choice.

Actually, despite the unpaid emotional work (or, heck, the two unpaid month a year that are part of my current contract) I love the job. I love teaching. I love Canadian literature. I love thinking about the Giller Prize winning novel (you ROCK, Johanna!) and the importance of small presses. I love thinking critically with my students about the small press just down the road from us that is receiving so much pressure (& during our unit on the forces of global capitalism, no less!) And I love writing because it keeps me engaged with the discipline. Heck, I even like committee work and collaboration despite the fact that apparently that's harmful to my dossier)

But for the last year or so I've been toying with my Plan B.

Why? A few reasons (many of which I've already alluded to). But most of all I need to feel in control in a situation where quite frankly I don't have very much control at all.

There have been many, many posts about PhD's needing to diversify their work experience (with what extra time, I wonder?), several about PhD programs needing to diversify their training, and some about co-opts and placement officers (though--and correct me if I'm wrong--there seem to be less placement officers in Canada than there do in the States. Why?) I take what I can from these posts, but find myself more interested in cultivating a Plan B not as a sense of failure, but for empowerment. What else can I do with my training? What has my time in the classroom and behind a desk taught me about what I am good (and less good) at?

It seems to me that talking positively and frankly about multiple uses for the PhD is a healthy way of brainstorming and creating a healthy conversation that might just generate enough hype that it creates some waves of change. But then, I'm a sucker for collaborative thinking.

And speaking of thinking, lately just letting myself think about Plan B has been my plan b. I've dabbled with thoughts of law school, social work, and policy writing. I've thought about living in a yurt. I've thought about going to study yoga in Mysore. I've thought about looking into PR. These are all just thoughts right now, and let me tell you, it feels good to have them.

It feels good to have them because they remind me that my first choice, my vocation, is this profession.

But just in case I might take the LSAT...

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Dear Committee ..."

Dear [admissions / hiring / scholarship / fellowship / internship] committee. I am writing to you to support [student / colleague / supervisee / former student / prospective student]'s application ...

How many of these letters have you had written on your behalf? How many have you written for others? How many have you read, as a member of the 'dear committee' in question? Letters of recommendation pervade academic culture, and the world outside it. So take a minute, and go and read this: "Reference Letters Cost Women Jobs" at Futurity.org. Go. Then come back. (Thank you to reader Heidi for bringing this to our attention, btw.)

Are you agog? I am.

Reference letters are hard. They're hard to write and hard to read. They are consequential, and treated with some reverence and a lot of formality. A reference letter is held in strictest confidence, on the understanding that the letter writer is speaking some hard or secret truth to a committee of whatever sort, a truth whose utterance can only be assured by this guarantee of confidence. A graduate admissions committee is committing to support, say, an incoming PhD student for a minimum of four years: we want to know what we're getting into! A hiring committee is looking to make a huge commitment to a potential colleague--we hope a reference letter will help us pick those three candidates out of the pool of 50 that we might best interview.

But reference letters are also often written in code. They are increasingly prey to the cult of the superlative, where all the adverbs (fantastically! superbly! tremendously! extremely! immensely!) we've worked so hard to prune from our other writings magically reappear, because we need to make the applicants we write for stand out. It seems like every applicant is always ranked in the "top 2%" of everyone the referee has ever had contact with. This paradox requires careful interpretation of the narrative portions of the letter.

There is also a kind of reference letter that seems to be written under duress: where the referee has tried gently or not-so-gently to dissuade an applicant, who nonetheless insists on getting said letter. These are easily enough deciphered by committees, but they never come right out and say, "I don't want to write this letter, because I don't think this student is ready for grad school." Instead, they usually say something like "While I am happy to help out X with her application, I cannot be as thorough as I might be had I taught her in a course other than the 500 person introductory survey six years ago."

In my time at Waterloo, I have written more than 40 different reference letters for students. I have served on the university committee that ranks SSHRC graduate fellowship applications. I spent three years on the graduate committee readings SSHRC and OGS apps, as well as applications to the program. I have spent three years on the appointments committee. I have read hundreds and hundreds of reference letters, all written in some form of code.

So this article has knocked my socks off. It's not that I'm so terribly surprised that, generally, that gendered language is used to describe job candidates and students. It's that the code words the article notes are ones I very much recognize as keywords I look for when evaluating letters. I do tend to be impressed by some of the descriptors coded female, and less impressed by some of those coded male. But over all, I hadn't noticed these as gendered, and a lot of the ones from the feminized list of descriptors I have often understood to be code for "not that smart or accomplished."

