Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Interdisciplinary? Phooey.

Hey! It's another post about research! Because I'm on sabbatical!

I'm worried about interdisciplinarity. Mostly that we seem to think that interdisciplinary curricula are great for our undergraduate and sometimes our graduate students, but not for professors who are serious scholars. I don't know that we're ready for interdisciplinary research, in the humanities / social sciences. At least, not if you want to publish in scholarly journals.

Because, I begin to suspect, "interdisciplinary" is derived from the Latin for "has no home," or "you are always a dilettante in someone's discipline," or "this journal doesn't publish that kind of work." Sometimes, when journals and conferences vaunt their interdisciplinary, they mean that they'll accept papers from sociology OR communications studies, or that they're willing to seriously consider work from either the British OR the North American cultural studies traditions. But God help you if you want to do ... computer science and poetry, say. Unless you start your own journal.

I won my SSHRC Standard Research Grant last year having been adjudicated by the interdisciplinary committee, to which I had to petition exactly why said work was in fact interdisciplinary. Since I've dropped my canoe into that stream, I've had my happiest times and my worst, the best opportunities and the most stinging rejections. I'm tired. I thought "interdisciplinary" was the adjective of the future! What happened?

I don't mind reading twice as much background research, theoretical texts, etc for about half the publication frequency. I am so excited to be reading so many fascinating ideas from so many different fields. It's a privilege and drawing connections between all these disparate things is a joy. There are problems in the world that I want to solve, and I think I'm on my way to at least understanding what I don't know. I love the research, the writing, the thinking. I don't mind that kind of hard work.

What I do mind is being told I can't use the word significant (to mean, "meaningful") in an "interdisciplinary" new media studies journal because my data are not statistically significant. I mind when a social science reviewer from an "interdisciplinary" feminist journal tells me that close reading is "not a methodology." I mind when literary journals tell me that material about the internet is irrelevant to their interests. I mind when digital humanities events tell me a historical take on programming is "not even interesting to this organization." What I really mind is the underlying implication: It's not that I'm not doing something well, it's that they're saying it shouldn't be done at all. If you can't frame a research question legibly in terms of one discipline, there's no sense in even trying to answer it, is the implication.

And I don't like that view of the world, either inside the academy or out of it.

I love working in my discipline, English. I love my training in English and what it has taught me to do. But my questions extend beyond the edges of English, and I don't quite know how to get where I'm going, or even how to convince anyone that the journey might be worth taking.

Disciplines are a powerful generator of knowledge. But they're limiting, too: the more expert you become, the fewer and fewer people can actually make sense of or employ what you create. What's the right balance? I'm really wondering, I am! I know this sounds complain-y, like "Wah! Peer reviewers hurt my feelings!" but it's not that, really (I mean, I got my SSHRC, and so far, knock wood, all my writing has eventually found a home). I am really wondering: what mix of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity offers the right balance between peer-reviewable excellence, and moving the ball forward in the academy and outside of it?


Monday, March 26, 2012

No Apologies!

Tina Fey's Bossypants has been taken up by all kinds of great bloggers as a guidebook for women negotiating, well, pretty much everything, and for good reason! Needless to say, the blogs I was most interested in were the ones that thought through how Fey's wit and strategic sharp thinking can serve as excellent advice for women weaving through the traffic of academia. Tonight while I was cooking dinner I found myself wondering which other women might offer a similar kind of unexpected insight. So, in the spirit of Le Tigre's "Hot Topic" here's the beginning of an eclectic list:


Julia Child: If I had a dollar for every time I said "Sorry to bother you, but" or made some other caveat before presenting my ideas well, let's just say I wouldn't be so concerned with getting a tenure-track position. Not only is Julia Childs the maven who repeatedly reminds us to make "No apologies!" she also took risks to do what she loved. No matter what. I'd say that's pretty great advice for us at any stage of our careers. 

Megan Leslie, MP (NDP): Last week I walked into my classroom and lo, there in the front of the room was Megan Leslie. She had just given a guest lecture and students were lined up to talk with her after class. She introduced herself to each one saying, "Hi, I'm Megan." As I was setting up my computer behind her she turned and introduced herself to me with the same simple words. She's clear spoken, uncompromising, and always seems to manage to get the last word in without being snide. Moreover, she's a crucial voice for women in a space that is run by a government that grows increasingly hostile to women. Clear spoken, incisive, and uncompromising: three ways of being that will certainly work in the academy as well. 


