Monday, December 17, 2012

We love you. Take a rest!

Dear Readers,

We wish you a tranquil, peaceful, restful end of term. We hope you're surrounded by loved ones. We hope you have some time for yourself, and some time for celebration. We appreciate your presence here, and we will see you in the New Year. We'll be back January 7th, 2013.



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Canadian Women and Mountaineering

It is that time of year. This week I finished marking a pile of essays and have to give a final exam on Friday. And I'm in the midst of a very fun and interesting interdisciplinary conference, Thinking Mountains, all about international mountain studies. 
I'm enjoying it because it has a great mix of things in my field (environmental history) and things entirely outside of my field, but which are united by a focus on particular kinds of places (mountains) and consideration of our (human) interactions with them.   
So in lieu of a proper post I wanted to plug tonight's plenary -- a roundtable conversation on Canadian women and mountaineering, which features four of the most accomplished Canadian women mountaineers and climbers, who work and play in a hyper-masculine environment. If you're in Edmonton you should come out to it, it's open to the public. If not, they'll be recording the roundtable so you can check it out online in the future via the U of A's mountains studies website.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unexpected Lessons (Ikea Monkey)

I’ll be honest: I’m on a short break right now between end of classes and exams and all I want to do is relax. Fast Feminism. Slow Academe? Try, Fast Nothing. Slow Liz.

So, when I sat down to write this post, the only thing that I felt like sharing was Ikea Monkey.
Ikea Monkey has been bringing a smile to my face. And I’m not the only one. Ikea Monkey has gone viral, at least in Toronto. I’ve talked about IM with multiple people and overheard others in restaurants discussing IM, which has become an Internet meme.

Anyway, (and here comes my somewhat tenuous connection to Hook and Eye content), it’s got me thinking about what kinds of stories and ideas get picked up and circulated—the stories that spark something, that make people want to talk about them and share with others.

When I’ve taught a class and I can hear my students still talking about a particular topic as they’re leaving, I feel that I’ve done a good job as an instructor. I want to have Ikea Monkey moments in my classes.

Most of the teaching advice I’ve been given, when it comes to lecturing, centers around this basic principle: if you just try to get one or two key ideas across in a class, it’s much more likely that those one or two key ideas will stick with students.

So, I ask you, readers, now that we’re reaching the end of a semester: what are the most important things you want to achieve by the end of a course (either as an instructor or as a student)? Does it relate to course content, a style of thinking, or a set of theoretical concepts? Looking back on courses that you have taught or taken, what has stuck with you? Have you ever taught or taken courses with unexpected learning outcomes? Can we "meme" our students?

Monday, December 10, 2012

What does it mean to be a woman and a public intellectual?

I have been noticing a trend here at Hook & Eye.  Whether we are writing about the challenges and cruelties of the turgid job market, acknowledging the difficulties as well as possibilities in service work, or reflecting on making life changing decisions the general theme this fall has centred around striking a balance between life inside and outside the academy. This has me thinking about the role we take on -- wittingly or un- -- when writing for a feminist academic blog. On my most positive days I imagine this space as one that is both generative and space-making. I think of it as a place for advice, for honesty, and for performing vulnerabilities in a public fashion in an attempt to acknowledge that there are in fact humans in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and heck, the whole darned endeavour that is the Academy. On my worst days, I fear that the space I take here is merely navel-gazingLess navel-gazingly, thinking about the role of writing for a feminist academic blog has me thinking about public intellectualism and the possibilities that generating conversation both inside and outside one's sphere might allow.  

So, what is a public intellectual? Alan Lightman describes the public intellectual as someone who has been trained in a particular discipline (he names linguistics, biology, history, economics, and literary criticism as examples) and who has decided to "write and speak  to a larger audience than their professional colleagues." For Lightman, the move from closed to open discourse -- from specialized audience to general audience -- is what moves an individual into the realm of a public intellectual (you can read the rest of Lightman's essay here). Lightman draws particular attention to Edward Said's understanding of the intellectual's role in society. He writes

According to Said, an intellectual's mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said's intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said's intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society.

I love this notion that the role of the public intellectual is to instigate and facilitate discourse amongst a wide public. But who gets to be a public intellectual? How are individuals selected? And, really, how egalitarian is that process? For, in addition to thinking about the definition and function of a public intellectual, I have been wondering for a while now what it means to be a woman and a public intellectual. It should come as no surprise that gender, race, ethnicity, and class affect who -- and how -- public intellectuals are received. While Foreign Policy's 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers has far more women that even five years ago, the fact remains that the position of public intellectualism is still resoundingly male and white. The only way to diversify the voices we hear from is to demand those changes, and to make them ourselves.

Here's a recent example of a group of extremely busy-yet-dedicated people doing just that. Remember CWILA? Well, yesterday, CWILA announced our first critic-in-residence. Montreal-based writer and scholar Sue Sinclair is taking up this important inaugural position, which means that in addition to her own creative and scholarly practice she will also be occupying a far more public role. Part of the job of the critic-in-residence is to "foster vital criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters" to quote the original call for applications. How exciting is this? Yet, Sue can't, shouldn't, and indeed is not doing this all on her own. Spaces like Lemon Hound foster a variety of emergent and established voices. Public intellectuals like the indefatigable El Jones here in Halifax continue to lead by example and never shies away from telling it like it is. So tell me, readers: who are some women public intellectuals in your sphere who we should know? How can we support them?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Who takes care of students' mental health

Unbelievably, I've finished everything that was on my to-do list for the week last night. Don't ask me how. It's happened. Somehow it always happens. I've decided to take today almost off, and reward myself for the sustained ultra-marathon that the last bit of the term has been. Actually, to be completely honest, today has been a planned day off for a while; it's been the perspective that's enabled me to slog through the myriad tasks this week, which unexpectedly included a potential academic dishonesty case, which takes quite a bit of extra work. However, the carrot has worked better than the stick, and I'm getting ready to enjoy it.

