Monday, January 31, 2011

Against Alienation

I’m hoping that my students skip class on February the second.

I’ll admit that this is an unusual statement for me, for though I don’t keep attendance sheets (too much work) I do notice when students aren’t in class. So help me, ill advised as it may be, I even take it personally sometimes. But Wednesday of this week will be an exception; Wednesday is the Nova Scotia-wide Student Day of Action to protest tuition hikes and looming budget cuts to education in this province.

I teach at a university that has the (somewhat misleading) reputation as one of the most expensive undergraduate degree in Canada. The pros and cons of tuition costs here at Dal were even addressed as a central portion of the new faculty orientation I attended last year. One of the central issues discussed was the declining number of Nova Scotians who are attending postsecondary schools. Now I'm no policy maker, and as I've mentioned numerous times I am relatively new to the region, so I can't profess expertise in understanding long term goals of institutions, or even population trends. But I am deeply troubled by the O'Neill report.

There are a lot of problems with university systems in general, no surprise there. No surprise that there’s a disconnect between bureaucrats and educators, either. There are many of my colleagues working in administrative capacities to make the university a more equitable and accessible place, and there are many of us classrooms employing consciousness-raising techniques as tools for teaching literary and social analysis. Often though it seems like an uphill battle, like the chasm between policy and practice is, well, huge.

So what must it feel like for students? I find myself wondering about how many students will attend the day of action; I worry that they might already feel alienated from the institution to which they, their families, or their futures will pay so much money. Especially here in the Maritimes where student debt is the highest in the country. Moreover, while tuition in Canada does not yet guarantee the decades of debt that an American degree almost inevitably ensures so many, do we really want to use that as an excuse not to speak out?

I'm going to take some time to let my students know about the Day of Action and encourage them to speak up on their own behalf. It is too easy to feel as though change is inaccessible. Too often I find myself being subsumed by that very sense of alienation that Marx outlined more than a century and a half ago. And there’s certainly no lack of evidence that universities are more than kissing cousins with corporations. All the more reason to create space for positive, critically engaged discourse. All the more reason to peacefully demand that one space designated for this discourse—the university—is not rendered inaccessible or inoperable.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

This post brought to you by DayQuil, and Netflix

I've got the flu. Last night I went to bed under three duvets, with a hot Magic Bag at my feet, shivering uncontrollably. My hip joints hurt so badly I'd stuffed a big bolster under my knees. Lying thus flat-ish on my back, I clawed my sweaty hands into the guest room / sick room sheets while repeating my new mantra, "Don't barf ... Don't ... barf ..." (The anti-fever and anti-cough medicines always make me very nauseated.)

My eyeballs hurt.

So I'm calling in sick. This 'call,' of course, is purely rhetorical: I'm a professor on a non-teaching term, who on earth is there to call who would care? What I mean to say is this: I'm not going to do any work until I feel better, or at least, considerably less terrible than I feel now.

I have, in the past, appalled family and colleagues by dragging myself into work with a cough to rattle the doors in their frames, a pallor to make Robert Pattinson look tan, and a voice like Paul Robeson. (I'd like to keep the voice.) Why go in? Why spread my germs around, a martyr to a futile cause? Who can participated in a meeting, let alone teach, grade, or, Heaven Forfend! attempt research with a blazing sinus infection / the flu / walking pneumonia.

No one.

It could be a newfound maturity, or maybe it's just exhaustion, but I think the academy can get along fine without my email replies for a day or two, or even three if this flu is as bad as everyone says. My research is not going to advance any for my fevered mistyped rantings on social media and autobiography, less still by my pitiful attempts at holding up a printout to read.

Who said I was so indispensable to ... The Institution or The Life Of The Mind that I have to pretend to work when I am clearly not fit?

No one.

And yet, I'm sure I'm not the only one to 'work' while sick, or to feel awful for cancelling a class to hallucinate at home. Where did we all pick that up?

Forget it. From now on, when I'm sick, I'm sick, and I'm not getting out of my bathrobe until I'm well, or until it starts to smell too bad, or until I drop a glob of jam in the sleeve (okay, that last one happened today, and to be honest, I'm not ready to get out of the bathrobe yet).

Zzzzz.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You're on .... whose side?

Some time ago, an external evaluator turned me down for something, and it fell to my Chair - a wonderful administrator, a compassionate person and a good feminist - to explain it. "This person is working with you," said my Chair. "There are lots of excellent suggestions for how to improve. This evaluator is on your side."

My eyebrows flew into my hairline, the universal sign for BULLSHIT.

If you caught Madeleine Li's sickening story about being awarded for teaching excellence while being denied tenure, you'll recognize the pattern. Explaining why she didn't chop her book manuscript into stand-alone articles, she writes, "I really wanted the book contract, and was felled by a supportive letter asking me to revise and resubmit. The letter was encouraging but not what I needed."

