Thursday, November 28, 2013

Making Transferable Skills Visible

My Facebook feed is a wondrous place, and it's most recent treasure was the news that UBC is piloting a co-op program in its English PhD program. Say what? Experiential education in the humanities, particularly of the co-op sort, is not as common as it could be. And from my experience--correct me if I'm wrong--it's almost unheard of in Canadian humanities graduate programs. I'm thrilled that UBC is giving its students opportunities to, in their words, "widen their range of professional skills through paid work experience in fields such as academic administration, communications, project management, and archival, government, and NGO research" and "build valuable skills and experience that will extend and enrich their career options in both academic and alternative workplaces." Yes, there are conversations to be had about the infiltration of the corporate world into the university, about resisting the demand to shape programs to meet the job market, about the implications of co-op programs for PhD completion times, about why an employer would want a PhD over a cheaper MA, and about whether co-op will just add to the already-strenuous requirements for a PhD or if it represents a new kind of #post-ac focused doctorate. And those are conversations I'd love to have, and I hope we have in the comments.

But for now, I'm focusing on the positive. One, it's refreshing that UBC is doing what everyone should be doing, which is openly acknowledging that many of its graduates will be going the #alt-ac and #post-ac route. This is an ever-so-necessary step toward doing away with the stigma of quitting academe, and yet it is ever-so-rare a practice--I regularly interact with hundreds of graduate faculty in my job, and I can count on two hands the number of them who do the same. Two, if PhD students are going all sorts of places other than academia after they graduate--and they are, in hordes--then graduate programs should be providing them with opportunities to get the skills and experience they'll need in those jobs, and that they'll need to get those jobs. Not only am I pleased that UBC has recognized this, and acted on it, I'm pleased that they're engaging in an open conversation about the skills their English PhDs have, and touting those skills both to the organizations they're partnering with and to the general public. Perhaps my favourite part of their co-op website was this:

It's that easy to articulate what PhDs do well, what we do every day, in terms that help grad students make sense of their skills and the world make sense of grad students. No PhD should feel like the only thing they're good for is the professoriate, and one of the best ways to squash that feeling is telling them, from the moment that they start their degree, that there's a whole world of things they can excel at. Let's do this more. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Adventures in Online Networking

I was just reading this article on "Misadventures in Networking" at the Chronicle Vitae site--MA student Laura Smith does a little research to come to the conclusion that as much as she gets nervous at the idea of approaching established people in her field to network with them, they are probably just as wary of being approached … the wrong way.

This is true online as well.

I often receive questions from my own extended network that run something like this: "Hey, I know you do the Internet and stuff, so can you tell me how Twitter works because I want to advertise my conference."

My answer is: "You needed to be on Twitter a year ago to lay the groundwork for this."

That is, in social networking online as in person, you'll have a lot more success is you put some goodwill and effort into the system, before you start asking for goodwill and effort to be expended on you. As with any good networking, you start to build your contacts and relationship for their intrinsic interest first--later, they might be useful in a more practical way.

So if you don't know why you might go on Twitter or Facebook or whatever, that means it's probably the right time to start: once you have a book to promote, or you're looking for a job, or you're trying to crowdsource a reference list, you're going to wish you had that network already in place. So start it now.

Here's how: Research. Join. Follow. Lurk. Add value. Connect.

Research: where does the online networking take place in your field? Is everyone on, or on LinkedIn? Or are they hanging out more informally on Facebook or Twitter? Maybe your field has a number of important blogs and bloggers where more formal but still networking conversations take place. Figure out where the people you want to hang out with are. That's step one. There's no sense trying to optimize your work profile on Pinterest if there are no other academics there. You don't look for a book contract at Chuck E. Cheese: figure out where the action it, and go there.

Join: create a profile for yourself on the relevant network. If there're multiple networks, create consistent profiles at each of them--I'm 'digiwonk' on Twitter, and I'm also 'digiwonk' here on the blog, for example. Put some thought into user names, avatars, and profile text: when you're just starting out, people will scan these to try to figure out who you are, if you matter, and how. When I get notices of new follows in Twitter, I look at the picture and the brief text: a picture of a cartoon mouse and a sentence about the deserts of New Mexico? Ignore. A picture of a head and a sentence about graduate study in rhetoric and internet feminism? Followback! Sometimes, if I can't figure it out, I'll look at someone's list of followers, or at the content they're sharing. But you've just joined: all you've got is your user name, your avatar, and your profile text. Choose carefully in such a way to engender interest in your target group.

Follow: On Twitter, follows aren't necessarily mutual: look up the people you want to know, and follow them. They're probably not going to follow you back yet. That's fine. But the list of people you follow is another clue to your potential network about who you are and what you value. Facebook 'friending' has to be mutual, so start with people you already know in real life, and that way you can "bump into" their networks, in a kind of six-degrees-of-Lauren-Berlant sort of way that makes future friending easier. Figure out if your desired network requires mutual follows, and if it doesn't, follow away! If it does, do the next two steps now and come back to this one after.

Lurk: Figure out how this network works by listening in on the conversations: what blend of original content, resource sharing, back-and-forth conversations, self-promotion, advocacy, and cat memes do the members of your aspirational network engage in. What kinds of material do they share, and what kinds of posts or links or conversations seem to draw the most engagement or interest? Hang out in the background for now, getting a feel for the social and interactional norms of the space. Learn the implicit rules.

Add value: This is important. You have to put stuff into the network before you pull stuff out of it: that's just fair. What constitutes "value" will differ network to network, and discipline by discipline. I work in contemporary topics in new media, so in my network, it's valuable to share news articles and blog posts about the latest news. In other fields different material will get shared: maybe syllabi, maybe accession numbers for archival materials. Usually, adding value is different from self-promoting: use your tweets or your posts to offer content that other people already are looking for. Answer a question; send a link.