As I was thinking of my own work going into somewhat of a lull, I realized the high-anxiety exam season is only just starting for students. This term I've been struck more than ever by just how high this anxiety is. And now it seems everyone is talking about it. The first red flag for me was the beginning of term, when, on a get-to-know-you questionnaire, which a friend generously shared, most students answered the potentially creative and funny question "when your mind drifts off in class, what will you be thinking of?' with "what else I have to do today/this week." It struck me that that's not a great answer to give for people who should find themselves in a time of discovery, excitement, and other desirable adventures that the romanticization of first-year university would have us presuppose.

In light of this overwhelmingly predominant answer, I realized just how common student anxiety is. And it just went on from there. Luckily, our university had distributed a mental health pamphlet to instructors a while ago, which not only asked, but empowered us to look for and recognize signs of mental health issues in students and address them by directing the students to the mental health centre. But there should be something more we could do than the troublingly neoliberal "just go take care of yourself" move, which is enhanced by universities/departments whose policy it is to not interfere, and who justify this reluctance by the ostensible lack of training of their instructors. I wonder if this argument is not actually couched in the stigma of mental health problems, in the sense of not wanting any liability connected with making assumptions about something so "delicate." Training or not, would they have their instructors intervene or call 911 if a student was having a heart attack, I wonder?

What's been your own experience on this topic? Do you notice a marked change, or is it gradual? Should we, non-mental-health professionals take the initiative of directing students to the proper clinics and facilities to get help in stress- and anxiety-management?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

National Day of Remembrance

On December 6, 1989, 14 women were murdered at L'École polytechnique de Montréal.

Remember: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Memorial and Action in Toronto - Rabble

National Day of Remembrance - Federal

No pain, no gain

Academic work can be painful. I'm not being figurative here. I actually mean physically painful. After I wrote my comprehensive exams, my neck and mid-back were completely destroyed. I couldn't stand-up straight. I needed a full chiropractic overhaul. I was prepared for comps as a mental exercise, but I hadn't fully considered the extent to which that kind of intensive, one-week writing stint would be so physically demanding. Today, having finished my PhD, I find myself in a similar situation. I'm probably in the worst shape of my life. I just couldn't stay on top of taking care of myself. Grading, articles, research work - they all add up to no time to work out and no time to buy groceries.

I should note, that I'm actually, generally, a pretty healthy person. I took ballet until my early 20s, I was on a rowing team during my MA, and I ran two half-marathons during my PhD. My PhD supervisor always started out meetings with the question, "are you still running?" She emphasized the importance of remaining physically healthy throughout the process. Graduate school can be long, stressful, alcohol-fueled, and surprisingly hard on our bodies; it is important that we make every possible effort to remain healthy.

Now, being generally healthy and not having any kids (or any pets for that matter), I would think it would be somehow easier for me to make sure that I have time to get some kind of physical exercise. I have no major obstacles to fitness, and no one dependent upon me that might get in the way of taking time for fitness. As multiple blog postings on this website regularly make clear, however, making time for ourselves somehow always ends up at the bottom of the priority list, no matter who we are or what we have going on. When we do finally find time to be good to ourselves, we still feel guilty as hell about it.

So here I am, on a Thursday morning, in pain. My back is seriously out of whack. I need to finish writing an article this week, and I'm not sure I can sit at the computer long enough to do it. Basically, I think it is resolution time. These are the commitments that I can make to myself, to avoid the physical toll of academic work on my body. I'm making them public, so you can hold me to them:

1) No more writing on my laptop - ever: I wrote my comps and my dissertation on a laptop, and every physio, chiro and RMT that I encounter scolds me for it. Laptops cause a little thing that I call "laptop neck," that sloping bad posture that you get at the base of your neck from leaning into the screen. It's time to go back to the desktop computer.

2) Get outside everyday: This one is a bit of a no brainer. We mandate that children run around outside everyday, and moral panics ensue when some piece of technology is deemed to interfere with this activity. Like most of you, I am guilty of always working, even when I'm not working. My little brain is constantly churning around ideas and sentences, so getting out for a long walk is actually a really important aspect of my writing process, one which I have tended to neglect lately.

3) No eating in front of the computer: Time to stop working, relocate to another room, and sit at an actual table while eating food like a normal person. I'm not ashamed that my dissertation laptop has food splatter all over the keyboard...but I am ready to make a different lifestyle choice.

4) Write everyday, not all day: The people I know who write for a couple of hours everyday are really prolific. The panicked, day-long write-a-thon seems like it should work, but I think we all know that it isn't a great method. The stuff I write at the end of an 8-hour shift is never that great, and my neck generally looks like a J-hook by the time I'm done.

5) Keep a schedule: This is the thing that academic's with kids are really great at, and it seems like a crazy indulgence for me to even list it as a "problem" that I have. When someone is dependent upon you making them food, taking them to ballet, helping with their homework, etc., you have no choice but to walk away from the computer. Scheduling is the only way that I have found to alleviate the academic guilt that comes with nights off. We can't work all the time, and we need time away from the computer, so we might as well enjoy it when we have it (rather than feeling guilty about it).

