Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Academic Travel

It's that time of year when I begin to look longingly at the delicate contrails in the skies, and at the collapsible toothbrushes at Shoppers. It's that time of year when this academic's fancy turns to travel. I've got a conference at the University of Maryland in six weeks, and then six weeks after that I'll be in Victoria. I might be going to England, but that wouldn't be until October. I'm just beginning to buy plane tickets and book hotel rooms and organize to meet friends and colleagues. I'm getting nostalgic for the 10 Minute Manicure booth at Pearson's Terminal Two. I can't wait to get back to Rebar in Victoria, or have the wonderful bartender at UVic's Faculty club make me my once-a-year martini, enjoyed with digital humanists and turtles on the patio. And, oh, the hotel rooms. Those blank, anonymous, heavy-blanketed, blackout-curtained, TV-in-bed, all-to-myself havens of quiet and solitude. I am looking forward to the hotel rooms.

Oh, and I guess I'm excited, too, about sharing my research about Facebook, about computer keyboards, about social media and the role of design in academic practice. I'll write papers and curricula and it certainly always happens that the intellectual work of this travel both pushes me to produce something in the face of a real deadline and prompts a lot of new ideas in all the interaction. But honestly, I'm mostly thinking about the travel right now.

For me, this wanderlust is cyclical. It builds from the late winter and peaks in early summer. I do most of my traveling, and sometimes quite a lot of traveling, in the period between early March and early July. Last year, I did six trips in the eight weeks in that timeframe. When I got back, I swore that I was never getting on another plane ever again. (My husband made a similar vow, after a heroic run of solo-parenting while working his own full-time, demanding job. And then, don't you know, all three of us made an unexpected family trip to Edmonton the very next month.) I was seriously jet lagged, feeling gross from travel food, had had my luggage lost once, had stayed in a terrible hotel during a children's hockey tournament (tip! Don't do that!), and flown through some gruesome weather. I missed my family a lot, my routines, our routines. My bed.

But those memories have receded now. And I'm looking forward to laying out outfits on the bed in the guest room, trying to game the weather while packing enough variety to give me stylish options that will, nevertheless, all fit in a carry-on (cf earlier discussion of lost luggage. I'm looking at you, Air Canada). I'm buying this year's collapsible toothbrush, and sample sizes of my favourite Aveda hair products. My trusty Samsonite roly-bag is coming down from the attic, with my travel yoga mat already folded neatly within it. I'm cheerfully booking airport shuttles in other countries, and checking the exchange rates. It's going to be great: I head out in the world by myself, my purse and my carry-on and my ideas, on an adventure to share my research and learn from others and eat the kinds of foods I like when I feel like eating them. I miss my family, really I do, when I'm gone, but it's so nice to have these brief interludes of only thinking of myself. Of throwing myself right into it. Seeing old friends and making new ones. Learning stuff.

When I was a single graduate student, travel felt different. It felt like a brief entrée into a world of adulthood: wearing suits and eating in restaurants and explaining my work to customs agents as though I were a professional of some sort. Now it feels different, almost like a return to something less "grown-up," freer, with fewer and more-focused responsibilities.

But always, from my staying in dorm days to the quiet hotel rooms now, the travel has been one of the perks of being an academic. I love it, this shift into new places with new people and new routines. (It's always the same coffee and inedible honeydew melon slices, though ...) What about you? How do you feel about academic travel?


Monday, February 27, 2012

And in Another Academy...Where are the Women?

Hello Readers,

It is the Monday after reading week for me. I graded 112 papers and have 15 to go before tomorrow. I also wrote a conference paper. I have eight lectures to give before I fly out to a conference this weekend. Needless to say, I am behind.

In lieu of a lengthy post here is a wee video for your consideration instead:


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The sweet spot to be cranky

Erin's most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to ... whatever ... comes ... after ... is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation--of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility--stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.

But I'm struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she's still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you're still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don't protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?

Well.

I don't know. She can't, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can't either: she's Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she's bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.

Who's left, then?

Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I've often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it's less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I'll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak--this responsibility--to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.

I'm in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can't express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.

So. The job falls to the associates now: it's our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We've got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use 'em. We must use 'em.

Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?

I'm in the sweet spot. And I'm willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.


Monday, February 20, 2012

The Gambler: Notes from the Non-Tenure Stream

Lately, it seems that all of my conversations have to do with the job market. More specifically, most of my conversations have to do with knowing the difference between when to walk away from the dream of the tenure-track job and when to dig your heels in, put your head down, and keep working. It seems that if you're on the job hunt life feels quite like that old Kenny Rogers song called "The Gambler." Do you remember the chorus?