Maya Arulpragasam: I think that there's much to be learned from a smart, savvy, badass multi-tasker with a sense of global politics rhythm to boot. No apologies here, that's for certain.


Your turn readers. Which women should we be watching, and why?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another feminist metaphor involving bicycles ...

You know how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? Well, I was riding into the office on my bicycle just yesterday, and I was thinking, instead, how riding a bicycle in traffic is like being a female academic. Consider it!

1. If you don't occupy the space you are entitled to, you will be run over. 

I have one big left turn to make on my commute. From a a multilane road, across a three-lane one way road, and then over a sidewalk which is actually the way you are supposed to access the bike trail. It's complicated. They've just repaved and redone that whole intersection, and one of the improvements was to extend the bike lane right into the left turn lane. But you have to be pretty ballsy to do the right thing, and move right into that big bike turning lane. The thing that makes it safe is to really occupy that space, not skooch off to the side. Take your right of way, don't waffle at the cars that are looking to figure out what you're going to do. 

Similarly in the academy: you can be in the academy, but if you don't "occupy your lane" you might easily get run over.

2. We are a minority; we have to act as a group because we are being judged. 

At that intersection? Many, many, many cyclists suddenly become pedestrians. They're scared or impatient, trying to act like cars, so they suddenly move out of car traffic and start riding through the crosswalks and over the sidewalks, to shimmy their way through that 'left turn'. When they nearly get run over, they yell at the cars and I wince: cyclists! You are in the wrong! And you are making drivers hate ALL bicyclists, and I myself want to run you over right now. Similarly in the academy: in direct proportion to women's underrepresentation, the individual woman is judged as the exemplar of all. It's not fair, but it's true.

3. You need a voice. 

It is insanity to cycle in the city without a bell. In traffic it can recall to pedestrians that you are a vehicle and they should not jaywalk in front of you. It can remind cars that you are near them. On a mixed-use trail, you need to warn slower people ahead that you are behind them and about to pass. It is literally dangerous to not have a bell: someone's dog meanders across the trail and you wipe out. A pedestrian steps onto the roadway and you are both injured.

Similarly in the academy: we all need to speak up for what is right, because if we don't it's quite rare that anyone is going to come directly solicit us for our qualms. If you don't assert yourself, you may find yourself teaching at 8am on Friday until the end of time. Ring the alarm! It's dangerous not to!

 4. We are in a minority; we need to behave better than everyone else. The stakes are higher. 

Cyclists face innumerable dangers on the roads, many from clueless or inattentive or hostile drivers. It's all fine and good to occupy the moral high ground ("but I am entitled to three feet of the roadway, and it is the law that the car must find a way to get safely around me!) but if a car hits you, you are the one who dies. Cyclists need to be mor attentive, more aware of the laws, more deferential to the giant death machines, because we ar smaller, fewer, more vulnerable.

Similarly in the academy: women serve on too many committees, for equity purposes. We shoulder a disproportionate share of service work. Sometimes students want us to be their mothers. Sometimes sexism happens to us. We need to be vigilant and above reproach. It's more dangerous.

5. Sometimes, the rules are not as clear cut as they might seem, and "equal" is not "the same." 

Have you heard of the Idaho stop? It allows cyclists to roll through a four-way stop if there's no traffic. It's a law that recognizes that four-way stops are usually traffic-calming rather than safety measures, and that bicylces are not the problem there, and also that stopping and staring bicycles requires human power, not a tap of the pedals. To treat cars and bikes equally here means to treat them differently, on the basis of their different realities.

Similarly in the academy. Parental leave can be shared by male and female parents, but men don't require pregnancy leave or lactation accommodation. Faculty who are parents require different supports from faculy who are caring for parents. We all labour under individual circumstances, and what is fair for one person might not be fair for another. It's hard to create workable policy around that.

So there you have it. Ring your bells and let those wheels roll: the weather is beautiful, and all things considered, being aon my bicycle, even in traffic, feels pretty damn good right now.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Guest post: Rape Culture, Social Media and Pedagogical Responsibility

Today we have another guest post. This is by friend and colleague Andrew Bretz at the University of Guelph. Andrew's post reminds me of how we 'celebrated' International Women's Day last year.
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Last year at Yale, Delta Kappa Epsilon, a major fraternity on campus, was formally reprimanded by the university for leading new pledges through campus chanting pro-rape slogans such as “No means yes, yes means anal!”  As a feminist and a member of a university community, I was disgusted by the actions of the fraternity, but at the time I attributed it to a misogynist Greek culture that dominates university campuses in the United States.

