Friday, September 30, 2011

What to do with an RA?

I was at a conference this summer, catching up with a colleague and admiring her new iPad, on which she was studiously taking notes. "Thanks," she said, "I just bought it with my grant!" It turns out we both won our very first SSHRC SRGs this year and were wrapping our heads around what it meant to do this research, with tens of new thousands of dollars. We were at something of a loss.

Hm.

I know at my institution we are vigorously prodded, as soon as we arrive, to secure "external funding" for our research. And in the humanities, particularly, we are sometimes skeptical: I myself have asked, "What the hell do I need $50,000 for? I read books and then write articles about them, in my pajamas." But external funding must be sought, for the good of the institution and its reputation. We are also told it is for the good of our students: a SSHRC-funded RA goes for about $15,000 a year, good money and at the disposal of the funding department, amazing! Funding for grad students is often the biggest line item in a humanities SSHRC. 78% of my own SSHRC grant, for example, is straight RA funding.

Now, the problem, fairly common if I am to judge from my hallway conversations in institutions near and far, is "What the hell do I do with a grad student?"

No one teaches us this. As a PhD student, your job is to get it all done, all by yourself, bothering as few people as possible, and on a shoestring budget. And now you have staff? Many of us draw on our own experience of being RAs to cobble something together: photocopying? re-typing someone's book? avoiding hallway run-ins for 8 months and just cashing the cheques? SSHRC stipulates that the work a grad student does shouldn't be simply clerical or menial, but if you're in the humanities it can be really hard to imagine what elements of your research you can offload onto an RA.

I have some ideas, having had three RAs over the past four years. (And let me just thank them right now, for their wonderful work and great patience with my figuring all this out: thanks RC, DM, and LB).

Straight up research:

  • I have my RAs build Zotero databases of research materials, in my general area. They organize all the citations into categories I leave them free to devise. They create keywords and folders, they attach PDFs where they can, snapshots where they can't. I pay them to learn Zotero, and to consult with librarians about where and how to find sources. I could teach them this, but isn't the point to free up my time? We both win from this: they get research training in bibliographic software, and in advanced library work, and hopefully the subject matter is in their area.
  • I have them try to solve specific questions: "I am writing," (I say) "something about the rural/urban digital divide, which I know exists but I need some good, recent sources to back me up." And they find it. So I very rarely now ever go check my own facts while I'm drafting stuff. I'm not making stuff up, I'm just failing to be scrupulously precise while I'm freewriting, and my RAs help me move to the next stage of more careful writing.


Para-research:

  • There is sometimes some filing and photocopying. Not much, though. Some physical bringing stuff to and from the library, ordering interlibrary loans, etc.


Professionalization:

  • I have regular (bi-weekly, usually) meetings with my RAs. We talk about the kinds of tasks involved in scholarly work: journal publication, original research, conference presentation or conference organization, grant applications. By describing as well as modelling the rhythms and processes of scholarship, I hope to demystify them for my RA, as well as get someone to help me.
  • My RA reads my grant applications, both to know what our project is about, and to know what a grant application looks like.
  • Sometimes, I give my RA an early draft of an article or chapter to read: this both helps them know what kind of research I need them to do, and it shows them that first drafts by professional writers are in fact pretty awful misspelled misbegotten poorly conceived simplistic and half-assed things. 
  • At these meetings I also encourage my RA to bring to me any questions they have about their own conferences or research process or journal submission. 


Document preparation:

  • I work in an interdisciplinary field: this is great but one side effect is every goddamned journal has a different referencing system. My RA cleans up / regularizes all my in-text citations/footnotes and reference lists. Untold hours are saved by me this way, and the RA learns that details matter as well as how to do all the systems and how each journal usually has its own style rules and how to find them. 
  • Lately, I've been having my RA be a pair of eyes on my pre-submission work: he or she reads my manuscript and leaves me comments. I explicitly ask to have repetitive phrases flagged, or other quirks pointed out. My RA doesn't change my prose, ever, but does comments in the margins, and then I change stuff.
  • Sometimes, my RA helps with the page-proofs stage: I pretty much have my articles memorized by this point in the process and can very easily miss the kinds of simple typos and errors that the proof-reading stage is meant to check for.


Disciplinary service:

  • My current RA just helped one of my colleagues with a major conference running here, doing up the program and working the registration desk ... and going to talks and meeting people.
  • We're hosting Congress this year, so I imagine there'll be more of that kind of work.


That's pretty much what I've got. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I have to work harder on my research just to generate enough stuff to keep my RA busy, but that's okay. And I really, really like offloading citations, library work, and documents preparation: I always hated that stuff, and now I actually write more because I don't have to do it. I really like getting to know these junior scholars, and collaborating with them: they bring me great stuff, and I hope that some of this work is valuable to them, and that seeing my own scholarship "behind the scenes" is in a way valuable as they become scholars in their own right.

So. It's weird to suddenly have an RA and be a 'boss', but it can be really really helpful to advance the research, and a benefit to the student too.