I bring this up in connection with Erin's Monday post about reading teaching evaluations in a context that recognizes systemic prejudicial assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, age, authority, and competence. It's not just students who evaluate professors. We evaluate each other all the time, too. The question behind this post is, how do we reconcile rigor (or quality, or excellence, or competence) with all of the gendered and raced inequities that we know structure academic work?

The answer is not obvious. On the one hand, of course we care about rigor: we are academics, nobody wants to give the nod to shoddy work. We are probably all familiar with the research on blind auditions for symphony positions. (Simply put: blind auditions resulted in more chairs for women musicians.) We want scholarship to stand on its own, and we would bristle at the suggestion that women academics be held to different standards than men.

On the other hand, we know that women, immigrants, Aboriginals, queers and visible minorities (some of us fit more than one category here, obviously) labour under differential conditions than our male, white, middle-aged, conventionally gendered colleagues. The demands to mentor and model, to lend a helping hand, whether that be to the next generation of scholars or to the community, are greater for some than for others, and these differential workloads result in women taking longer than men to be tenured and, especially, promoted. Don't take my word for it; here's a gem from the latest AAUP publication, The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work:
Men [associate professors] spent seven and a half hours more a week on their research than did women. Even if these differences in research time occurred only during semesters, not during summer or holiday breaks, this would mean that men spent in excess of two hundred more hours on their research each year than women. On the other hand, women associate professors taught an hour more each week than men, mentored an additional two hours a week, and spent nearly five hours more a week on service. This translates to women spending roughly 220 more hours on teaching, mentoring, and service over two semesters than men at that rank.
Whenever I am asked to review a file, I am uncomfortably aware of inequities like these. Uncomfortably aware - yet not at all sure what to do.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What is being (E)valuated?

O, the teaching evaluation.

Often eviscerating, periodically baffling, and sometimes edifying. (OK, always edifying if one can take a step back and read them using some of Tenured Radical's tips) What do teaching evaluations tell us about the institution in which we work? What do they tell us about our students? I daresay the teaching evaluation has something to tell us about the profession of professing that extends beyond a single course (this is something Heather brought up from a different angle some months ago)

Evaluations are on my mind for two pressing reasons: first, it is January, and we’ve just received the evaluations of fall 2010 courses. Second, because I am on the job market and without a dossier service to do it for me, I go through evaluations to select examples for my teaching portfolio. I find myself wondering what the evaluations say about the state of the institution as a whole. Of course, as the representative for the institution, I also find myself trying to interpret what the students are evaluating when they evaluate me.

Sure, my teaching evaluations are, on the whole, pretty good. What I mean by 'good' is this:

-When asked to comment on the “course content and organization,” students generally speak to the texts (whether they liked or disliked them, whether they felt the texts were useful for the course itself). Mostly, they say 'yes,' and generally when there are concerns with the texts the students speak to why they didn't feel the texts were useful.

-When asked to comment on the instructor's success in making the course interesting and intellectually stimulating, they generally speak to just that: my carriage in the classroom, or my ability--or disability--to demonstrate, generate, and sustain intellectually rigorous conversation.

Which is to say that for the most part students respond to the material as well as my efficacy as an instructor. And that's useful for me on a number of levels.

However, things get a little more complicated when asked to comment on any of the instructor's "special qualities" as a teacher (including "specific complaints" and "constructive suggestions"). Here students tend to address my personality and, sometimes, my mode of dress. I suspect that in part the variety of responses may have to do with the way that the question is posed (what makes a quality "special," for example? Is this an earnest or a sarcastic question?) They have commented on my intelligence (or lack there of, in a few stinging cases), my approachability, my inapproachability, my overuse of theoretical language, my over-simplified language, and my shoes. These aren't terrible responses; they are--or can be--edifying, and I'm slowly trying to learn to make use of them rather than take them to heart.

But here's the open secret I find myself returning to each time I think about or read evaluations: some of us statistically rate lower on student evaluations. That would be women and minorities, not to mention women who are minorities of various kinds. shh! Which is to say that while it is sometimes impossible to prove for certain (and other times devastatingly easy to prove) that a given response is based on one's gender or skin tone, or accent, or orientation the fact remains that it *might.* And that's a problem, especially given that evaluations are used for job applications, as well as tenure and promotion. I believe--or want to believe--that members of/in the profession know how to read evaluations. But to what extent does this open secret reflect some deeper issues in the academy?

For me some of these deeper issues include a systematic failure to address inequity, systematic discrimination, and maybe, just maybe, a general failure to talk about these lived realities in a large-scale way that manages not to make them feel like they are someone else's problem. Or worse, that these are “problems” that have been dealt with already.

And further, as Canadian universities continue the move to making student evaluations public (a move that I'm not certain I am against in principle, mind you) to what extent is the gendering and racing of evaluations made a significant part of the conversation? What would it look like to choose to make the communal aspects of the teaching evaluation--that we who teach all get them, that we are being evaluated on our own, but also as representatives (fairly or un-) of what the university looks like--public amongst our colleagues?