Let me tell you, I've been digging through all the reference letters on my computer that I've written for others. And I find myself largely innocent of gender-torpedoing those I've written for. But I'm sure as hell going to be a lot more conscious of this as I read all the letters I use to evaluate candidates, and more careful still of how I write them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

So you want to get a funded PhD in the humanities?

By Matt Schneider, PhD Candidate

Over the past week, this blog has been abuzz with insightful and well-considered responses to the now-infamous “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video. The conversation has unearthed a number of important concerns, and has identified some worrisome trends that have emerged in scholarship in the humanities, especially concerning the teleological assumption that PhD students are working towards employment in the academy. These concerns highlight the facts that the humanities in general function on the basis of a number of unexamined assumptions, and that these assumptions are damaging both to PhD students at any stage of their programme and to the public’s perception of the humanities in general.

One thing I think I'd like to add to the conversation is the way that departments tend to avoid dealing with students who want to work in what essentially amount to "unproven" fields. In my programme, I've noticed a lot of students finding themselves having to fight with their departments to varying degrees in order to be able to do the work they want to do, simply because some aspect of their work—be it comics/graphic novels, digital texts, children's literature, romance novels, speculative fiction, etc—has not yet become a Proper Field and as such the university is unsure whether that work is Serious and Important. And to make matters worse, these projects are almost always SSHRC funded, normally with a CGS, and every one of these projects was accepted by the department when the PhD students applied.

It is frustrating that the government is willing to fund these projects (and well, too), and that the university is willing to accept them (at least initially), but when it comes time for the student to get to work, the university (or key figures in it) would then express doubt as to the feasibility/hire-ability/validity of this same work. This contradictory behaviour is especially frustrating because many of the students working in these unproven fields are especially well-suited to work in them, having great personal interest in an area that is either misunderstood or ignored by most scholars. Essentially, some of the brilliant students who could well one day be the stars of these new and emerging fields are being told that their work is interesting and could hold great potential (so much so that the government was willing to pick up the tab), but that they're not allowed to do it until the field is better established.

This attitude is detrimental to those emerging fields, too. Several of my fellow students have had to change their projects drastically, often times cutting out the very interests and elements that made their work so valuable and unique. A student studying affect in the non-fiction comics of Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Marjane Satrapi, for example, quickly shifts focus, with supervisors and faculty asking the student to include more novels or biographies that aren’t comics until, by the time the student hands in her dissertation proposal, the comics have moved from the position of primary text to secondary, at best, or entirely absent, at worst. This is not to say that dissertations in new fields wouldn’t benefit from a grounding in canonical (that word!) texts and methodologies—I, for example, just recently discovered a connection between the work of Jonathan Swift and Unicode (for those interested, search for the words “bigendian” and “smallendian”)—but rather that these canonical works should simply enrich our studies into new fields, rather than authorise or rationalise these studies. If we insist that students spend the majority of their time studying the tried and true, we effectively stunt the developing fields by forcing students to wait until they've become established in a "traditional" field before shifting their scholarly focus back to their passions.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that many of these fields could well make the humanities more serious in the eyes of the public. Sure, the public may at first find it amusing that Intellectuals are Studying something like romance novels, comics, and videogames, but ultimately these are works the public can connect with. There's a reason books like The Philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sell better than your average scholarly anthology. The latest collection of post-Lacanian psychoanalytic explorations of the works of Djuna Barnes may well be stunningly insightful and invaluable to scholars studying that amazing writer (I meant Barnes, but you can pick your favourite of the two), but much of the public is simply not in a position to connect with this work. By contrast, a dissertation examining the intersections between religion, gender, and politics in the Twilight series has the potential to reach a much broader, non-academic audience—the series has sold over one hundred million copies according to Publishers Weekly. If a scholar were to connect with even a fraction of a percent of this audience, she would, by academic standards, be a best-seller dozens of times over. When we discourage scholars from studying these popular works, we are wilfully distancing ourselves from the public at large.