These are changes that I am trying to make. I guess, by putting them up here, I am committing publicly to them. Maybe this will help. Maybe it's just self-indulgent. In any case, I'd like you to hold me to them.

Oh, also, I'm going to eat salad. Salad is lame and I pretty much hate it, but I've heard that it is good for you or something...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

40 / 40 / 20 is the new black ...

Here's my working hypothesis: mentoring or supervising students through long independent projects--like a Master's research paper, or a PhD dissertation, or an undergraduate honour project--is the kind of labour that breaks down into three categories of work, weighted 40 / 40 / 20. You know, how like the tenure-line assessment system encourages a division of one's time and efforts into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service? Only--goes my thinking--working effectively with students who are writing long pieces means spending 40% of my attention and effort on the intellectual questions, 40% on the process of writing and/or scholarship, and 20% on professionalization issues.

Interestingly, while each kind of work has discrete tasks associated with it, at the edges, each begins to bleed into the others.

The intellectual mentorship is generally what we think of (students and professors alike) when we think of "supervision." Intellectual mentorship means holding a marked up draft in one's supervisory grasp, and saying things like: "I think Ian Hutchby's work on the relationality of affordances might be useful to you here"; or, "I think you're going to have to be a little more precise about what 'material' means to you in this work"; or, "There's a lot of prior scholarship on this question and you should look it up." Some of that work is mentoring, such as when I help a student find useful material they didn't know about, or think through an idea all the way to the end. And some of it is, frankly, gatekeeping: this piece of work is or is not up to snuff; this reference list is or is not thorough enough; this dissertation passes or does not pass the defence. It's my subject area expertise, and my institutional standing, that are called on here.

But if all I did was that stuff with my students, most of them would take twice as long to finish, and with twice as much stress, for not much reward.

I really began to focus on the writing part of the question from my work in digital media classrooms: when I started teaching classes on digital design, it struck me that students who had technical skills on the way in did much better in the course than those who were coming to the subject new, even in an introductory course. I decided then that I was never going to assess anyone on skills that I wasn't actually taking the time to teach them. So now in my design classes, we start from the beginning with each piece of software--I can't grad you on Photoshop unless I teach you the basics of how to use it. This has translated to all my other teaching as well: I don't assign research essays unless I teach students how to write in that genre and how to do the requisite research, for example.

In supervision work, it struck me, students are asked to write longer pieces than they have ever done before, with greater original thought expressed, and with deeper research. Where the hell are they being taught how to tackle the logistics, the psychology, the slog, the rhythm of writing a 100 page treatise on a thesis of their own devising? I guess that's my job. It's very rarely the case that students aren't smart enough to write long projects. It is very often the case that the process ties them in such knots that they never get it done, or done as well as they might have.

So my students and I spend a lot of time on what we might as well call writing instruction: creating a daily writing habit, setting small goals, reverse outlining, free writing, low stakes drafts, frequent workshopping. We also talk about research work: using online bibliographic databases, citation software, email alerts from journals, Google alerts from research topics. "Lower your standards!" I say to them, "Write a shitty first draft!" Or, "Why don't you use Zotero to keep all your references together, then you won't have to retype everything all the time?" And of course, we engage deeply and systematically with the drafts they produce: I help them recognize their writing tics (mine are the overuse of semi-colons and beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions); we talk about sentence variety, and the use of transitions, and the graduate student habit of putting all the secondary sources at the start of the paragraph and then only timidly adding their own idea in the last sentence. One former student, who went round after red-penned round with me over a tendency to jargonize, told me at the end of the process--his Master's degree--that no one had ever actually taught him how to write before, and that he had really learned a lot by writing his thesis with me. That was one of my proudest teaching moments.

As far as I'm concerned, long-format writing projects in which a student writer works with a faculty supervisor are as much about writing as they are about research. So my job is as much about teaching time management, research strategy, writing process, and the writing itself as it is to ensure that the research quality is up to par.

(And the 20% professional stuff? Let's talk about that another day.)

Does your work manifest the 40/40/20 split?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Frantic Search For Daily Organization

All week I have been plagued with the thought that I am forgetting something.

And forget things, I have. 

See, despite having my smart phone on my person at almost all times and being on a computer for hours every day, I still hold fiercely to the archaic written planner. Picking a new one every year is an event because it needs to be resilient enough to handle constant use, classic enough to be used every where and have large enough margins and tabs for my personal preferences.  I currently have a black, dog-eared day planner with colourful sticky notes and multicoloured highlighter strokes on every page surrounded by frenzied lists and abandoned notes. 

I move it daily from my purse, brief case and gym bag, knowing it would be less of a hassle to use my digital calendar but stubbornly clinging to my planner. I am an ardent list maker as I find an unusual amount of satisfaction in stroking accomplished tasks off and boldly tackling the next one. 

This past weekend, or sometime on Friday (to be exact), my planner went missing and my life has been complete guesswork from that moment on. For instance, I realized today in a moment of cold terror that this post was to be up this morning. I think it may be a sign to start putting my daily activities and future plans in a more safe, digital place but until then, I am frantically searching for that well worn, deeply loved planner. 

How do you keep your daily lives organized? Digital calendar? iCal? Or do you, like me, cling fiercely to the written planner? 

Monday, December 3, 2012

A few good things for a Monday

It is Monday. Moreover, it is the first Monday in December. Sure, there's an onslaught of marking coming my way (& yours, I suspect). Sure, there's the to-do list of things I have been putting off since October that is now teetering and threatening to fall on my head. Yes, it has been an unusually difficult and emotional term, for me, at any rate. But guess what? I'm not writing a post about any of that today. Nope. Today I am writing a list of accomplishments and a list of neat discoveries. Today, I'm offering you a little bit of perk to zip you through your Monday and towards the celebratory rush that is the end-of-term and all of the various celebrations it brings your way.

