Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boast Post!

It's that time again! I've had quite enough of this month's news--women still not being reviewed, Jian Ghomeshi, Gamergate, predation in the guise of mentorship, catcalling, the election of another white conservative millionaire man as mayor, and on and on. I'm also in scholarship purgatory, very stupidly decided that I wanted to set the deadline for my current chapter on the same day as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are due, and am entirely unprepared for the onset of winter. That means we're due for a boast post to cheer ourselves up, yes?

Remember how this works? You have to boast about yourself, without apologizing or cringing. Did you get some awesome teaching evals? Land a new job? Submit an article? Finish a dissertation chapter? Give an awesome conference presentation? Ace an informational interview? Get an unexpected but meaningful compliment? Tell the world! Or at least, that chunk of the world that reads this blog. Yes, it feels super weird and awkward, but it also feels great when you're done.

I've got three things!

First, I got a lovely email not long ago from one of our Canada Research Chairs in mathematics, thanking me for my work on one of our Banting postdoc nominations and complimenting my development work to our Dean. For an English scholar, I'm pretty darn pleased that I can develop the heck out of a Banting-calibre math application. My eighth grade teacher would be so proud! 

Second, I launched our Graduate Professional Skills program in late September. With the invaluable help of my graduate assistant and other staff in our office I pulled together a half-dozen great workshops, a bunch of really excellent speakers, and a full day of training, eating, and talking about graduate professional development and its relationship to academic and post-PhD career success. Everything went off without a hitch, everyone had a good time, and the program I've been working on since 2012 now officially exists!

Third, I've finally gotten over my fear of pastry and learned how to make a really good apple pie. It's easy (albeit a little time consuming), delicious, and so rewarding. Watching someone enjoy eating something I've made is one of my favourite forms of instant gratification.

And now it's your turn! Remember, no self-deprecation, undercutting, or humblebragging. Just boast!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More Thoughts on Recent Events

I watched the story unfold in real time. I heard of Jian Ghomeshi's leave of absence on Friday, then Sunday that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi, which was a considerable surprise. Then I read Ghomeshi's Facebook post. Then Twitter. Then the comments. (Yes, I read the comments. Probably a bad idea). Then the Star Article. And Twitter again. Yesterday and today I've been following closely how the mainstream media has been reporting the story.

There is a lot of confusion related to this thing. As Erin said yesterday, we are not privy to the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors. There is little that is definite, much that is said, more that is unsaid. Voices have been heard, helped by high-stakes media management companies or filtered through the writings of independent male journalists. One voice has laid out the terms of the debate, and another has responded.

One thing is clear: We still don't know the whole story. We have yet to hear the unfiltered voices of those barred from doing so because of lawsuits alleging wrong-doings, or from those too afraid to speak out in public.

Reading comments like this one, I fear that we may never:


I hope for the unfolding of both sides of the story. For voices that refuse to be silenced by fear of reprisal or backlash, or because the public has already told them how they should feel about what happened. For the truth to come out. For the public to make judgements based on determined facts, not because they take one person's defence at face value or because they really liked 'Q.' We know that only 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. That advocates of BDSM have come out questioning Ghomeshi's claims. And it is important to note that in Canada, you can't consent to bodily harm. There is clearly more to this than what has currently come to light.

Like Erin, I want to keep the dial tuned to questions of power, issues of misogyny, and rape culture. Let's continue the conversation.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Social Media vs. Slow Academe: Some thoughts on recent events

Less than two weeks ago, I was at a conference about Canadian women and/as public intellectuals. On the first of a series of moderated public panel discussions Christl Verduyn interviewed Dionne Brand, Mary Eberts, and Janice Stein. In the question and answer session I asked the panelists about risk. Specifically, I asked them to think with we, the audience, about the ways in which risk is inherent to a woman speaking in public. For context, I cited #GamerGate--specifically feminist gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian's then-recent cancellation of her public talk at the University of Utah after threats of violence...and the police's response that guns are allowed on campus if the carrier has a legal permit. I also referenced a less widely known event: an article published on Hairpin by Canadian writer Emma Healey in which the author carefully thinks through her own experience of a relationship that proceeded despite unequal relations of power and was, for her, damaging and abusive. In both cases the women continue to receive varying degrees of public backlash for speaking publicly, albeit about substantially different issues. The connecting thread, for me, is that they are women taking up public space.