Connect: You've joined the right social media site. You've crafted a clear profile. You've figured out the prevailing social norms. You've started to add value into the system by sharing relevant content. Through all this, you're building your own profile, your ethos: now connect. On Twitter, you can start @replying to scholars you want to connect with. Start following more people now, and it's likely they'll follow you back. On Facebook, you can start sending friend requests to people who comment in similar ways to you on content you both see. Send invites on LinkedIn. Chances are some people will now know who you are and be more disposed to follow you back, or to friend you, or link you. Getting the first 20 contacts is really hard. Getting to 50 is a little easier. Getting to 100 after that is easier still. The network builds faster as you grow it, and you grow it by being valuable to others.

I've not said anything about getting your conference promoted, or getting the name of a book editor, or a suggestion for a good anthology for a Canadian poetry course. You build the network first, get established, connect. Then when you need help, it's a lot easier to ask for it--and a lot more likely it will be offered.

Do you have any questions or advice to offer on digital networking? Leave 'em in the comments!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Four Novembers In: Notes from LTA Land

Historically speaking, it would seem that November is a time of reflection and rumination for me. For the past three Novembers I have written posts about what it is like to be on a limited term contract. In 2010 I wrote a post about having a Plan B. In 2011 I wrote two posts in November, one about the hinterland of contractual work, and one thinking about when I would actually make the shift into Plan B. Last year I went for a slightly humorous approach and embraced eating pie for breakfast and just getting through another day of teaching three classes and directing a program.

This is my fourth November writing for Hook and Eye. It seems fitting that I should check in, stick with the cycle, consider the effects of contractual work from my own position. But you know what? I don't want to. I'm tired of it. I am tired of walking a careful line between healthy cynicism ('Oh next year? I don't know! If I don't get work maybe I'll become a llama farmer!') and tenacious optimism ('You work so hard! Of course you'll get a job! Hang in, when I was a contract worker I thought it would never end too!') In short, I am tired of the rhetorical self-fashioning that I have crafted in order to maintain a level of sanity and, frankly, of approachability over the last several years.

Yes, I could quit. I am confident that I could make the transition from academic to non-academic work, though it would take time and planning. But I am currently getting paid well. I have managed to get a well-paying academic job* for the past four years, and it has kept me busy enough to not have time or inclination to move into the labour of planning a transition.

This November I find that things are different. I feel differently.

On the one hand, I'm happier than I have been in memory, for real. This has little to do with my job -- and I want to be very clear that I am differentiating job from work here. More on that in a moment. Yes, I still love teaching. In some ways I love it more than I did a year ago, even though I desperately miss the students I had developed years-long connections with while I was at Dalhousie. I love teaching because it turns out it is a portable skill. You can move, meet radically different student populations, have to shift your own habits to fit with a new environment...and it still works. There is still a sense of rawness and direction: learning happens. But honestly my happiness is coming less from my job than it ever has. In part this is because I am still so new -- and very very -- contingent and temporary where I am. In large part it is because I have made decisions that are based on a happiness and fulfillment that are located in an identity that isn't tied to my identity as an academic.

On the other hand, there is a certain detachment that is setting in, that has set in, and that I see sedimenting into my peers who are in positions similar to mine. For one thing, I find that I spend 95% of my day (if not more) doing the job, not doing my work. After all, I am on a contract. My job is to teach, to grade, to plan lectures, to be a participating member of the department in whatever capacity I am invited, and to do that within the temporal limits of my contract. I am having immense trouble finding time and, honestly, energy to do the work of the profession. My research? That is work. Critical pedagogy? Work. Committee involvement? Work. Networking/conferencing/writing/thinking/pedagogical development/writing? Work. Work. Work.

The differentiation for me between job and work is that I get paid to do a job. Work I take on because I believe in it, because it matters, because it is the stuff that makes my heart race, my idealism take flight, and my fighting spirit put on its boxing gloves. And you know what? After five years on the job market -- five years that I know have been easier and more financially compensatory for me than for so many others -- I am tired. I am tired of watching myself grind away in front of the computer to try and steal time to conjure enough creative energy to start a new project or to keep projects that are mid-way through aloft. I am afraid that I wont have enough energy to develop the pedagogical strategies and philosophies that make me a good teacher. And I am oh so tired of watching my peers take on more and more unpaid work -- be it gruelling grant applications that, if won, will afford them the ability to live only if they move into a hotel and pay themselves a per diem, or more volunteer work in the hopes that it will get them something. I know, I know. If this post was in the Globe and Mail or some other venue the comments section would be a maelstrom of snide and ill-informed statements about professoriate privilege. And I am tired of that too -- that failure that we as a profession have somehow been complicit in: the failure of making it clear that work in the Humanities is the vital and urgent work of the human.

This isn't my I Quit letter, not by a long shot (though Melissa has written one of the best and most emotionally and pragmatically astute ones I have ever read). No, what I am thinking about this November is what gets lost in this latest iteration of the atrophying of fair and equitable and sustainable employment in academia. It seems to me what gets lost, at least for a while, is the creative energy to fight, to invent, and to be generatively insurgent. What gets lost is the spontaneous discussion of work rather than jobs. What gets lost, at least for a while, is the spark.

But then, it is November in Canada. It is cold. Time to relight those fires, right? Onward.
*The big ahem! here is that my work has been as a limited term appointment at the Assistant Prof level, which has been a salaried position (though prorated when I am on 10-month contracts). That means I get paid more reasonably that my friends and colleagues who are sessional workers getting paid between $1,600-$6,000 per course. Yep, you read those number right. The difference in per-course payment varies radically from institution to institution, and it varies that much. And so just in this little footnote you can begin to see the great inequities and all their incredible complications spool out.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Stop dissing women's use of technology!