Until recently.

A pro-rape chant, delivered on a late night bus and not simply repeated on Facebook but expanded upon by students at the University of Guelph, forced me to take a good look at the state of rape culture on my own campus.  I couldn’t do nothing, but neither am I in a position to enact direct change myself.

I wrote a blog post about it.  Given that my blog is largely inactive (with perhaps two dozen pageviews over the past year), I thought that this would be my rant into the ether and nothing more.  My post, however, has started something well beyond what I could possibly have expected.

You can read my original post here


I posted a link to my blog on my Facebook profile and figured that would be the end of it.  Within the next 48 hours:
·      My blog had been viewed over 3000 times by places as far away as Lithuania; 
·      The discussion on the original Facebook page exploded and was eventually removed altogether:
·     The president’s office was drafting a response, now available here;  
·      The Central Student’s Association had an emergency meeting to draft a response to this situation;
·      A letter writing campaign to The Ontarion had been launched regarding this issue;
The posting had spawned a discussion board on Penny Arcade.com, available here
·    I had been interviewed by CFRU, the local campus radio station, bringing attention to the issue, available here (Starting 26.20).

I followed up the initial post with a second one that commented upon the storm of criticism that has occurred in the wake of the event.


So what is the take away from all of this?  The dialogue has begun.  The problem of rape culture on university campuses is not limited to any nation or any single campus.  At Guelph, the administration has been exceptionally supportive in their condemnation of such actions as were described in the Facebook post and has begun to take steps to ensure that students are made aware of the effects that their words have.

On a personal note, I find it horrifically fitting somehow that this happened all during SAFE Week (Sexual Assault Free Environment) here at the University of Guelph, which, by the way, has an undergraduate body that is mostly female.  Also, I have learned first hand about the incredible and instantaneous power of the internet for raising awareness, something that I intend to work into my pedagogy as I move forward from this event.

But again, this isn’t really about me. It isn’t about the individual students who wrote the chant down or added to it.  It is about the fact that as a community, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that sexual violence against women is not normalized or excused.

I hope that we can continue to talk about this over on my blog or here at Hook & Eye.

-Andrew Bretz
PhD Candidate, University of Guelph

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guest Post: Career Puzzles

Look! It's a guest post! You should write one for us! This is from Dorothy Hadfield, a lovely new colleague of mine in the English Department, who once drove me home from an airport in the middle of the night after we had shared a very long cab ride down the 401 ... it's a long story, but the upshot is, she's awesome. And thoughtful, as this post demonstrates.

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Picture puzzles, detective novels, hermeneutics. I've loved all of them for as long as I can remember, and for basically the same reason: the profound satisfaction of seeing a coherent picture emerge where there had previously only been fragments, and of being able to identify the fragments that make up the coherent picture.

I remember a sense of regret and loss when I realized that life isn't like that; when Hayden White convinced me that the teleology of history was actually a fictional narrative and that all the experiences of my life hadn't inexorably led me to exactly where I was.

I've been particularly disappointed about letting go of life as a linear narrative because for much of my adult life I couldn't seem to figure out where I was supposed to be going. I'd always wanted to teach or write, but my mother, always practical, insisted I hone my office skills. While my friends had summer jobs babysitting and picking fruit, I was filing, typing, and learning to run offset presses, bookbinders, and early keypunch computers. I loved the sense of order and efficiency that came with administration and technology.

My career path was inexorably forked. Through three English degrees, I alternated teaching with administration and freelance publication work. After the PhD, the untenured two-step became even more frantic: sessional teaching at multiple universities supplemented with curriculum development, managing research projects, freelance writing, editing and indexing, website development, publication design...whatever I could cobble together to make ends meet. The career picture wasn't coming together, it seemed to just keep fragmenting farther apart, with increasingly less hope that this was all heading somewhere purposeful.

After almost a decade, I was reaching the long dark teatime of the sessional soul: running on multiple career paths was getting exhausting and getting me nowhere. But how does someone who's gone in so many directions settle into one track?

Apparently, she circles back. I had chosen Waterloo for my undergrad specifically because the co-op English option perfectly suited all those literary, business, and technology interests. Last summer the Waterloo English department created the position of "Extended Learning Co-ordinator" to develop and manage the department's online course offerings. According to the posting, the ideal candidate should have experience in teaching and research, project management, curriculum development, design, web-based learning technologies, and administration. It was the oddest duck of an academic job that I had ever seen. It was the kind of job that only someone who's never been able to focus on just one career path could love.