You got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run


First, some history: I finished my PhD in 2008 when the bottom fell out of most everything. For the first few years colleagues who were a generation or so older than me were commiserating. I often was comforted by their reminiscences of how bad things were in the 1990s. I have not had anyone refer to that time in a while. Regular readers of my post may remember that I am in a kind of a both/and/neither/nor situation. My first year as a PhD holder was a challenge, to be sure. I taught ten courses between September and June. I took a part-time retail job to bridge the summer when there was little to no sessional work, and I applied for everything for which I was qualified. Suddenly, I interviewed for and was offered a ten month limited term appointment at Dalhousie. That was nearly two and a half years ago. Since then, through my own hard work, departmental needs, and the advocacy of two Chairs I have had that ten month contract renewed for another ten months, and most recently for another twenty-two months. All of this to say that I know I occupy a position of relative security, where relative is a key word.

Two of my best friends are in Halifax, one is a sessional and one is a postdoctoral fellow. Try as we might to talk about other things, inevitably conversation always turns to the job market. We ask each when do you decide you have had enough of the stress of uncertainty? When do you decided to give up on the research and commit to making a life out of teaching sessionally? Or, as that is an equally uncertain life, when do you make the switch out of the academy?*

Let me be clear: I know there is no certainty in life, not really. Additionally, I don't think that a switch out of the academy is a failure. On the contrary I am awed by the bravery and ingenuity of the people who choose to make this move. But beyond the individual soul-searching that is an important and inevitable part of every life change, at what point will the Academy (writ large) move beyond acknowledging that things are broken and move instead towards making some changes? If the PhD is the job and the LTA is maybe the next phase of the job, what then? What happens when you're so busy during the term that you legitimately do not have time to consider other options? When your paycheque is only enough to make ends meet, not enough to put by while you take a break and plan next steps, how do you begin to imagine life beyond the Academy? Or, how do you help the Academy to reimagine itself?




*If you have not yet had a chance to look at the crowd sourced document that details sessional salaries per class, do so. You may want to make sure you're sitting. Yes, most of these schools are in the States, but not all of them. We should be doing this in Canada too, shouldn't we?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

They still hate the textbook

So, have you heard? Apple is going to revolutionize higher education with iBooks Author, a free app that lets anyone--university instructors, implicitly--create interactive iPad-based digital textbooks! The textbooks! Will have movies in them! And little multiple choice quizzes, and Keynote presentations, and image galleries, and digital highlighting! It's learning for the 21st century!

Phooey, I say.

It's learner centred for the digital age, for the digital natives who multitask and have different learning styles, and who have sore backs from all that book lugging they're doing! It respects the student and their screen-based interests! It is more engaging! It creates study notes on the fly! It's on an iPad, and students like iPads!

Double phooey.

I wrote about textbooks last year, around this time. Go back, refresh your mind, or if you want the capsule  summary: students complain about the textbook, sometimes with reason, but usually because textbooks require sustained, iterative attention to material that is puzzling, new, and just beyond the student's cognitive reach. You know, because it's meant to help them learn something they don't already know.

I got this year's course evaluations back, and I have an amazing textbook in my first year class. It's awesome: it's very clearly and directly written while introducing students to the specialized language of new media studies. It has lots of call-outs with contemporary, real-world examples. It has chapter summaries, and questions for study. It is short. It is lightweight. And yet, again with the sustained complaining about the 'boring,' 'dry,' 'difficult' textbook. Triple phooey.

They love me. Me, sometimes I wear pyjamas to class, light scented candles, and teach them to curse out peer reviewers. I put together slideshows with hilarious "text message speak" from the telegraph age. We watch Rick Mercer rants about how uncool Blackberry is. I dress up like Steve Jobs and pretend to do an Apple keynote from my little stage in the classroom. We do debates. We do group work. We do in-class writing. We listen to Public Enemy and look online for a list of all the samples. My evaluations are pretty close to statistically equivalent to perfect.

And let me be clear: I am so awesome and fun and knowledgeable and picspam and viral and pyjamaed and have the answers to all the questions BECAUSE I HAVE READ AN AWFUL LOT OF TEXTBOOKS.

There's really no getting around it. All my silliness is built around a core of pounds and pounds of books, reams of photocopies. You cannot ride the unicycle unless you learn how to walk.

Now, obviously, I'm very attuned to the need to engage students, to make the material interesting and relevant. My evaluations seem to indicate that I do that in spades. I read current research on best teaching methods, and believe me, I am doing everything in my power to make the study of new media in the discipline of English a well-marked, interesting path for my students to follow. But once I get you hooked on the topic? If you want university-level understanding and knowledge, you are, no bones about it, going to have to read some long-format, academic prose. There will be citations and reference lists. Some of it you will have to read three pages at a time, over a week. Most of it you will have to reread. You will need to take notes, and then maybe notes from your notes. You will have to write about it, and you will likely get some things wrong, and need to rethink what you think you understand.

