Friday, December 16, 2011

Coats on the floor, the wine's over there: Department parties

By the time Friday afternoon landed on my lap, the party had 60 or so confirmed attendees. The department holiday party. At my house. And from my rough estimation--necessarily rough because some people, sighted by my husband in our very living room, came and went without me ever pushing through the crush to get to them--it seems like they all came.

I love the department holiday party. I have always loved these affairs, from the very first one I attended nervously as a Masters student, to the first one I attended nervously as a PhD student, to the first one I attended nervously as a new Assistant Professor, all the way to the ones I now (nervously, natch) host.

The tally:
  • 24 empty bottles of wine
  • 18 empty bottles of beer
  • 5 king cans, hidden under the dining room table
  • 4 bags of ice
  • 2 trays of sushi
  • 2 vegetable platter
  • 1 tray of sweets
  • 1 cheese platter
  • 2 boxes of Carr's water crackers
  • 4 bowls of cheesies
  • 3 ramekins of homemade nuts-and-bolts
  • 1 Christmas cactus
  • 1 pointsettia
  • 2 hostess gifts of cookies
  • 1 daughter in a taffeta dress offering one cheesie to each incoming guest
  • 0 edible leftovers of any kind
  • untold amounts of shortbread ground into the floor
  • vast amounts of wine spilled: on the walls of three rooms, the kitchen cupboards, the floor
  • 15 guests shooed out after midnight
  • 3 leftover mittens
  • 1 lost bicycle light
No Mad Men-style debauch (and thank God) but no stilted junior high school church social either, the holiday party as manifested around here is a real mixer: staff, and faculty, graduate students from all levels and years of study, locals, out-of-towners. Spouses, kids, kids' friends. (Only one sessional instructor this year, though.)

It's the kind of thing, actually, that makes me think about the general segregations of everyday life. About how narrow my own life is, in general, and how much like sticks to like. In playing host to so many different people, I'm aware of doing some ... stretching to make everyone feel at ease, and this reflects on the insularity of my own life rather than on anyone else's awkwardness. I'll find some toys for the two year old, and then, across the room, all of a sudden, a Master's student I taught a required undergraduate course to several years ago. Asking a former chair about his European adventures over the last decade and a half and then joining a conversation among twenty-somethings about long-distance relationships. I'm at a place in my life where I know what daycare costs, what constitutes a good mortgage rate, how to distinguish gins in blind tastings, what it feels like to get older, how to be "appropriate" in company, what's happening in the New York Times and The Guardian. I don't know which are / if there are any good live music venues here. Do people go out dancing? Where? Good, cheap ethnic food? Dunno. Used bookstores? What? What happens after 8pm around this town? I have no idea. What do apartments cost? Bus routes to the grocery store? So parties can lead into new conversations, for everyone. Even meeting colleagues in this context can lead in new directions than might usually be traversed: you experience different conversation prompts while trying to wipe soy sauce off the wall than you do around the committee table waiting for the meeting chair to show up.

One of the great things about a really good party is mixing socially with people who are not exactly like me, and in situations that are not the norm. (I say not exactly, because we were averaging about two degrees in English apiece.) Candles and students and spouses and everyone in their socks and sparkly things / nicer pants.

Long live the holiday party, I say, a bit of fun and magic in a mostly routinized term.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Look Homeward, Angel

Thomas Wolfe's 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel traces the journey of young Eugene Grant as he grows up in a mountain town in North Carolina. I don't love this novel for its literary value (which marks likely the only time I agree with Harold Bloom about anything). It does have a special place in my heart though, and I find myself thinking about it often these days. You see, I'm heading home for the holiday break. Now, while I know this isn't particularly unusual I am feeling particularly sentimental about my journey. As many of you may know, I grew up in North Carolina. Or rather, I grew up between North Carolina and Ontario. I'm originally from Ottawa but when I was a decade or so old my parents made a radical lifestyle change. My father gave up his government job, took over the family business in rural Ontario, and, since the business is a seasonal one, decided that there was no longer a need to shovel snow in the winters. We moved from Ottawa to an antebellum plantation house in rural North Carolina. I'll let you imagine all the culture shock we encountered (and the reciprocal culture shock our neighbours encountered when meeting us!)

I'll be frank: it was a hard move for me. I didn't make friends easily, I didn't feel I ever fit in, I didn't understand the social and cultural mores. I counted the days until we would return to Canada for the summers. Sure, things were easier when I arrived at university in Chapel Hill. There were simply more people, more chances to be myself without feeling I was under a microscope. But, when it came time to figure out what to do with my life, while all my friends were moving to San Francisco or New York or Chicago I came back to Canada. I'm not sure why, it just seemed like the right decision for me. Nostalgia? Rose coloured glasses? Yes and yes, but there was also something more. A sense that I hadn't really given my Canadian self a chance to know what that meant.