So what can I--an instructor who depends on “good” evaluations to get a contract renewal--do to address these fundamentally important issues? I don’t have the power to suggest a systematized teaching evaluation, and frankly the notion of such a thing smacks of over-systemization of public education. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about by way of making some change in the classroom:

-I’ve started introducing course by having the student spend 10 minutes early in the term writing about their values and concerns (I didn’t know about this study until recently, but it would seem I certainly haven’t invented this). The idea here is that they articulate their values to themselves and to me. I work to integrate their values, concerns, etc. into lectures about the material.

-I also have the students set three goals for themselves in the course. This seems to get them thinking about what they want to learn, and it also seems to underscore that this is a collaborative process. Sure, I'm the professor, but I use this exercise to stress that their intellectual participation is vital for a rich, engaged classroom.

-I often do mid-term evaluations of the class.

-I've started talking about my evaluations, for one thing. On a personal level, and as a relatively new member of the department, it helps to hear about other colleagues's experiences. On an institutional level, discussing the form, function, and trends of the evaluation process as a department would get the larger, more trenchant issues into an open discourse.

What strategies do you employ when reading your own evaluations, the evaluations of applicants, or your colleagues? What are your thoughts on making evaluations public? (Don't forget that they kind of already are) And what can we do about interrogating and interpreting the language of the evaluation when it asks, for example, about "special qualities?"

______________________________________

*For a very few of the many examples out there, you can see the CAUT policy on evaluations here (note the caution in part 1), you can see Vanderbilt's large accumulation of data here, a related post about the gender and service here, and for personal perspectives you can read Alfred Young Man on being a Native teacher in Canada here, and a compelling anonymous guest post at University of Venus here

Friday, January 21, 2011

Booooring.

A secret vice of mine? I go once or twice a year to the university bookstore, and browse the English course books section. I want to see the books my colleagues are teaching from, what their courses are about. Very often, I leave the bookstore two or three books the heavier: I particularly love textbooks from areas I'm not really well versed in. They're such a dense, rewarding, and relatively fast way to broaden my range. Yeah, sometimes I slog through the introductory linguistics book two pages by confusing two pages, or the primer on discourse analysis one methodology overview at a time, but my brain shoots sparks as soon as I put the book down, and I can't shut up about the links I'm making between what I've just read and what I already know in the world. I have a whole shelf in my office of textbooks I've never taught from: most of them, I actually bought, just to read them. I just really love textbooks.

So I'm always surprised me when I get my course evaluations: a lot of students, every term, complain that the textbook was boring. In fact, every year, a significant proportion of students make similar comments about the texts I assign, usually textbooks on media theory, or digital media studies, or historical media studies.

They don't find the class boring ('Love the topic! There should be a part two to this course.') and they don't find me boring ('Professor Morrison bringz the LOLs!')--except when I engage the class in close examination of the assigned readings ... from the textbook ('We should spend more time looking at examples on YouTube and less time talking about the textbook').

So. In every class, every term, every level of study. A good chunk of people find the textbook 'boring'.

I'm not sure what to think about this.

It's possible they mean the writing quality. I know (and decry) that certain tendency in academic writing to render passive and dry what might be active and zesty: if a book is boring because it is wordy or pompous or unclear, it's fine to say so, and I'll say it with you. Sometimes, after actually using a book in a course, we all think it's not working. I try something different the next year. That happens. It's possible, too, that a book might be deemed boring because you already know the material. Well, I'm sorry for that: unless you change courses, you're stuck at the pace of everyone else who's never done a history of the English language yet. I've been there.

However, what some of my students (over the years) seem to dislike about these books is more fundamental, and more worrisome. They seem to dislike that textbooks are difficult to read, and difficult to understand, that they are too detailed and too minute in their treatment of their subjects.

I know exactly what I think of this.

The kind of reading that leads to academic learning reading is supposed to be difficult in this way. You are supposed to be pushed intellectually and conceptually by the material. The writing is complex and the chapters dense because the ideas and theories they explain and model are sophisticated and rich. Textbooks are supposed to be full of stuff you don't know or understand: that's where the value is. I read all the same textbooks as my students, but I find them, usually, fascinating--truth be told, every time I assign a new textbook, I learn something new from it.

Academic reading is hard. And hard is not boring when the effort leads to an accomplishment. "Dry" means someone is leaving their synthetic imagination in sleep mode. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, boring is as boring does. Approach your textbook as a readerly text, instead of deriding its failings as a writerly one (and if you don't get the Barthes joke, I have a good textbook for you ...) I guess it's part of my job to make this distinction clear in class, but I'm a little bummed out by the volume and consistency of this opinion, frankly.

What about you? Do you find textbooks boring? Or do you, like me, grab textbooks off the freebie table in the department mail room and bring them to bed with you? How about your students?* What to do? Is this a problem? Am I the problem?** Are textbooks the problem? Students? Should we all just make pedagogical videos on Xtranormal and do away with print?