Perhaps if we in the humanities want to be taken more seriously, we should encourage bright up-and-comers to prove themselves in these new or obscure fields. Not only would this attitude prevent students who were accepted for proposals in these areas from feeling like they fell for the old bait-and-switch, but it would also open up new avenues for the scholarly community to engage with the public. If we want others to take the humanities seriously, perhaps we should first ensure that we take the humanities seriously ourselves.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I'm just back from a week in Barcelona, where I attended the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. It was, in a word, fuckingawesome. I had more intellectual excitement in the first day of that event than I've had in the last ten years of my job. What made it so exciting? Why, I'm glad you asked.

First, no papers. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of the typical conference format. So I thought it was just dandy to have eight-minute keynotes without tedious Q&A, and I thought it was downright revolutionary to seat plenary sessions in two semi-circles facing each other instead of the typical expert-addressing-the-audience scenario.

Second, intriguing organization. The festival was organized spatially, with different organizations/projects in different tents or rooms. One person from each of these stood up and gave a spiel in the opening session, describing what they are doing and who might find it interesting. For instance, "We are tagging videos in multiple languages. If you know a language, especially a language that isn't widely spoken here, come work with us." There was also a temporal organization, but the tempo had more to do with rhythm than with clock-punching. That is, there was a common schedule broken down into sessions (two in the morning, three in the afternoon), but beneath that there was also fluidity to the day. Some sessions - for instance, the video production session - met in the same room for two continuous days; others - for instance, the digital storytelling sessions - met in the morning and reconvened in the afternoon, with "homework" in the middle.

The third thing to love about drumbeat was how much work got done. I could actually feel myself learning. After day one, my brain ached as if I'd been in a mental squat cage all day. I could feel the stretch of thinking past my comfort zone, and I was on an endorphin high - but the metaphor here is also deliberate for suggesting the ways that we were actively engaged in learning, unlike the spectator sport of most conferences. This event was governed by an explicit hacker ethos: we have this time to work together, so let's do it! In some areas, "working together" meant talking about ideas; in some, it meant actively building things (programs, e.g. - though one project was to draft an open source textbook: imagine a conference where you wrote a book!); in other areas, there was just a loose collection of people working on their own laptops in proximity to each other. Even that gave the event a certain frisson.

Also lovable: the mix of people. The festival theme was "open education for the open web," so we had academics in conversation with programmers, mozilla developers in groups with web consultants and high school teachers, etc. I loved being around people who shared a basic commitment yet thought so differently from me. Probably matters that the "industry" of "industry people" here was small-scale (lots of two- and three-person outfits), and I wonder how academics play to others in that crowd, but to me the mix felt easy and un-hierarchized.

At the end of the day, there were feedback sessions where three (articulate, pre-chosen) people gave five minute talks on what they saw/felt/learned, and the MC posed three questions that were easy to answer: who had fun? who learned something? and who's coming back tomorrow?

Monday, November 8, 2010

On Moving

As you know, blogging is new for me. Last week while I was rushing to finish a mind-blowingly long application I sent out a request for post ideas. A new acquaintance of mine suggested discussing moving. Or, more accurately, he suggested discussing the mostly-unspoken pressure to move around to complete various degrees.

Moving is a topic near to my heart... Since beginning my undergraduate degree in 1997 I have moved 18 times. I've lived in North Carolina, British Columbia (island and interior and, for a short time, on a school bus), Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and now Nova Scotia. I've gone to three different universities to obtain my three degrees, took one small year off (hence the BC living), and have happened to move house almost every year for various reasons. Given that I and many of my dear friends and acquaintances are also still on the job market moving is very much on my mind.

But as I mentioned my friend who initially suggested this post had a slightly different angle in mind. He'd been thinking specifically about the pressure to move to a different university to complete your degree. That's something which was really easy for me to do, and less so for him given family obligations. But he's got me thinking: is moving to do your degree necessary?

I always thought so, though in retrospect I'm not certain why. I began my academic career in the United States. I was already accustomed to moving, my parents changed career when I was 10 leading us from Ottawa to rural North Carolina twice a year. So perhaps the itch/ability/inevitability to move was ingrained. But, those of you located in the U.S. of A. will know that it isn't necessary to move this much if you choose to enter academia: the Masters degree is streamed into the PhD process which means that (like the student who received and 'A' on her Emerson paper) students begin the PhD process at age 21 or so (making huge obvious assumptions about going straight through one's degree with no deviations or interruptions called life). Another good friend of mine did this: we began our BA at the same time, she's finished her PhD now, and she's lived in the same place for more than 4 years.