I haven't had much chance to go back home to North Carolina. For one thing, my parents still run the family business. It is a little lodge that my paternal grandparents opened in 1928 in Miners' Bay, Ontario. Logistically it is far easier and far more affordable to go visit them there. But there's something else behind my infrequent trips south of what a good friend once dubbed the muffin-biscuit line. Despite or in spite of all my conflicted and complex feelings about North Carolina I feel fond....and I worry that things will be different (or that they wont be different). No matter how much I move to find myself, no matter how much I move for the degrees, or for the job, for  me looking homeward is a transnational journey bound up in all kinds of emotion. And you know what? I'm looking forward to going home. I'm looking forward to showing my partner where I grew up, and I can't wait to see old friends, eat some hoop cheese at the Warrenton Hardware Cafe, and maybe hear some music at Cherry Hill where the curtains are older than the angel statue in the cemetery in Hendersonville that is said to have inspired Wolfe.

So in the name of nostalgia, loved ones, rest, and celebration here's my mom's recipe for Shoo Fly Pie. Mom is from Pennsylvania Dutch country, so be forewarned that this isn't a southern recipe per se. Take care dear Readers, see you in the New Year.

Shoo Fly Pie

3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter or vegan shortening (I use Earth Balance)
1 cup molasses
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Oil and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan (mom says two pie plates work also)

Mix together the flour, sugar, and butter OR vegan shortening so that they crumb. I use my hands, mom says I shouldn't because it warms the butter. The consistency should be crumby and crumbly. Remove 1 cup worth and set aside for topping.

In another bowl combine the molasses, boiling water, and baking soda. Be prepared for the fizzing you might remember from volcano experiments in elementary school.

Combine the 2 cups of dry mixture with the wet mixture. Mix thoroughly. Pour into baking pan and crumble leftover dry mixture on top. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Eat warm with soy ice cream (or regular--whatever works for you).


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guest Post: The first time, for the third time


My first-year is almost over. Again.

I'm 25 years old, and I'm in first year again - in a different field of study, but at the same campus as my last degree. This is my 7th year in a university. Reading this post by Aimée made me want to reflect on my years since leaving home for the Ivory towers, and my development as both a student and as a person. 
My "real" first year was in 2004, where I was a bewildered West Coast transplant on a university campus in a smallish town in Ontario. That year was too new and too over-stimulating to reflect upon. I remember learning how to make mac and cheese for the first time in a residence kitchen, going on my first awkward date with an engineer, and going to a Finnegan’s Wake reading group and not understanding a thing.

I was in first year again in 2008, starting my Master's degree in a new city and a new campus.  That time, I was no longer a naive teenager not knowing how to do basic adult things. But I felt overwhelmed in a different sense - from knowing my professors intimately to having trouble connecting to a new group, from the comfort of a small anglophone town to the foreign "city" where most people spoke in a language and accent I couldn't fathom.

This time? I feel so much better - albeit still a bit unsettled as first years tend to be. The law program at McGill presents factors that appear contradictory and a little disorienting as a result. I'm now pursuing a degree that is kind of like a post-graduate degree (many people already hold Bachelor's, Master's, and some even PhDs) but not (in its designation as a "bachelor's" and the presence of post-CEGEP students pursuing their first university degree). It's two degrees at once, purporting to be "transsystemic" that is meant to teach you about two legal systems in one program. It's a bilingual degree where "bilingualism" really means "passive" bilingualism where you don't have to express yourself in the other language.
Being a first year again meant pushing myself to limits and places I hadn't been to before. Pushing myself to work the hardest I've ever done in many, many years - yes, even harder than that Master's. Pushing myself to write multiple drafts when I only wanted to stop at the first one. Pushing myself to read one more article on a topic I didn't understand when I wanted to stop. Pushing myself to do the French reading when I wanted to copy-pasted it into Google Translate or look at past summaries. Pushing myself to talk to strangers at minglers, and pushing through the first few seconds of awkwardness.

It's also been about allowing myself to feel imperfect and uncomfortable. Allowing myself to feel lost in concepts and feel overwhelmed by so many Latin phrases. Allowing myself to make mistakes in my writing, subsequently see the weakness in my writing - yes, writing! for this English major! - and address them as best as I can. Allowing myself to admit that I don't know, that I am no longer in control. Allowing myself to accept the results that were not always the best. Allowing myself to close my book and watch an episode of Boardwalk Empire or go to the gym even though I had not finished my readings. And allowing myself to still see my friends without too much guilt - there is never no guilt - because it is important to be a good person that makes me feel whole, rather than focusing too much on being a good student.
Sometimes it's a little bit of both - allowing myself to feel disappointed, frustrated, but also pushing myself through those feelings to a better place.

