Thursday, October 31, 2013

On the 'Do

In her last post (Go read and comment! It will make your day), Aimee so nicely suggested that she's hoping to learn more from me "about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like." We'll get to that, but today's post is anything but life-of-the-mind-y. Rather than writing about what's in my head, I'm writing about what's on it--my hair, in all of its shiny and political glory. Hair (at least mine) might be frizzled, but it ain't just frivolous.

(If you like these style posts, check out all the ones tagged with style matters. And please ignore the fact that I'm shamelessly revisiting Aimee's post on her feminist haircut).

My recent hair obsession started with three things: 1) being too busy to get a haircut for what seemed like an age and then fussing about with my overgrown mop, 2) starting the new job and trying to figure out how to juggle looking put together at work and fitting in time at the gym before my hour-long commute and my 8:30 start, and 3) seeing a woman on the bus with a beautiful short crop that looked SO stylish and SO easy. In the easy department she beat my rather high-maintenance bob, which requires endless blow drying and ironing every time I wash it, else I look like a electrocuted poodle.

I wasn't kidding.
In the throes of hair obsession, I seriously considered following the suit of my short-haired muse and hacking the whole business off. If you'll permit me a whine, expectations around women's hair just seem so unfair, and so expressly calculated to channel our energies into the frivolous and the decorative instead of into the useful and the intellectual. And I want that half-hour of sleep back, dammit. Most men--at least prior to the advent of the man-bun--can just shower and be on their way, little-to-no fluffing required. (They also aren't expected by society to put on makeup, or strap themselves into bras, or paint their nails, or jam their feet into high heels--all things which I know I'm not ACTUALLY required to spend my time doing, in any objective sense, but do anyway because I like to look nice and because painting ones' nails is, not unlike making risotto, very relaxing.) But women in most parts of the world are conditioned to equate long hair with femininity and attractiveness, and thus grow luscious locks that require more babying than my rather neurotic cat. There are exceptions, of course, like those who decide that they just don't give a damn, or those, like Halle Berry or my friend Belinda, who are made for short hair. And of course there are women who have long hair or high-maintenance hair for reasons other than style. But the coded (and not so coded) message many women get is that short hair is unfeminine, unflattering, unsexy, and only for those beautiful or dynamic enough to make up for their lost hair-related appeal in other ways. (I can't imagine how terribly those messages must be compounded for women who have lost their hair for medical reasons, and thus are told that they're doubly unattractive, being both sick and bald.)

Having absorbed this equation of hair = beauty (and being, let's be honest, just a mite vain), I spend all kinds of time--valuable time, time I could be spending on intellectual pursuits, or with my family, or exercising, or SLEEPING, for goodness sakes--washing my hair, drying my hair, ironing my hair, working to pay for expensive haircuts, shopping for hair products. Think about how much time I could devote to concocting some brilliant money-making scheme, or practicing my French, or writing my dissertation, if I started refusing to style my hair, or cut it into a style that doesn't require styling. A lot! It's madness, I tell you! It's hair tyranny! 

Sure, there are other ways to say screw you to the hair establishment than cutting it all off. The low-maintenance (and very popular) long-hair-always-in-a-bun style (or the every popular ponytail) is certainly one way, although it often comes at the cost of headaches from the weight of all that hair perched atop one's head all day. (I'd go that route, but the migraines aren't worth it.) And dry shampoo is a godsend, that's for certain.  But wouldn't it be lovely if we lived in a world where beauty and femininity weren't tied to hair? Where short-haired women were just as unremarkable as short-haired men? Where those of us not in possession of Cate Blanchett's cheekbones didn't feel like we needed hair to hide, or accentuate, parts of our faces? Where long hair was a simple choice, and not, as it is for some people, a screen, or armour? Where I could get sweaty and shower and be on my way in the morning, no potions or hair irons required?

Sadly, we don't. And I'm brave about some things, but apparently not about this. My high-maintenance hair is, somewhat to my dismay, a part of my personal and professional identity, and so it stays. I still resent the time I spend on my coif, time I could be spending in other ways, but clearly not enough to give Hannah-the-hairdresser free rein with the clippers. I'm keeping my poodle-free bob, which looks quite nice, I do concede. But I'm also figuring out other ways I can take back my time from the demands of appearances. Time to invest in some no-iron clothes, perhaps?

Makeup, jewelry, dress, heels, manicure, contacts, hair did--the whole shebang.

What about you? Is your 'do a drag, a drain, a distraction from more important things? Or is your coif something you celebrate? Do you find the discussion of follicles frivolous, or fraught? Do tell!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who's your role model?

I've been thinking about role models lately. In our graduate professionalization seminar this week, we were talking about issues related to teaching: practical issues like classroom management, broader issues like different pedagogical theories relating to the teaching of writing, but also bigger, structural questions of "What does a career teaching in the academy look like, going forward?"

You probably know from your own experience that most university teachers are passively trained: we pick up a teaching style from being taught, mostly. We then model ourselves consciously or unconsciously to resemble teachers we admired: these are, literally, our role models. This applies to our research and service work as well: we learn how to do library research in a pretty programmatic way, perhaps, but the practices relating to books versus articles, how many submissions per year, what kinds of conferences, how to select and do university service (or avoid doing it), how to comport ourselves in meetings, all of that we kind of ... make up as we go along, deliberately or accidentally modeling our behavior on what we've seen from others, usually senior to us.