In Canada there does seem to be more pressure to move around to do one's degree. As I say, that's been easy for me in the past because I've almost always been making decisions for myself alone. But I can think of several friends--of various genders--who have agonized about continuing on because it has generally required leaving or uprooting family and partner.

I'm not sure what I think about this imperative--real or implied--to move for various degrees. Certainly that's due in part to the fact it hasn't been an overly agonizing detail for me (although that's changing now). I appreciate the three very different geographic spaces in which I took my degrees: North Carolina and Montreal and Alberta have surprising similarities in addition to the myriad of obvious differences. I have become extremely adept at starting over. But is it necessary to move?

Your turn readers: what do you think about the pressure (implied or overt) to move for various degrees?

Friday, November 5, 2010

If I May Be So Bold ...

How valuable is your scholarship? How much do your ideas contribute to knowledge about the world, about one small part of it, about the small part of it concerned with Milton's poetics? Are you an expert?

Try this (say it with me): "My work has value; my ideas are interesting and my research is thorough. I know my field very well. My ideas add something new to the conversation. I am an expert on [X]."

Was that really hard? Awkward? Maybe, in fact, actually painful?

I work in contemporary digital media studies--stuff like blogs, and Twitter, and Facebook, and YouTube, and media design. Issues I research are in the news all. the. time. And in the news, there's always some professor opining on privacy in the digital age, on social media in municipal political campaigns, on 'kids these days' and their dumbass online behaviours. Usually, that professor is someone who is not me, and you can ask my husband what I do when I see this: there's usually a smacking of the newspaper page, a shout of "I read that guy!", and then briefly "why why why don't they call me?" which is immediately followed by (can you see this coming?) ...

I'm not worthy. My scholarship is lame and no one reads it. I'm not important enough. I'm dumb. I should just quit right now and crawl in a hole and eat some worms and then self-flagellate.


I was listening this summer to Brooke Gladstone interview new media scholar and pundit Clay Shirky on On The Media on the question of the lack of women doing precisely these kinds of interviews in popular media [transcript here!]. He said this: "Women put each other forward, men put women forward, men put themselves forward. Women never put themselves forward" for media notice.

Then he said this: "I think the concern for how other people think about you is one of the sources of essentially work paralysis among women [....] One of the big skills is to be able to do what you want to do without caring what other people think."

I've been thinking really hard about this for a couple of months now. Earlier this week, screwing up my courage, I wrote an email to a national radio show and told them that they should put me on their [virtual] Rolodex. I told them that my work was innovative and valuable and that I'm fun to talk to and that I have skills at making scholarship interesting to a general audience.

Then I blamed Clay Shirky for my forwardness, in a kind of cop-out. Because it made my skin crawl to be so forward.

You know what? They emailed me back within two hours, told me they're always looking for better gender representation (remember, I work on digital media). They said they'll call. They thanked me for reaching out. They thanked me. I almost passed out.

That was really hard to do. And it's hard to even tell you about it, because I feel like a self-aggrandizing jerk. I feel I will be judged, as Brooke Gladstone suggested to Shirky, like women tend to be: "[You] have to acknowledge the fact that when women put themselves out there, they're called 'biatches.' The word 'shrill' is applied to them. They are not called 'leaders.' They are not called 'strong.'"

Do you hide your light under a bushel, dear reader? Maybe you work on cycle plays, and there's not a lot of media calls for that. But when the university is looking for someone to participate in a lecture series in honour of a big anniversary, do you put yourself forward? When you get something published, do you make sure your colleagues know? Maybe there's a brag-board in your department: are you on it? Or more simply, when someone asks you about your work, do you tell them your big idea, or do you tell them everything you think is wrong or inadequate about it?

Increasingly, I think, this is a world in which good things come to people who go out and get them. Toiling in obscurity hoping to one day have your obscure labours rewarded or even simply recognized is ... well, it's not likely. Talking yourself down in the hope that someone might correct you is a self-defeating strategy.

Maybe you don't want to be on TV, or interviewed on the radio. I understand my dreams of a total takeover of CBC, one talking-head interview at a time, are perhaps not universally shared. But I'm sure you do want your work to be read, to have an impact. Otherwise, why do it at all? Is there something you can do to make that impact more likely, to shine your light for all to see?