First, accomplishments:

1. I set a goal in September, and I stuck to it! I have written one or two pages of my manuscript EVERY DAY THIS TERM. I could not have done this without my writing partner in crime. Thanks, K.

2. I co-organized a conference, it went well, and now we have landed a book contract for an edited collection of articles! About poetry! Poetry!

3. Last year in December my partner and I adopted a wild, damaged, lovely dog. We thought having a second dog would be Super Easy. After all, Felix the Wunder Hund is, well, easy. Calm, serious, thoughtful... Were we ever wrong. Little Mar has been anything but easy. He was abandoned, abused, and has serious anxiety issues. He has been a really, really challenging dog. He was way more effort than we wanted, and, frankly, he needed more time than we actually have. But you know what? Working with him has taught us an immense amount about patience and kindness. And it is paying off, for all of us.
                                           Felix is camera-shy. They hold paws. Cute, eh?

Now, neat discoveries:

1. Do you know this website? Brain Pickings is curated by Maria Popova, and it is described as a "human-powered discovery engine for interestingness." How amazing is that? Maria explains that creativity is, in her view, a combinational force. Wow! Yes! What could we come up with here at Hook & Eye that worked even more with the power of our combinational forces? I'm inspired...!

2. Not so much a neat discovery as a hey-looky-don't-miss-this! Lemon Hound, which began as a solo-authored blog by Sina Queyras, is now a monthly literary journal. I think it is curating some of the most exciting sets of voices on the interwebs. Oh yeah, and I get to write for it from time to time.

3. CWILA's critic-in-residence is going to be announced in the coming months! Women are in the news! There's going to be more blogging, tweeting, and general discussion about women in the literary arts because we are making it happen. Email me if you're interested in writing a blog post about a woman -- contemporary or historical -- who excited you and inspires your imagination.

Hang in y'all. Respite is coming. In the meantime, what neat discoveries have you made? What have you done -- large, small, or in-between -- that you want to brag about?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Making Lemonade

Today, I'm offering up a framed narrative. I wrote the following nested post on Sunday, but then Liz offered a bunch of solutions to my exhaustion questions on Tuesday. So, while my exhaustion has not evaporated, I've decided to make the proverbial lemonade, and look forward to brighter things in the New Year. Rest assured, I'm not quite ready to do the counting of the blessings, yet. After all, it's still November. So, here's Sunday-me, all tired-but-hopeful:


It seems I'm on an inspiration kick. Or a whining kick. Whichever it is, I'm trying to turn it into something better. You might also argue I'm crowdsourcing my counselling. However, I bet I'm not alone in feeling exhausted right about now, on the brink of December. So, I'm writing this post to ask you all: how do you deal? cope? manage? right about now.

Here's my situation: it's Sunday as I'm writing these lines, and before you admire my organizational skills, wait until you read the whole thing. My oldest has now been sick with the flu (the real one, the influenza one) for almost a week [update: she's better, but we still had to pick her up early on Wednesday, as she was running a fever], while also scheduled to take a trip over the pond tomorrow. I hope, by the time you read this post, she will be long past it [update: the cough is still here]. Otherwise I feel like I will snap something. Speaking of snapping: my youngest woke up early. Well, nothing is *too* early for a baby, but right now, at 53 degrees latitude north, when the sun rises around 9 am (I'm exaggerating; tired mothers are allowed their lion's share of hyperbole), 6:45 am seems unpardonably early. Strike that, it's always too early to be woken up at that time. 

However, to add literal injury to insult, after I'd taken the baby into my own bed, hoping to steal maybe another 5 seconds of shut-eye, he gleefully--everything is either ginormously gleeful or deathly dramatic at 13 months--proceeded to get up, pick up my water bottle, and drop it--nay, throw it--squarely in my right eye. The visible result? I now sport a red spot on the white of my right eye. Yeah, I didn't need that one anyway. Symmetry is always better, and my left eye is much more myopic than my right. Babies always know more than we give them credit for, no?

The cherry on the cake of exhaustion--see, even my metaphors get mixed this late in the term--I am about to receive (remember, it's still Sunday here) eighty (if I spell the numeral instead of writing numbers, it will seem much smaller, yes?) research essays tomorrow. E-i-g-h-t-y (nope, still small, still in denial). 

So, between the packing and the marking and the lesson prepping--and did I mention the few remaining job/postoc apps--and the usual demands of life, my upcoming week--happily now in my past--is looking quite quite busy. 

Which brings me to my last point (and, alas, a sentence fragment--you can see I'm gearing up for marking here!): how do *you* cope with the end-of-term avalanche of marking and deadlines and final exams and final papers and the anticipation of all. that. work waiting for you in the new year. I will spare you my list for 2013, but I would really love to hear, before we do the pinnable year-end tally of "awesome things that happened in 2012," how you deal with the actual year-end itself. Because me? This here is how I'm dealing. Crowdsourcing my therapy. Please don't send me a bill, though, k?


Now back to my usual Friday-due-post self: you know, I did say I'd snap something, but I didn't. The cherry on the cake: now my partner is sick. And the baby, the water-bottle-bull's-eye-throwing baby? I had to pick him up early from daycare yesterday, because they were suspecting pinkeye. Pink-effing-eye! And yet, I'm still here. Unsnapped. What's holding me together? In the words of the wonderful M M-D (our resident English and Film Studies miracle worker), the end-of-term is within tasting distance! Yes, I still have to mark the papers; yes, I still have to write the final exams; yes, I still have to mark those.