-----

* I mean, do your students find textbooks boring. Not do you bring them to bed with you. Yikes! 
** Do you know any really good textbooks I can read next? What's your favourite? I know, I know ... I just really love textbooks.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Guest Post: Dressing for a Conference

I know I’m wading into an area where much screen-ink has been spilt in academic/women/fashion blogs, but please indulge me.

I am a fairly new associate professor – I say this because presumably now that I have tenure I could show up in La Senza flannels if I chose, but more importantly, because I feel a certain mid-career obligation to dress for work, whether that means the classroom or a Senate meeting. I confess my personal style is more conservative than fashion-forward – I don’t have a lot of daring when it comes to dressing (e.g., I’m unlikely to mix and match patterns), and my professional persona tends toward the feminine (heels) and classic (tulip skirts). Plus, I’m the coordinator of a multidisciplinary program, and as a junior administrator I feel a degree of responsibility (and a tigress-like protectionism) toward my program to project a certain competence.

I guess all of this is my way of saying that it isn’t much of a surprise that I am -- more often than I would like – appalled by what my colleagues choose to wear, particularly when representing themselves at conferences: the meetings of our professional associations.

I go to conferences a couple of times a year. I like this part of my job, a lot, and consider it a professional perk, rather than an obligation. Last summer I was at the first World Congress of Environmental History, held in Copenhagen. The women from the European organization looked polished and professional: low heels, scarves and shawls, suits of different shapes, enough flair to suggest that continental je ne sais quoi. The Canadian women? At a reception (!) one senior historian was wearing black jeans and white sneakers, another khakis and hiking boots. What, were you thinking the hors d’oeuvres would be served at the end of a ropes course? I’m sure the hiking boots didn’t erode the quality of her paper, but I felt embarrassed on behalf of the Canadian contingent. Really, we’re not right out of the bush; we have telephones in Canada and everything now.

I know it’s unfair: men can travel for three days with a laptop satchel carrying their extra shirt and a toothbrush, whereas I can’t go for three days with less than three pairs of shoes (dress heels, casual flats, and sneakers for a morning walk). And no doubt it’s perpetuating a stereotype to make a fuss; wouldn’t one expect a young woman to care about such things? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s less a gender thing than an age thing. At a conference I was at last week, the young male Ph.D. students looked casual but put-together: argyle sweaters, collared shirts, polished shoes. Well done. Their supervisors looked rumpled and – well, like stereotypical academics. (Incidentally, it’s the younger scholars – not yet protected by tenure, or even employment – who also tend to respect panel time limits.)

But I don’t want to be thought of as a stereotypical academic. (A good, ambitious, accomplished academic, yes.) Are we trying to suggest that we’re too smart to care? That we’re too enmeshed in our research to be burdened by worldly things? However superficial it may be, I unconsciously allot more respect to someone I meet who is dressed as though they respect the venue, the project, and the company. I wholeheartedly believe that what I do – teaching and research – is important, and so just as I dress for the classroom, to indicate respect for the environment, I will dress for a conference as well.

The funny thing is that it’s not hard, or even burdensome. A well-cut suit jacket, even a leather jacket, or a wrap. Tailored pants or a skirt (or for more than two days, both). A sheath dress if you’re lucky (?) enough to attend a conference somewhere warm (like Toronto in 2006, when Congress coincided with a wildcat TTC strike and humidex warnings). A pair of polished, office-appropriate shoes, whether heels or flats. A flash of colour or a signature piece of jewelry as an accent (at this conference last week a colleague wore azure jewelry against an orange jacket – lovely). An overcoat that signals office, not Mountain Co-op.

I shudder to see, among colleagues of either gender:
  • shapeless pieces, like big sweaters, or too-casual tops, like sweatshirts (yes, even the “classy” ones with half-zippered collars).
  • sports jackets that match neither the tie nor the shirt they’re worn with.
  • jeans. For God’s sake. Or men’s go-to favourite, khakis, that have lost all shape.
  • ornate dangly earrings that brush your shoulder – even if you’re “artsy.”
  • sandals, orthotics, or any shoes that could also be worn to the farmers’ market.
  • apart from truly classic shapes, like a sheath dress, anything that’s older than the youngest person in the room (and that could easily mean 1990).
So, please. Dress it up a notch. We’re professionals.

- Claire Campbell
Dalhousie University

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snowed under

There is only one thing on everybody's mind here in Edmonton, and that's the snow. It has snowed, and snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed, virtually nonstop since New Year's. Half a metre in the last ten days, more snow in 24 hours that we got in all of [name your month]: all it does is snow. As snow goes, it's beautiful - light and fluffy, not your east coast cement - but it is undeniably plentiful. Not only is it hard to keep on top of the (ever-diminishing) pathways to the door, but we're increasingly running out of places to put the stuff we shovel. To clear a little here is to pile a little more over there, until boom: avalanche.