I found it particularly ironic that on the same day Aimée tweeted her meta-selfie from the CBC studio where she was giving a feature interview for Spark, the hashtag #feministselfie erupted on Twitter. Go read Aimée's post to be inspired to share your research with the media, and present yourself to the world as the expert you have become in your field. Because otherwise, in the absence of smart and nuanced commentary, we are left with opinion pieces which always (want to) see the worst in how women do anything, and especially in their use of technology. This trend needs to stop.

We need to stop the inter-generational browbeating, as the one in the Jezebel opinion piece that sparked the #feministselfie hashtag; or the one in which Sinéad O'Connor was trying to teach Miley Cyrus what was wrong with her video, for some of the reasons Amanda Palmer mentions in her own open letter. We need to understand that, for better or for worse, feminism is not monolithic, and my definition might not equal yours, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't respect each other's different stances, and examine, discuss, even debate the many intersections that traverse it.

And do you know why? Because there are enough people who do not identify as feminists or allies, who are more than ready to put us in our place for how women--yea, so much for non-monolithic understandings, I know--use technology and/or social media. Remember the Pinterest debacle and the attendant hierarchy that belittled women for using it? That needs to stop.

Whatever way one uses or does not use technology or social media has to stop being a marker of cultural capital. If you opt out of social media, that's your choice, and it is legitimate. If you think Facebook works better for you than Twitter would, because it gives you a meaningful connection to far-away friends and family, that's awesome. However, we also have to admit that other people's technological choices and uses are just as valid. How about we start rejoicing in difference, and the potentials of a variety of different platforms--understanding what they're for, how people use them (in significantly different ways), and who owns them, and how they are monetized--instead of expecting to reconcile everything in identity.

After all, nobody wants to be the one pulling the classic Bourdieuvian "I was into Arcade Fire before they became mainstream."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Life After the PhD

In lieu of my own words today, I give you From PhD to Life's Jennifer Polk's recent article in The Globe and Mail on crafting a career after the PhD, and the disservice the one-track conversation about jobs for PhDs does to students:  

This mentality [that the tenure-track is everything] does not serve PhD students. It limits and distorts career options, and perpetuates negative, unhelpful stereotypes of work beyond the Ivory Tower. I believe that this ignorance and unwitting snobbery keeps many intelligent, creative, motivated individuals in contingent teaching jobs that ultimately don’t serve them or the interests of Canadian society writ large.

And I'm not going to tell you "don't read the comments." Read them. And then write them!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It's that time again! Boast Post!

Datamining our archive, I see the urge to write boast posts falls upon me at the ends of semesters, those last draggy few weeks where all the promise and hope of the beginning of term is snuffed under the weight of missed deadlines (mine as well as my students') and piles of grading, and worries about the not-yet-quite-planned-enough plans for winter teaching.

So here we are again. Let's try to find something we're proud of, something we did right, something we love telling people we get to do for our jobs. Share a piece of praise someone else directed your way. Imagine writing a letter of reference ... for yourself, where you really want the candidate to win whatever she/you has been nominated for. Find something specific to really crow about.

As always, I'll start. Mine is a little thing. I've been writing about digital photographic life-writing practices, on a number of fronts, but including, of course, the ubiquitous "selfie." I was just doing some free-writing about Selfies at Funerals on Monday. Tuesday, "selfie" became Oxford Dicionaries' word of the year. I got a call to feature in a local news segment on the topic (filmed right after I had had my hair done, hooray!)

But the boast part is this. After the TV interview, I thought, I want to go bigger. So I emailed Nora Young at Spark and pitched her the selfie story and me as an expert to consult. She wrote me back in 9 minutes, saying it wasn't on their radar, but she would pitch it to her team. She wrote again 23 minutes later: it's a go. We're currently trying to schedule an interview time. I got to send her an outline of what I think are the important parts of the selfie discussion.

What I'm proud of is that I didn't hem and haw: I just wrote to her and did the pitch. And I'm proud that I am making a real effort to shape public discourse on the topics I research. This kind of opportunity to be in whatever minor way a public intellectual is really meaningful to me. So yay!

What about you? C'mon don't leave me hanging, bragging by myself. Boast away in the comments, please!

Monday, November 18, 2013

On Violence: Call for Posts

Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe SPECIAL ISSUE


December 6 is the Canadian National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

On December 6 we remember Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewiczthe - the fourteen women murdered on December 6, 1989 at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. We also remember all the missing and murdered women in Canada. We live in a country in which violence against women is systematic, institutionalized, and pernicious: it happens on campuses, it happens in communities, it happens in this country every day.

This fall, we’ve had two more reminders of the importance of addressing violence against women. We’ve seen university students singing out rape chants as a part of first-year orientation. This September, we have also seen the Canadian government reject the United Nations’ call for a national review to end violence against Aboriginal women. Indeed, a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concludes that “Canada lacks [a] coherent response to end violence against women” altogether. 

With but two recent examples in mind we ask: what does it mean, in this context, to participate in a National Day of both “Remembrance” and “Action”?

This December, Hook & Eye will host a collection of posts that address this question. Posts might reflect on the the Polytechnique massacre directly, investigate the intersections of gender/violence/academia, and/or denounce gender-based violence elsewhere and everywhere. 

The December 6 series will be curated by Erin Wunker and Andrea Beverley, two feminist scholars currently based at Mount Allison University. We invite 500-700 word texts (in French or English) or non-text pieces (video, photomontage, visual interventions). They may be critical, creative non-fiction, fiction, or poetry.