The academy is changing. Fast, and a lot. Bigger classes, more diverse students, online teaching, greater research expectations, expectations related to seeking and securing outside funding, collaborative service work, higher stakes administrative work, politicization and austerity, and globalized classrooms.

It's possible that some of those more senior scholars we most admire actually work in a version of the academy that doesn't exist for junior scholars. An academy where teaching loads keep going down, to promote a research agenda. Where all the students speak English as a first language, or you can let someone else deal with that. Where SSHRC actually funds non-targeted research. Where teaching online is a hobby, or something you can do for extra money. Where you can ignore, mostly, the external climate of anti-intellectualism and academy-bashing, because you've still got lots of majors and enough government money. Where mentoring PhDs involves writing them reference letters for academic jobs.

Life on the ground in the profession looks different now even than when I started here, almost ten years ago. It's worlds different from when I started as a student at York, in a first year English seminar, with a cap of 12 students and taught by a senior professor.

I like the academic social media space in part because it allows us to find role models among academics of our own generation: a kind of lateral modelling where we can figure out the structural realities together, as they operate today. We can become colleagues in arms, building horizontal relationships to give context and nuance, maybe, to the vision of the life of the mind we pick up from our traditional role models or mentors, who tend to be senior to us.

Who are your role models? IRL, when I was a grad student, and of course since then as well, my role models have included Heather Zwicker (my dissertation supervisor) and Susan Brown (my MA supervisor). Heather showed me that you can be assertive and sassy and smart and get ahead on your own terms. Susan showed me how to be a feminist and a digital humanist at the same time, in a literature department. And what it might be like to start a family on the tenure track.

I have some new and different role models now. Erin Wunker is teaching me about what it means to be an academic in the new world of LTAs and increasing contingency: a teacher and researcher with incisive smarts and grace, clear-eyed and articulate. Lee Skallerup Bessette is teaching me about loud and proud contingency, about changing research areas without real institutional support, about building community through networking and public writing. Adeline Koh is teaching me about weaving a thorough interrogation of race and gender into digital humanities work, about building alliances and calling bullshit and being thoroughly engaged across scholarly and para-scholarly platforms: this is what integrity looks like. I hope to be learning more from Melissa Dalgleish about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.

I'm trying to cultivate mentors and models from across the ranks, and across the wide range of academic lives: I feel the richer for it, humbled by the various kinds of excellence I am lucky enough to witness. I feel empowered from these examples to continue to learn to be the kind of academic that I can become.

What about you? Can you share some of your role models? We'd love to hear about them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

3 Reasons 2 Opportunities to Speak Up About Women

November is a few days away, and with it comes two deadlines you should be aware of:

1) CWILA's Critic in Residence competition closes on November 1.


The Residency
CWILA supports a female Canadian writer (poet, novelist, storyteller, scholar) as its resident critic for a calendar year. The aim of the residency is to foster criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters. Specifically, the critic-in-residence works on critical essays and/or book reviews and submits them to one or more Canadian review venues (print and web). This work is also archived by CWILA and becomes available through its website following publication elsewhere, copyright permitting. The critic-in-residence is encouraged to support a climate of critical responsiveness in Canadian letters through a collaborative or community-based project of her choice. In addition, the Critic in Residence will comment on the results of the annual Count in a public forum. The residency is virtual, so the writer is free to work from home. The Critic in Residence will finish the term by submitting a dossier summarizing the work done while in residence. The deadline for submission of the essay or reviews to CWILA is December 31st of the year of the residency. At this time, the writer also provides documentation that the pieces have been submitted to other publications.
Application Criteria:
Applications should include a letter of intent describing the project or projects the applicant wishes to undertake, the venue or venues to which they plan to submit, a one-page CV, and one short sample of critical work.
We particularly encourage applications from writers with disabilities, genderqueer writers, Indigenous writers, as well as other women and/or genderqueer writers of colour.
Stipend:  $3,000
Applications: The deadline for applications is November 1, 2013
Please send applications to CWILAcritic2014@gmail.com


2) Abstracts for Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals are due October 31. 


This national conference proposes to appraise women’s contributions to dynamic discourse in Canada and Quebec. Scheduled in conjunction with Persons Day, 18 October 2014, the conference will feature among other notable participants Margaret Atwood, Nicole Brossard, Siila Watt-Cloutier, Jessica Danforth, Charlotte Gray, Smaro Kamboureli, Antonia Maioni, Pam Palmater, Judy Rebick, Janice Stein, and Lori Turnbull.
Canadian women have contributed enormously to public discourse, in important but often under-valued ways.  Across different generations and cultural communities, women in English Canada and Quebec address key questions that animate intellectual discussion, from concerns about the environment and the economy to issues of social justice, racism, poverty, health and violence.  But are their voices valued and heard, or are they subsumed in the general noise of public debate?  Why are they not accorded the attention and approbation they merit?
Both the Critic in Residence position and the Discourse & Dynamics conference hinge on the fundamental belief that women have a crucial role to play in working towards a more egalitarian future for people living in Canada. If you're reading this blog then I suspect that point isn't one you need to be convinced of; however, it is also almost November. If you're reading this then chances are you have some affiliation with the Academy as well. Whether you're a graduate student, sessional, adjunct, precariously or under employed, tenure track, or tenured faculty member we know that this time of year is busy. It is easy to let deadlines slip by. Here are three reasons to consider speaking in public, whether in an application to CWILA's CIR, or in a proposal for a presentation to Discourse & Dynamics, or simply to circulate these and other opportunities to speak up and speak out. 