My husband said the best feedback any professor ever gave him during his degree was this: "It's supposed to be hard," meaning, the material is supposed to discomfit you, confuse you, even bore you. It's supposed to be hard because you are learning. Be humble, be open, work hard, figure it out.

All the animated slideshows in the world are never going to substitute for that insight. It's supposed to be hard.

So, yeah, Apple, a blinkenlights textbook might have its uses. But I'm still aiming my sights squarely at my students, and to them I say: it's not that the textbook is boring. It's that it's supposed to be hard, and you need to step up to the challenge, and get to reading.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What I don't have to miss

Saturday night, I took my daughter skating. There's an outdoor rink in our town square, very close to home, but far enough to feel like an adventure to a little kid. It was magic: she's so rarely out after dark, the moon was clear and nearly full, the rink was all lit up and full of teenagers and families and people on dates, with my five year old the only little kid wobbling around the undisturbed middle of the ice.

She's a new skater, in the sense that she's only figured it out this past week--and I know this precisely because she learned on a field trip with her kindergarden class that I attended. I've been on several of these "sorties éducatives" with her, ever since she started daycare actually. I figure I miss so many weeks to conferences, so many evenings to public lectures or job-candidate dinners, so many weekends lost to grading binges at crunch time, and every single year since 2006 I miss her birthday because I teach at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria. In the face of all that not-around, I like to compensate by attending these mid-day, mid-week events that the professorial life affords.

It's a balancing act, home versus work, daughter time and husband time and alone time, negotiated daily. Sometimes it doesn't work so well when the borders between Professor and Mom/Wife are too porous--not three minutes ago I snapped at my darling husband because I'm trying to do too much at once. He's bathing the girl and I said I'd take care of the post-supper mess, but he came downstairs to find me typing away at this post and I wasn't too pleased he doubts I'll do the dishes. He's none too pleased with my tone. I'll go up in a minute and apologize, and try to remember that work, even blogging work, is best handled during the day, when I'm all alone. I seem to have to learn that same lesson fairly frequently. But sometimes, as in the case of the field trips and the skating, the balance can work, the lesson is easy, the reward immediate.

When I'm on the field trip, my daughter formally introduces me to everyone; she licks my hand because she's a kitten who loves me; she sits next to me on the bus; she tells everyone her mom is the best skating teacher in the world (I'm not), or the best french story reader (maybe true). She's thrilled to bits to have me there. I wouldn't miss this for the world, and, hallelujah, I don't have to. There's lots I have to miss, but at least I get this:


video

She's been trying to skate for years. She has her mother's athletic gifts (minimal) and violent impatience (in spades) but it finally--suddenly, completely--clicked. And I was there.

Which meant we could go out together Saturday, holding hands under the stars, on a mild, clear February night, singing skating songs in French. When I'm old, I know this is what's going to matter most to me. The research trips, the articles, all of it? I'm proud of that work and I enjoy it, but what melts my heart are these times, something new and surprising, shared with my family, going around in circles maybe, but keeping our eyes on the stars.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Specialist? Or expert?

What makes a specialist?  What makes an expert? These are the questions that haunt me on Sunday afternoons, apparently.

If you were to look me up on my fancy new website you would see that I do most of my teaching in the contemporary period, and, if I'm lucky, in either Canadian poetry or Canadian literary and cultural topics more generally. If you were to look at my Dalhousie faculty page you can see a different presentation of my specializations. However, if you were to ask me whether I was an expert in something or other I wouldn't immediately know what to say.

Take, for example, a typical Saturday: for me involves writing several of my lectures for the upcoming week. Though I have now been teaching more or less full time since I finished my PhD in 2008 it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to teach a class for the second or third time. Inevitably, every semester I am teaching at least one new course. Now, while the courses I teach are in my areas of specialization--albeit sometimes broadly speaking--I certainly can't profess to be an expert in Canadian Gothic Revival Architecture or Jeremy Bentham or Charles G.D. Roberts, for that matter. Can I lecture on these topics and figures? Of course I can, and I can say with some confidence that I do so fairly well. Indeed, two of the three topics I listed even fall under one or more of the categories of my  candidacy exams (which were 19th and 20th century women's writing in English, contemporary critical theory, and contemporary Canadian poetry). However, expert I am not.