Am I the only one who feels like this is a heavy-handed metaphor? We're snowed under outdoors and, chez Dr Zwicker at least, snowed under indoors. There is a tunnel on my desk to match the tunnels to my house. I remember the days of smooth clear surfaces with a kind of disbelief, the same sensation I have when I look at my ranks of capri pants and short-sleeved blouses (why...?). The new normal is that every day you shovel and shovel, and as the newly-shoveled backslides onto the newly-cleared, you realize that the only real solution for this state of affairs is to have started shoveling way, way back - in August, say, or June - when you knew a storm like this was inevitable and you could at least have read the book you have to review, or started that dissertation chapter, or, or, or...

The consolation is that everybody's in the same straits, and if facebook can be believed (and, really, when can't it?), there is a kind of pleasure in sharing this particular misery. Don't think snowed under. Think snowed in.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Holding Pattern

January marks the time of year when I start to feel as though I am in a bit of a holding pattern. Even though it is far too early, now's the time I being to think towards awards announcements (and recall with some horror the extensive amount of work I poured into the many applications I've got out there in the world). Just like airplanes circling above the runway waiting to land, I too get the sense that I'm hovering in a designated space waiting to see where I'm directed.

Whether on the job market or on the quest for academic productivity for me part of entering the winter term means playing the waiting game.

And what a waiting game it is. It seems as though grant results are announced a bit later each year, and while I've been technically on the job market since 2008 I still haven't entirely figured out when to expect an email, letter, or--that holiest of holy grails--a telephone call. Two weeks? Two months?

Rather than wallow in what a friend and colleague calls the "Jebruary blues" I find myself thinking about how to productively channel this anticipatory energy. Given that it is the start of term and I have three classes there's certainly no shortage of stuff that needs to get accomplished. But still, I have a tendency to let my mind wander to the next thing. Its bizarre (though not restricted to this profession) to think thoughts like 'this time next year where will I be?' and have the answer include any number of provinces or even countries.

In addition to working, how does one break out of a mental holding pattern? I mean, there's only so much yoga I can fit into my day...

There are three things that I'm trying to infuse into my 'holding pattern' in an attempt to make that waiting game a fact rather than the focus of my waking hours.

First: I've been writing a little...and not article material either. Well, not yet. Another thing I constantly fret about is my academic productivity. But fretting doesn't seem to get me very far, and there doesn't seem to be a way to squeeze more time into the day, so I've started writing without focus. Free-writing. About a film I've seen, an idea I've had, books I want to read (or parts of books I've read--side note: I've just finished Rancière's The Politics of Aesthetics--what an unexpected pleasure!) I don't know what I'm going to do with this writing--maybe something, maybe nothing--but it feels nice to put fingers to keys or pen to paper and think for a few moments.

Second: I'm reading pedagogical theory. Teaching and lecture writing can consume one's life (can I get a witness?!) BUT it is also the one guarantee in my day. Guaranteed I'll be teaching at least one class, and while I've been doing this for a while I've decided to do a little meta-thinking about how I'm doing and what I'm doing in the classroom.

Third: I'm writing my Monday and Tuesday lectures on Friday. And then on Saturday I'm doing whatever I damn well please. Yes, I know, taking time off is important etc. etc. but it is hard. I've started scheduling it, and you know what? It feels like a lovely surprise.

So there are some of my tricks for breaking up the holding pattern, but I am certain that you have creative, fun, and inventive ways of dealing with Jebruary, so let's hear it readers: when you're in a holding pattern--whether you're a student, on the tenure-track, on the job market, or simply working--how do you break out of the hover?


Friday, January 14, 2011

"Best wishes, AM"

I go by a lot of different names: I'm mommy and mama and maman and sometimes 'mapu' to my daughter; to some of my friends from high school I'm Aim or Cuppy; to my biological dad I was Hopey (while my sister called me Hopeless or Hopey-dopey); my dad and (rarely) my mom call me Hopers; I have a whole set of friends who know me only as Mimi (a different childhood nickname from my elementary years); my university friends from my days at York (and a lot of digital humanists, for historical reasons) call me aimeefreak; my parents sometimes distinguish me (sarcastically) from my sister with the appellation "The Good One"; at my daughter's school and on parent council I'm Madame Morrison; to some francophones I'm Aimée (pr. "emmm-AY); my husband calls me shmoopah or my love or (exasperatedly) A-i-m-e-e-e-e-e-e when I've forgotten to bring his computer in to the shop. On Twitter I'm digiwonk (people call me this when I meet them).

I have nearly as many names as I have roles--even within individual relationships my name shifts from context to context: from breakfast table to date night, from pet name to introduction, from speaking in English to speaking in French, from feeling friendly to feeling angry.

And so at work I have different names, too.

I prefer my undergraduates to call me Dr. Morrison, or Prof. Morrison. I explain that we are in a professional relationship in a particular context that makes this name appropriate. I also explain to them how doctorates and job titles work, and about who is who and what is what in this setting. For me, it comes down to this: my doctorate is what authorizes me to be at the front of the classroom, to push them so hard with reading and testing and talking, to correct their work. My doctorate and my job title indicate what it is I do with my time: the kinds of research, the depth of teaching, the commitment to service to the department, university, profession, and the public. 