What do you do with your RA, if you have one? If you were an RA, what did you do? I'd love to hear more about how this arrangement is managed by others.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Faster Feminism Spotlight: CWRC


Guess what? I'm going to Edmonton for the weekend! I'm absolutely thrilled, let me tell you why.

In addition to being able to attend the launch of a new book of essays on feminism in the liberal arts, I'll also be going to another celebration. At the end of this week the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory will have its official launch. I first became involved with the project as a bleary midst-of-dissertation-writing-isolated-library-carrell-dwelling PhD candidate. In one of our meetings my supervisor mentioned that she was going to Edmonton for a colloquium on collaboration. Due perhaps in part to my aforementioned solitary existence my interest was immediately piqued (Oh! Other people!) Of course it helped that I was in the midst of a collaboration project myself, but ultimately I was intrigued by the description of the gathering: there were going to be about two dozen academics in a room together talking about bit ideas and thinking about modes of collaboration in our often solitary profession!

Long story short I asked my supervisor if she would take me with her. I think it was the gutsiest thing I'd done in my academic career to that point. She did (thanks!) and that's where it all began for me, 'it' being my apprenticeship in feminist networking and collaboration.

The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory is a project predicated on--you guessed it--collaboration. It describes itself thusly:

The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory / Le Collaboratoire scientifique des écrits du Canada is an online project designed to enable unprecedented avenues for studying the words that most move people in and about Canada.

And indeed if you take a moment to look at the website you'll find that the collaboratory is just that: collaboration between humanities scholars, digital humanists, and programmers who are all working to create new, innovative, and useful ways for studying Canadian texts. But that's not all.

The project is directed by Susan Brown, an inspiring scholar and innovator whose feminist mentorship benefits many people. When I arrived in Edmonton for the colloquium in 2008 I had met Susan only once (and actually meeting her had everything to do with the piece I wrote for the collection that is launching this weekend). I was the only graduate student in the group, and I was definitely not a digital humanist. In fact, I'm fairly certain that weekend was the first time I'd ever heard about digital humanities, believe it or not. At the time I was unclear of my role--if any--in the project, but I was extremely motivated by a diverse group of people who were coming together to make Something Fantastic.

Fast-forward three years. Though I'm still not what I'd call a digital humanist I've been learning about the extraordinary collaborations that can come from working with folks outside my field. In addition to my research project which I'm carrying out in part through collaboration with CWRC I've also been given the opportunity to lead the Emergent Scholars group. I've mentioned this elsewhere but let me say it again: the Emergent Scholars group aims to support, connect, and collaborate with graduate students, postdocs, sessionals, and new faculty members who are working with Canadian texts in some capacity. We're hoping to facilitate a sustainable research and mentorship network amongst peers so, in the spirit of both shameless self-promotion and getting the word out take a look at this exciting new opportunity and let me know if you have any suggestions. 

If you don't work in Canadian material but are still hankering after some new networking and connection-making opportunities why not take the University of Venus Networking Challenge?

I would love to hear about positive connections you're making.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Outfit Project

I was looking for one of my purses in the back of my closet the other day, and to get to it, I had to dig through the pile of Clothes I Have Been Meaning To Iron. I'm embarrassed to say that pile has sat there for about a year. A year! And in that pile I discovered pants I had forgotten I ever owned. Nice pants! 

It's not really that I have a surfeit of clothes, an obscene Paris Hilton style "dressing room" that's a third bedroom turned into a closet with couches. I don't. I have a converted linen closet in the upstairs hallway. It ain't that big. It's just that I tend to fall into a rut where I wear the same three things all the time.

This is an especially easy trap to fall into in the summer, especially this summer, so ungodly hot that I just picked the very smallest/thinnest/lightest thing to wear and gave up on makeup, accessories, hair dryers. Fashion is not forwarded by a months-long heatwave in which wearing bracelets makes your wrists unbearably sweaty. No.

But it's temperate now. And the Ironing Pile has moved out of the closet and into (of course) the dining room.

It's time. Time to start ... the outfit project.

The outfit project works like this. Don't wear the same outfit to work twice, for as long as you can manage it.

That's "outfit" not "clothes": obviously, there are some pants / skirts / boots / glasses I'm going to rewear, but it's the way to combine them that has to be different. I'm not going to lie to you: I'm wearing my new dark wash straight-leg jeans (the mature woman's skinny jean, I call it) very often, nearly all my non-teaching days. And I've got an adorable pair of grey Camper ankle boots in heavy rotation with said jeans. But it's all different blouses and sweaters and t-shirts and cardigans and shells and necklaces and earrings. Different sunglasses, different purses.

For me, the mental energy I'm (minimally) expending just to not always wear the brown wool pants with the black turtleneck and the orange purse does not, actually feel like the One More Goddamn Thing That's Gonna Push Me Over The Edge. It feels more like something totally different than worrying about remembering my key to the media cabinet or whether I should bring extra syllabi to class or what happened to the coursepack at the bookstore or whether I sent the right permission form to school with my daughter. It feels a little frivolous and selfish in a good way.