The panelists took up my question in turn. Janice Stein spoke about the threats she has received over her career and told the audience that she tries to keep them from her family so that they don't worry about her. Ultimately, though, Stein's advice was to keep speaking and ignore the threats. Dionne Brand spoke about some of the ways in which speaking publicly as a woman, and as a woman of colour, are always-already risky. And yet, said Brand, I have to do it. Not speaking would be worse than any public backlash, she told the audience. Mary Eberts responded last, and she said this: women can speak about almost anything in public and survive the backlash. In some cases, they can even use the public backlash to underscore the points they are trying to make. However--and this was the big however--Eberts then paused--there is one thing no woman can speak publicly about without fear of fundamental and ongoing reprisal and that, said Eberts, is sexual abuse. No one else responded after that, and we moved on to the next set of questions.

I have found myself thinking about Mary Eberts's statement repeatedly in the last week and a half. Since yesterday, since the CBC announced that it was severing its relationship with Q host Jian Ghomeshi, and since Ghomeshi's own public Facebook post, I find myself with Eberts's words on a loop in my head. Let me be clear: I don't know what happened between Ghomeshi and his partners.  I don't know what went on behind closed doors. Lawyers for both sides have apparently been discussing allegations of abuse--by four women who allege varying degrees of non-consensual abuse, by Ghomeshi for defamation of character -- but I wasn't privy to those conversations. None of us were.   What I do know is this: women are statistically less likely to speak out about abuse. Women are more likely to trivialize their experiences. Women are more likely to use backchannels (emailing, using social media, talking) to alert one another to potentially harmful situations or to circulate stories of inequity. What I do know is that every day Mary Eberts's words are given more evidence.

But that's not all I know. I also know a thing or two about close reading and critical thinking. I know that recognizing, addressing, and changing longstanding systemic issues takes time, and that in a hyper-mediated world slow thinking--slow academe--is not something that is particulary valued. It is, however, something that is necessary. Take, for example, Ghomeshi's Facebook status update. Reading it purely as someone trained as an academic (I am 50% of the Star's strange, yet predictable qualifications for the women's credibility: they are described as "educated and employed") what I see it this: smart placement, smart rhetorical crafting. First, placement: Among other things, Facebook functions as a kind of faux-intimate confessional. As Chelsea Rooney wrote on Twitter:


In terms of rhetorical craft, the person who speaks publicly first sets the terms of the debate, or so it would seem. Ghomeshi's post makes the issue about sexual preference and desire that falls outside the restrictive parameters of traditional heteronormative relations, whatever those are. I could go on, but the point, for this post, is not to close read this event. Rather, I'm interested in opening a discussion about how to sustain slow, deliberate, and public thinking about issues of misogyny, rape culture, and asymmetrical power relations in the face of the rapid-fire pace of social media. I've written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we--by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere--working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. "Public" here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe--just maybe--long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

I don't know how to draw this to a conclusion, because having the final word is the last thing I want or feel prepared to do. Rather, I will leave you with this cartoon my colleague Xtine sent. The original posting is here:


Friday, October 24, 2014

Addicted to thinking

If you're an academic, how often do you reminisce about what brought you to grad school? My story starts with a longing for the kind of deep, analytical thinking I was lucky to experience in some university seminars, which entailed sitting down for a few hours to discuss great literature--in English and in German--and the ideas around it. You know, things like what's in there, but also where it was coming from historically, ideologically, and how it led to other places, other people, other times. Things like how Goethe's Romantic young hero Werther initiated a string of copy-cats, in fashion and in action, in spite of his ghastly outfit and drastic denouement. I came back to school for more of that kind of thinking, which, in spite of having had sworn off school forever after undergrad, proved too enticing to renounce.

It's kind of the same if you've ever had to be a caregiver for an infant. Even if you haven't, you know adults in that situation crave less baby-talk and more adult conversation. To my mind, it comes back to the same issue: a desire to think more deeply about meaningful ideas, and thus surround yourself with a life of the mind that can enrich the repetitiveness of an infant's routine. Not to mention drown out inevitable screaming matches, and possibly enliven the dull fuzziness of sleep deprivation.