It marks, also, my expertise, and I believe in expertise and its recognition: this is perhaps where I become activist, but for me the idea that everyone's 'opinion' is, because authentically representing its author's intent, valuable or right. It's not. I have worked hard to know a lot of about digital media, literature, literary methods, and such: my credentials indicate this hard work, and this achievement. It means my opinions on materials in my field are not just 'opinions' but scholarly judgments. That's important for me, sure, but it's a teaching goal of mine to have my students learn to value expertise--the effort and time and care it takes to really master something. It's not easy to be an expert. Being an expert, or becoming one, is valuable.

(I have to add, too, that my classroom persona is generally very, very silly and from-the-hip; the more formal name counterbalances my levity with some gravitas.)

My graduate students largely seem to have this under control: so I leave it to them what to call me. Some opt for Prof. Morrison (I like that) and some opt for Aimée. I'm fine with that too. 

To my direct colleagues, I'm Aimée. From the dean, I sometimes get letters addressed to "Dr. Morrison" with that name crossed out in pen, and "Aimée" written in above by hand--that's a great compromise between the formality of a letter marking a tenure process milestone, and friendly relationship between colleagues: this salutation has its cake and eats it too. It's a target I'm forever trying to hit.

To colleagues I don't know? Well, I mostly interact with them over email: article submissions, queries about conferences, requests for supervision, administrative stuff like grant proposals. Who am I in those intereactions? I've spent a truly ridiculous amount of time obsessing over how to sign off my emails. Here's what I've come up with.

Best wishes,
AM [more familiar] / Aimée Morrison [less familiar]
---------------------
Aimée Morrison
Assistant Professor
Dept. of English Language and Literature
University of Waterloo

Generally, I'm aiming for friendly, but with a context for you to know who I am and where I'm coming from. If I know my correspondent *at all* I'm usually AM in early writings, and very soon thereafter Aimée. That's when I omit the sig file stuff about my rank and institution.

But when I email students, I'm always "Best wishes, AM": it seems like such a great way to be both human and a little removed; friendly, but with critical distance. Again, the balance.

I'm not too fussed about being 'inconsistent' in what kinds of name options I offer to the different people in my life: so long as there is a reason for a preference, I'm happy to hew to everyone's desired practice. My identity is mutable and context-sensitive; my relationships with others are marked by differing degrees of formality, closeness, power imbalance. I try to find a way for people to address me--and me them--that meets all of our needs for clarity and ease and comfort. It seems reasonable to me that, with respect to what we ask our student to call us, we might easily develop very different practices from one another, that are each valuable and appropriate.

You can call me Aimée, btw--just don't call me late for cocktails.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Me, I'll Answer to Anything

Talk about self-conscious: I walked into day 1 of a class with our blog conversation  still ringing in my ears. I was curious to see whether it would change my practice, but it didn't. I told my students, as I do every year, "Address me using whatever makes you comfortable. I will answer to Dr Zwicker, Professor Zwicker, Heather, or even the time-honored <mumbleskipomit>. What doesn't work so well is Mrs Zwacky." (It's funnier if you say it out loud.)

I am not a casual person, but I am very casual about this. I think it's partly because I have always found institutions, and the academy more than most, mysterious places navigable only by a deep local knowledge that I never seem to possess. It's like I'm stuck on Level One of the big university video game, desperately trying to find the golden key that will unlock all the mysteries. For instance, I am not actually very clear on the distinction between Dr and Professor as modes of address, in spite of scrutinizing Lindy's and Weathering's comments (aha! clues!), which I'm pretty sure is not how I've heard this explained to me before. I do not understand the British academic system At All, and I'm hopeless with titles in Germany. True story: I have only recently figured out the Assistant (nonacademic) and Associate (academic) distinction in named administrative positions. And what did I learn the week after cracking that code?: sometimes Assistant Deans/Provosts/etc can be doctorate-toting academics too. So how are you supposed to know, especially in the context of first-name managerialism?

By first-name managerialism I mean administration with a friendly face, the new-world roll-up-your-shirtsleeves we're-all-in-this-togetherness that makes you feel like you could text yr prez ("Dude! What up with the cuts?"), which is good, but at the same time produces baffling advice like "Oh, you should ask Lois." Um, Lois who? Where does she work? Who is she when she's on email? Yeah, that's right, I'm so dumb I don't know who the hell you mean.

That's one way first-name-ism works, whether consciously or not (and I suspect mostly not): it establishes and enforces power relations. That's not to say it doesn't also work in other ways. In Monday's comments SC refers to the first-name ethos as a democratic impulse, which I agree is one of the things I find among teachers - sorry, instructors: a genuine commitment to leveling the playing field in the name of acquiring knowledge together. I love that.