1) Indigenous women are leading the fight for land rights and environmental protection against a government that does not respect Indigenous peoples and their rights. 

2) We live in a country saturated with rape culture: from the chants on university campuses, to the ongoing systematic violence against women, to violently engendered language. For example, I just learned about #rapeface this morning, but apparently it has been in circulation for a few years. Speaking out against violence is one step, speaking with people -- especially young people -- about it is another crucial step towards eradicating rape culture.

3) We need more images like this one of women celebrating the recognition of their lifetime achievements.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Teaching with compassion and responsibility

While  compassion and responsibility do not sit at opposite of the pedagogical spectrum, I've stumbled over this conundrum lately, and I might just need your help to sort it out. The basic question, I guess, is how to balance the need to teach facts, e.g., passive voice, as building blocks for higher-order critical thinking, with the expectation, especially in an English class, that everything is up for interpretation. More pressingly, how to accurately assess the process of learning in a way that does not belie a progressive pedagogy.

I see it as my responsibility to equip students--as many as possible--with these building blocks that they can later count on, and thus dispel the myth that analyzing literature or popular culture and writing about them are the domain of a chosen few. If we model these methods--here are the building blocks, here's how we put them together, here's how they become evidence, here's how we analyze, rather than simply judge--in class in a variety of ways--individual and collaborative--students will leave class with a toolkit they'll be able to access afterward.

Compassion comes into the equation in a variety of ways. First, through the respect enacted in a decentred class. Second, by ensuring a distribution of different methods of delivery and types of assignments, so as to engage the various types of learners. Third, through ongoing consultation: most students I've encountered can diagnose their needs well, especially if they're at a moment in their life when they can dedicate their attention to education. And that's the final aspect of compassion for now: most students I teach juggle their education with jobs to pay for it,  volunteering, and family responsibilities.

Where's the conflict? Simply put: in the unsatisfactory act of putting a grade on an assignment that comes at an arbitrary point in the ongoing process of learning and skill-acquisition. That grade, in spite of my attempts to contextualize it with tailored comments (and a wealth of them, at that) remains a poor, problematic, yet final assessment that tends to foreclose a process that  otherwise might have continued: what's the incentive, for students who are as multi-directionally engaged, to continue practicing those skills, when the judge has spoken? Moreover, how do we reconcile the contradiction between the decentred class that the instructor moderates, and the fact that instructor suddenly becomes the judging authority?

There are alternatives out there: many people I know work with the contract grading model, in which a student is guaranteed a certain grade if s/he submits all assignments, and participates in the mandated meetings. Moreover, the assessment happens globally, on a portfolio, on the progression of learning, etc. Yet another system, championed by HASTAC, proposes a system of Badges for Lifelong Learning, which both acknowledges the need for and the reality of the ongoing learning process, especially when it comes to skills.

You'd think that, eight years in, I would have figure these pedagogical conundrums out, but they just seem to become more pressing. How do you see and achieve balance? Conversely, what's your pressing pedagogical conundrum?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Women in Physics: the 13%

One of the best parts of my job is helping students prepare their applications for major scholarships: the Fulbright, the Rhodes, the Vanier, the Trudeau. I've spent the last seven years in grad school learning how to identify and write to generic expectations, and it's very rewarding to help students see that research proposals are a genre, with very specific expectations, and then help them master that genre. And as someone who often daydreams about what life would be like if I had decided to study in a wildly different field, it's a ball getting to read brilliant and exciting research proposals from students in mathematics, or visual art, or architecture, or chemistry, or theoretical physics.

It was a moment when working through a proposal from that last field that recently gave me pause. The application was written by perhaps the smartest student I've yet encountered, one who has gotten an A+ in every single graduate course she has ever taken, and yet has managed to find time to also be a gifted athlete and a committed volunteer. She also happens to be a woman, and a woman in the field with perhaps the worst track record for gender equity; as the American Institute of Physics notes, "women make up about 13% of faculty members in all degree-granting physics departments, and there are physics departments with no women faculty members at all." This is in stark contrast to my discipline--according to a 2009 report by the MLA, women make up 43.3% of faculty at the rank of professor in the modern languages, and 67.4% of the faculty at the rank of associate professor. In a meeting with a number of people involved in putting together her scholarship application, we were discussing the goals this outstanding student wanted to set out for the tenure of her award. As part of her leadership statement, which asked students to set out goals quite distinct from their research project, one of the students' goals was to institute a mentorship program for female students in her department, providing them with additional support and guidance in order to improve the chances that they would stay and succeed in the field. When someone suggested that the student might want to consider emphasizing her plans for this seemingly very necessary work, or expand the scope of what she might accomplish in regards to promoting gender equality in physics, a female senior physics scholar called a stop. "I don't," she said, "want this student to emphasize that she is a woman in physics." 

And my question was--why not? 

I've been trying to figure out the motivation behind that statement, and what it says about the state of gender equality in physics, or in the hard sciences more generally. Was the senior scholar concerned that the student would face discrimination as a woman in physics during the judgement of her scholarship application, and so wanted to downplay her gender? Did she feel like the student's interest in promoting equality and in nurturing younger students was unscholarly? Did she feel that working toward gender equality in her field was unnecessary, or futile? Why not write an application that forced readers, some of whom might carry the biases that have led women to be so outnumbered in physics, to acknowledge that women are of the best and brightest in the field? And that proposed real ways to start challenging those biases and inequities? 