Last month, I finished my first pieces of first-year legal writing assignments, and felt the anxiety of doing something I had never done before. It's always an interesting experience - telling your brain to think and organize in a different way, to orient your thoughts in a way that you had never thought possible.
I'm studying for my first set of law school exams - and my first exams in 3 years. I am making coherent study notes of everything I've read instead of banging out a 20-page paper and reading a ton of Judith Butler. I go through the daily grind of stressing over the information I have not yet mastered, and procrastinating over Facebook and Globe and Mail browsing for something - anything! - more interesting than my own notes. But then I feel the moments of joy when I finally "get" something, when I can check off a month's worth of notes off as having been reviewed.

So all in all, first year for the third time feels pretty good.

Rosel Kim

Monday, December 5, 2011

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Actually, the Future Looks Bright


Many of us who are in teaching or administrative positions worry often and worry vocally about the future of the profession. On Friday when I had the distinct privilege of chairing a panel at the Honours Colloquium I received a lovely gift: reprieve from worry.



Meet Kaarina Mikalson, Katherine Wooler, and Kristen Flood.

All three of these women will finish their BA degrees this year. On Friday they each presented twenty-minute conference papers on one of the several concurrent sessions of the Undergraduate Honours Colloquium. Kristen’s paper, entitled “Re-Writing Systems of Communication,” which performs a close critical reading of Erin Moure’s O Resplandor, considers the role of translation as a readerly role. In ““Reaching to the Very Corners of the Night,” Kaarina read’s Anne Carson’s Nox as a critical edition of grief. In her presentation, “evolve” Katherine demonstrated her inventive, non-linear editing strategy, which she employed to create a mini digital critical edition of some of bpNichol’s poetry. After their presentations every question the audience posed was prefaced with an acknowledgement of the incredibly high-caliber of critical thinking in all of the papers. As the panelists answered questions they engaged each other’s papers as well as discussing their own.

I left the panel feeling proud, excited, and a wee bit better about the future. When I reached the atrium where all the Colloquium participants and faculty were gathered to celebrate I heard from my colleagues that this intellectual generosity was present in each of the sessions. Bravo students!


This past Friday Aimée asked what your sugarplum visions entail. Take a peek in the comments section, you will see that some readers are pragmatic, others are fantastic, and still others mesh the ‘will’ with the ‘wish’ and imagine wild, wonderful, and restful breaks. I found myself thinking about my own sugarplum vision, especially after the lively conversations we have been having here at Hook & Eye regarding the future of the profession. I have imagined jobs for everyone! Academic freedom! Curricular and administrative reform! I have imagined how wonderful it would be if we could stop worrying about breaking hearts and breaking banks and just start living the life of the mind. I didn’t come up with any solutions—I’m tired too—but it was fun to let my mind wander enthusiastically down the aisles of idealism without pulling on its little leash and dragging it back to the land of reality, pragmatism, and grading. I thought about my wish list for the profession all day on Friday, all day until I went to chair a panel at the Dalhousie English Undergraduate Honours Colloquium, that is. Sure, the profession needs a mighty intervention and a great deal of work, but after seeing these students present their work and share their incredible ideas I was reminded again that this is work worth doing, not only for the present, but also—especially—for the future.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Visions of sugarplums

I have another post in me about training PhD students, but I just can't do it right now. Right now, I'm so dumb I left my yoga mat (My $100 Manduka Pro special edition black cherry mat that I would rush back into a burning building to save) at the yoga studio. I'm so tired that it's 9pm as I write this and I can't wait to go to sleep.

To sleep. To sleep and perchance to dream. It's early December, it's late in the term, and the sugarplum visions--you know, the ones that begin with me submitting a tidy spreadsheet of grades to the Registrar--well, they're dancing in my head.

I swear, it's only the daydreaming that gets me through this final slog of final essays. My students were all so relieved to hand them all in--their work is done. Now mine ... doesn't begin, of course, because it began that first day of class in September, but continues for another week or so of solitary, thankless grading.

My daydreams are simple: filled-in spreadsheets, time to read a novel, staying in my pyjamas, doing some Christmas shopping, drinking a leisurely latte with a friend without laptops taking up the entire table between us. Of having a little more patience in the morning with my family because I"m not gearing up for class. Of sleeping a little more soundly because I'm not worried about the handout / the lesson plan / the computer podium key and where I may have put it.

Many of the graduate students I interact with talk of Christmas breaks full of reading ahead, of thesis projects started, of daunting paperwork addressed. That's the wrong attitude, I think. Term is hard. It's long and intense if you're taking courses, or teaching them, or studying for comps or preparing a thesis proposal, or if you're writing, or especially if you're on the job market. Take a break.