Besides, I was feeling bad that this whole chunk of my wardrobe sat untended and unnoticed on the floor of my closet for an entire year. And it gives me a little lift to feel like, at the minimum, I don't look like a hobo.

Do you have a version of the outfit project? Would you do it? I'm kinda having fun with it, and it's nice to focus on something other than My Giant Brain And All The Things It's Not Quite Managing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Everything I needed to know I learned from Tina Fey

Emboldened by the fact that Aimee cited it the other day, I'll admit that the best book I've read this year is Bossypants. Buy it - really! - and read it, in all the spare time academics having starting in the month of September. But just in case you don't get to item #7538 on your to-do list, I'll tell you my favorite bits.
  1. She's unafraid of being powerful, and you should be too. "[E]ver since I have become an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, 'Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?' You know, in that same way they say, 'Gosh, Mr Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?'"
  2. The "yes, and..." rules of improvisation. (Aimee referred to these too.) "THERE ARE NO MISTAKES," this line of performance holds. Hmm. Can this work for us in the academy? I like to think so. When people are going down a road you don't want to travel, agree early and play along. Keep your sentence going long enough that you manage to take the next exit, cross back over the expressway and steer the conversation back to Sanityville.
  3. Her casual references to menstrual experiences: for example, "queasy like when you lose your tampon string." She assumes a readership of women, just like the architects at my university predicted the feminization of the Arts when they built nothing but women's washroo- no, wait, they didn't build any women's bathrooms in the first version of that building. So, it's nice to be interpellated.
  4. Her outfits, especially the electric blue polyester Hillary Clinton power suit that she and her roommate shared.
  5. Do your thing and stop worrying about what other people think. The story is actually about sweet Amy Poehler who, challenged by Famous Male Comic, goes black in the eyes and says, "I don't fucking care if you like it." Even writing this down gives me a little thrill.
  6. She reproduces scripts that show how last-minute some of the changes are. I like to think she's the one winging it at the conference podium. And you know what? She's a genius.
  7. She cries at work. Paramount among the untold true stories of working women's lives has to be the fact that sometimes we cry at work. Exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger - I can't be the only one. Right? Also awesome: she closes her door, has a little cry, and then gets on with her work.
  8. She gets that we want to be liked, and she gets that that's not the point. On dealing with Sarah Palin after the famous skit: "I got some hate mail, and there are definitely people out there who will dislike me for the rest of my life because of 'what I did' to Sarah Palin. On an intellectual level, this doesn't bother me at all. On a human level, I would prefer to be liked. ... You see what I'm getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both."
  9. And finally, something to think about the next time you run out of time to brush your teeth, or show up at the meeting with the wrong notebook, or don't show up to the meeting at all: "Just remember that every person you see on a [magazine] cover has a bra and underwear hanging out a gaping hole in the back. Everyone. Heidi Klum, the Olsen Twins, David Beckham, everybody."
Everybody but you, Tina.

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011

    Guest Post: Pumping on Campus

    Today's post is from recent PhD-graduate Andrea Beverley--her post really struck a chord with me, because when I came back to work five months after my daughter was born, I was pumping breastmilk several times a day at work, for about 6 or 7 months: my main problem was teaching a three hour grad seminar in a far-flung building, and having to pump during the 15 minute class break. Mostly, I had the incalculable luxury of a private office, but I can tell you, it's really never easy to bring this sort of routine into your worklife.

    Thank you so much, Andrea, for sharing this story with us. And congratulations on your degree!

    -------------------

    The first time that I brought my breast pump to school, I had a vague, naïve impression that I would find some kind of cozy, private den in which to extract my breast milk. Reality hit when I spent the better part of my lunch break searching for a spot to pump. The single-person washroom was locked with a sign on the door stating that I needed to apply to the Disabled Students Bureau for a key. I figured I’d set up in a stall in the larger bathroom, but to my dismay, there were no electrical outlets for my electric pump. I wandered over to the library and consulted a librarian at the information desk. She suggested the medical clinic or the nurses’ station (both necessitating a trek to the other side of campus, not to mention the allusion to the medicalisation of maternity, which is a whole other post!). She then offered to reserve one of the library’s group study rooms for me for a 15-minute period. It had an electrical outlet and a door, but a little window beside the door meant that anyone walking by could glance in. Nonetheless, I decided that this was my best option. I hunkered down on the floor with my back against the door as far as possible from the window and tried to visualize my suckling baby so that my milk would let down in this awkward, less-than-ideal spot.

    Over the following months, I developed an efficient pumping routine. I bought batteries so that I wouldn’t need an outlet, and I pumped in a washroom stall while balancing on the toilet. I was very self-conscious about the mechanical noises that the pump made, so I tried to muffle it by wrapping the mechanical part of the pump in a sweater and leaving it in my backpack with only the cord protruding. I wasn’t ashamed of pumping my milk, but I did worry that people would hear the noise, have no idea what it was or a decidedly wrong idea about what it was, and find it laughable or bizarre. I’m still not sure why this bothered me so much. Recently, in one of the washrooms that I had so often used as my pumping station, I heard those familiar sounds emanating from one of the stalls and felt an incredible sense of kinship with that pumping mama!