I'm pretty much of the belief that whatever we can do to promote gender equality, wherever we can do it, however we can do it, we should do it. But--sure, I come from the same field as David Gilmour, but that's also a field where the vast majority of undergraduate students are women, and the majority of faculty are too. It must be a very different world, being part of the 13%. 

What say you, dear readers? Where have you met resistance to challenging gender inequality from the women in your field? Any ideas where that resistance comes from, or what we can do to combat it?  


Monday, October 21, 2013

Women, Silence, and the State

Last week I had the opportunity to watch Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. This documentary is organized around the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The commission found that women in Canada were lacking rights, recognition, and protections around issues of equal pay, affordable and accessible child care, and that they wanted access to abortions on demand. Of the more than one hundred recommendations made by the committee on the status of women none of them had to do with violence.

Status Quo? takes up these four concerns more than four decades later and asks what has been gained for women in Canada since the Commission. You may not be surprised to hear very little has changed.

Women are targets of violence on a daily and disproportionate basis, especially women of colour and Aboriginal women. Women still do not get equal pay for their work. Child care is inaccessible, unaffordable, and the Harper Government's Live-In Care Giver Program has created a new way in which to off-load unwanted labour and unfair working conditions onto women from developing nations. And abortion? Well, I just learned that in my new home province of New Brunswick I would need to get two letters from two doctors to get an abortion at one of the two hospitals providing the service such that it is covered by my health care. Guess how difficult it is to obtain a family doctor in New Brunswick? Given that, should I need to get an abortion I would have to pay cash for it up front. There are no abortion services on Prince Edward Island. The unfinished business of feminism indeed.

Watching this documentary got me riled up, and it got me thinking again about the ways in which the state actively participates in the silencing of women. Silence works on myriad levels, and it adapts for different subject experiences and positions.

I am aware of the unearned privilege that I have. I am highly educated. I am white. I speak English fluently and without a marked accent. These things grant me privilege that I didn't earn myself (ok, I earned those degrees, but no one ever questioned my right to obtain them). Most of the time I feel as though I can speak up when I want to, command authority when I need to (everyday in classrooms), and make my own choices. But then I was reminded how pernicious structural and gendered silencing can be:


Lily Myers's performance cut close to the bone for me at a number of different points. I watch my students, my friends, and even myself apologize for speaking. I learned at a young age to have a relationship with food. I have learned to absorb in ways that are so subtle that I rarely am even conscious of them. Myers's performance doesn't speak for every woman's experience -- and it isn't trying to -- but what it does underscore for me is the absolute necessity of constantly asking whose voices we are hearing, why we are hearing them, and why they feel they have the right to speak. We need to continue to be vigilant in teaching women to speak, to take up space, to recognize why and how they have internalized the silence expected of them, and to speak out on behalf of themselves and others.

This past week has seen increased state sanctioned violence against and attempts to silence Mi'kmaq protesters and allies in Elsipogtog. You've seen the burning cars on the news, but you may not have seen the real stories of police aggression. You may not have seen the women singing in peaceful protest. As we near the year anniversary of Idle No More and of Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike I am reminded of the ways in which women speak despite the attempts to silence them. I am reminded of how much work we all still have to do.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The insidious Dunning-Kruger effect, or why our skills don't look like skills, even to ourselves

I'm an English professor, right? And it frustrates me to no end that very few people seem to see the value of an English degree. We've all heard it from our relatives and colleagues in the real world: "So, are you going to be a teacher?" Or, "I'd better watch what I say around the grammar police!" Or, "Do you want fries with that?" Or, "How are you ever going to get a real job with no training?" Etc.

What's even worse, for me, is hearing people who've completed English degrees (I'm looking at you, Margaret Wente, and also, distressingly, a lot of people I myself went to school with) bemoaning the "fact" that they have no discernible skills to show for it.

That hurts. I can maybe wrap my head around why people who have no experience of university-level training in English to maybe wonder how many poetry repair shoppes its graduates can reasonable expect to sustain. But our own grads? Failing to see what excellent writers and thinkers they are?

People, this week I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is basically that most people are really really bad at assessing their own level of competence in a given field of endeavour both in absolute terms, and relative to others. Go read the link. Go. It's mindblowing, yet somehow obvious, work. This line of thinking has been crucial to totally reframing my understanding of why people in general and even people who should know better, are so eager to bash the humanities.

In brief, students who really don't get the material don't get it at such a level that they don't even know how little they get. Got it? So, a student in the bottom quartile of a class might tell a researcher with perfect guilelessness that she's a B- student. The idea is that there are some degrees of unknowing that are so deep that the unknower can't even see the difference between their own (bottom quartile) efforts and an example paper from the top-achieving student. The research suggests that showing these student an exemplar paper does not help them learn: they think that's what they already did.

To me, this explains how some quite skilled and smart people who don't have English degrees somehow cannot see the differences between what they write, and what skilled and trained writers write. They literally cannot see the difference, and so to them, their skills are equal to the trained writers. So it's not nastiness, it's a metacognitive thing.