If we can't talk ourselves aggressively up, do you think we might manage to stop talking ourselves down?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Motherhood, Childcare, and Academia

As tears welled up in my eyes, my newly hired nanny quietly asked what was wrong. “I’m going to find it hard,” I replied. I was about to start a new academic job after 18 months of maternity leave with my three year old and my one year old twins. As I looked up, I saw that my nanny was also teary-eyed. “I miss my three kids too,” she said. A wave of emotion flooded over me, including feelings of guilt for my privileged position. Here I was, about to leave my three little ones with my new nanny and travel 150 kms back and forth to and from work. Here she was, about to look after my children, thousands of miles away from her home in the Philippines. She wouldn’t see her own children for a full two years. What a crazy world, I thought. But I took the leap of faith. The next day I drove to work. My nanny started her care for my kids. And that was the start of a difficult but wonderful thing.

It was one of a series of moments of letting go that I think are essential to the kind of motherhood that I endorse: the kind in which children are cared for not by a “mother” but by “mothers,” including fathers who take on traditionally more motherly roles. Over five years ago, as a new mother, I sat in a mom’s group, listening and sharing. Many of the women complained about how they, not their husbands, did most of the work in housekeeping and caring for their newborn. A good place, I suppose, to vent such frustrations. What bothered me, though, was that while these moms voiced their complaints, they clearly weren’t willing to hand over primary care-giving responsibilities. They were hovering over their husbands, demonstrating how to hold, how to feed, how to rock the baby. Not me. If I wanted an equal partnership both in careering and in parenting, I believed, I needed actively to make that happen. It’s not easy to walk out the door when your baby is crying and you feel yourself lactating—that physical attachment. But it’s necessary. And to this day, I’m amazed at how my husband can soothe our kids. I have a real respect for how he parents, and it’s because it’s his way, not my way.

Working with a nanny involves a balance between making sure your own important parenting values are expressed and brought forth and having faith in both your nanny and your children. For instance, I’ve had serious discussions with my nanny: “too much TV is not acceptable”; “processed foods and sugar are not the be-all-and-end-all.” Cultural differences are of no small significance. I’ll never forget the look on my nanny’s face when she first saw my husband and I drinking water straight out of the tap. Evidently, she had never lived in a place with such clean water.

One day, after a few months on the job, I came home to find my nanny telling me how much she and my children had bonded. She was reiterating little details of the day, so upbeat and happy, and I could tell that she really loved them. Jealously reigned and I heard myself reply to her gruffly. But ultimately, I knew it was a good thing. I knew that I needed to let my children really have more than one mother. We are two mothering women: one working and living for the dream of bringing her family to Canada; the other working and living for the dream of being both a mother and a career-woman. My husband is building his own career while also not hesitating to engage in what is typically deemed “women’s work.”

Having a nanny and an involved husband has relieved me—to a certain extent—from what Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman call “The Second Shift”: coming home from a day of work to an evening of housework. Freedom from housework also results in more time with my kids. But it’s still a crazy and very busy life.

We mothers need to share the care-giving responsibility in order to have equality in the home and at work. This may seem obvious, but clearly it’s not a done deal. Here are some statistics for your contemplation.

Tenured Faculty Married with Children: Women, 44%, Men, 70%
Tenured Faculty Other Family Configurations: Women, 56%, Men, 30%

The Road to the Ph.D, Tenure, and Beyond:
  • Women with babies 28% less likely than women without babies to enter a tenure track position.
  • Women married 21% less likely than single women to enter a tenure track position
  • Women 27% less likely than men to become an associate professor
  • Women 20% less likely than men to become a full professor within 16 years
Women Fast-Track Professionals with Babies, by Age:
  • Doctors: 27% have babies between age 32 and 37 (the height)
  • Lawyers: 25% have babies at age 32, going down to 20% at age 35 (the height)
  • Tenured Faculty: 18% have babies between age 32 and age 36 (the height)
Note: having babies at all other ages for these professions is pretty rare, at between 5% and 10%. Of the three “fast tracks” mentioned here, women tenured faculty are the least likely to have children.

(Stats gathered in California and discussed in Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers, by Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman.)

By Laura Davis

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Toward a less laughable PhD in the Humanities

OK, it's agreed: graduate students are not witless naives and deans are not brutal cynics. But what is it about the structure of graduate school that makes both of those roles recognizable? I want to pick up where Erin's Monday post and its thoughtful comments leave off, and offer a few ideas for making our graduate programs better.