     In recent years, a number of American campuses have created lactation rooms for nursing mothers and recent health care reform in the U.S. now requires employers to provide “a private, non-bathroom place” to express breast milk. While breastfeeding is considered a human right in Canada and workplaces are expected to accommodate nursing mothers, I couldn’t find much on-line evidence of Canadian campuses designating space for pumping, although the University of Toronto’s Family Care Office offers an list of “private, quiet and comfortable places” around campus where mothers can breastfeed or pump. Do any other campuses address this issue? I would have used a lactation room for sure, had it been conveniently located. But honestly, beyond my own experience, I’m not sure how much demand there would be for such a space, which testifies to the solitude that I experienced in my pumping adventures. I don’t know anyone else who went through the same situation. Profs can use their offices, and students coming to campus for short classes wouldn’t necessarily need to pump during that time. But I was a doctoral student working long days at my (shared) desk space. So this blog post is in part to ask: anyone else have campus breast milk anecdotes to share?

     Andrea Beverley

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Twitterpated


    I wouldn't say I'm a Luddite but lately I have been feeling a little behind the times. Alright, actually I have been feeling quite a bit behind the times for quite a while. Years, really.

    Back when we first launched Hook and Eye we also set up a Twitter account for the blog. The idea was to generate as much presence as possible, naturally. I also set up a personal account. I did this primarily because I needed one to access our Hook and Eye account and tweet from time to time. I tweeted precisely once between September 2010 and spring 2011. Quite frankly, I forgot I had an account...until one day I receive a message notifying me that I had a new follower.

    Curious, and somewhat sheepish, I reintroduced myself to the site. I scrolled through the most popular tweets and searched for people I knew. As it turns out a great majority of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues tweet all the time. Many of you are prolific tweeters! So tell me, what am I missing? In an age where I am (happily, mostly) connected to my smartphone and my laptop for the greater part of the day, an age where I check my various email accounts (personal, professional) regularly and try to keep my various digital presences current and au courant, do I need to consider tweeting as well?

    I know, social media has revolutionary potential. But does it have academic revolutionary potential? In 2007 Clive Thompson posited that Twitter creates social proprioception. I love that hypothesis. I also love the way that constant live updates from colleagues in the profession might change the structure and scope of what we do for the better... I fear digital exhaustion, but I would hate to be missing out on the professional and pedagogical possibilities that new media continues to create.

    Tell me readers, do you use Twitter for professional purposes? Have you used it in a classroom? Is it a truly useful mode of networking, collaborating, and generally forging community? Or is it just another way to procrastinate?

    You can answer me here or--deep breath--@erinwunker

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    "Yes, and": Familyism, Feminism, and Full Participation

    After I wrote about children at a faculty event, reader maepress wondered if this new inclusivity was "familyism" rather than feminism, if it had more to do with shifting generational values, or with dads' greater interest in spending real time with their children and less to do with gender.

    I got to thinking: is "familyism" understood this way distinct from feminism?

    I don't think so. But I thought I'd share my reasoning with you to see what you think.

    First, I think today's feminism is something different from first wave feminism (become recognized as persons) and second wave feminism (gain access to realms of public life previously only open to men, kinds of behaviours previously only open to men). If first wave feminism strategically or earnestly deployed "femininity" to soften the terrifying prospect of extending rights to women, to show it wouldn't turn them into me, it seems to me that a lot of second wave feminism busied itself rejecting "femininity" (and oh, hell yeah, I'm using the scare quotes deliberately ...) as inherently discriminatory in order to win greater autonomy for women: no bras, no babies, no makeup, no housework, so that we can be sexually and economically and psychologically empowered! Both sets of feminists have accomplished huge social good: I like having the vote, and my life would be the poorer in more ways than one if my mother's generation of feminists hadn't pushed so hard for pay equity legislation, for example.

    But.

    As it turns out, some women want to have babies, and most children benefit from present, nurturing parents. Some women like to wear makeup. Some women have no interest in high-power jobs in male-dominated fields like politics. Of course, other women gladly chose lives without children, discard much of the culture of dress and style and feel the freer for it. Some become university presidents.

    And it's feminism that makes all of it possible.

    In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey outlines the rules of improv, and they're excellent rules for life and, I think, for feminism. First, the fundamental principle is "Yes, and"--that is, you take the premise that your improv partner starts from, and you build on it, in a positive way. So if someone points a finger fun at you and yells "Stick 'em up," you don't say, "That's not a gun, that's just your finger."You say ... something like ... um ... "Okay okay geez you can have the last courseware package. I knew letting guns onto college campuses was a bad idea."

    That's my feminism, I think: yes, and.