Please send submissions to ewunker [at] mta [dot] ca and abeverley [at] mta [dot] ca by Friday November 22.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On the Skills Bind

At the monthly meeting of our graduate program directors this morning, the Dean of Graduate Studies reported back from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies annual conference that took place last week. One of the key talking points was the plenary talk, "The Roles, State, and Impact of Post-Secondary Education in Canada—Discussion on the Preliminary Research Findings of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education in Canada" by Carl Amrhein and Daniel Munro. Both are affiliated with the Conference Board of Canada and involved in the overview of post-secondary education in Canada being undertaken by the Board at the federal government's request. The overview is happening under the aegis of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE), and is intended to "be a major five-year initiative that will examine the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today." And what did these two people, working at the Centre for Skills, reporting on "advanced skills," have to say?

This: we need to stop talking about post-secondary education in terms of skills.

It's not a surprise, really. The government is obsessed with the so called "skills gaps" and its economic repercussions. How real that gap or its repercussions are is still up for major debate. In the government's focus on slotting people into specific and well-defined roles, on productivity, on economic growth, skills have become the obvious focus of the discussion of higher education. And that is, as we all probably already recognize, a major problem. It certainly represents a significant disconnect between what the university is supposed to be doing--educating--and what the government wants it to be doing--training. As Max Blouw from the Council of Ontario Universities convincingly argues, universities should educate, employers should train. We need people with more than skills. We need people who can think, empathize, analyze, and be flexible enough to walk the meandering career path that is now the norm.

As universities like mine undergo major prioritization reviews, this skills focus takes on increased significance. What useful skills does a Master's degree in Gender Studies provide, the skills-focused wonder? What does a Humanities PhD bring to the table, and to the economy? Why should we keep finding these programs, the logic goes? And in many places, as the logic goes, so do these programs. So do major sources of support for all those fields that don't provide obvious skills, the arts and humanities foremost. And so, Munro argued, we need to change the conversation, to talk even louder (for talk we do) about all of the benefits of a university education that can't be categorized under the rubric of "skills."

And yet.

For graduate education, I can't dismiss the focus on skills so easily. Major surveys by CAGS, by HECQO, by graduate bodies internationally, demonstrate a real (or at least a perceived) need for transferable skills training for graduate students aiming for the #alt- and the #post-ac. If the perceived lack of skills hurts undergraduates as they enter the job market, it's about ninety times worse for PhDs. So even as my Dean related the gist of the CAGS keynote, she also announced that the position for a graduate professional and transferable skills coordinator, the one I argued we needed when I piloted the role and developed policy last year, is in the process of being created. I'm really happy that the every student at the university will now have access to the professional development they need, that not only can they practice transferable skills, but that they can put them on their resumes and demonstrate to employers that they have them.

But, even without additional training, we already have skills. We can write, speak, teach, plan, coordinate, budget, analyze, synthesize, research, use social media. And we have so much more than skills. What we need, more than skills training, is the ability to talk about what we do as graduate students and as PhDs in terms that make sense to everyone in the middle of this skills conversation. So yes, Munro is right. We need to change the subject. But as we do that, we also need to know how to speak the language. And how to do both--how to get to our ultimate goal of living in a world that recognizes what a university education does for people, and what those people can do for, and in, the world--is a challenge I'm not quite sure how to face.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The tenured blogger says: detachment, then action

In yoga, I'm learning detachment. By "detachment," I mean, "not over identifying with external circumstance." And when I say "I'm learning," I mean, "I've been alternately resisting and fatally struggling" with this notion. Usually, I fail. For example, when my house was effectively expropriated by condo developers I over-attached and cried daily for months: my whole life was ruined, I thought. I conflated my whole identity and well-being with a piece of property. Not detachment. A long time ago, when one of my students plagiarized a paper, I had a crisis of the soul regarding my own teaching and the purpose of it all. Not detachment.

When I started my job--hired ABD, the dream scenario--I had survivor guilt and imposter syndrome all wrapped up together, binding me up on unhappy overattachment. Why me? And what happens when they find out I'm a fraud? This kind of neurosis, partly instilled by the lottery-style of the job market and the nevertheless strict ideology framing this market as somehow a meritocracy, leads to nothing good. In this scenario, I have to "pretend" to be a real academic, while assuaging my guilt at my tremendous good fortune by trying to find a way to make myself deserve it. Perhaps by thinking I'm special, somehow, and thus "deserve" this job that others didn't get. Perhaps by rigidly adhering to and even advocating the perpetuation of the system that ultimately placed me on "top." Perhaps by keeping others down so that I can stay on "top." This is all so wrong.

I suspect many of us, myself included, have tended to over-attach to the job: my whole identity and well-being has long been wrapped up in the role of being an academic. When I got this job, to be honest, one of the things I congratulated myself on was never having to worry about my self-identity on this front again. Thank god, I thought, I really am a professor. Phew. Might've had a total breakdown otherwise. Yikes. I've been thinking about that time as I sort out my feelings about sharing tales of post-ac and alt-ac life with my grad students, or reading all the internet chatter on the job market or lack of it. Detachment would be healthier, and I'm trying to cultivate it. And detachment would help me work to a more equitable, more ethical academy, to boot.

Here's what I've come to. I'm not special. I'm good at what I do, but generally no better than many others would be. It's the job I wanted, and I love it, but I don't love all of it, and not all the time, and that's okay, too. If Waterloo shut down tomorrow, there are other things I could do, and other ways I could be happy and fulfilled. It's good to remember that.