Do something selfish and decadent, even if that means something as simple as watching TV in the morning, or as elaborate as leaving town for sunny, warm climes.

My sugarplum visions include slipper socks and staring at the lights on my tree, mug of Holiday Tea in a Santa mug in hand.

What do yours look like?

Oo-err. Even my computer is *tired*

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

After the PhD job and before the next job: An LTA’s response to a modest proposal for the PhD


Let me begin by thanking my co-blogger: Aimée’s post has garnered more hits and more conversation than any of our posts in the last year! We average between one to three hundred views per post, yet as I write this “A Modest Proposal for the PhD” has almost 2,500 views. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this post struck a chord!

I have spent the last few days thinking about how to respond to this post in a way that both acknowledges the limitations my friend has set for herself  opens the conversation further. As I see it, this is a post predominantly about current or soon-to-be PhD students, which is also addressed to the faculty-administrators shaping, mentoring, and managing graduate programs. Excellent! These are issues that need to be addressed, and they are clearly ones people want to talk about. However, as a limited term appointee, I don’t fit into either of those categories despite being connected to them both. 

I’m entering the conversation with a ‘Yes, and’ frame of mind. As a limited term appointee who looks like a faculty member, acts like a faculty member, and yet is decidedly not a faculty member, I feel compelled to say in response to the very sound advice offered to PhD students and faculty ‘yes, reform how you run graduate programs; yes, treat the PhD like a job, and don’t forget about those of us who did all of those things and remain in tenuous positions.’ In other words, what follows are some of the thoughts I’ve had in response to  Aimée’s post.

The Funding Conundrum:
Is funding important? Yes. Is it problematic? Definitely.

I had the very good fortune of winning a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in the second year of my PhD. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, as we all know, but it was enough for me to live on. I also received small scholarships from my university and, as was the case in Alberta (though not as far as I know in Nova Scotia where I now teach), I was the recipient of what were called Graduate Teaching Stipends. This meant that, as a PhD Candidate, I was paid substantially more than a sessional lecturer with a PhD in hand. Was I aware that this was problematic? Sure, but I happily took the money because I knew it allowed me to teach less and write more. And write I did. I wrote—or worked on writing (researching, reading, editing, fretting)—between 8-9 hours a day six days a week. And when I finished my dissertation and taught as a sessional for several thousand dollars less than I made when I was a student, I was prepared for the shift in pay scale. The extra stipend helped me finish my dissertation, just as it was meant to do.

But funding alone doesn’t guarantee timely completion. Indeed, I was one of the students with the lowest funding in my incoming cohort of PhD students. Having little to no funding for my first year was a huge motivating factor for me (read: I was terrified). For some students, having a massive amount of funding relieves the pressure of a timely completion, while for others it ensures timely completion. So, while I certainly think it is crucial to consider funding very carefully for all the reasons Aimée suggests (no guarantee of a job, crushing debt load), having funding in hand is only part of the equation. Faculty need to continue to make funding agencies and the government accountable for deciding what projects get funded and why. 

What happens after the PhD? Or, when should I jump ship?

As Aimée writes and as others echo in the commentary, if you want a PhD you should do one, and you should go into it with open eyes. Yes, people change jobs all  the time, and the PhD is just one discrete part of your life…

But! For those of us who have completed the PhD and are in  sessional or LTA positions, the situation becomes a little more complicated. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I did not receive postdoctoral funding despite submitting every year I was eligible. Should I, or any PhD, have quit at that point? Maybe. But I didn’t, and neither did many of my peers. And now I’m in a position where I live contract-to-contract and work to compete for the few jobs that come up. Do I think about transitioning out of academia? You bet I do. Have I found the time to come up with a viable plan B? Not yet.

I have the great good fortune—and I mean that genuinely—to have landed in a department where my colleagues treat me as, well, their colleague. I go to department meetings, I teach courses, I supervise honours students, and this year I will be teaching a graduate course as well as supervising graduate students. All of these things are wonderful for my CV, and I want to do them because I love this job. However, I work approximately 90 hours/week. I work on weekends. I work this much because in addition to teaching 3-4 courses per semester I am also trying to keep my CV competitive. I’m competing against those folks who did are coming right out of their PhD, I’m competing with peers who have done one (or more) postdoctoral fellowships, and in this climate I’m also competing against faculty who are already on the tenure track and want to change universities. I’m not complaining here, but I do know that unless I keep up this breakneck pace I’m going to fall behind. As is every other sessional and LTA instructor who is still applying for long-term work.

My point is this: as several of you have noted in the comments section, these conversations about restructuring the PhD are necessary starting points. As we continue in our crucial dialogue, let’s please not forget to include those people who have made the choice to complete a PhD and, in some cases, to treat it like a job, yet remain on the margins of the profession.