    For me, feminism has as its aim the assurance that women can participate fully in the world, to have all the options open to them that they wish to pursue, without prejudice: to work, to love, to play, to travel, to be ambitious, to have leisure, to raise children, to live alone. And the world in which that is possible is one where dads are involved with their children, where women in families and women on their own created networks, where it's socially acceptable to eat in a restaurant alone, where we all have real choice and real agency and real support. That party with the children's craft table? I wouldn't have brought my daughter with me unless my husband came too, because I just can't network at the same time as I am gluing foam starts onto foam door hangers. In real ways, I can't be the person I want to be without my husband being a different kind of man than most of our dads were. I can't be the person I want to be without government programs supporting maternity leaves. I can't do it without the unions and faculty associations that have taken women's compensation issues into their purview.

    Perhaps your supports are different: maybe you are not a tenured upper-middle class married white straight woman. Your feminism might include other kinds of equity considerations around race or religion or sexual orientation. But surely, as we all, we women, become ever more integrated in the full complexities of human social life, our supports become more subtle, more diffuse, the battles and hurdles no less daunting but maybe a good bit more individuated and less sweeping.

    I generally resist totalizing statements and blog posts like the one I'm creating here. But a student just asked me last week if it was okay for a feminist to want to get married. I was floored, but this is not an uncommon belief. There's a lot of stuff that still needs work, but we don't all have to march in exactly the same direction, to the beat of exactly the same drum, to cross all those finish lines whose ribbons are still tautly strung.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not a total relativist. I think some kinds of choices are overdetermined and not really 'free', and so I'm not above judging others' behaviours as unfeminist. I am wary of the cooptation of the idea and the ideals of feminism, nicely captured in this Saturday Night Live skit, with Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton, discussing what it means to campaign as a woman on the national stage--read the transcript, it's fantastic.

    For me, familyism is feminism. And single-ism is feminism. If it aims to increase and broaden the kinds of participants and the kinds of participation in the full range of public and private life, well, for me, that's feminism.

    How about you?

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Guest Post: Untold Stories

    Here is a lovely post on blending a personal story into a research project, from Shannon Stunden Bower, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

    -----------------

    So I’ve just published a book. It’s not incredibly long, by the standards of my discipline, but it is long enough, I hope, to be respectable. It is a revised version of my dissertation. I started the PhD in September 2001 and the book was published in June 2011. Even considering I have taken two maternity leaves, each of over a year in length, it’s taken me a while.

    So given the book is fairly long, and given I’ve taken the time to think about what’s in it, why do I feel that some things are missing? That some stories are in my head, still, rather than on the page?

    There is one tale in particular I want to tell. It’s the story that started it all, really. My book is about flooding in southern Manitoba. I grew up in the City of Winnipeg, in a house along the Red River. Yup, that Red River – the one infamous for flooding. My interest in the history of flooding was piqued in 1997, when my family was evacuated during what was called ‘the flood of the century.’ Digging into my family’s history, I discovered this was in fact the second time my father had been forced out of his home. In 1950, during a previous large-scale flood, my grandparents’ house was inundated. My father has a vivid memory of following my strong-willed grandmother down the basement stairs. She took one look around, saw the liquefied coal-dust staining the sodden walls, and declared the family was moving abroad, back to where she was from. And move they did. A few decades later, my father would buy the house I grew up in – the second house he would abandon to floodwater.

    In some sense, my book is an attempt to make sense of my father’s story, which is the story of so many Manitobans. Why have people settled a flood plain? What makes them stay? How have they changed the wet prairie, and how has the wet prairie changed them? But I’ve always shied away from including this personal story in my academic writing. It is not out of a need to protect family privacy. My parents have given me their blessing to write about these things. And it is not like there are no precedents in my disciplines (history and geography) or even in my specific subfields (environmental history and historical geography). For example, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, one of environmental history’s landmark works by one of the subfield’s most important scholars, includes an extensive meditation on the inspiration he took from his family experiences.

    Now, I’m not deluded. I know I’m not Cronon. I suppose I fear what I find charming in the writings of others might come off as silly and self-indulgent in mine. Interestingly, I’ve also shied away from telling my family’s flood story in less formal venues. I am an occasional contributor to The Otter, a group blog in environmental history run by the Network in Canadian History and Environment. During the spring of 2011, which saw significant flooding throughout much of southern Manitoba, I was asked to focus a few posts on the water situation in the province. I had nearly completed a post dealing with my family history when I suddenly hit the brakes, pulled a high-speed u-turn, and generated a more traditional post from a less-personal perspective. I was more or less happy with the two flood-related posts (here and here) I ultimately submitted. But still, neither post was the story I’d been sitting on for so long.

    And so now I’m wondering why I’m deliberately choosing not to tell my family story. By laying all of this before Hook and Eye, I suppose I’m hoping for thoughts on whether there are gendered elements to this issue. Are women scholars more or less likely to include their personal stories in their academic writing? What factors bear on decisions to tell such tales or to keep them quiet?

    And thanks, by the way, for letting me tell my little family story. Finally.

    Shannon Stunden Bower

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011

    Guest Post: How to start a professional development group for academic women

    A very useful and inspiring guest post, from Bonnie Kaserman, on 10 Things to Consider when starting a professional development group for academic women. Who doesn't love a neatly organized list at the beginning of term? Particularly one that helps us support one another more effectively?