And it's in fact in keeping with that democratic commitment that I have to say I am not comfortable expecting students to call me either Firstname or Dr/Professor Lastname exclusively. I am sensitive to the issues about authority and I take the points about being proud of your doctorate. But students come to the academy from all over, and in my experience they are mostly doing their best to navigate a mystifying institution where the rules always seem to be in flux. More to the point, I have an allergic reaction to asking students to do what we do not (see "expository essay" vs "critical theory"). Using first names is no shortcut to equality. Likewise, asking students to use academic honorifics when my bosses don't makes me feel uneasily like we are playing at Seventeenth-Century Academy. I can't help thinking we'd be better off texting the prez about the budget.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Doctor is In

Over here on the East Coast we started back to school on the fifth of January, so this week most of my class preparation have involved “Hi my name is Dr. Wunker, welcome to class X.” I give a little spiel about the themes and foci of the given class, talk about aims and objectives, give them a sense of what my teaching style is like, and go over the syllabus in detail. You know, the usual.

Oh yes, and this year I’ve started giving a tiny lecture on email etiquette.

I tell them that email etiquette is as much for me as it is for them. We cover what is appropriate for an email (in my opinion these are: questions that require very brief answers that can’t be found on the syllabus or course website, notifications of illness and other emergencies, requests to set up meetings, other small course-related inquiries) “If it takes me more than five minutes to write you a reply,” I tell them, “we should be having this conversation in person.” Which, I should add, I am very happy to facilitate.

My impulse to nip potential email etiquette issues in the bud comes from both a genuine desire to teach my students that it is now a formal mode of communication and should thus be treated as such (“Yes,” I tell them, “your reader may judge you a wee bit if you skip any salutation and write ‘hey wuz up what did i miss 2day?’”)

This impulse also comes from one my resolutions for the year. Much like Heather, I’m aiming to (continue to) work at making my time away from work just that. Time away from work. No email checking for me after 8pm in general, for example. And I wager that you, dear readers, can commensurate with me when I say I get So. Much. Email.

Anyhow. I expected these Email: Do’s & Don’ts lectures to get a bit of eye-rolling. I tried to strike that balance between humorous and cuttingly frank. I made jokes and gesticulated for emphasis. Everything was going well until I got to the bit about proper salutations.

“Email,” I intoned, “is formal correspondence. Don’t skip the salutation!” I wiggled my eyebrows admonishingly. “Your emails to me should begin with Dr. Wunker, or, if you’re feeling fond, Hello Dr. Wunker or the like.” I told them they should include proper salutations in all formal and semi-formal emails. And then we moved on to talking about the syllabus.

I wondered how this new facet of my hey-nice-to-meet-you lecture would go over, and all seemed just fine. To be frank, I felt pleased with myself. New and proactive measures had been taken on day one! I didn’t expect to hear a group of students talking about me as I walked out of the classroom. The gist of what I heard was this, “Yeah, she seems cool, but I couldn’t believe what a big deal she made over us calling her Dr. I mean, what’s the big deal?”

Let me be quick to say that I feel fervently that what one chooses to be called in the classroom is one of many deeply personal choices that those of us who teach have to make for ourselves. It is an individual decision, absolutely. I chose to go by Dr. because
1) I am one! And even if I never land a tenure-track job, by golly I’m proud of the hard work it took me to earn this title.
2) Having students call me Dr. reminds me I am one. It is a positive reinforcement that, as a new teacher, I wanted.
3) I’m relatively short. I’m a woman. For about five minutes when I started teaching several years ago I kind of could have passed as one of the majority of the undergraduate population (if it was dim lighting…)
Which is to say the choice to go by this title is mine. I have many friends and colleagues who go by their first names: great! To each her own.

But I'm struck by the fact that I have to admit it isn’t the first time I’ve heard (or had written on teaching evaluations, which are otherwise predominantly pretty positive) comments about what I choose to be called in the classroom. They aren’t numerous, these comments, but they do come semi-regularly. So I find myself wondering: what’s wrong with being called Dr.? Or more to the point, what is it about my request to be called Dr. that puts some students on the defensive? Is it my gender? The fact that as soon as I ask to be called Dr. I nullify any cool/easygoing points that might have been awarded me because I have visible tattoos and a nose ring? In short, in the university system, what’s in a name?

I have some ideas, certainly, as do others, but I’d love to talk it out in the comments section. So let me hear from you when you have a moment, readers: have you had issues around your choice of title?

Friday, January 7, 2011

And a Happy New Year, Too

As always, my husband read over the draft of my post before I put it in queue to be published. "Um, Aimée?" he began, delicately, "I think people are going to fight with you."

It might surprise you to know that I have actually written an article on conflict management in personal blogging (under review! At New Media and Society! October 2010!) and that I'm an expert on the building and maintenance of trust relationships online (Volume 4, Issue 2! Cyberpsychology: A Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace!). Because, inadvertently, I started a minor flame war. Now, in the new year, I don't want to rehash or re-light, but to consider the process of how we frame our ideas, and how we can disagree with each other with goodwill.