However, in-between, I get to dream about how next term will be so much more exciting. I'm teaching a 200-level course for the first time! I've chosen some awesome novels I'm very excited about, and I get to legitimately discuss theory! THEORY! Legitimately! (excuse me for shouting, but I'm just THAT excited). I do, in fact, teach quite a bit of theory in my introductory courses, but it's always instrumental. And that's fine. I utilize theory in my research all the time. But this course will allow me to actually discuss theory in itself. Now that's something to look forward to. (and, by the way, while I'm aware it's not all fun and games teaching a new course, my realistic side is all taken up with kiddie sickness at the moment, so I'll just deal with the problematic issues this course will pose as they arise, rather than imagining them)

Finally, and probably most excitingly for me, I will revise, rethink, and reconceptualize my manuscript. I did it once, but I was too enamoured with it, and I didn't do enough. Now I've got some really substantive feedback, which helped me truly see the lacunas, and I'm ready to tackle it again. I've also got a very receptive editor who's willing not only re-read it at the end, but support me in the process. It's looking good, and it is thrilling.

And that's my lemonade! Want some?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Blogging dilemmas

I’m emotionally exhausted out of frustration from a work issue that is very much about equity, professionalism, process, and fairness. But I can’t write about it! Even though it foregrounds issues that are pretty high on the agenda around these parts, there is no way that I could possibly discuss the details (at least online) without getting in deep s#@!

This particular episode follows upon at least two other instances this past semester of egregious sexism that I can’t blog about because of confidentiality. I am okay with that, on one level. Confidentiality exists for a reason: there are many instances in academia when people have to be comfortable to express difficult opinions on sensitive and important matters. Moreover, having agreed to confidentiality, I consider it unethical to then break that agreement. So my lips are sealed. 

But I’m also not okay with that because that sexism nevertheless hangs in the air, at least in my atmosphere, shaping and colouring my work life. And I know that people take advantage of the protection of a confidential setting to express things that they could not get away with otherwise. So I find it problematic that I’m bound by confidentiality, when that works to perpetuate a sexist, chauvinist work culture. 

With regards to my current situation (which actually reaches back 2 years), there is nothing confidential about it. But to discuss it would only stand to hurt me professionally more than I stand to gain by sharing with you folks. And that is incredibly disheartening because, when combined with the aforementioned sexism, it makes me wonder where can change come from? The hierarchies in my institution make it clear that I have no means to address the issue head on. I could raise a grievance with my faculty association, but that is putting myself out there again in a way that will likely do more harm to me then it will actually realize substantive change. If I put my head down and protect my self-interest, then of course nothing will change. 

I grew up thinking that you always fought back. Every time you saw something that was wrong, you called it out, and you kept calling it out until you got a response. But in our culture broadly, and narrowly within academia, sexism and inequity can be so pervasive that I have to "pick my battles." So my question to you folks, given that I can’t ask for specific assistance on the matter in question, when you pick your battles, what criteria do you use to decide?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Social Work: Emotional Labour and the Core Mission

Yesterday, I wrote another peer review, this time a gentle and encouraging rejection of an article submitted to a journal. That particular shit sandwich wound up being over 1300 words long--like the Dagwood sandwich of carefully worded peer reviews. It took me all morning to write, because I really wanted to encourage the writer at the same time as make clear just how flawed this particular instantiation of the ideas was.

I've also been to two meals with job candidates and other assorted part-social part-intellectual events. I'm finalizing the details for the department holiday party I'm hosting at my house. I'm giving graduate students pep talks about time management and the writing process and how it's okay to cry sometimes. I'm helping members of my broader network process scathing reviews of cherished work. I'm trying to be a constructive but forceful participant in some discussions about massive structural change in our university teaching and curricula.

It strikes me that a lot of the way that I get my core mission--my research, teaching, and service--done is through deliberate and sustained "social work." That is, emotional labour greases the track across which everything I do is supposed to slide.

Weird that even in the touchy-feely humanities it needs to be said, but those "soft skills" we always try to indicate we help students master--verbal and written communication, social savvy from historical awareness, self-reflexivity, creative thinking--constitute a kind of emotional labour. And that even in humanities disciplines we tend to undervalue this emotional labour, which we might reframe thus:
plays well with others, can keep a civil tongue in her head, has Kleenexes and pats on the back and kind words for burnt-out students, crafts interactions to be effective without being aggressive.

Sometimes I'm really good at this kind of work and sometimes I'm really not. When I do it right, the results are invariably better than when I let my harsher nature loose and slash and burn my way through the day with Sword of Righteousness aloft. I mean, sometimes, somebody just blows it, and I want to tell them off. Or they don't know what they're talking about, and they should, and my instinct is sarcasm. Or someone misses another deadline and I want to drop the hammer down hard. I find that just letting rip in these situations hardly ever achieves the desired outcome. But if I focus my reactions instead on constructing some kind of interaction that is designed to make it more likely that my ultimate goal is going to be met, I get better results from those I work with, students and colleagues and administrators alike.

This is hard. It involves teeth gritting, followed by deep breathing and a short meditation on kindness. It involves a careful consideration of the future beyond the next five minutes. Sometimes it involves sitting on my hands to not launch a tirade at a meeting, or a further 20 minutes on a peer review editing out the sourness, or a phone call to consult a senior colleague on how to deal with a thorny situation.