As Aimée pointed out yesterday, carving out time for thinking can be a challenge in spite of the best planning and organization you can devise. However, a drearier situation takes shape when that plan is out of the scope of your activities altogether. So, here it is: I miss my research. I miss planning and making sure I carve out time for deep thinking about one focused issue. I miss looking for connections, sleuth-like, and I miss the thrill of identifying them. As much as I congratulated myself on being able to say no to going to a conference last week, I experienced the pain of withdrawal, of the inability of taking a couple of days to think through other people's arguments, contentions, and discoveries. What a luxury!

Well, kick in the behind, meet the step forward! As my students have embarked on the path of their own research projects, which I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in a few weeks, I have come to face my old yearning again, and to understand that I need this type of labour as I need air to breathe (not to be dramatic or anything); that it's not about love, but more about need. Just like with many other longings, we can debate whether it's inborn or whether it has been drilled into me by my background--what else does grad school, or post-secondary education more generally, do than teach you how to think, in a way that is irreversible? Irrespective of its origins, this need for thinking is intrinsic, and its lack manifests with all the power of withdrawal. Conversely, it signals its presence with the same tingling sensation of the first sip of wine seemingly coursing through every single artery down to the farthest capillary.

At the end of the breather that has been Reading Week, this is my resolve: to make time and find space for thinking consciously and systematically. And here's the clincher: unlike grad school days, when the aim was the writing, the dissertation, the end of the program, I have no other goal than allowing my mind to wander, and my thoughts to run wherever they would. I do not aim to be productive. I want to heed my visceral need for thinking without having to show anyone else the result. Hell, there might not be any. And that's it: time and space for my mind to wander. Oops, did some of young Werther's sorrows rub onto me, too?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I've slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I'd got done in a month. I feel awful--I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don't even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don't seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials--so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there's a new edition of the textbook. I'm prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who've already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband's job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I'm near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I'm too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You've probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I've done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It's all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN'T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what's not working, and try again. It's refinements big and little, and constant, that'll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I've fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I've missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thirty Seven Things: Trying out a Capsule Wardrobe


Maybe it's because our house is small, and we're still trying to integrate the possessions of three households (my mother-in-law's, whose house this was; my partner's, who had his own place before we moved in; and mine, since I had my own place too). Maybe it's because my working days are full and I'm feeling the need for a little more emptiness when I get home. Maybe it's because we're in the middle of a renovation and the contents of the room next door are crammed into the one I'm sitting in. Maybe it's because having less means having less to take care of. Whatever the reason, I just need less, and I'm starting with my closet.

It now contains, including shoes and bags, 37 things.

I've written before about my search for an efficient and sustainable early morning practice (that phrase makes me think I've been reading too many Strategic Mandate Agreements) that will let me get out the door looking professional and presentable in the least amount of time. I finally figured out the hair thing--turns out I didn't need to change my haircut, just accept the fact that my hair is actually (gasp) curly. Aimee has her go-to boots and her back-of-the-door blazer and her Serious Person Glasses (me too!). Erin has her Fluevogs and gorgeous big scarves. We all think about how we present ourselves in our classrooms and offices, and we're all pretty fluent in the grammar of clothing so that we can make deliberate statements with how we dress. But I was thinking about it too much. Like the strategic deployment of my academic credentials, I know what to wear to make people take me seriously at work and to make me feel like myself. It's always my uniform: a pencil skirt or sheath dress + blouse + cardigan + funky shoes. Imagine Joan from Mad Men in 2014, and you're headed in the right direction. And yet getting dressed became a chore, an over-long deliberation and a Sisyphean struggle to keep my wardrobe (and, okay, sometimes floordrobe) from exceeding the confines of my exceedingly tiny closet. Being efficient in my morning prep has become extra important of late, since I'm now on an adjusted schedule at work so that I can write more in the morning, and I'm trying to cram in all the words I can before I have to leave for the office.

I didn't realize how much this clothing conundrum was bugging me until I stumbled across Un-Fancy. (The capacity of the human mind to internalize habit and fail to see inefficiency never ceases to amaze me). Caroline's style is nothing like mine (okay, we do have the same glasses), but her concept of a capsule wardrobe was so appealing. Every day she wears something different, but that something different is simply another combination of the 37 things she chooses, and then wears exclusively, for three months. I've long known that exceptional creativity often emerges in response to arbitrary restriction (I'm not a reader of the Oulipians for nothing), but here were those principles applied to a closet. I was immediately sold, and I packed up my extra clothes the same day. The fact that it took me all of 10 minutes to create an inventory of the 37 things I wanted to keep told me that this was just what I needed to do.