    (Also, I love the reminder that food motivates people. Oh, yes, it's true! I'll bring the bean dip!)

    ----------------

    Have you been thinking about starting up a group to support the academic women on your campus?

    Yes, you’ll be busy as the school year starts in earnest. Overwhelmed. But, at least in my experience, having a community to meet and talk about gender in the academy can be one of the most invigorating and sustaining aspects of academic life. Since the late 1990s, I’ve been involved in groups that support women in my discipline of Geography. (For example, see C-SWIG). Our monthly meetings are part-professional development and part emotional support. Here are a few tidbits that I’ve gleaned along the way to get a group going and keep it going:


    1. Start your group at the beginning of fall term. You think, “We’ll start something after the rush at the beginning of term.” But the truth is, life only gets more hectic. Get the ball rolling early and establish the group as part of everyone’s regular schedule.
    2. Decide on membership. Who will be in this group? Undergrads, graduate students, post-docs, faculty? Is your group exclusive to women? It’s important to have space exclusively for those who self-identify as women, but you must weigh the political ramifications of doing so. Also, with people coming and going from institutions, consider how the group’s membership will be sustained from year to year.
    3. Consider affiliating your group with your university. Funding may be sparse these days, but if your group can be considered an official student group, you may be able to apply for university funding. Use those dollars to fund guest speakers or to help fund members’ travel for conferences.
    4. Share the responsibilities. Women are often assigned time-sucking social responsibilities in their departments and at their institutions. Make an agreement about how responsibilities (facilitating a meeting, choosing readings, organizing an event, etc.) will be shared amongst group members.
    5. Establish a website and a listserv. Agree upon a mission statement and sets of goals. Also, when is your next meeting? What is the topic? What resources do you want to share? The website will serve as the group’s public face as well as the group’s archive of meetings and activities.
    6. Meet regularly and vary when you meet. Meeting once a month has worked well for our group, and, in order to accommodate so many schedules, we vary the weeknight when we meet. Keep meetings from being a burden by having a set meeting-end time. Be diligent and unapologetic about ending the meeting. Also, have each member bring a snack to share. Food = attendance.
    7. Have focused meeting topics and consider assigned readings. Have one topic per meeting and pair it with a short reading or two (as in: you can read them on the bus on the way to the meeting). Readings help to ground the group in that discussion and help to connect personal experiences to larger sets of practices. Read about academic mentoring, gender & race in academe, work-life, and classroom dynamics. Keep in mind that once the group gets going that returning members need new dialogue. Readings along with different topics help with keeping ideas and strategies fresh.
    8. Teach members about creating online presence and emerging online technologies. Remember: who learns new online technologies is uneven. Teach each other and seek out university resource staff who may be willing to guide your group in these endeavors. Also, share knowledge about appropriate software, such as Omeka and Zotero.
    9. Discuss confidentiality. Depending on the kinds of discussion your group is having, you may want to open your meetings with a reminder about building trust. “Safe” spaces and supportive environments are different.
    10. Activist activities. My group has primarily focused on small interventions in our everyday lives as academics. Small interventions can make a huge impact. At the same time, what about working together to influence a change in policy at the departmental or university level? Or making a change at the disciplinary level by connecting with other like-minded groups within your discipline’s national or international organization. Having formal impact can help to sustain a group.
    Bonnie Kaserman

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Faster Feminism Spotlight: Helene Vosters

    I've been inspired, in part by our own mandate of faster feminism (itself inspired), in part by our friends at University of Venus who recently posed a networking challenge, and in part by good old feminist networking. In the name of inspiration, connection, networking, and getting the word out, I'll be doing periodic Faster Feminism Spotlights. The aim of these spotlights is to shine them on folks doing the positive and often provocative work of inspiration.

    I was first introduced to Helene Vosters's work in one of those weird and serendipitous moments of connectivity. After giving a paper from my current research--something I'm calling the Collapsible Commons--several audience members did me the kindness of asking Real Questions. You know, those rare questions that are both supportive of your work and push you to think harder and better about what it is you're trying to say. Dream questions. One asked me about vulnerability. Another asked me to think about layered history and layered space. In the hallway another audience member came up to me and suggested I look at Vosters's work. "I think she's really interesting," she said. She was right.

    Helene Vosters is a performer and a performance scholar. She has an MFA in queer and activist performance from the New College in California and is currently pursuing PhD studies in performance at York.

    On July 1, 2010 Vosters started Impact Afghanistan War. The concept was simple: fall down in public one hundred times a day for a year. In her artistic statement Vosters writes that each fall represents a death in Afghanistan. Unlike the Canadian military personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan there have been no accurate records kept recording Afghani deaths. This is not an oversight.

    Impact is an attempt to "reach beyond the numbness produced by abstract numbers, political debates and media spectacularization" she writes. "It is my attempt to register, through my body, the impact of our (Canada's) engagement in Afghanistan. In a larger sense, it is an inquiry into empathy."

    You can watch Helene fall here.