If you do it really well, this emotional labour is invisible to most of those around you: you seem naturally nice or kind or thoughtful or easy to work with. You make life with the hotheads more bearable, or your students all seem to graduate faster, or the committees you sit on seem to laugh a lot. The work might get ascribed to personality, or some kind of intrinsic nature, and become invisible as labour to others. Does that matter?

Like so many other things that women often excel at when compared to men, it seems like emotional labour is a kind of skill we resist considering as real work. I don't want to get a merit score on personality. But I would like to see more open recognition of the fact that when some people are perhaps easier to work with than others, it's probably not as easy as it looks. It might be deliberate. It ought to be celebrated.

What kinds of emotional labour do you exert in your day to day work? And is it recognized? Should it be?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fighting Burnout

Like most early career academic researchers, I’m busy. My official job duties are teaching a lot of courses and chairing a program. But, then there’s all the extra academic stuff that gets piled on top: applying for tenure-track positions; applying for research funding; writing reference letters; going to meetings; attending conferences; trying to think about writing something, as well as the non-academic life stuff on top of that: eating; making sure the laundry gets done; keeping up with friends; having a long-distance relationship; exercise (?); doing the dishes every once in awhile…

It’s a bit much. It’s too much, in fact. Even if I was a feminist superhero (and I couldn’t tell you if I was because it would jeopardize my secret identity), it would be too much.

There are particular times of year—and this is one of those times of year—that it’s pretty easy to start feeling burnt out. You might be reading an article and find that your eyes are glazing over; seeing a pile of essays might induce nausea; or you might just feel completely saturated. Here’s a few ideas for fighting burnout.

1. Clean Breaks

Are you one of those people who insists on bringing a laptop or pile of grading to a cottage? If you’re already feeling burnt out, take a clean and guilt-free break. It doesn’t even need to be a long break, but a break that involves you lugging four books around town while you “go out for a walk” is not a clean break. When you’re done working, stop working. For real.

2. Reading Detox

Try this experiment: do not read anything. No email; no lists of things to do; no articles or books, even for pleasure, for 24 hours. It feels impossible. It is not. Let your brain recover for awhile! Try occupying yourself in other ways: knitting; exercise (?); doing that pile of laundry; or anything else that strikes your fancy.

3. Have a Life Outside of Academia

One of the best things that happened for my academic career is that I made friends with people who aren’t academics. In my case, it was through playing music. Being friends with people whose lives don’t revolve around the university puts a lot of what we do in perspective, and this can help academic work feel much less overwhelming.

4. Acknowledge that You Won’t Do Everything Perfectly

This can be hard to do. As an academic, and maybe just as a human, I want to do my best all the time. Acknowledge that you are doing your best under the circumstances and try to avoid long sessions of beating yourself up for what you may perceive as “falling short.”

Finally, perhaps most importantly, sleep! Goodnight!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Who Fills the Chairs

Consciously or not, I'm always aware of how many women there are in the room at academic gatherings. As an undergraduate in English, it was rare to have more than a couple of men in the classroom, excluding the professor--who was, more often than not, male. As a teacher of undergraduates in English, the same went. Beyond the graduate classroom (which had a slightly more equal male-female ratio, although women still dominated) I was struck by what I saw. At department meetings, there are more male professors than female. Conferences I've attended, depending on the subject, have often been male dominated, and like the one I presented at earlier this fall, can be profoundly uncomfortable spaces to be in as a woman. Department support staff at my university are almost all female. Department chairs, since I've been here, have almost always been male, and upper administration and governance is certainly male dominated. It's not anything new to note that there is a major disconnect in my field between the gender of the students who enter it as undergraduates, of those who dominate the PhD graduating classes and the gender of those in the positions of highest power. This isn't just the field. This is the world.

I had a few experiences this week that seemed to suggest that things are changing. In a meeting of the key players behind a new graduate student professional development program in our Faculty of Graduate Studies, I looked around the table to note that most of those people, including the Dean, were women. I'm helping to coordinate a writing workshop for dissertation scholarship winners, and all but two are women, as are most of their supervisors. I'm also the graduate representative on our tenure and promotions committee, and we met earlier this week. The committee is headed up by our new graduate program director, who is, after men heading up the department for the last decade or longer, a woman. Around the conference table, nearly everyone seated was also female. At one point someone asked the committee if we could estimate how much longer we might take, as she wanted to let her stay-at-home husband know when she would be home to breastfeed their baby daughter. At the end of the meeting, the professor with the baby daughter and I exchanged mutual admiration for the bag I was carrying and the granola-covered nuts her husband had made for her (for which you can find the recipe here). It felt, during that meeting, like the proportion of women in the room had changed something, like it was okay to be academics and people too. That baking and breastfeeding and being good academics and holding positions of power weren't mutually exclusive—the acknowledgement of which is key, I think, to addressing the power imbalance in the academy and the wider world.

It would have been nice if there wasn’t another side to this story, but of course there is. The two people up for tenure and promotion were both men, as are most of the people who have been given tenure or have been promoted since my arrival in the department. The nursing professor was apologetic, and jokingly defensive, about her need to get back to her baby. After bonding over our shared love of Smitten Kitchen, she remarked that she clearly wasn't working hard enough if she had time to go hunting down recipes for granola-covered nuts. At a workshop on academic job interviews later that afternoon, we were warned against interviewers who would try to find out if we were planning on having children soon. And at that uncomfortable conference last month, a presenter made a joke about my sending him love notes as I sat and waited to deliver my own paper, a joke that I had to laugh off but which made more women than me in the room cringe. Earlier that day, another male panelist told me, in not so many words, that as a young(ish) woman, I was not allowed (although I was moderating the panel) to ask him to wrap up when his paper went over time, which he assured me it would.  