More amazing to me still was the corollary finding that top performers also consistently misrate ... their relative level of skill. So an 85 student might say she thinks she has a roughly 85-level understanding, but where she makes her error is in thinking that most other students are probably getting 83 or 84. When in fact, they are getting 70. So the skilled student also falls into the error not of misrating her own knowledge, but of failing to recognize this skilled performace as skilled. So she is likely to downplay her talents as a baseline level of accomplishment that most people have. When they don't.

So where this led me was to at least beginning to think I understand why the world at large, and even, heart-breakingly, our own graduates, undervalue skills in writing, and critical thinking, and analysis that we work so hard to foster. They can't see the difference.

Now. How to fix?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Structural Solutions: #PostAc & #AltAc Jobs for PhDs

A month ago, at the beginning of the academic year, and on the day the MLA job list was published, I was issuing a call to imagine structural solutions to the current impasse of the disproportionately sub-unitary ratio of appropriate jobs to number of PhD graduates. Here I am in the oh-so-brief mid-semester respite (I received essays to mark last night, so I might not even see you next week), with the time and inclination to start the list of possible solutions. Kindly add to it, if you feel moved to do so.









I doubt you cannot read for yourself, but let me restate it: the writing on the wall says academia can no longer employ even a significant percentage of the PhDs it graduates. I am not a member of the club clamouring for reducing the numbers of PhD students admitted to graduate programs. Why? Because I think more education and unstructured time to think is a privilege that I'd like to see more people enjoy, not fewer, on condition that they are funded, and that their intellectual work be recognized as valuable even in the absence of material results, as it happens in the humanities. The problem is not the admission of more PhD students, but the absence of proper training for different career paths, and the actual limited career paths. You can probably now foresee the direction of my proposal.

Talk on Twitter abounds on the topic of #AltAc and #PostAc, with notable examples. Melissa's own stories on Hook and Eye promise a fulfilling career supported by one's hard won academic accolades. However, I fear these are isolated examples, which may instil a false sense of possibility and choice in PhD students, as much as they motivate them to seek alternative careers. A clear need has emerged for alternative career training, which should consist of a considerably larger chunk of a graduate student's education, in proportion to the reality of the job market. No, I don't mean instrumentalize the PhD, but merely de-habituate it from its dependence on academic careers. The current approach to alternative PhD career training leaves the general impression that post/alt-Ac paths are like the spare tire: smaller, used only in case of emergency, and incapable of achieving speeds higher than 50 km/h.

PhD Programs in English, which are the ones I have more information on, are changing to respond to this job market reality. Aimée posted her syllabus for the Graduate Professionalization Seminar to rave reviews. Linda Warley, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Waterloo tweeted about working on a program to address it (and hinted she might say more about it once it's ready). More and more people are speaking out about the need, but structural solutions also demand a change of culture, and clear steps.

I would divide the necessary elements of the programs into two groups: Graduate Student Education and Public Education (we have public health, why not public education?). Components of these two groups are on a spectrum, and not easily separated. Moreover, they mostly refer to humanities programs, whose results are less tangible, and thus less understood, more often discounted and even derided.

Graduate Student Career Training to include:
- a larger proportion of career training towards Alt-/Post-Ac from the start of the program. An Alt-/Post-Ac career should not be an afterthought, or some magic key people discover on their own. A course like Aimée's is a fantastic beginning, and should be part of the "Intro to the Discipline" style of seminars. Many, if not all departments, have some incarnation of that seminar. Alongside practice in the usual documents, why not cover talking to the media and writing op-eds.
- Knowledge- and skill-translation: the processes we undertake in graduate school are impressive, and they take time and a whole whack of skills to complete. Name ten of those that would be prized in an Alt-/Post-ac career.
- Introduction of co-op and PAID internships opportunities in graduate programs. These initiatives may well exist, but only in the rara avis state.

Public Education: there's little sense in training humanities PhDs in some career there is even less of a demand for than the academic one, so we need to educate industry and government.
- Deans and Presidents need to make it their duty to explain the value of humanities PhDs.
- Career trainers should be permanent staff. Here's the thing: most professors are dedicated  to their students, but they *are* in an academic career, so they may not be the ideal coaches when it comes to Alt-/Post-Ac.
- Open conversations with industry: in her response to Melissa's post from last week, Alison Hurlburt talked about the need to talk to people outside of the academy, in order to be able to translate your skills. To be a structural solution, this conversation should be official, at the highest levels, and ongoing. We should be proactive, instead of rejoicing in at news that Google has discovered our value.

As I've been writing this post, my internal editor has been peskier than ever. The "yes, but" has become a refrain pointing to the difficulty in proposing hard and fast solutions and rules of any kind that might result in constraints on the vital (relatively) unstructured time a humanities PhD offers. However, we have to do something more than lament the death of the academy or its neoliberalization. If anything, structural solutions begin to dispel the neoliberal myth that graduate students should just become entrepreneurs, because we're all on our own anyway, and inured to competing with one another from day one. Why not train humanities PhDs to go out into the world, in industry no less? We have the drive, the motivation, the skills, and the expertise to actually make the world better.

Monday, October 7, 2013

An Alternate Universe: On Administration and #Alt-Ac

It's one thing to know that you don't intend to go on the tenure-track, to spend months (nay, years) mourning that imagined life and reimagining a new one. It's quite another to step onto that other track and begin to take the first steps along it that will lead to somewhere just out of sight. It's proving to be quite the interesting walk, in ways that I only half expected.