A couple of weeks ago I was following my new Waterloo criticism students through their online module on hermeneutics. Even though much of my own critical practice now tends to the deconstructionist line, I still love the satisfaction of finding the logic behind how the text fits together and seeing how all the pieces play their part in making the big picture emerge. I still wish real life were like that. But it isn't, right?

Dorothy Hadfield
University of Waterloo

Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking Time To Read the Fine Print


On Sunday in addition to the usual flurry of preparation-for-the-week I was also waiting on tenterhooks with the rest of my colleagues. Faculty was waiting to see if we would indeed go on strike today. I had signed up for picket duty already, I knew where I would be walking the line Monday-Friday of this week if conciliation between our union and the Board's negotiation team failed again. 

Rather than write about strike action, the importance of strong union leadership, and the ongoing war against higher education that is being waged on all sides I am want to think about the importance of reading the fine print. 

When I was offered my limited term appointment at Dalhousie it was a magical day. Literally. I had just finished my first year of sessional teaching (alright, actually I had just survived, and barely). My divorce was finalized. The house that I owned, which had been sitting on the market after three years of Money Pit-like disasters had finally had an offer. It was even sunny, and I am pretty sure that there were birds singing and little animals running about doing choreographed movements. I met my friend and mentor for a cup of coffee and a discussion; she had been contacted by the hiring committee and wanted to talk to me about what I would do if I was offered this ten-month position thousands of kilometers across the country. After our coffee I walked to my realtor's office to sign the final papers on the sale of my house. Just as I was getting into my now partner's car my cell phone rang: I got the job. I immediately called my mentor and she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. She said, "Erin, read the collective agreement. Sit down with a pot of tea and read the whole thing. It will be tedious, but you'll thank yourself later. Use a highlighter, take some notes, and write down any questions you have. When it comes time for you to negotiate for a full-time position be sure to call me. Women need to be better at negotiation and at reading the fine print."

Readers, I followed her advice. Sure, I forgot or didn't understand or simply skimmed a great deal of the information, but reading through this huge document gave me a sense of the sheer amount of fine print associated with this profession. When the DFA entered into pension negotiations I knew where to look in the collective agreement, but more importantly I knew that even as a junior contract faculty member this stuff mattered immensely for me.

The job market is so tight right now that it feels like winning the lottery even making it through to a campus interview (in fact, given the super-saturated market of strong candidates, I think it is a kind of lottery). However, it is crucial to remember that you are in a position of power as well. You must read the fine print. You must find someone to mentor you in contract negotiations. You must realize that even though on the inside you are thrilled to pieces you have been selected for an interview you still need to look at all the paperwork and know what you are signing on for.

The question is: where and how have you learned to read the fine print? Who has taught you how to negotiate for yourself? 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The selfishness of writing

I'm writing a book.

There, I've said it. Now I'm going to have to follow through, if everyone knows. Right? I managed to get tenure without writing a book, even though I had every intention of revising my dissertation into one. One awful day I found a new book that seemed to replicate 80% of what I'd written, threw both it and my dissertation across the office, cried and cried, and gave up. I wrote a bunch of article and book chapters, and learned to be comfortable in that mode of writing and publication.

In fact, I'm finishing off a 6000 word piece right now, and it's been pretty painless. But now I've decided the next thing will be a book.

I'm scared.

I'm scared of the usual things, like getting rejected (bad) or getting scooped (worse). I'm scared of doing it poorly, and I'm scared of missing something important that exposes my stupidity. I'm scared of the sheer volume of writing, the organizational nightmares of printouts and research notes, and interlibrary loans, and lost citations, and detail work.

What I'm most scared of, though, is this: the selfishness of writing.

Writing my dissertation was like an intense, overwhelming romantic entanglement. My dissertation and I spent nearly every waking minute together, and in our moments of separation, it was what I thought about. My whole conversation was dissertation. My whole schedule, hell, my whole apartment was dissertation from top to bottom. I have, from that period, a lot of pictures of my cat, ensnarled in piles of printouts, batting coloured paper clips around in kittenish fashion. My life was like this: get up when feeling rested, eat oatmeal and make latte, walk 10 feet over to computer, work until tired, take long walk to refresh brain, eat lunch, work until tired, have nap, wake up around 4 and work until 7, do stuff that makes the writing go away until tired, go to bed, repeat. Even the non-writing tasks are just designed to facilitate the writing. When the writing is able to come, everything else shifts over.