One of the things I love best about Hook & Eye is that women fill the chairs. We sit around this virtual table and discuss whatever matters to us as female academics. Sometimes that's writing a better conference proposal. Sometimes it's how we get treated differently when we leave the house without makeup on. Sometimes it's a great recipe that makes rushing out the door to get to class feel a little bit easier, or one that can keep a breastfeeding woman going through a long day on campus. We feel comfortable talking as people, and not just as academics, at least in part because we fill the chairs. And if we filled the chairs in more rooms, as we fill the chairs in more rooms--in the Dean's office, in the office of the department chair, in the university senate, in the President's office, at the presenter’s table--the culture of the university might continue to shift. It might start to acknowledge that parenting and positions of power aren't incompatible. That teaching and taking time to nurse a child, or to care for an aging parent, or to spend time on a hobby, are equally important facets of a complex academic life. That being professors and being people, no matter our gender, should be accepted and celebrated and taken into account when making decisions about who is given positions of power. When we fill more of the chairs, I can't help but feel that the feeling in the room changes for the better, for us and for the men around us. And so do our experiences of being women, being people, in academe.  

So I’ll keep watching to see who fills the chairs. And I'll keep filling one myself, as often as I can, while I do. What about you? What’s your sense of the gender balances and imbalances at your university, or in your field, and whether or not they’re shifting? 

Friday, November 23, 2012

What's the best time to have kids?

The topic for this week's #ECRchat, which stands for early-career researcher chat on Twitter, was "Deciding when to have a family." As I sit in my office during office hours (on the most recent Wednesday in your past), while my oldest is at home with yet another cold and hacking cough, I cannot help but wonder if there is ever a good time. Apart from the knee-jerk reaction, however, and because I cannot participate in the live-tweet chat due to time-zone conflicts (with my sleep!), I wanted both to think through this question here, and to ask you, lovely Hook & Eye community, to do the same.

To reply to this very thoughtful question with yet another one along the lines of "Is there ever a good time?" seems a cop-out, especially in the case of academics, who like to plan their future, but have little control over it. Even though one can make the case that nobody can actually control their future, this inability pervades the lives of early-career academics more than others'. The better part of PhD students know they commit to their chosen grad school for a good chunk of time, but when the PhD is over, unless one is a superstar with her choice of employment, most PhD graduates have little choice and limited possibilities of decision about their immediate next steps.

So, if one in that situation wants a family, what does one do? I don't think there can ever be a blanket answer to this question. However, hearing other academics' experiences might help one take a more appropriate decision. [Maybe I should stop hiding behind the neutral form of the personal pronoun and say "she," especially since even The Globe and Mail recognized yesterday appropriate childcare to be a major obstacle in women academics' career path. They say nothing of systemic sexism, of course.] Personally, I took the advice of one of my profs from my MA, a very generous woman in her openness to mentor (female) graduate students (Hi, HL!). She said to the women-only class of graduate students: "If you want to have kids, have them in grad school. Don't wait to finish, because then something else comes up, and you end up delaying too much." I'm very grateful for this advice, because it worked for me.

I did have my oldest during graduate school. As it happened, it was the perfect timing for me: five months after my candidacy, which made the pressure of the imminent arrival productive for my dissertation work. Well, that and my wonderful supervisor, who knew exactly how to guide me, what to suggest I do, so I "will be able to come back to something written, and be less daunted" by the amount of time that had elapsed between the last graduate milestone and the end of mat leave.

As it turned out, having a kid in graduate school worked wonders on my time management skills. All of a sudden, the time she was in daycare--which was so hard to find, it nearly caused me a breakdown--became immensely precious. I had to work, research, write. Because when I took her home, it was kid-time. As a rule, I don't work after I've picked up my kids (now I have two, as you might know) from daycare. It's kiddie time. After the kids go to bed? It's relationship time. I made the decision of treating my PhD as a 9-5 job when I started it. Is that always possible? NO! But the important thing is to have the rule, and to treat the exceptions as exceptions, without allowing them to become generalized into the new normal.

Time for a privilege disclaimer: I would tell you about my wonderfully supportive (emotionally and financially) partner, but he's opposed to being talked about online, so I'm not. But I do realize my privilege, and it stays with me (it's because of his taking care of my sick kid at home today that I can even be at work and write about this stuff). It's why I'm reluctant to give advice. Babies and kids take an exceptional amount of emotional and financial energy. Much more than a person who's never been around them can imagine. Much more than I could have imagined. Much more than I still think possible, because parenting relies on amnesia. How else would be reproduce? Multiple times even? Of course there are immense and proportional rewards. There are studies that show parents of one or two kids are happier than childless couples. There are other studies that argue the reverse.

Take your pick, but think about it hard. Borrow a child (babysit, you'll score many karma points, and the eternal gratitude of those parents), try to model (not just imagine) your life around a baby/kid for a week. AND for the love of all things baby-related, please stop using the birthing and labour metaphor for dissertation writing.