Let’s keep this conversation going. Administrators, PhD students, MA students, undergrads, send us your thoughts in a post. We’d be happy to publish continued commentary!

Friday, November 25, 2011

The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD

Part one: an institutional shell game.

One of the absurdities of the contemporary university is this: at the same time that those of us firmly held in the tight embrace of tenured institutional belong begin to really acknowledge that most of our PhD students are not going to become professors, we same tightly embraced tenured people are being actively pushed ("incentivized," I think, is the jargon for this) to increase the numbers of graduate students we enrol.

The math here is complicated. Which is to say, I don't quite understand it, but it tends to the effect that graduate students in all areas are profit-making for the institution. There's a net gain to the university for each grad we enrol, and a bigger cumulative gain if we enrol a certain biggish 'target' number.

I begin to suspect that like the users of Facebook and like the audience of broadcast television, graduate students are the product of the institution rather than its consumers (forget apprentices). Facebook and TV sell their users for advertising revenue. And the university? From what I can tell, over and above the reputation points we gain for having PhD students around generally, and beyond whatever measure of glamour or power that accrues to individual supervisors for having acolytes, the university 'sells' graduate enrolments to the provincial government for incentive money. I think. Like I say, the math is complicated.

I am developing some ethical concerns here.

Part two: when do you break their hearts?

Many of us tell many others of us to stop admitting graduate students to our programs: there are already too many graduates without jobs! (By 'jobs,' we only ever really seem to mean 'tenure-track professorships'.) The debt loads are crushing! You'll be 40 and unemployed, living in a basement, teaching remedial composition to part time phys ed majors for approximately 40 cents an hour. Students, though, still clamour to come. They have big ideas (like I had) and dreams of the life of the mind (like I had).

We've already discussed here (and others have discussed elsewhere) what to do about this disjuncture. So you want to get a PhD in the humanities? Ha! But then, every one who sits in a chair in an office with SSHRC reference forms in hand and grad applications piling up can't say that it's impossible: we did it, right? I actually get to live my life of the mind with my big ideas and it's pretty sweet. But no tenure for you!

Many of them--many of you--want to keep coming, regardless of the dire warnings. Many of us--me!--are uncomfortable either squashing the grad school dream or nurturing it. I mean, I love the big ideas the graduate students bring to the seminar table, the office hours, the committee meetings. But I don't want to see anyone disenchanted, disillusioned, broke and in despair after they graduate. Or, God help us, dragging their degree out for a decade to hold on to the pittance of one teaching assignment per term, gripping the life of the mind by the fingernails.

What to do? I have yet more ethical concerns telling potential grad students not to follow their dreams and their interests.

Part three: a modest proposal

If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don't put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain't how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it's a low paying job, but that's okay, because you really enjoy it. If you're not going to enjoy this time, if you're not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don't do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that's a recipe for misery, all round.

People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it's a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You'll write a book-length study of your own devising. You'll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you'll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn't last forever.

The sticking point in my plan is that you have to make enough money to live on. The real tragedy of grad school, often, is that students are so invested in the idea that are apprenticing into a well-paid professorial gig that they consider grad school an investment in future earnings--so it's okay to take on debt, sometimes a lot of it, like law students or medical students do.

That's not okay, actually. Don't go to grad school unless you can live on your stipend. It's absolutely not worth taking on debt for. Debt will limit your options once the degree is done. Debt will embitter you. Debt will make you desperate. Let me be perfectly clear: if you consider the PhD a job (as I'm suggesting to) don't go unless they pay you.

Go if you think the PhD is a job you will enjoy for the amount of time you do it. Prepare for a number of different job scenarios that will arise when you finish. Maybe you will become a professor, but probably, you won't: prepare for the next stage of your life, post-degree, accordingly. You don't 'waste' your time in a job just because you ultimately change jobs. But we often think of the PhD as a waste if we don't get a particular kind of next job, or if we've gone into catastrophic levels of debt to pursue it, or put off things in our lives (like having a family, or moving out of our parents' homes) to get the degree. In those circumstances, a PhD might be a waste. Approach it like a low-paying, highly-rewarding, short-term job, though, and you can see more clearly to do a real cost-benefit analysis before you begin.

Is that offensive? I don't think this kind of pragmatism is incompatible with ideals: please, follow your passion! But the reward for that passion and its pursuit is going to be a dissertation well-written--I can pretty much assure you the reward is not going to be a tenure-track job. Don't let that reality stop you from coming if you really want a PhD, and I would absolutely encourage you to come if you're happy to live on your stipend for five years and then move on to something else.

That, I think, is an ethical approach to graduate studies.

What do you think?