Similarly, if my graduate students leave the academy to do other things, this shouldn't threaten my own sense of self: and it doesn't. I can help them launch into their new orbits, and learn something new about another area of human effort. They can probably teach me about ingenuity and self-knowledge. The world outside the ivory tower is a fine place, and people with PhDs can do important and interesting work there.

If the internet decries the inequity of academic labour that sees a shrinking minority of relatively coddled tenured faculty supported by exploited masses of adjuncts, I don't have to take this as a personal attack on my daily life: and I don't. But I need to acknowledge the platform that my undeniable structural privilege affords me and use it to narrow that divide between the haves and have nots, even when the results of these efforts might make my own life a little less cushy. I could, for example, figure out what proportion of my own department's teaching is done by adjuncts, how many and who, and is this managed ethically, and how might I help start that conversation?

If movements are afoot to make graduate training more humane and more practical, I don't need to dig in my heels to entrench further the same system that spit me out, in order so that I can feel like we're still going to sort "winners" from "losers" in the way that let me win: so I don't. I can learn to recognize that the current game is one ruled by chance as much as skill, and that my "winning" in life oughtn't to be predicated on so many others losing.

The tenured, I am trying to say, can be allies in building a more equitable, more ethical academy. But we will have to detach from our neuroses and our over-identifications. The contingent and the others who didn't "win" the game that the tenured did had to learn, however violent the impetus, to detach and think of themselves in new ways. Many of you, dear readers, have done this and I have learned so much from your writing and your thinking and your actions. It's time that the tenured take on this process, not of examining the ways the institution has undermined us or let us down, but in the ways that by "succeeding" within it we have become blinded to our own privilege, and still struggle emotionally and psychologically to make ourselves feel like we deserve these privileges so many others don't have.

The tenured have to listen all those others: the contractually limited, the graduate students, the alumni off the track and out of the academy, the alt academics and the para academics and the post academics. We have to rethink how we do the things we do in the ways we've always done, and if those ways are serving the populations and the markets we actually serve and actually work in. 

Do you know, Melissa's "I Quit" letter from last week is by far and away our most-viewed post of the last month? It's got more page views than the number 2 and number 3 most popular posts put together. Margrit's questioning of the structural conditions under which we labour, and Danielle's piece on how to reframe academic skills into a narrative understandable beyond the ivory tower is in our all-time top ten list. As is a post celebrating a tribute to Erin, written on her departure from one contractually limited assistant professorship to another, by a student whose life she touched.

There's a hunger for these stories of contingency, of change, a hunger to share in the pragmatic and affective dimensions of what it means to be (mostly) junior academics in a rapidly changing institutions--or, increasingly, beside or outside it. The tenured and the tenure-track have to step up now, too. In many ways we are psychologically damaged by this system, too: survivor guilt, imposter syndrome, six years up and out, intensification of expectations on teaching and research fronts, and less support in service work.

Of our five regular contributors, I'm the only one on the tenure track. Our blogger demographics thus are looking a little more like the profession as a whole, for better or for worse. And this is the place that I want to be, listening and learning, detaching in order to get some clarity, some capacity to act. For change. I couldn't ask for better company, better colleagues.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Popular culture, gender, and enjoyment

Encouraging things are happening in gender-progressive news these days. Germany instituted a third gender option on birth certificates in November: parents can now choose between M, F, and blank. I love the multitude of possibilities opened by "blank," instead of having a designated new category with a name, or using the already-existing neutral personal pronoun. As a political move, too, I think it has more progressive potential than any declaration. Alongside this move, but on a different level of impact, Swedish cinemas have taken the step of providing viewers with ratings according to the Bechdel Test, in an attempt to stamp out sexism and promote gender equality. The Bechdel Test, if you remember asks two interconnected questions: 1. Are there at least two women talking to one another in this film? 2. Are they talking about something else than a man? If the answers to both those questions are affirmative, then the movie passes the test.

On a similar note, I've been thinking about my (scant) leisure time activities, and the way they allow me to enjoy myself. I won't get all psycho-analytical on you and talk about jouissance or anything like that, but I just want to know and understand better how to make free time pleasurable, in a deliberately useless and guilt-free way. Isn't that overanalyzing! But really: I'm so good at "making use" of my (again, very limited) free time, that I always end up making it useful for work, instead of making it into a break from work. For goodness' sake, remember how I was talking about scheduling yoga, so I can stay sane, last week? What does it take to enjoy something for its own sake, for using free time as time away from work, rather than rationalizing it as "time for renewal so I can work better." Really, that's what it's come to?

Here's the thing, though, which brings me back to the progressive move regarding gender and popular culture in Sweden: there isn't much in the way of popular culture that is both gender-progressive and to my liking. I'm on a mission to amass items that fulfill both categories, and while the latter is rather subjective, it's usually contingent on the former: stuff has to not be sexist or, worse, misogynist, for me to like it. It also has to NOT be classist, racist, ableist, sizeist, or ageist. A tall order, I know. Also: it has to be a conclusive waste of time! It has to be something that I will not teach. Or write an article on. Or a conference presentation.

I might have found just the thing*: an Australian mystery series featuring a sexually-liberated (though decidedly hetero, so far) flapper, who emerged from extreme poverty, and became rich, "because too many young men died in the Great War," which made her father inherit a large fortune and a title. After a few formative years in Britain and Europe, she returns to Australia, and uses her fortune to solve crimes, and support women's rights all over the place. Phryne Fisher, Kerry Greenwood's protagonist empowers women to take charge of their lives. The women whom she helps are not victims, so Phryne [pronounced 'Fry-knee] is not a female version of Prince Charming rescuing damsels in distress Down-Under. Instead, she's a stylish and fashionable woman determined to share her newfound wealth and improve the world for women. A veritable superhero, with perpetual shiny hair and perfect attire!