I would love to hear from both sides of the camp: anxieties, fears, desires, words of wisdom, 20-20 hindsight? Whatever you got:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I'm reading a novel

I'm finally there. I've made it. I have now been finished my PhD long enough to return to reading for fun. I don't have any more classes to teach this semester, and all of my grading is finished, except for the final exam which is still a couple of weeks away.
So today, I have finally picked up a novel for the first time since that last Harry Potter book came out. It's been awhile.
While it is true that I have a number of articles just waiting to be finished and sent out for review, and while it is true that I have job applications waiting in the wings, today I will read a novel.
It is not entirely outside of my research interests of course. I'm not there yet. I've picked up Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. It deals with humour, taboo, and carnivalesque images and practices, all of which relate very closely to my own research.
But the point is, I'm reading something for fun, actually finding it fun, and not taking notes and anxiously skipping what I hope are superfluous sections that I simply do not have time to read.
Does anyone else remember their first post-PhD novel? When did reading become fun again?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Doing Peer Review Better

Last week I wrote about how to improve a conference paper proposal, to make it more likely to impress the peer reviewer assigned to assess it. This week, I'm thinking about how those of us who do peer reviews might do our part of the job better.

I've drawn all my inspiration for this post from the program committee of DH2013, the umbrella conference of the Allied Digital Humanities Organizations, which comprises the Canadian Digital Humanities Association, the Association for Computers in the Humanities, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and others. The conference is global and it is interdisciplinary. It is also highly selective, sometimes prone to controversy about who is in and who is out (and what is DH and what is not). For example, and in retrospect hilariously, even though I regularly review proposals for the conference, all three submissions I have myself made have been rejected. The first time, one peer review gave a one sentence assessment of my work (I paraphrase): "This work is not even interesting and I don't know why this author would propose to consider it for this group." That was in 2001 or 2002, and I still remember it as the most dismissive, disrespectful review I have ever received for a conference paper.

So imagine my pleasure this year when I visited the conference website to review the CFP as I prepared to assess my five assigned proposals. This year, the organization has put together not only a guide to writing proposals for its authors, but also, magnificently, a guide to peer reviewing this proposals for its assessors.

Go see it. Then come back.

Aren't these just the very model of transparency? All the implicit rules by which proposals will be assessed are explicitly outlined. Even better, peer reviewers are reminded that their work is not simply to assess in summative fashion (accept / do not accept) but to mentor in formative fashion (How might this be improved? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this proposal?). Even better, peer reviewers are reminded of ... well ... the affective dimension of this part of academic work. Nasty peer reviews work to exclude people from the field. Harsh rejections are bad for morale generally. Community is built upon mutual kindness. The "big tent" model is not supported by vicious kicks to the support poles at the edges of the structure. This bit, to me, is the most incredible, and the most awesome: instead of training would-be participants to develop a thick skin and "try harder" when faced with what looks sometimes like gleeful rejection, peer reviewers instead are being asked to consider what might help the not-accepted scholarship fit within the fold next time. It manifests a kind of humility about the field and our expertise as gatekeepers within it, even as we are still very much called upon to review the intellectual merits of each proposal.

I imagine the acceptance rate will still be low. But maybe we all won't feel so rejected by that.

I loved this so much I sent a mash note to Bethany Nowviskie about it.

The lessons of DH2013 and the wisdom of its program committee extend to all our peer review work. I know it's given me pause. I get asked to do peer review all the time. And some of the papers I read are, not to mince words, terrible. And sometimes it feels like I'm wasting my time to read all 30 pages. I'm mad at the editors for even forwarding this to two hapless reviewers. I write incredibly sarcastic notes in my printouts, to blow off steam.

But I try, and will try harder, to make my reviews, even the ones about papers that purport to be about user-generated review sites but are actually thinly-veiled screeds about how evolution is just a theory and Richard Dawkins is going to hell (really), constructive. To keep them focused on the intellectual. To not descend into recriminations against the author's not knowing what the journal is for, or not caring to take the time to copy-edit let alone proofread, or for stuffing an unreconstructed coursework paper into a digital envelope in total cluelessness about how that is not what an article is. That's all judgy and personal. Try to be constructive.

I'm using the classic "shit sandwich" approach now. You are probably familiar with it.

Here's how it works. Start by saying something nice (and true): maybe the topic is important. Maybe the approach is worthy. Maybe the primary texts have never really been considered before. Maybe the author has a great knack for fluid and engaging prose. Maybe the reference list is superb. Acknowledge the merits that you find. Next is the "however": this varies from paper to paper, but might be courseworkitis (all lit review, no argument), or it might be something more complex and unique about the approach to the topic or the methodology or the sample set or whatever. Be specific but try to confine the criticism to the words on the page, not the character of the author. This can be sometimes very difficult to do. Do say: "The paper takes what it describes as "genre analysis" as its theme, but does not reference the major works in that field." Do not say: "The author has no right to perform as so-called 'genre-analysis' when it is obvious that s/he hasn't read anything at all in this well-developed field." Finally, end with some suggestions for improvement. This is hopeful. Having perhaps said that it's unworkable to try to prove point A with reference to text F and L, maybe suggest a set of texts that might be more useful. Or if the author seems unfamiliar with an important subfield he or she generalizes about, suggest one or two texts and one or two major ideas from that subfield the author might consult to better support his or her contentions.

If you feel this all doesn't convey enough the depth of your rejection, then by all means make use of the field that is labelled "for the editors only"--you can let rip in that section, if you really need to.

Putting stuff out to review is very hard: this is part of the reason we all hold onto our drafts for too long. We are afraid of what the reviewers will say. And yet, as reviewers, we very often lash out at the poor shmucks who've let their precious drafts out into the world. Yeah, maybe they're totally not ready for the big time, but we don't have to be mean about it.

Do you have any tips and tricks for doing or receiving peer review? Funny stories? Terrible tales?