Monday, November 21, 2011

For Students: Some Reflections on Recent Events

It is hard to be a teacher in November. The grading seems never-ending. The strange emails from students who have not been in class since September start trickling in. Research deadlines for the semester creep closer and closer. And there are still two and a half weeks worth of lectures to be written. Oh yes, and did I mention the grading? But recent and ongoing events have reminded me once again that these are small (albeit pressing) parts of my job as a teacher. There are global lessons to be learned. They are unfolding before our eyes, and they are being taught to us by students.

Like many of you I have spent the weekend watching in horror as students sitting in peaceful protest on the ground are sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. I have watched as professors stand with their students in peaceful protest, and I have watched as they too are thrown to the ground. I have read one of the most powerful examples of speaking truth to power in Assistant Professor Nathan Brown's open letter to University of California Davis Chancellor Linda PB Katehi calling for her resignation. And when that Chancellor finally left the safe confines of her office I have watched as hundreds of students employ the powerful tool of silence. I have watched this all from my computer screen in my home in Canada where on November 10th police were called onto the campus of my alma mater and pepper sprayed students who were in peaceful protest against tuition hikes.

I have been enraged by these occurrences. I have been disheartened. I have been moved to tears. But most importantly, I have been moved. 

Sure, some of those students who demonstrated incredible restraint while Chancellor Katehi walked to her car have handed in late assignments, skipped class, or sent emails signed 'respond ASAP!' Or not. No doubt some of the students on the McGill campus sit in the back of class and text throughout lectures. What I mean here is that these are not perfect people; they are people whose lives are affected by policies, economies, and now by pepper spray.

As Cathy N. Davidson and others suggest, those of us who teach in the university space have a responsibility to our students that extends beyond coming to class prepared with well written and well conceived lectures.What I am saying moreover is this: there is a profound connection between standing in front of students in a classroom and standing beside students on political and ethical grounds. It is a connection I am going to work harder to remember as I walk into the classroom, and as I manoeuvre through the minutiae. We occupy positions of relative power, even those of us in sessional or part-time positions. We owe it to our students to let them know that we support them, that we care about their issues, and that we will stand with them in protest against injustice.

We owe it to them. We owe it to the future we want to occupy.

__________________________________________________
Thanks to TVM, MJH, and MRE. Thanks to Judith T. for telling me she was also moved.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What's your passion? And what are you good at?

I think we need a boast post--well, I think I might need one, because this week, it feels like the voices in my head are doing nothing but complaining and pointing out my flaws ("I hate grading! I'm an idiot for assigning all this writing! I'm actively getting stupid because I never get to read anything! I'm a terrible researcher! I'm inherently unserious and immature! Why is the office 18 degrees? Where's my scarf and fingerless gloves? Wah!").

Instead of getting lost in awful minutiae of the end of term, I thought I'd come back to first principles. I'm thinking about the passion that brought me here, and the skills that allow me to shine, in my own way at least. Because that's what keeps me going.

I'm passionate about reading. All the time. I think, at this point, I've got all the ads on the bus memorized, for example. This morning, I read all the text on the box from which I removed a new bar of soap. So I should be happy, and I guess I am, that I have so much in front of me to read. I really am excited to read my students' papers (but not to grade them). I'm excited to read the textbook (but not to prep my class). I am always excited to read material in my field in a new book, or an article. My biggest passion, beyond just simply reading all the time, is for my field: honestly, I just keep finding more and more to be fascinated with in computing culture. When I started, the world wide web had just been invented, and I wanted to understand how people came to understand computers as personal machines. Ha! And now there's so, so very much more to think about and I get so excited I start to talk really fast when I even consider it.

So my passions still drive me as much as they ever did.

And what am I good at? It's hard to remember now when I feel so beaten down by meetings I don't feel well-enough prepared for, by grading piles that don't ever get any smaller, by research that is so completely not writing itself now. Hm. Well, I'm funny. My students in their evaluation always seem to remark on how I can make even boring stuff kind of fun and I think that should count for something, shouldn't it? A spoonful of sugar, and all that? Man, my prep might not be as thorough in late November as it was in September, but, dammit, at least I've got the personality and the wit to really sell it. So. I'm good at being funny.

Here's something funny, a little gift from me to you: my husband and I were walking in from Amazingly Distant Parking Lot when we came upon this. There's something very late-November-y about it, which might resonate with many of you. Enjoy:

video


Huh. Okay. Now I'm feeling a little better about life. I'm chuckling out loud right now, just like in the video, at that poor stuck squirrel.

Anyhow.

Maybe a little pause to consider what you're passionate about, and what you're really good at can help you get through term, too: maybe slam poetry rocks your universe; maybe your skill is giving compassionate extensions to stressed out students; maybe you can't get enough of literature in translation and have an uncanny ability to plan meetings that have solid agendas and always end early. I'd LOVE to hear about it.