I'd say this series fulfills, and even goes beyond the Bechdel Test. Moreover, I refuse to make any academic use of it: I will not teach it, write (any more) on it, or even analyze it too much. I will, however, take any other recommendations you might have of books, movies, TV series, that I can consume and not use. What's your popular cultural fix these days? The more guilt-free, the better!

*Thanks to Sarah Gilligan (@idleponderings) for leading me to this series!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My "I Quit" Letter

Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, two of my favourite pundits on the post-academic problem, have recently agreed that the "I Quit Academia" letter has become an official THING. It's been a thing for a long while--Kenneth Mostern's "What it Means to be Post-Academic" was written in 2001, and I'm sure people penned send-offs long before that--but the genre is proliferating, with Zachary Ernst's "Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower," Kendzior's "The Closing of American Academia," Alexandra Lord's "Location, Location, Location" (which I've written about before here), Schuman's classic "Thesis Hatement," and Lee Skallerup Bessette's brand-new "Moving Forward."

For every person who has transitioned into the world of #alt-ac and #post-ac, there's an "I Quit" story to be told. And it seems like more and more people are willing to tell their stories, to throw up their hands and say, openly, that they're through. It's partially a vent, a cry to a world that still believes that professors have it oh-so-easy, that we've all got cushy tenured jobs with summers off and tweed jackets. And it's partially a service: a moment to let others--people like me, people like some of you--see themselves reflected in the words of others, a chance to impart some hard-won wisdom to those who are thinking of academia with stars still in their eyes. Despite being very happily ensconced in a role I would not likely have gotten without having pursued a PhD, I wish someone had told me their story before I started. Like Lee, I'd rather have heard that, and been able to make a clear-eyed choice to still do a PhD, than been given the platitudes and untruths I was. 

So then. I quit. And here's my story.


I started my PhD in Canadian Literature in 2008. After a year working in publishing after my M.A., I started coursework feeling like a bit of a dunce, like I'd forgotten how to speak academese. It took awhile to catch up, but I loved it all the same. And then we went on strike. For nearly three months, I did precisely six things. I walked in a circle in the blistering cold, I took the bus, I showered, I ate, I read, I slept. I was exhausted and depressed, and when the strike ended, so did my marriage. I finished coursework, and writing about poetry was my salvation. I started comps, and they were great--because who doesn't love getting paid to hang out with their friends reading and talking about books all day? I mulled over my dissertation proposal for awhile, and then wrote it in a weekend. I started working on my dissertation. I published articles and reviews and encyclopedia entries. I gave conference papers. I won grants. I started a peer-reviewed academic journal, helped to run my department's graduate students' association, got great reviews as a teacher. From the outside, I looked like the model of a successful academic-to-be on the rise.

It's hard to tell when exactly it was that the disillusionment crept in. It might have been realizing that the adjunct issues we fought so hard for in the strike would soon be, if I kept on this path, my issues. It might have been realizing that in a given year, there were usually about two jobs in my field. It might have been realizing that my partner's mother, despite being a brilliant scholar, struggled to get tenure and then have her excellence recognized by her institution. It might have been recognizing that some of the professors I looked up to most were somewhere between a little and profoundly unhappy on the tenure-track. It definitely had something to do with sensing a fundamental disconnect between my desire to exercise control over where I lived and the academy's refusal to admit that as a legitimate desire. It certainly also had something to do with the emotional maelstrom induced by my mother-in-law's death, my partner's grief, a major renovation, and my realization that the project I really wanted to do was impossible because of major archival restrictions. Whatever it was, it made me profoundly unhappy. Most of all, I felt very much like every word I wrote of my dissertation was a step closer to the edge of a cliff. Off the end of the cliff was a misty void, a vast nothingness--because if I finished my PhD and didn't become a professor, as I was pretty certain I would not get to become, I would be nothing. My identity was so tied up with being an academic that contemplating not being one was something like contemplating my own death. It was terrifying and paralyzing and profoundly awful. It made me miserable and scared and edgy and sad and eventually, because of all the therapist bills, kinda broke.

That all changed on a sunny afternoon in Winnipeg. I was at the University of Manitoba on an archive trip, and I finished going through all of the boxes I needed a few hours early. One of my earliest #post-ac mentors had recommended that I read So What Are You Going to Do With That?, and I decided that I was going to park myself on a bench in the quad in the sunshine and actually take the time to read it. It was, in a word, transformational. Here was a book that was telling me that off the end of the cliff wasn't nothingness. There was a whole world of things that I could do--things that I'd want to do, things that I'd love to do--that weren't being an academic. They were jobs that would let me have everything I fundamentally wanted--intellectual stimulation, colleagues I liked, financial security, job stability, the ability to have a family on my own timetable, the choice of where I lived--on my own terms. I flew home feeling as though I were the one with wings.

Inevitably, all was not totally peachy thereafter. My desperate desire to stay in academe turned into fury at the system that had taught me that my self-worth lay in conforming to its standards, that those PhDs who didn't become academics were second-class citizens, lesser, unworthy. Realizing that I was aiming beyond the tenure-track certainly removed a lot of the motivation to work on my dissertation, and I spent a lot of time figuring out why I was writing this book, a book that few would read, if not to get a job. Going was very (read painfully) slow until the archival restrictions that had stopped me from pursuing the project closest to my heart were lifted, and I started writing the book I had long wanted to, one that had (and has) intrinsic merit beyond its value on the academic job market.