My closet now contains: 15 shirts and sweaters + 7 skirts and dresses + 2 pairs of jeans + 3 jackets and blazers + 7 pairs of shoes and boots + 3 bags. C'est tout.

It's only been about a week, but I'm glorying in fewer choices. Getting dressed takes all of 3 minutes, because I can see all of my choices at one glance and pull what I'm going to wear from the back to the front before I go to bed. I'm wearing things I haven't worn for ages and love, because I'd forgotten about them amidst a wealth of choice. I'm not staring down clothes that don't fit well or that I don't love, which is a depressing way to start the day. I'm being more creative in the ways that I combine the things I do have. I'm not wasting my finite daily decision-making capacity on which sweater to wear. Truly, this is only the illusion of a lack of choice. If every outfit I make has three elements (top + bottom + shoes), I've got the ingredients for something like 5000 unique outfits here. Oh, and the other benefit? It's an easy way to limit the amount of shopping I need to do. I'll wear these 37 things until the end of December. At that point, I'll keep some of the things I'm wearing now, pull others out of storage, and perhaps buy a few things I'm missing or that need replacing. But then I'll live with those 37 from January to March.

Now that I've got the closet under control, I'm moving on to the kitchen--it's time to put a hiatus on grocery shopping for a little while and see what we can make out of a half bunch of spinach, some cornmeal, and an egg. I'm feeling inspired already.

What about you? How do you keep your closet under control and your mornings simple?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Tweet at a Conference

A couple weeks ago, we had a guest post from Danielle J. Deveau on "Conference Etiquette and Privilege." Danielle told a personal anecdote of a terrible conference panel that she attended (not the one she presented on, notably, as I imagine that would be a little too risky) in which a speaker rushed into the room 50 minutes late and then presented for 5 minutes on his research interests, proceeding afterwards to become defensive during the question period. While this story was bad, sadly it is not completely unusual, and Danielle's post established some baseline guidelines for, well, how to present a paper at a conference, about which apparently many [especially white, male] conference presenters are unaware. As Danielle's post implied, perhaps we should be talking more about who gets heard at conferences, and for how long. There are countless tales of panels whose presenters who drone on, who are underprepared, whose moderators do not intervene, whose "roundtable discussion" turns out to be more of a self-aggrandizing insular dialogue between eminent scholars who barely glance at the audience. I have a friend whose moderator did not show up for the panel she was on, so they just recruited some random passerby from the hallway.

As scholars devoted to questions of privilege and equitable representation, whose work is often primarily concerned with giving voice to those whom have not previously been heard, these issues should concern us. We should be noticing, when we're at conferences or public talks, who is qualified to speak, who is being ignored during the question period, whose panels are being attended and whose aren't. Perhaps we should be more actively engaged in making sure all panels are adequately populated, and should take it upon ourselves to--for example--attend at least one panel per conference that we normally wouldn't. As we all know, speaking to an empty room is just as bad as having to compress one's 20-minute talk into 5 because of lackadaisical timekeeping.

These questions are particularly urgent for graduate students or other precarious workers who have a particular stake in being heard in such professional settings. With the rise of Twitter as a conference tool and alternative discussion medium, there are now other possibilities for making sure everyone's voice is being heard, to achieving that ideal within the humanities of a polyphony of voices and thoughts. Unfortunately that medium is sometimes abused as well, and faces similar issues of silencing, underrepresentation, and/or professional grandstanding. This past summer I had the honour of writing a guest blog for the medieval website In the Middle about the use of Twitter at academic conferences. At the risk of copping out on this post slightly, but in accordance with H&E's recent upsurge of how-to posts (c.f. how to ask for a reference letter, how to read a book, and how to write a lecture), I'm going to adapt and repost here some of the guidelines I established in that blog, under the assumption that most of you are not medievalists and have not previously encountered it (though the original post can be found here, happyface).  I welcome your input and additions to this list, and hope that we can continue to find practical ways to acknowledge and address issues of privilege and silencing within the academy.

*  *  *  *

How to Tweet at a Conference
In six* easy steps. 
I could even tweet these steps, wouldn't that be meta.