When you think about the kind of work we academics actually do (solving problems, organizing complex tasks, coaching and mentoring, reading, writing, teaching, learning), it sounds, as Erin points out, like a socially valuable kind of critical thinking. I don't object to bringing people into a PhD program and telling them, up front, that the job market's tough: it's not my place to police other people's passions, and the last thing I want is to sit on an admissions committee saying, "You want to know more? You're not done 'learning'? You have a curiosity that can't be sated? No and again no: this program is for people with a well wrought, externally funded doctoral project!" Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say.

But I do find it unethical to bring people into a program that trains them in unnecessarily narrow ways for a job market that doesn't exist.

When doctoral students in the humanities drop out of Canadian PhD programs (and, incidentally, they take on average eight years to quit - roughly the same length of time as it takes to complete the degree), funding is part of the story. But it's one in a longish list of reasons, most of which are well within our power to change. According to the CAGS survey published in 2003 (old now, but still the most recent material published by CAGS and, to my knowledge, anyone else in Canada), students cite the following as their reasons for not finishing the PhD:
  1. insufficient funding
  2. lack of constructive supervision
  3. inappropriate program design
  4. academic isolation
  5. too extensive a scope for the thesis
  6. lack of readiness for graduate school.
Funding is tough, though it has improved markedly (and, yes, unevenly) in the last seven years. #6, lack of readiness, is similarly hard to remedy - grad students sometimes surprise themselves, their families and their admissions committees by discovering they're not cut out for grad school after all. So I'd like to bracket those two factors in order to ask whether we can't address the middle issues.

Lack of constructive supervisi0n/too big a scope for the thesis: It seems to me that these are part of the same issue, because a well supervised student should not be pursuing too big a thesis topic. What does that mean, "well supervised"? Should we pre-assign supervisors/advisors/mentors or let students find their own way? How often should we meet with students? for how long? What does it look like to work "together" on a grant proposal?: it's normal in some disciplines for supervisors to essentially write the student's proposal, and it's not unheard of in others for supervisors to refuse to read a draft. Where do we draw our lines? What about reading a thesis: should we hold out for complete chapters or read "chunks" in draft form? When students don't want to meet, should we push them? What about when they're not writing (and don't want to talk about it)? What's the optimal use of a supervisory committee? Is our single-supervisor model the best one? Should a single supervisory model work for everyone? Should a single supervisory model work for the same student over time? I don't necessarily have answers to these questions (though you know me, I have opinions): but I would like to hear frank conversations about them, conversations that include new and experienced supervisors, new, experienced and recently completed graduate students, and academic administrators.

Inappropriate program design: We say a PhD is four years long, we increasingly fund for three, and yet ... and yet students take anywhere from five to nine years to finish most PhDs in the Humanities. Why? Is it possible that requirements have accreted? - that we added professional expectations like conference presentations and publishing without eliminating anything else (like coursework or language requirements)? Is it possible that something qualitative about doctoral work has changed (see next point)? Are exams the best way of marking milestones? Should we have coursework at all? Defenses? Theses? Is the way "we" did it, back in the twentieth century, the way students should pursue doctoral studies today? What about Erin's suggestion of coop programs, pedagogical commons? Or what if we organized around skills instead of areas/documents? In short, how long should a PhD program be, and what, ideally, should it look like?

Academic isolation: "Go to your room, and don't come out until you have a finished thesis!" Wait, no, that's not what we say. We say, "Congratulations on passing your candidacy exam! Now you have time to think, time you'll never have again, time I never have. Treasure these months: this is the best time of your life. Now, go to your room, and don't come out until you have a finished thesis. Oh, incidentally: make it the first draft of a monograph." And so we banish students to an utterly (well, often) structureless environment where they can watch each rent day come - and go - and come again, while they agonize in silence over a task they a) don't necessarily understand, b) can't simply think their way through, and c) haven't been equipped for, what with our programs' emphasis on short-term projects (coursework) and performances (exams). My question: is this the way to produce the kind of colleagues we want?

I don't think these are simple issues, and I don't think they have simple answers. Each has a material component I have glossed over too readily here (for instance: more office space = less isolation). I respect that some of my colleagues find the sole-authored disciplinary monograph a satisfying intellectual life. But I wonder about prescribing it for others, for everybody. If Deborah Rhode's recent stat - and I'm sorry, I'm writing this post far away from my library and cannot look this up - that upwards of 90% of scholarly monographs are never even borrowed from the library, let alone cited, I just think we oughta ask whether the monograph-style dissertation is still the sine qua non of doctoral education. Above all I want to acknowledge here that we don't really know how to change graduate education, and homo academicus hates not to know. Still, just because it's not known doesn't mean it can't be known.