And then I got lucky. At just the moment when my desire to change what was clearly a broken system was seeking an outlet, an outlet came my way. I got hired as a special research assistant in the faculty of graduate studies, researching and developing policy around graduate student professional and transferable skills development. I got to see how administration worked from the inside, talk to every single program, read the latest research on transferable skills, and find out from students what support they wanted the university to provide for preparing for #alt- and #post-ac careers as well as academic ones. In getting that job, I got luckier than I knew--because I wasn't just researching transferable skills, I was developing them. More accurately, I was recognizing them, recognizing how all of the things that I did as an academic--writing, researching, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing, coordinating, project planning and managing--could be translated into terms that made sense in the working world.

And then I got even luckier--up came a job that required time spent in grad school (but not a PhD), a well-rounded familiarity with my university and its workings, a successful grant-writing record, experience with graduate student professional development, and all of those skills I just listed. I almost missed it. I wasn't even looking for a job. I was planning to spend the year writing, defend, and then look for a job. But this one came up on my Facebook feed, posted by a friend, and--well, you've heard this part of the story. Eh, what the hell, I thought. I scrambled to put together a resume and a cover letter, sent in my application, and waited. When I got an interview, I went into overdrive and prepared like nobody's business. I met with people who had been in this role, with others at the university with the same job title, with my old boss in the faculty who had worked closely with the person who had just vacated the job. I Googled everyone on the search committee, memorized Vanier guidelines, went shopping for the perfect interview outfit, studied power poses. I agonized over the memories of the interview for my old publishing job, in which my boss basically had to ask me to calm the hell down. But all that prep did just what I wanted it to do. It did calm me the hell down. And without desperate nerves to get in my way, I showed them who I was, and I tried to convince them of two important things: one, that I wasn't biding my time until a tenure-track job came up, and two, that a PhD could be of real value outside of the tenure-track.

They bought it, and they gave me the job. And so, I quit. Not as completely as some--I'm still enrolled in the PhD part time, I'm finishing my dissertation because it's a story I'm committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I've been doing my doctorate at--but I'll never go on the tenure-track. I'll eventually have a PhD, but I'll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it's just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job--and I have one of those, one that I love. Working in graduate administration has not gotten rid of my resentment for the way academia indoctrinates its graduate students to believe that those who go the #post-ac and #alt-ac route are second class citizens, or the way it fails to show grad students the ways in which their skills set them apart in the working world, or the way it glosses over the terrible realities of the academic job market in an effort to put on a happy face and keep enrollments up, or the way that it frames precarious labour as a necessary apprenticeship rather than as exploitation. But I'm in a far better position to actually do something about some of that where I am, than I could have where I was headed.

"I quit" isn't the story I thought I'd be telling, back when I started my PhD. But it's one I'm happy to be the main character of all the same.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I'm mad as hell, and I don't want to feel guilty anymore!

I was having a meeting with my daughter's principal the other day, about a miscommunication / battle of wills I was having with the grade two teacher around her practice of not respecting our limits around homework. (FWIW, we do 20 minutes a day, and as my girl can't really read and all the homework is in French, it's essentially my homework.) In the context of ironing this problem out, I mentioned that we only had so much time in the day, and didn't want to spend any more of it stressed out about mandatory word jumbles and threats of being sent to the principal's office for non-completion.

Oh, said the principal, I know how busy you are ... I see your husband here, so late, picking her up, and my heart just breaks for you.

Did you catch that?


She's being picked up from the after school program in the gym. At 5:15. And we move heaven and earth to make it possible, and I've just had the mommy guilt bomb dropped on me.

I was too shocked to feel bad about myself. And then I went right to blisteringly angry.

You know, I've just plunked my rear end into my office chair. It's 9:30. This morning I have taken two dogs on individual Poop Walks, snuggled / dressed / coiffed my kid, made her lunch and organized her backpack, got myself showered and dressed and packed up, brought my kid (and two dogs) to the bus stop and sent her off, grabbed a latte from Starbucks, and driven to my Far Off parking lot before the Long March in. My husband got up at 5:30 this morning, to prep for a meeting he had off campus at 8:00 am -- he'll have to bus it into campus from there. He fed and dressed our kid before dashing off. He'll leave a bit early today so that he can walk a dog before picking up our kid from after school care and meeting me at home.

Both adults in my house work full time, demanding jobs. I travel a lot and he has crunch times that are beyond his control but necessitate some weeks of 15 or 20 hours overtime, a couple of times a year. We've paid a real estate premium to live much closer to where we work, to cut our commuting time. I ask for my teaching schedule to accommodate my not starting before 9:30, so I can bring our girl to the bus every morning before bussing in myself. You would not believe the number of meetings I've been involved in, fighting for faculty rights to express preferences like this, because there's a movement to make us all normatively available from 8am to 5pm, M-F for teaching at will. My husband starts before me, and takes a shortened lunch so he can pick her up from after school care (after walking 15+ minutes out to our parking lot, then driving 10 minutes) just after 5. He has to juggle meetings and coworkers who tease him about doing so much child care. He's usually the one who has to pick her up in a crisis, as she only seems to throw up / get diarrhea / hit on the head while I'm teaching, and so the school can only get him. We're pretty proud of the juggling and the arrangements and making ways to prioritize our girl's needs.


It's not good enough, apparently.

To hell with that. Who are all these parents who are at home for their kids to be bussed back at 3:30? Who don't need morning daycare (we're so lucky we can work around that) because school only starts at 9:05? That's great if that's your lifestyle and your choices, but can this really be so normal as the principal makes it out to be?

My issue was that I don't want to spend more than 20 minutes a day doing homework with my daughter. I like to take her to the zoo, to rake leaves and jump in them, watch TVO documentaries about animals, paint her toenails ten different colours that she's chosen individually, snuggle in the big bed while pretending to be baby bunnies, baking muffins, reading books. The issue somehow became how our poor daughter languishes for ages at school because no one can pick her up until "so late" and that's why her oh-so-necessary homework isn't getting done.