In hindsight, I can see that including the phrase "wanna make something of it?" in a post title is obviously a little combative, but I imagined that readers would see me as I saw myself, comically swinging my oversized red mittens in useless little circles and saying 'pow! pow!' while dancing about on my tiptoes. And commenters who know me in real life picked up this tone, probably because they know me in real life: that's how I speak, and they have the context for that. (In this category, please include SC, Joanne Wallace, and Claire, as well as, of course, Heather.) To others I can see that the text may read aggressive. That's my bad. Arianna's comment helped clarify that for me, and I appreciate the holiday wishes with which she closed her comment--thank you, Arianna.

Some commenters prompted me to become more subtle in my thinking. Geetabix offered a useful and interesting personal story: thank you for that. Jana distinguishes between individual and institutional practices, in a way I didn't do, and she's right: thanks, Jana. I feel that I have benefited from the thoughtfulness each of you exhibited, and I'm grateful.

Other people outright disagreed with me, but not unpleasantly. SC supports my own practice, while articulating one totally different from it: I appreciate the care that you have used in respecting my position, SC, while disagreeing with it! Thank you, also, to those other readers who couched their negative comments in careful wording: thank you jroselkin for noting that what you read in the post might not be what I have intended, and for noting as well that you mostly like the blog. Jordana did this too. You all modeled a generosity of spirit I want to bring with me into the new year.

Heather, using conflict management strategies I discourse on at some length in my article, deflates the conflict with humour: how do I find time to bake? (Easy: my sister and I do it together--multiple batches of 7 recipes, over one 12 hour day, where her oldest kid minds my only kid.) Claire, too, focused on the baking, probably to cool things down. Humour and re-direction are time-honoured mommy-blogging conflict containment strategies, you should know! We must be becoming a community! Joanne just offered hearty well-wishes, probably to raise my spirits. From my hear, I appreciate the emotional labour you each expended to raise my morale, to maintain relationships and to build community here.

A couple of comments, though, attacked me personally. I have received emails from my friends, commiserating, and asking after my feelings. Let me be perfectly honest here: these comments made me cry. After a couple of weeks of dread whenever a comment popped up in my email, I've regained my equanimity and can only say: ad hominem is a logical fallacy. I would let this go unremarked but this space is really important to me so I ask: does vituperation maybe prevent other readers, perhaps more marginally situated than I am, but members of this community nevertheless, from feeling safe to participate if participating might mean disagreeing with a prevailing view?

In any case, let me close with this: Happy new year to all of you, and best wishes for a continued, various, multivocal conversation here at Hook and Eye. I hope we all feel safe and respected in articulating our ideas and our beliefs: I do. We may not always agree with each other--God, I hope we don't always all agree with each other--but this blog has by and large been a very positive experience for me, and, I hope, for you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolved

So I'm sitting around enjoying my last salary-free furlough day when all of a sudden it hits me: I have to get a blog post together! Already! (Already??)

Time-off time always disorients me (though I adapt to it with startling ease). There's a different pace: the pace of the unemployed, I call it. If you've ever been jobless, or written a dissertation, you know what I'm talking about. You set yourself a clear and manageable task du jour: say, to mail a letter. You get up full of resolve: today's the day I'ma mail that letter! You seal the envelope, find the address. And then you pause. You could just dash down the address, but wouldn't it be so much more professional to word process it? in fact, wouldn't this be a good time to learn to use labels? Absolutely: you've put off learning that 1980s task for long enough! Oh, the chewy satisfaction of that moment when you think you're going to accomplish twice as much as you'd imagined...

Of course, you have no labels. Should you buy some? Maybe, but will that leave you time to mail the letter? Maybe not. Indecision, indecision, indecision. You come tentatively back to Plan A, only you're thrown off your game, so you decide maybe today's not the day to mail that letter after all. It'll keep.

Next day, same resolve - only, having wasted the first letter-mailing day, you're determined to get a jump on it. But first, a shower. And you should have a nutritious breakfast. (Wasn't that one of last year's resolutions?) Then you realize there's probably a line-up at the post office, so you'd be better to wait until after lunch. But after lunch - well, how can you justify leaving the house if you haven't accomplished anything yet?

The letter sits ... and sits ..... and sits ....... and before you know it, the longest semester break in recorded history is over and you have nothing to show for it except a new PB in Angry Birds.

Novels read: 0
Papers written: 0
Moonlit skating dates: 0

Did I see the Natalie Portman movie? Oops. Did I lay in some food for the coming semester? Nope, didn't do that either. Start an exercise regime? clean my desk? crack that grant application? No, no and no.

To be honest, readers, I have no idea what happened to the last two weeks, and for that reason alone - but if you call me on this, I will deny it - I am not unhappy to be heading back to work tomorrow, full of resolve: this year, I will own my time!

PS That letter I promised you? On its way tomorrow. Most definitely. Almost certainly.