Should PhD programs in the Humanities be small? I'm not convinced they should.
I'm not at all comfortable with a future that assumes all PhDs are in applied and medical sciences ('cause you can bet that Engineering is not closing the barn door anytime soon). More to the point, I'm not convinced that I want to give up on the vision of advanced study in the humanities - province, after all, of human life and the imagination, language, history, and our conceptual orientation to the world through time and across space. Call me crazy, but these things seem to me ... what's the word ... indispensable.

So I'm for rethinking the doctoral degree in a way that makes it broad, rationalized, useful (to students, to society, to the profession) and complete-able in under four years. Who's in?

Monday, November 1, 2010

So You've Got a PhD in the Humanities...

As usual I've been spending a (good) portion of my Sunday working, and one of my tasks for the weekend is to write this post. After soliciting suggestions from friends and colleagues (thank you!) and thinking about that humorous little video that made the rounds last week I've decided to weigh in on making fun of the profession.

I'm not the first to do this, nor is it the first time I've done so. The first time I was given an opportunity to think about the ups and downs (to put it mildly) of the profession was on a panel hosted by the Professional Concerns Committee at ACCUTE this spring. Likewise, many of the commenters here have been thinking gamely about the pros and cons of "So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities" and the responses have been varied. The reason I'm wading in again though has directly to do with a conversation I had with a graduate student friend of mine last week. "After I finished watching that video and laughing I felt kind of ill," she admitted.

Before I get there though, let me recap in case you've been living under a wi-fi-free rock or don't feel like spending four minutes of your life watching this: xtranormal.com is a site where you can type in dialogue and make your own film. In this particular little gem a young woman (blonde, with vaguely hipster glasses) comes in and speaks to a female Dean about getting a letter of reference for graduate school. What follows is a hilarious--if uncomfortable--exchange. The student blithely asks for references because she has "brilliant thoughts about death in literature" while the Dean attempts (with increasing acerbity) to alert the student to the, ahem, difficulties of attaining a permanent job in the profession.

Ok, it IS funny. And often bang-on. But there are several things that give me cause for concern. I'm going to skip over the fact that this is a conversation between two women (unpaid emotional work?), the fact that it conflates the position of a (female) Dean with the office-sharing, salary-realities of an adjunct, and instead think about dissing the profession versus restructuring the profession. And yes, this is both blue-sky thinking (defiantly so, as it is cold and rainy in Halifax today), and devastatingly earnest. That's just how I roll.

While I am reluctant to advocate honing business-like skills such as PR (possibly because I desire to live a life of the mind? Sigh.) one of the dangers of simply trotting out the admittedly myriads of inequities and labour abuses that can and do happen in this profession is that they become the central focus. I wasn't a cheerleader, but it seems that there is something in celebrating what we do well. I teach in an English department. Among many, many other crucial skills, we do a heck of a job teaching students about critical thinking. How might we productively celebrate (ok, and advertise) what it is that our specific disciplines do well? I realize that I'm focussing on the Humanities and Social Sciences here, but I'm sure this can be shifted to be a useful thought exercise across disciplinary lines.

Here's another issue: I noticed that the people who were predominantly most reluctant to laugh at this video were not the folks on the Dean's side of the desk. They were folks like me (contract workers) or graduate students or undergraduates. What kind of message are we sending to ourselves and to the future if we don't also start thinking about how to repackage--and I mean fundamentally repackage--what we do (or at least how we explain what we do, because I hold to the belief that there is much that is being done very well indeed).

And so back, obliquely, to the conversation that I had with my graduate student friend, who was concerned that there was no point and felt ill after watching the video.

Why did she feel sick? Because she's in the profession--or at least trying to be--and so am I. We're both pretty acutely aware of how difficult it is to get a permanent job, and I at least am viscerally aware of what that job looks like if you ever get to the other side of the desk (however temporarily) so my question is this: How might we think and act positively about the game without getting inextricably mired in its increasingly corporate structure?

For starters, give yourself a pat on the back for reading this blog: we're engaging in community building here.

Here's another thought, what about (more) co-op programmes in the Humanities?

Perhaps a commons for the exchange of pedagogical strategies?

Other thoughts?