I'm in the fourth week of my administrative #alt-ac position, which I can scarcely believe. Time is flying, which has a lot to do with the wholly different pace of life beyond the PhD. I used to have long stretches of time during the day in which I could sit and think and write. I had a few priorities to juggle--dissertation writing, editing projects, teaching, other academic writing--but not over many. I'm lucky now if I have ten minutes at my desk at a time, and to my still-overwhelmed brain, my priorities seem to number in the thousands. There are endless meetings--so many meetings--and score upon score of emails. And there are people. That's less of a challenge than I thought it might be, even for this confirmed introvert. I missed working with other people during the writing phase of my PhD, sometimes desperately, and I'm making up for it now. To my pleasure and surprise, it's largely women who fill the chairs--the Dean, one of two Associate Deans, both senior administrators, most of the mid-level administrators, and nearly all of the student services staff are women.

There's quite a lot about being in university administration that I prize, and didn't realize that I would. Instead of being one of many PhD students, frustrated and feeling impotent in the face of the seeming unwillingness of the academy to recognize that we have legitimate and far-reaching concerns, I'm one of many fewer who provide resources to those PhDs. I'm lucky that the people I can voice my concerns to, the lovely folks I work with, are people who have the power to do something about it. They're people who want to do something about it, and to help me develop into someone who can advocate for grad students at the highest levels. I'm far from the top of the ladder now, but I have enough autonomy and power of my own that I can effect some change where I see the need for it. I still have to watch the oncoming tide of change and cuts--I'm not deluding myself that Ontario isn't looking to Alberta as a model--but it feels less dire from here, somehow.

I'm still a bit bewildered and overwhelmed, naturally. Working 9-5 still feels both blessedly structured and terribly restraining. There are SO MANY acronyms to learn. I miss working in my pajamas, having my only interruption be the cat, and having lunch with office-bound friends. I feel guilty for not prioritizing my academic research even as I'm thrilled to get to put my policy-related research into action. The house is rather a little dustier than it was, the kitchen less well-used, and the cat a little needier. Students still come to argue grades, except now it's their whole GPA instead of one assignment.

Whatever the challenges of moving on from the tenure-track dream of academe, I can't complain.  I get to live where I want, do work I think is valuable, enjoy my co-workers, use my PhD constantly, effect real change, and learn the university from the inside. I wish I could have shown this post--this life--to Melissa-that-was, the Melissa that fretted and panicked about what to do if not be a professor. If you're a Melissa-that-was: it gets better. Indeed, it gets pretty great.

On Solid Ground: Mid-semester check-in

It is the middle of the term. This is the time when the best laid plans of September come face-to-face with the stalwart perseverance of October. The excitement and energy of the beginning of term has shifted into the steady-as-you-go routine. Grading is coming in, job advertisements have been posted, grant applications are due. And you may have already had the first cold of the school year. So here's a question for you? How are you doing? Are you on solid ground? Or are things just a little bit shaky?

I asked myself these questions this weekend and came up against some important -- if hard -- realizations.

You see, around this time in the term I have noticed that I get a little, well, wobbly. Just a bit. Alright, sometimes a lot wobbly. If you were to press me to say exactly what I mean by wobbly I'd have to say I feel lonely, overwhelmed, and antsy.

Huh. Not an answer I'm pleased to admit to myself.

The second two feelings are easier to understand. I feel overwhelmed because fall job applications tend to be due right around the time I have scheduled All The Assignments. I feel antsy because any time I get very busy with all of the things that must be done I suddenly become acutely aware of how much more I feel I should be doing. It never fails: the day I have eleven pressing things that must be completed before noon is inevitably the day I become obsessed with applying to two conferences and start wondering why I haven't revised that journal article yet. Call it what you will-- productive (or self-destructive) procrastination--it is a pattern I tend to fall into time and again. But loneliness? Well, that's the feeling that has been harder to pin-point.

Of course there is the material fact of being alone. I spend a great deal of time in my own company and inside my own head. That is part of the job we do: thinking, planning, writing. Looking at my computer. Reading. Grading. Never mind that it is all engagement with another's thinking on some level, at the core it is fairly solitary work. If I need a break more often than not I will toodle about on the Internet looking at Facebook or Instagram or reading the news. Mostly, though, I'll admit I look on social media sites. I think I do this because it gives me the sense of being connected to other people. Indeed, there's a good deal of literature out there that supports my suspicion. And often I feel satisfied and buoyed by the sense of connection that social media facilitates... sort of. Sometimes, though, I end up feeling even more behind when I catch myself comparing my accomplishments to those of others.


Truth be told I get pretty caught up in the never-ending list of things to do. I gallop from one task to the next feeling guilty about the things I have written on my list that will get pushed to the next day. And I feel overwhelmed by the myriad ways in which the profession is under siege and fret about what I can do. By this time in the term I often forget to do many of the good things that keep me on solid ground.

I was reminded of the importance of stepping away from the work this weekend. After taking the dogs for a walk out on the marsh my friend reflected that he needed to do this more. When I asked what he meant he admitted that he often forgets to let himself step away from the work and do genuinely relaxing things at this time of year. After walking in the sun with friends and spending an hour in the garden with my partner in crime bringing in the rest of the harvest I felt more grounded than I would have had I sat at my computer all day.

It is hard work, keeping a level head and a balanced heart, and a well-managed list of things to do. And even though I know this it is a lesson I seem to need to learn over and over. For me, solid ground comes from places other than that never-ending list of work. It comes from good friends, from my partner, and from pulling food we grew out of the ground.