1. [This is the Most Important Thing]: Every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea, ensuring that ideas remain securely pinned to their owners rather than let loose online. It is also customary to include the session and conference hashtags (see the MLA's official recommended guidelines here). Formats such as [tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end] are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions in subsequent tweets. If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing other voices in our own scholarly work, and should not be difficult. (sometimes we slip up. That's okay.)

2.     Try not to overtweet. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). Issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

3.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you. Favorite and RT other tweets, make it clear that you are listening and supporting other thoughts.  

4.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture, make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

5.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out and tweeting an underrepresented panel.

6.     Be aware of the form of your tweet. In my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components: local so that there’s substance for your claim, but global so that there's some kind of broader takeaway, and also for the benefit of those who are not at the conference. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument.

Here are a couple examples of my tweets from the New Chaucer Society Congress this summer, which I would like to think contain both local and global elements (y'all go ahead and let me know if they make no sense to you), as well as careful attribution to the speaker and session.


*  *  *  *

What about you, readers? Have you had some particularly bad (or good) experiences tweeting at conferences? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from the list? We're listening.

*This post has been edited to reflect the fact that there are, in fact, six tips here, not five. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

From lapsed, to failed, to recovering academic

Every single Thursday since this semester has started, I have felt like the next day was a Saturday. The joke is on me, and doubly so, because I teach not one, but two three-hour classes on Friday, so my brain's skipping over the Friday probably amounts to denial. This Friday, today, my brain completely acknowledged in a melancholy way, because I was actually supposed to be at the fantastic Discourse and Dynamics conference that Hook and Eye's Erin Wunker has co-organized. Not being there compounds my feeling as a complete academic failure. Ironically, not being there is also key to my recovery, academic and otherwise.

I did not teach in the Winter term of 2014, and having an alt-academic position meant that I felt only partly like an academic: a lapsed one. My alt-ac position allowed me to do important work, and contribute my teaching experience to improving academic processes such as course evaluations. Similarly, my knowledge of students and their needs informed many other aspects of the job I was involved in. What's more, I was still going to conferences, and presenting my original research. So, I was not completely off the wagon. Lapsed, but still hanging on, although I could definitely feel the train picking up speed, while my own clinging strength kept diminishing in inverse proportion.

Then this term came, and back-to-teaching meant, I thought, back to the academy. Teaching and conferencing, although not much time for writing in-between the five courses: still academic, no? I even bought my plane ticket to Moncton to ensure I'd be there to take part in this amazing event. As the term picked up speed, and I was buried deeper and deeper under piles of marking, I also postponed booking a room in or around tiny Sackville. With every passing day, the need to secure lodgings was increasing in direct proportion with my anxiety over how I would get my Friday courses covered, when I would get all the marking done, and how many supplementary hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed on the altar of course prep. And I hadn't even begun to factor in writing the paper.


However, if this decision puts the cherry on top of the failed academic cake, it also signals, I flatter myself, professional maturity. This is the point at which recovery begins. I could have, of course, deluded myself by thinking that "I'll do just this one more thing," or some such, but we all know that's both untrue and unhealthy. I have reached a point in my professional career when I know how I work, and what allows me to perform best. You know what's vital in that equation that belies the facile identification of work and self? Sleep. Time to think freely. Taking walks. Taking naps. Looking inside myself, rather than outside for resources. More generally, taking a break, or--gasp--maybe even a holiday.

How about you, dear reader? What's your midterm recovery technique? General impostor syndrome aside, did you take any decisions that made you feel less like an academic, and more like an interloper?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Healthy Communities and Mentorship

No new post from me, because what I really want you to read today is Erin's most recent essay over at CWILA on healthy communities and mentorship for women. Erin is also looking for contributions to a crowdsourced guide for effective and responsible mentorship. Here's a bit of what she has to say:
Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”
For the full post, head over to CWILA.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Asking for a reference letter: how-to

I'm writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I've obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I've talked to a LOT of other students about the "ask."

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It's awkward: "Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you're not too busy, but I know you're busy and I'm not sure I'm awesome anyways?" Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end "And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?"

I thought I would put in a post what I'm repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I'll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask


Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you're asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment


The form letter


Dear Prof. [insert name here
I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 
The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.
I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 
Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 
Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can't remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters ("I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY"). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what's happening ("Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won't tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie" [no last name whose email is warriornerd@gmail.com][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can't figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones ("Hi, I've attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I've joined your program that would be great.") If you make it hard for me to like you because you're so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don't give me enough information, it's going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.