Please! Tell me the passion that keeps you going through this November slog, and one thing you're good at that makes it all a little easier. Let's all cheer each other, and cheer each other up.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Post: The Feminist Teenager

“Mom, did you know women are objectified?” asked my fifteen-year old son, as I picked him up from school. In spite of more than ten years of experience fielding my children’s questions as I am driving, I still narrowly avoided hitting the car in front of me. Ignoring my frazzled demeanor, and in typical teenage fashion, my son continued to ask more questions, as well as give me his opinions, regarding women’s lack of access to education and resources. I had to smile as he expressed earnest concern for the plight of women in general, reiterating his original question, and wondering if I, “as a woman, Mom” had been a victim of men’s oppression. It is important to note, at this point, that this is the young man who up until a few months ago had gone to see the latest Transformers movie as much for the robots as for the Victoria Secret model starring in it. This is also the teenager who spends time with his friends rating women in terms of hotness factors, and whose daily lexicon increasingly includes words like “beautiful” and “sexy.” Imagine then my surprise, to hear him use words like “patriarchy” and “feminism”, and to hear him debate the merits of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Our conversation took place during his first week in high school when his grade ten Social Studies teacher decided to begin a curriculum focused on globalization with an introduction to feminism. A bold move on her part, and one for which I, as a mother and a post-secondary instructor, am personally grateful. It is easy to track some our children’s more tangential milestones, but it is harder to discern the growth of their moral character. As parents, we always wonder if our children are absorbing some of our perspectives on life. Are we nurturing open-minded, non-judgmental individuals? Are we raising both genders to believe in equal access and equal opportunities? As a mother, I can track my children’s physical growth, but it is only through these conversations that I get glimpses of the complex human beings they are becoming.

I learned that my son was shocked when the teacher asked how many students had mothers with post-secondary degrees, and in a class of thirty-five students, only five students raised their hands. It was gratifying to learn that my son not only understood these gender differences, but could also be disturbed by them. He found it hard to understand these statistics, as he is surrounded by women who value education. He has aunts with PhDs, MBAs, and various Bachelor degrees. He has a sister and several female cousins currently working towards university degrees. On the other side of the gender equation, my son has seen his father take care of him while I have been away at conferences, working, or studying. My husband never refers to this task as babysitting, being on “mom duty’, or doing women’s work, as some of his male friends do. Even though the gender boundary lines are sometimes negotiable, our children know that our roles as family caregivers, parents, and providers are interchangeable.

This high school class on feminism also reminded me that as academics, we sometimes bash secondary school educators by dismissing their efforts and viewing their pedagogical knowledge as inferior to our own. We forget that it is often great high school teachers who have set us on the path we are now treading. I owe a debt of gratitude to them, and now to this Social Studies teacher who is molding the students I will be teaching three years from now. As a result of her efforts, these young adults will not be intimidated by courses that have “women” or “feminism” in the title or description. These are the students who will choose to take courses on gender studies, and who will come to our classes eager to join in on the conversation. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Lourdes Arciniega, PhD Candidate. University of Calgary

Monday, November 14, 2011

Both/And? Neither/Nor? More notes from LTA Land

This week I have had the luxury of a four day weekend, or rather I have had four days in a row where I have been able to focus on work. What's more, I've been happy to hunker down in my little flat making pot after pot of tea and work chip away at the monstrous To Do list that haunts my every waking moment. Not since I was an MA student living alone with neither roommates nor partner have I had such a solitary and focussed weekend. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't--couldn't--work like this all weekend every weekend, but this was a rare and welcomed gift of time + space + focus = productivity. Amazing!

Looking at my list made me feel a little dizzy, and it reminded me that those of us in non-tenured spaces occupy a both/and/neither/nor kind of limbo. Let me show you my list to explain what I mean:

To Do:
-write three reference letters for students applying for SSHRC
-complete a job application
-write a guest lecture for a graduate course
-write two lectures for Monday's classes
-work on article (due December 1st)
-work on grant application (due December 2)
-edit CFP for a co-organized conference
-grade midterms
-tinker away at building/learning to build my website
-write blog post

Phew. Alright, aside from being lengthy this list has required me to code switch every time I move to another item. For example, writing reference letters for students is a privilege (alright, yes, and difficult and time consuming), a kind of paying it forward for the future of the profession. I have to admit it is odd sitting in my office chatting with a fourth year student about job prospect...for both of us. Sure, I'm on one side of the desk and the student is on the other, but I have made no secret of the fact I'm not in a permanent position. It is interesting, scary, thought provoking, and oddly a kind of relief to have students come into my office wondering how my job search is going, or asking if my contract has been renewed. I am both a faculty member and on the job market. I am neither a faculty member nor a sessional. It isn't a bad thing, this living the slash, but it is vertigo inducing sometimes. Oh yes, and tiring.*

I defended my PhD in 2008, this is my fourth academic year in a teaching position. My first year out I taught four courses in the fall, four courses in the winter, and two courses in the spring. My second year out I arrives at Dalhousie where I taught three-three-and-one. I did the same schedule last year. This year I have a bit of a reprieve from teaching (which I love, by the way. I love teaching) in that this term I'm teaching two courses. Next term I'll be in the classroom for four course equivalents and supervising graduate students. The following year is anybody's guess.