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Something special, an ordinary party

    Did you see that episode of the Simpsons, where Bart joins a football team, and Lisa makes this big dramatic entrance to the field, all suited-up, ready to fight the feminist fight against gender discrimination in sport? And there's already some girls on the team? And she's kinda like, "Oh, right then, okay, carry on."

    That happened to me this week.

    I was invited to attend the welcoming supper for new faculty members, because I'm on the faculty association board. The invitation didn't specify, so I wrote to ask if I could bring my husband and daughter, you know, to fight the feminist fight against the erasure of real-live-families from academic life? Well. We got there, and not only is there a nametag for my daughter (in cheery Comic Sans, no less), but a whole tablefull of kid name tags. And a giant, well-stocked craft table at the front of the hall, where a mass of small children are excitedly making glittery foam stars and flowers, collaboratively filling out colouring pages. My daughter made friends! And a pink door-hanger with unicorns on it!

    What?

    I made a point of moving through the room, introducing myself to faculty families--faculty moms and faculty dads and their 'civilian' spouses and their toddlers, their newborns, their twins, their tweens. The spouses got nametags, too. There is nothing more heartwarming for a crusty old tenured faculty mom than to see a new professor mom, burping a name-tagged four-month old, while her husband fetches strained carrots out of the diaper bag. We talked schools and daycares, and while I was fully prepared to to staunchly defend our rights to reproduce and research in the same lifetime, no one really needed convincing.

    I actually found it very moving.

    As the crusty old tenured mom, I have to interrupt myself to bring you back to the olden days, when I started here. I went to the same party. There were no children, let alone a child's play area. And I would have noticed that, because I was BABY CRAZY but feeling like I had to maybe keep a lid on it.

    Things change, even at universities. They even sometimes change for the better, for the more inclusive, and the more humane.

    Best. New Faculty. Orientation. Dinner. Ever.*

    -----
    * full disclosure: I won a cheese tray in the draw. I NEVER win stuff in draws. This possibly colours my interpretation of events ;-)

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Guest post: Beyond treading water


    As September approaches, I look back to the work I did this summer and wish I had made more progress on my thesis. Unfortunately, this past month, I found myself experiencing not so much writer’s block as writing resistance. My thesis proposal was comprehensive, and a good blueprint and a springboard for what I need to do. However, I still found myself reluctant to dive deeply into the greater task of writing each chapter. There was always something else that I needed to do instead, such as catching up on my long neglected leisure reading, or organizing my daughter’s move to an out-of-province University. I told myself life was too hectic to leave me much time for writing. But, the truth is these are excuses. Life was and will always be busy, and I wrote my MA thesis with more demanding things demanding my time and attention.

    After finishing courses and candidacy exams, this summer should have been the time to speed up my thesis work, but instead I found myself slowing down. Guilt was my companion these past two months, even as I got some work done, presented at a conference, and continued with academic reading. By my standards and expectations though, I didn’t produce enough writing. So, the issue became how to overcome this sudden resistance to writing, this desire to do anything else but sit in front of my laptop to write?

    Because I am in academia - and let’s face it because it’s a great way to procrastinate even more - I decided to do some research on my writing inertia. I spent hours trolling the internet looking for other writers or grad students who had similar symptoms. Every time I found a kindred soul and read his or her story, I felt like an invisible participant in an online support group. I read about these writers’ struggles with the writing life where each one described the act of writing as a confrontation. For some it was like going into a cave to battle the dragon, like fighting a war, like running a marathon, etc. While there is no denying that writing is hard work, I also find it exhilarating, rewarding, and the main reason I am following this career path. I am passionate about writing, and that’s why I wallowed in guilt this summer when I lost some of that momentum and energy that had carried me through exams, courses, and teaching all these years.

    Following the online research, I read writing manuals like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and decided to put some of her great suggestions in practice. She recommends facing writing by working on one paragraph at a time, one line at a time. Lamott basically advocates old-fashioned discipline and constancy. At this time in my career, her advice resonated with me in a very personal way helping me break out of this stillness.

    My grandfather was a farmer who after working the fields would head to the shore and swim five hundred meters out to the sea, every single day. He didn’t do it to look better, to train for a race, or because he wanted to set a good example of physical fitness. He did it because he loved swimming, and loved swimming in the ocean with its shifting currents, its uncertain waves, and its daily challenges. Summer or winter, rain or shine, calm or turbulent waters, he would wade into that ocean, and swim for an hour to gather his thoughts at the end of the working day.

    When I was eleven years old, he would sometimes take me with him. I always complained at the start of the swim arguing that the water was too cold, too choppy, or that I was too tired. He would ignore my comments, and as we dove in he would encourage me to go further each time. Try to make it to the end of the pier, to the next buoy, to that fisherman’s boat, he would say, as we swam side by side, matching his stroke to mine. For me, it was both scary and exciting to know that the ocean floor was so far beneath my feet, and to know that I couldn’t stand still nor rest for long. I would vary my strokes using the breaststroke and the backstroke when I felt tired. Sometimes, I would tread water for a few seconds, but that used up more energy than stroking, and it didn’t move me closer to that day’s goal. I quickly realized that remaining in one place was more tiring than moving forward.