So many beans!


The dogs never forget the importance of levity. Smarties.


Friday, October 4, 2013

On the impossibility of grief in #ABpse

In the wake of a loss, there has to come a period of healing. That healing allows the griever to adjust to the new situation, one in which the object lost exists no more, or not in the same form. A new normal. A new routine. This step is vital, apparently, in order to survive in the face of adversity. But what if adjustment becomes detrimental to survival? What if the best plan would be not to adjust, but to demand, work, and fight for some kind of restitution?

You might have found out that the Department of English and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta have been the hardest hit by the significant budget-reduction step of voluntary severance packages, initiated in response to the provincial government’s decision to reduce post-secondary funding by 7.8%. For an institution whose budget is overwhelmingly dedicated to payroll, that means laying off people. Many of them.

And so, the loss. English and Film Studies was one of the most affected by the VSP, in the Faculty of Arts, which suffered the most losses of all at UAlberta so far, because the VSPs don't "save" enough money to make up for the budget shortfall. For now, between 8 and 10 professors and administrators will leave the department, or around 18%. Almost one fifth of the people. So you can see that grieving is justified. Is grief, however, the best way to deal with these attacks on post-secondary education, and especially on the arts? Do we want to process the pain of the loss, and get used to the new normal, and move on?


Many post-secondary participants have been tirelessly speaking out against these cuts, explaining why they do not represent savings, why they are misguided, problematic, and, ultimately, detrimental to the province both in the long and in the short term. Some people have taken the satirical path. There is just no convincing the Alberta government of the long-lasting damage they are inflicting by barring access to post-secondary education, while also diminishing its diversity and range. My friend and colleague Derritt Mason has clearly outlined the reasons the University of Alberta will lose its attractiveness to graduate students.

There is another reason I resist the normalizing process. It acclimatizes us to a culture of paucity that will inevitably lead us to complete the process of adjunctification of academic labour as we have seen it happen in the US. While Canadian academics are still buoyed that “the situation is not as bad here,” these systematic cuts—which have been happening post-Recession, and have been preceded by the Klein-era ones, etc.—inevitably lead to hiring cheaper labour to perform the teaching, so that the programs survive, and the university maintain some semblance of its former self, pace Bill Readings.

What about research funding? The many changes to Tri-Council policies that have been happening over the past few years also operate like slowly boiling water around the proverbial frog. The seemingly seamless integration of technological developments (MOOCs, anyone?) also maintain the growing temperature of the water to imperceptible levels. This past weekend’s Globe and Mail hailed a new development in research: crowdfunding. I may be jumping the gun due to my research on conspicuous giving, but this ‘revolutionary’ research option only looks like yet another pot set on the stove.

Panacea are hard to come by, and I do not believe these cuts will ever be reversed. Yet I still do not want to get used to the new normal, and I will continue to look for alternatives. In the mean time, I’d be ever so grateful for your own stories.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

So What Can You Do with That, Exactly?

Skills translation is a major issue for us—for those of us who are still in search of post-ac jobs, and for those of us who teach in non-professional programs. It’s a major issue for our students, who are going out into the world in search of meaningful employment, a world that can’t seem to figure out what to do with people who don’t fit neatly into a career that you could find in a Richard Scarry story. Translating their skills is a major issue for us too, for both our students' success and the public perception of our disciplines--particularly for those of us in the humanities and social sciences--is at stake. How do we communicate what we do in the university--as undergraduates, as graduate students, and as PhD holders--to those outside of that system? It's obvious, outside the academy, that someone with an engineering degree has been equipped with the skills to become an engineer. Same goes for nursing. Or social work. But English? As the old quip goes, you'll either be found behind a teacher's desk, or a McDonald's deep fryer. I imagine the more up-to-date version subs a Starbucks espresso machine for the deep fryer. There is no one obvious career path for someone with a degree in history, or English, or biology, and that's both a major strength, and a major challenge, of non-professional undergraduate degrees. The same goes for people with grad degrees seeking post-ac employment, with raised stakes--many years of missed earnings and retirement savings, delayed pregnancy or adoption, many years of accumulated debt--and a new set of challenges--public prejudice against PhDs, perceived over-qualification, and a professional network that probably resides mostly within the academy.

We and our students have skills, and valuable ones. But how do we get those beyond our classrooms to acknowledge the communication, collaboration, analysis, research, time-management, project-management, critical thinking, and technical skills we've honed in the university--and, for many of us, taught others? This issue is increasingly pressing given the social and governmental pressures to make everything countable, reportable, and monetizable. A humanities education, because it doesn't neatly fit one into a slot in the business machine, gets dismissed as irrelevant. But as Max Bluow, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities argues, that's not what we're here for: "Universities are not, and should not be, in the business of producing “plug and play” graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job in which they will spend the rest of their lives." The world where people enter a career and stay in it for life has come and gone, and yet the university is, perhaps for the first time, being asked to produce those people. We don't need programs that help people fit into one of those slots. We need the programs we have, and the tools to communicate to the world that what we do, and who we are, is of far more value than they probably realize.