Now don't get me wrong. Life is good. Even without being in a permanent position I'm beginning to see a bit of what Heather calls the J-Curve (thank goodness). I love where I am, I love teaching, and I'm managing to get some research accomplished. But keeping all those balls in the air is difficult, and every now and then I remember that one day--maybe--the stress of job insecurity will pass. Or maybe it wont. As Bethany Nowviskie, Lee Skallerup Bessette, Afshan Jafar and others have written not only is the institution changing, the demographics of the people teaching and researching are changing. That's exciting, but it is also scary. It is a challenge to those of us in less secure positions to not give up, and it is also a challenge to those in secure positions (or more relatively secure--and I'd count myself more relatively secure than others) to keep working to make the institution work for the people, not necessarily vice versa.

Thanks to all of you readers who make that community of critically minded forward thinkers palpable on a regular basis.

And for all of you on the job market/doing sessional work or in limited and conditional limited term appointments: Courage! I see you!
___________________________________________________
*Though yes, I feel a bit silly talking about being tired when it is mid-November and we are all tired. Nonetheless I trust you get the spirit of the post. 


Friday, November 11, 2011

University life in all its stages

Time is collapsing all around me.

I am grading first year papers, and as I sometimes do, I dug out one of my papers from first year--from, holy crap, 1992! And I read it. And was transported back into that smart aleck self I was then, all piss and vinegar and not much knowledge at all. It was a paper on "To His Coy Mistress" wherein I expressed surprise that literature could be witty. (Yeah. I was that kid. Let me just apologize to all my teachers ...) The paper both sounded like me and did not sound like me ... and was in Courier font, because my prof didn't like computers. When I put the paper down and blinked up at the sunshine in my campus office I was totally discombobulated. The shift from 1992 to 2011 happened in that glance up from the paper. How did this happen to me?

We are hiring a new junior colleague in my field (digital media studies! Please apply!) and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I am not, actually, junior any more. I've been here seven and a half years; I got my PhD in 2004. I was imagining that we would be hiring ... I don't know, someone from my cohort? But I won't even be a generational peer of my new colleague. I'm not the fresh thinking any more; I am one of those who will benefit from the infusion of someone else's fresh blood into the body of the department. Amazing!

In my digital life writing class, my grad students have all had to produce personal blogs. As I read through those, the lives they articulate are both startlingly familiar and achingly remote. Grad student experiences are eternal and timeless, and while those experiences are part of my experiences, my history, it's not really my story any more. I'm mostly through my existential crises, my big moves to new cities, my basement apartments and groaning bookshelves whose tomes were assigned to me by others. How did 1998 get so far away from me without my really knowing it? Most of my friends are closer to 50 than they are to 30.

My oldest nephew is in grade 11: his mother and I are taking him back to our alma mater this weekend, for campus day. He spent the first two years of his life on that campus. We're going to retrace our steps, only this time instead of handing him in his slippery nylon snowsuit back and forth as we try to find a spot to eat that's not in the smoking section, he'll be busy fending off the hugs of my five year old daughter while his mother and I can't stop remarking on the things that have changed, and the things that haven't. My nephew is full of excitement, amazed to discover that university classes don't run every day, from 9:00 until 3:00, and that he gets to pick them all himself. That there will be classes with hundreds of people in them. The freedom and the responsibility.

One of my colleagues is retiring. There's going to be a party, with speeches. His kids have moved away, and he and his wife have sold their big old house with the beautiful gardens and the pocket doors and are renting something, until they figure out what they want to do next. He seems quite happy to be walking away. Amazing.

This is my twentieth year in university. More and more of my life is anchored to these places, these schedules, these routines. Orange and brown decor, brutalist architecture, the rhythms of academic semesters. Meal plans, parking woes, and backpacks. Thousands of 18 year olds, bookshelves everywhere, and hyper-literate conversation. This has all stayed mostly the same, but I guess I've been changing all along, right?

This is not a lament, no. I'm happier now and here than, really, I've ever been. I guess it's just that circumstances lately have brought home to me that even if I'm not going anywhere, everything is still moving forward. Amazing.