Certainly, part of my broad specialization comes from my extensive teaching experience. As a limited term appointment I teach between 6-9 courses a year (that's including spring term). Though I am amused by the (fallacious) assumption that because I am an 'expert in literature' I am good at things like Scrabble, I am mostly happy with my specializations being broad and my interests being many. Further, I should say that while I have broad specializations I am categorizable when it comes to the terms set out by job advertisements. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, are the pressures of the current job market as well as the increasing focus on graduate student professionalization changing scholars from experts to specialists? From specialists to experts? Or are experts endangered? Or is the difference between the two terms merely a difference in approach? Am I just creating false dichotomies? And, so long as the teaching and research is solid, does it matter?

When I asked two colleagues what they thought of my question about the difference between specialists and experts they were both of the general opinion that the difference between the two has always existed. One colleague related that she had seen a compelling talk by an expert in the music and culture of 1934. When asked what his next book would be, he replied '1935!' I am awed by the ability to think, research, and write in such a systematic way. Such expertise and depth of knowledge reminds me of my first Romantic literature professor who could recite not only the Wordsworth's poems, but also revisions, and letters referencing revisions. From memory! But I'm equally awed by the ability of a scholar who can pull together diverse references, time periods, and approaches to unpack a set of questions.

What do you think, readers? Is there a difference between an expert and a specialist? Do you call yourself one or the other?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I already know your grade: an argument for shorter writing assignments

Here's a secret: in 99% of the cases, whenever I grade a writing assignment, I know the grade within the first page. It doesn't matter if the assignment calls for 400 or 4000 words. The page one judgement is usually just reinforced by the other 1-20 pages.

Yes, that's right. I read page one, a grade forms itself in my head, I read the rest of the paper, and the page one grade is the one I use. Some asking around indicates that I'm not the only one who experiences the page one effect while grading.

So my suggestion to you is this: why don't we just create shorter writing assignments for our students? If the quality of writing and thinking (because that's what a grade measures) manifests itself by the end of the first page, why drag it out for nine more, particularly in junior courses?

I've dramatically reduced the length of writing assignments I give to students. I figure if I want to help them write and think better or more clearly, they need to write more carefully, more often, and revise and rework more substantively. If I want to teach careful writing, assign more frequent writing, and make rewriting integral to the course, well, the assignments have to be shorter.

In my experience, shorter writing assignments expose both writing skill and thinking skill more clearly: you can't hide in six or 12 or 25 pages of simple endurance. You either had an idea and wrote it up well, or you didn't. When a student comes to my office with a two page response paper that earned a 74, we can go over the entire paper, in detail, in about five minutes. Then the student, for the next assignment, rewrites that first one. Can you do this with a 10 page paper? In short writing, it's all right there in front of you: it's quality, not quantity, people.

And the same goes for grading: when I have less quantity, I find I can bring more quality. I give clearer, more detailed, better feedback to students when I'm not exhausted from marathon reading sessions of backbreaking stacks of papers.  I try to create (more numerous) short assignments that explicitly aim to help students write clearly and to think clearly: we write thesis statements, we do annotated bibliographies, we write response papers and the rewrite them, we do drafts of the research paper, and peer editing. I give detailed, lengthy feedback on everything.

I find this works with graduate students as well: I love to assign 400 word response papers, but the students who really struggle with this complain there isn't "enough room" to argue a point. I tell them, truthfully, that if you can't make one point in 400 words, you can't produce a sensible 20 page paper, and that discipline in this regard is worth kingdoms.

Writing in university--and in the profession--is not an endurance event, where the simple feat of managing to produce a lengthy term paper for several courses at the same time is worthy of great applause. And yet if you ask your undergrads how they write a six or eight or 12 page paper, they'll tell you they start at page one and keep going until they manage to fill the required number of pages, usually in the face of severe deadline pressure at the end of term: they treat academic writing like a sleep-deprived endurance event. I say instead: write me something shorter, something more pointed, something we can work on in proposal, in draft, in redraft, something I can read as closely and carefully as I want without giving up a month of sleep. Something you can rewrite completely without giving up a month of your sleep. Let's think about the process of creating something good, not just something long enough.

There's nothing heroic, I think, in writing or grading 10 or 15 or 20 page papers if the goal is simply to make it long enough or to make students "work hard enough," and the grade makes itself manifest on the first page. It's wasted time and effort all round.


Writing of all kinds requires skill at fundamental things: sentence construction, grammar, audience. Academic writing requires subject and research competence. In my view, shorter assignments help me teach these skills as fundamentals, as steps to be mastered before the culminating or more synthetic activity of the full-on Major Research Paper too thick for a staple that marshals original thinking with persuasive writing with careful research diligently cited and creatively organized. We will all work up to longer writing--which is a skill in itself to master, but one you can't really get to with people who cannot form sensible paragraphs--because longer writing is important. But not right away, and not in every course, at every level.

You? Do you know by the end of page one what the grade will be? What are your grading or assignment strategies?