It's hugely selfish. And that's not a kind of life my life supports right now; it's not the kind of life I want to be living.

For me, service work can be picked up or put down in five minute increments. Teaching prep and grading and such, too, while interesting and important, is not engrossing in the way that writing is. Even writing articles is exponentially less intense than book-format writing and thinking. It's the difference between juggling beanbags and juggling bean fields: the sheer scale of the thing requires herculean increases in both strength and focus.

When I'm really writing, I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't want to cook supper because someone else is hungry. I don't want to do laundry until I run out of underwear. I don't want to shop for groceries. I don't want to get out of bed while I'm still groggy. Or shower so that we can then run the dishwasher. I don't want to put my printouts somewhere out of sight.

I turn into a jackass, really. And I don't want to do that. But I do want to write the book I feel is kind of asking me to write it.

I have no experience of long format academic writing that doesn't burn up everything in my life except the writing. I don't know how to be reasonable and write like that. How to have balance while juggling those bean fields.

Do you know how? Do you have any advice? Because I'm not sure how to do my best writing and thinking, and still live my life with the kind of balance and joy of family I've come to enjoy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

On the Road Again: Packing like a Champ

Last week Aimée wrote about one of the wonderful perks that come along with the not so wonderful aspects of academic life. I too love traveling, and I tend to do most of my traveling for conferences these days. I have completely disregarded my the advice of readers who offered such fantastic insight into the question of how many conferences to attend in a year. As I write this I am sitting in the Air Canada terminal in Toronto. I'm pleasantly exhausted after one of those magical conferences that combined genuinely good papers with interesting conversation and new acquaintances. In the next few hours I'll complete my lectures for tomorrow (two), finish this blog post, see my partner, prepare for the week (and maybe a strike), and then crash.

This is a cycle that in one way or another I am going to be repeating quite a bit as  I am traveling a LOT in the coming months. I've found that one of the things that makes traveling and working on the road more feasible is good packing. I used to be a terrible packer: four-pairs-of-shoes-and-a-party-dress-and-a-bookshelf-of-books for a three-day trip kind of terrible. I'm getting better. Here are some tips that are helping me enjoy the trip, get work done, and not feel too totally wrenched from the good routines in my life.

1. Plan your outfits
I never used to do this for traveling, I mean who knows if I was actually going to feel like wearing what I brought with me? The result of this thinking meant I brought everything with me including the wardrobe kryptonite item (as if I was going to figure out how to incorporate puce into my wardrobe while at a conference). These days I lay my outfits out on the bed beforehand. I make sure that they are remixable by taking an interchangeable colour palette, and I take a reasonable amount of shoes...usually.

2. Limit your books
I like working on airplanes and in hotel rooms, there is something about being out of my life and cut off from regular interactions that allows me to focus my mind. But let's be honest, unless you're off for a research retreat there is not need to take the whole bookshelf. My solution of late has been to scan documents into PDFs and load them on my laptop of my Kindle. I use my Kindle for taking the other texts I need, and I take a notebook. I only bring texts for work that has to be finished while I am away. I'm learning that the only thing I gain from loading my suitcase full of books is a heavy luggage charge.

3. Pack a lunch
Seriously! Airplane food is expensive and really unsatisfying. If you have any dietary nuances it is nigh on impossible to eat well in an airport. I have a cute little bento box that is made of plastic. It goes through the scanner in my carry on luggage easily, and let me tell you I feel awfully pleased with myself when I open it up to a sandwich, some almonds, and a diced mango. The effort is worth it, I promise. I also bring a water bottle with my and try to drink lots of water. I recently got a water bottle/thermos that has a detachable tea basket. It feels great (and decadent) to sip gorgeous tea on the plane.












4. Move! Get some air!

I am a regular yoga practitioner. It keeps me from feeling I am kinking at the hips because I have such a close relationship with my desk chair. I pack my yoga mat with me, and practice in the hotel room (ok, sometimes I take it and don't practice, but at least it is there). I try to get out and get some air during the breaks between papers.


5. Steal some time
A trip is a trip. If you can, carve out some quality time for yourself. I have a really hard time doing this, granted, but it is worth it.

Happy trails, y'all!