    The most exciting part was swimming back to shore to finally feel my feet touch the sand. I would stand up, turn around, and look with satisfaction at how far I had gone that day. I had managed to reach that point which looked so far and daunting from the shore, and knew that I could, and would, go further the next day.

    Remembering this time in my life so many years ago, gave me the confidence to wade once again into the vast academic ocean. Now, when I sit down in front of my computer, I remember to keep moving, to pace myself, and to breathe, as I write my thesis stroke by stroke by stroke.

    Lourdes Arciniega
               PhD Candidate, University of Calgary 

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    New Year

    When it comes to marking a new year, I'm with the Persians or the Jews. January 1st is a perverse abstraction; I wager that no Canadian can feel newness in the depths of darkness. March 21st, the first day of spring (at least, elsewhere) makes good sense, and it imbues the new year with hope and vitality. But I think Rosh Hashanah nails it just about perfectly: September just feels right for a new year, what with its unsullied scribblers and corduroy pants (oh, for corduroy to make a comeback...).

    This year, it would be even better for the school year to line itself up with Rosh Hashanah: that is, later. How can September be here already? How can the summer be over? And how on earth can a person accumulate 60 emails between dinnertime on Labour Day and the next workday morning? I'll say it again: September comes at you like a water cannon.

    But secretly, I love this time of year. I know, I know, the lunch line-ups are longer, and the parking's a little less choice - but there's a frisson to this time of year that you can't reproduce. Even when I'm not teaching (sniff!), I love being surrounded by new students, new choices, and new possibilities. And I really find the transition from research-time to teaching-time interesting. I love having the students back on campus because they sharpen our excitement for what's next and our regret for what's past. I love the way September causes us to mark the passing of time in unfinished manuscripts and unpolished (ahem) course outlines.

    At the end of the day, I am a cultural studies scholar of the old school – the Birmingham School, with its experiments in open education and working-class empowerment. Working at a major Canadian public university challenges that vision of social progress in all kinds of great ways. Here as elsewhere, the struggle between research-intensiveness (to build reputation, conservatively, or to serve knowledge, more liberally) and teaching-centeredness (for conservatives, to use public monies efficiently or, for liberals, to keep alive the great public role of universities as class-altering structures) is pronounced, particularly in the humanities.

    How do we resolve that struggle? Or, better, how do we keep it alive?

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Net/Working: Looking back and looking forward

    This week marks the one-year anniversary of Hook & Eye! Rather than try to emulate Heather's inimitable style I've decided to embark on a bit of a meta-consideration of why we decided to begin this blog, and to look forward into the unknowable future.

    My involvement with Hook & Eye began with a conversation in a loud restaurant in Montreal. I had met Heather when I was a graduate student attending a conference in Edmonton, but we certainly didn't know each other well when we made plans to get together to chat during Congress 2010. Truth be told, we knew each other so little that I was more than surprised--and flattered!--when Heather showed up to my panel. You can imagine my surprise when she came up to the panelist and asked is we minded if she tweeted our talks. Believe it or not, this was my first introduction to the useful tweet. I left the panel inspired not only by the papers and discussions, but also excited to figure out why in the world academics were on Twitter. Alright, I also left feeling sheepish that I didn't really get Twitter yet, but it should come as no surprise that I'm the luddite of our editorial group.

    Later that evening we met for dinner. I was excited and anxious (I'm a nervy little thing) and curious: what would we talk about? We talked about many things, but ultimately we talked about networking. No, not the kind of networking that made me break into a cold sweat as a graduate student. The well-meaning encouragement that 'you need to get out there and network!' was hugely confusing for me as I thought hard work and publishing was all it took to get a job. What a lamb I was. We talked about what I've come to think of as feminist networking: networking that is positive, proactive, and often as much in the service of the good of another as it is for the good of oneself. A few weeks later as Aimée entered the conversation and the idea of Hook & Eye began to take shape as a reality I had my first experience of what many of you have known for a long time: online communities are networks of heterogenous subjects  that have the potential to function as "culturally productive, politicized counterpublics" (Nguyen).

    Writing for Hook & Eye have been formative for me this past year. I've seen my co-bloggers move ever onward in their stellar careers, I've watched our stats grow, I've fretted over low-to-no comments, and I've fretted over too many comments. I've met readers at conferences, recognized my students names as they bravely post comments, and I've grappled with how very difficult it is to take up public space.

    As we move forward into our second year I'd like to thank Heather and Aimée for their wit, wisdom, and general chutzpah, and I'd like to thank you, Readers. We started this blog as an attempt to create space to think through the gendered realities of working in the Canadian university system, and we couldn't do that without you.

    So thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. Thank you for lurking. Thank you for submitting guest posts (& thank you in advance--please keep them coming!) Thank you for discussing, disagreeing, conversing, thinking, and net/working with us.

    Bring on the new year!
    _____________________________
    Nguyen, Mimi. Untitled column. Punk Planet, no. 40 (November/December).
    http://www. worsethanqueer.com/slander/pp40 .html.