My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don't know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that's why I wrote this today.

Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I've suggested? What's your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you'd like me to do a post on?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Playing the Long Game

I'm at the point in the PhD program that they like to call "the writing phase": I've completed my coursework, met my language requirement, passed my candidacy, and all I have left to do is that one bit of work called "the dissertation". So . . . lots of days staring into the distance, thinking, drinking coffee, and writing, right? Um, not so much.

Over the last year in particular, I've had to juggle dissertation writing with teaching, a research position, publishing, archive trips, and conferencing, amongst a myriad of other demands. But in the process I've learned a couple things about finding rhythms, discipline, and carving time from a busy schedule. One thing I'm finding is particularly crucial about writing the dissertation is the importance of consistency, regularity, and routine, or what a good friend of mine likes to call "playing the long game".

Most English graduate programs are set up in such a way as to push students really hard for short periods of time. In Canada, in my graduate program, PhD and MA students must take three courses each term, with heavy reading loads. Most of these courses require students to write one lengthy term paper (18-25 pages) and give (at least) one oral presentation (8-10 pages of less formal writing). If you're lucky, you can spread the presentations throughout the term so they don't overlap (and occasionally, these presentations can roll into the final paper). But the final papers usually all converge within a few weeks of each other. Unless students are extremely well-organized and on top of things, this usually means an intense period of suffering writing at the end of term. The pay-off, of course, is great: at least sixty pages of writing in a month-long period. But the trade-off is that students don't necessarily learn how to approach the long-game writing that makes up the dissertation.

I've been at this for a year and a half now and it's just now that I'm realizing how committed I've been to the "short bursts of energy" model. To give just one example, I wrote my first chapter in four weeks after I returned from a research trip to the UK. It's not just me, academia in general tends to push people towards models of this kind simply because of its cyclical nature. The two semester: teaching; one semester: research/writing idea is, of course, build into the semester system. But the increasing pressures to undertake more activities throughout the teaching year can sometimes mean that writing takes a back burner until the summer. The results are sometimes a little bit like this: Have a conference abroad next week? Frantically finish the paper on the plane! Article revision deadline? Don't touch the paper until the week before!

Not all of this is bad, of course. Sometimes pressure has the glorious effect of making efficiency machines out of all of us. But the kind of pressure that makes us efficient with articles and conference papers doesn't necessarily help for the lengthy work of the dissertation. 

Boyda wrote a great post last week about the slow scholarship movement, and what it means to "let our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation." And we've written a lot here in the past about the need to approach writing in a sustainable fashion. What I'm trying to suggest in this post is that in order to do the kind of work required for the dissertation, a fundamental shift is needed: we have to approach our projects with consistency and regularity over a long period of time. It's not just enough to pound out a chapter in a month. It's necessary to give our work enough time to percolate, to breathe. We need to write, and then return to our writings, and let our research speak for itself. Part of this involves what Adrienne Rich calls "re-vision": looking again at what we've written, and seeing things with new eyes, arriving at it from "a new critical direction". Rather than giving the dissertation periodic bursts of energy, we have to approach it with consistency and regularity, we have to return to it frequently, and let it speak to us.

 What I'm trying to commit to over the course of this semester is simple: one unit of dissertation-related writing, minimum, every day (35 to 45 minutes). I'm hoping this minimum requirement will be surpassed, of course, and there are days that I will certainly devote much more time to my writing. But by committing myself to this minimum, daily writing, I hope I can let my project speak for itself. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Culling Our Metaphors

I find it appalling that people still use words like “lame” as pejorative epithets. I’ve heard people whom I know otherwise to espouse egalitarian values on a large range of topics—people who would cringe at other kinds of discriminatory language—throw it around in regular conversation. This thoughtless, casual habit has to stop.

Allow me to get off my soapbox for a moment, and confess that I heard myself liberally pepper my lecture on the use of APA style with words like “crazy” and “insane.” In my defense, they were not used to describe directly the citation style in question, but rather to underscore to students the expectations around correct citation, e.g., “Nobody expects you to remember exactly how to cite every single source. That would be [insert casual insensitive word pejoratively describing mental illness here]! Instead, you have to know what categories of information you need to produce a correct citation, bla bla bla.” That is an accurate rendition of what I heard in my head after that appalling use of “crazy.” Why is it still ok to use these metaphors, when we have perfectly good adjectives to convey “terrible,” “awful,” “appalling,” or “incredible” situations?