How do we fix this, then? This being the mismatch between the skills we develop in the university, and the translation of those skills beyond the university? How do we translate our skills into terms that are meaningful to others, and that will land us work that employs, acknowledges, perhaps even applauds those skills? Bluow argues that it is employers who need to do the changing: "If indeed the statistics don’t bear out a serious mismatch between skills and jobs in Canada, the conversation should move away from turning universities into job training centres and toward the role employers can play in preparing graduates for jobs." This includes, I should think, training employers to understand the skill-set that someone with a history degree, for example, could bring to the table. In “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” The New York Times profiled a number of American universities that have created career-services programs specifically geared towards liberal arts students, ones that are designed to help both students and employers identify the ways in which their training and their needs match up. These schools highlight the unobvious degree-job matchups that happen post-graduation—the German major working at Deloitte, for instance—and profile successful graduates with quote-unquote useless degrees. My brain is full of useful and useless facts, but one that’s always stuck with me was that a past-president of BMO had a B.A. in English. Skills translation is a major priority for these centres; at the University of Chicago, “Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, says he wants the career program ‘to work with our students from the first year to think about how what they’re learning can be translated into other spheres.’”

For graduate students, the resources (at least where I’m standing) are far fewer on the ground, and the options potentially more difficult. There’s always the DIY route—So What Are You Going to Do With That? is a good place to start if we want to become fluent skills translators. My university offers a workshop on reframing academic skills, and I’m hoping to develop more of them as part of a professional development workshop series I run. Aaron Kotsko advocates for the creation of a “shadow resume”—working outside of the academy while studying and teaching in the academy so that you graduate with both a doctorate and a well-developed professional network. However unrealistic he might be about the feasibility of working two jobs at once (it would have been impossible for me, since my university prohibits us from taking any non-teaching employment while studying full-time), his point about our skills is spot on:

You have research skills. You have writing skills. You are basically an information processing machine. You hopefully have some language skills. Depending on your discipline, you might also have some advanced math or stats skills — in any case, you probably know how to use standard office software better than the average office worker does. You’re almost certainly anal-retentive when it comes to grammar and usage. These are things that don’t take any pre-existing special skills, and there are plenty of companies that need help with all of that. 

But what most of these options ignore is the dual-participant nature of translation. It doesn’t matter how well we translate our skills—we need to live in a world where the people we’re translating them for are willing to get what we’re saying. In an ideal world, they’d meet us halfway—the people with jobs would already know the value of what we were offering them, the value of a degree in English, or German, or gender studies. Indeed, they probably already do, although it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t help that the rhetoric around the humanities is working to exacerbate that feeling, and to frighten people into abandoning those fields that don’t lead to obvious careers. There’s lots of fulfilling work out there for us and our students—but how do we bridge the gap between the people who want the work, and the people who have it?

So, dear readers, over to you. What challenges do you face in translating your academic skills in your search for post-ac employment? Or in helping your students translate theirs? What issues around skills translation get your goat, or make you excited?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I am David Gilmour: a cry for help

I keep telling everyone I know, in every forum that I can find, that David Gilmour is not a literature professor. Or any kind of professor. There's a variety of reasons why that matters, but the point that has struck me, and right in the solar plexus, is this:

I'm hardly a literary scholar at this point either, and I find I'm turning into David Gilmour.

I was hired here as a rhetoric professor specializing in new media studies and digital humanities, but of course I was trained as a literary scholar and am often called upon to teach or profess literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels. So my research in digital life writing is explicitly feminist, in dealing with writings by mommy bloggers, and my overall project interrogates the loaded distinctions between public and private, emotional and rational, domestic stories versus Men of Note. I read widely across male and female writers and critics online, am at the forefront of pushing for gender equity and inclusivity in new media studies and digital humanities organizations.

But. Literature?

It's been 15 years since I've been a student of literature. I am so busy reading the entire Internet that I hardly ever read novels anymore, and what I do pick up are book I already read, books I bought during my time as a literature student. It's kinda not my field.

Now, I'm developing an online version of our foundational literary criticism class. And all the example texts that keep suggesting themselves to me ... are written by men.

Oh. Shit.

Shakespeare, e. e. cummings, the Six Romantic Poets everyone studies, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin. Sweet merciful Leavis, I am the problem.

I love the texts I'm using already, because they really do the work I want. But I need a lot more texts. By people of color, by women, by anglophone writers outside of Britain and the US. The textbook I'm using, Ways of Reading, actually does a pretty good job of showing the variety of literatures and Englishes. But I keep falling back on the stuff I can readily call to mind, from a literary education that hit its peak in 1996-97, the end of my BA, before I turned more into a digital scholar.

Unlike David Gilmour, who as a pet writer at U of T can teach whatever he likes off the top of his head, I am a literary professional. The standards of inclusion and being in tune with the discipline are higher for me, as they should be. I am not on top of emerging inclusive canons of short story writers, poets, or novellists. It's not my field, and I can assure I'm working my damnedest to be 100% at the front of the line for a more equitable sub-discipline where I actually do most of my work.

So I'm asking for help.

I've got more than enough living and dead British and American white guys on the roster. Can you suggest to me any poems, stories, novels by other kinds of writers that you love, or love to teach? I want to be as wide-ranging as I can be. Whatever you suggest, I can assure you I've got the critical tools at my disposal to do them justice in my teaching. It's just that the imaginative cupboard is awfully bare, and I just can't conquer all of literature on my own right now. So maybe your suggestions can be my bedtime reading as well.

I throw myself on your mercy, Internet. I'm not as widely read as this course requires me to be. If you suggest it, I will read it.

Halp!