I thought, from our tremendous financial, real estate, and job-flexibility advantages, we were probably doing pretty well -- that it was probably normal for a kid to be gone for about 8 hours in a day. I was shocked to get rhetorically disciplined in this way.

Mommy guilt and mommy shaming are pretty gruelling: emotionally awful, and unfair, and blind to the ways the world actually works.

I'm a pretty good mom, actually, and my husband is an excellent father. Our girl is happy and secure. I'm not going to let anyone make me feel bad about trying to find a way to have a career, and for my husband to have his career, at the same time.

We've managed to do it. And if there are those--some of the actually at the school!--who want to make us feel bad about it, well, I'm pretty much done listening.

Monday, November 4, 2013


This weekend I saw a trailer for Sini Anderson's documentary about Kathleen Hanna called The Punk Singer. 

While talking about the emergence of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, and Hanna herself, one of the interviewees says "feminism was really good at critiquing pop culture, it wasn't good at making it."

I found myself immediately thinking about academic feminism, about being a feminist in the academy. As a self-identified feminist working in the academy I am very good at critiquing academic culture. I can talk about labour inequity. I can talk about the ways in which I understand marginalization to function from my own standpoint and I welcome the opportunity to have frank and challenging discussions with others about their own situated knowledge. But do I make academic feminism? What would that mean, and what might that look like?

I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill. I was in grade eight in North Carolina. My parents and I had taken a drive into Chapel Hill, which was about an hour and a half from where we had moved when we left Ottawa two years previous. Chapel Hill seemed to me a bastion of liberal- and counter-culture in what, to my fourteen-year-old self, felt like a completely alienating new space. I didn't fit in my new school (though who knows if I would have in my old school in Ottawa either). What I did know, standing in the aisle of School Kids Records, was that I had to have the album that was playing. This singer's voice sounded something like mine: a bit childish, a bit young. But holy hell could she ever scream! And she was swearing and yelling and talking about sexism and sexuality and violence and women. I worked up my nerve to ask the impossibly cool sales clerk what it was, I bought the album, and I wore it out. I had to listen to it with headphones on because my parents would have been appalled at the language. I didn't care. Here was a band full of women only a few years older than me, and they were calling out everything that they knew was wrong. They were doing more than calling it out! They were naming it. Amazing. I aspire to such truth-telling, I decided. I aspire to tell it like it is and call injustice by its name.

Watching the trailer and remembering fourteen year-old me got me thinking about those promises to yell in the face of inequity and systematic as well as subjective injustice. I'm now six years in to precarious labour and I often wonder: how much of that do I really do? In addition to critiquing academic culture, how much academic feminist culture do I make? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

You can read between the lines, of course. The answer is that while I am good at critiquing academic culture I am not certain I am so good at creating it. In great part this disconnect is systematic: I am careful about critiquing the very system I want to make room for me. My care--more accurately, my trepidation--is in service of trying to make myself appealing and necessary for the system. But here's the kicker for me, the kick in the pants, the kick in the teeth: any activism is activism against and within an unjust system. I know all this. I know it mostly because of my training in the very system I critique.

So often these last few years I have found myself writing posts about the working conditions of the academy. These posts are necessary, they make room for additional conversations about working conditions. But how often -- and how?! -- am I making academic feminist culture? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Maintaining healthy habits

I've finally done it! Unbelievable as it still seems to me, I've managed to undertake a regular yoga routine at home. Even more startling? I'm doing yoga in the morning. I know this revelation might cause more of a "duh"-style reaction from you inveterate yogis, or disciplined part-takers in physical activities of different kinds, but for me, it finally signals a return to a less hectic era in my life, when my time was mine to schedule and dispense with as I pleased [cue violins and nostalgic waxing]. That it took my hitting a wall to reinstate this routine got me thinking: what's the key to maintaining healthy habits, especially this time in the year and academic term, when the beginning of cold and flu season colludes with high-volume marking or deadlines of all kinds? (I'm not even looking at you Aussies, Kiwis, and your fellow hemispheric dwellers basking in spring sun and the many possibilities of incipient summer.)

When the brick-laden cargo of September fades into the past, October brings the expectation of a more routine, tamed, under-control chaos, but it also carries shorter, darker days, the impending doom of ______ (insert # according to geographical region) months of winter and cold weather, and a general malaise that's hard to counteract. Just as with September's ton of bricks, in spite of knowing about this cyclicity, I'm still surprised and disappointed when it happens. It's like, in the interest of survival, I forget the pain. I think I'm all set: here's my SAD lamp, here's my determination to go for runs, walks, etc. The reality is that the SAD lamp helps, but it's not enough when the crazy schedule means there is no time for leisurely walks and/or runs.

So what gives is always the very activities vital to survival, because I always trick myself that "I'll just finish marking this batch," or  "I'll just do another pomodoro to better structure this section of the paper," and then I'll go for a walk. Mmhmm. Exactly! The walk never happens, because the daycare program ends at 5:30, but if we don't get the kids home earlier, they'll eat a hole through my head, or throw a tantrum so big, even the easy-going, spring-sun-basking Kiwis might feel it.

And that's why finally starting a routine of morning yoga seems like such an accomplishment to me: it might just save my sanity. I'm determined to make it into a habit, because I've put it in my schedule: every morning, after my partner takes the kids to school, I allot it 30 minutes. Après yoga, le déluge, I say! 

What's your healthy habit (aspiration), and how do you (strive to) maintain it? The more we talk about these health-determining habits (no, I don't actually speak for your public health authority), the more potential they have to become reality, and keep us sane through the winter.