The insidiousness of the concept of “political correctness” still haunts any attempt at ridding everyday language of discriminatory terminology. I do not mean to rehash the critique here, but only to underscore the power of this “straw man” argument, its endurance, and the ways in which it can hinder opening up our conversations on these entrenched uses of language that continue to hurt, render invisible, marginalize, and oppress people. In that moment in my class, as my mouth-and-vocal-chords assemblage was uttering the words, my brain jumped ahead to realize the harm I was perpetuating, but not quickly enough to prevent me.

I do hope it will stop me in future. I have become aware of other metaphors I was using in my teaching to underscore the foundational nature of a teaching-and-learning moment such as how to do a critical reading. I would casually say “this is the meat and potatoes of critical thinking,” before—again with my brain lagging behind a beat—apologizing to vegetarians and vegans, indeed to the diverse group of people in my class, for whom “meat and potatoes” does not evoke a stereotypical staple meal. Of course, it was also a good teaching moment for the application of critical thinking in examining our own personal and culturally-derived biases and assumptions. Who am I kidding?


In all seriousness, however, the use of “crazy” and “insane” as synonyms for “wrong,” “terrible,” “unusual,” etc. strikes me as even more problematic, because of how it serves to bury mental illness under a deeper discursive darkness. In spite of all the clever campaigns, we still have so much trouble accepting mental illness as a regular and legitimate aspect of our—everybody’s—lives that the least we can do is eradicate the casual use of these adjectives and others that do the similar work of marginalization and oppression.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

You Don't Get What You Don't Ask For

Why doesn't it surprise me that all of the stock photos of people negotiating are of men? 

As of yesterday, I'm on an adjusted schedule at work that sees me coming in an hour later in the morning. It doesn't sound like a big difference, starting at 9:30 rather than 8:30. It feels big, not working the same standard hours as everyone else in my highly unionized office. But it gives me a full two hours in the morning to write, two hours in which I can get a heck of a lot accomplished. And it represents one of my more successful attempts at workplace negotiation. I wanted, I asked, and I got.

Negotiating in the academy, especially for women, is a fraught activity. I think we all know the story of W., who had her tenure-track job offer at Nazareth College revoked after she tried to negotiate a higher salary and a few other amendments to the job offer. Karen Kelsky, the former faculty member behind The Professor is In, offers advice on how to stop negotiating like a girl. And it's not just that women tend not to negotiate, although some studies show that only 7% of us do, as compared to 57% of men. It's that the social cost of negotiating, of facing negative repercussions for being seen as pushy, grasping, not "nice," is so high for us that we instinctively know (or are explicitly told) not to ask for more than is offered.

All of this chafes, a lot. And so I keep trying to figure out ways to meet what many, including Margaret Neale (professor of negotiation at Standford) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), call the need for women to "think personally, act communally," and still get what we want. Importantly, asking for what I want is always backed up by information and a persuasive argument, a key component Neale notes is missing from many women's negotiation repertoires. So this time around, I found language in my collective agreement that would let me negotiate an adjusted schedule in collaboration with my manager. I ensured that the hours I chose wouldn't negatively impact anyone I work closely with. I'll admit that some people didn't need much convincing--I work with lots of people with PhDs who can see the value of the degree beyond just the tenure track. But I had to get five people to sign off on my plan, and for to those who needed convincing, I made the case for the ways in which providing some accommodations so that I can finish my dissertation quickly was to everyone's benefit, not just mine: that having the PhD in hand would increase my credibility among the graduate community (and therefore the work of our office), that it would enhance my ability to fill whatever role the Deacanal team needs filled, and that it would facilitate the deepening of the ways in which the Dean is linking the work we do about graduate reform and professional development to an active (and hopefully funded!) research practice that will bring the university money and a reputation as a leader. I made it not about me, but about the good of our Faculty.

This kind of low-stakes negotiation was great practice for the future, when I transition into a management role, am no longer bound to the terms of a collective agreement, and have some room to ask for something more, or something different. Is it frustrating not just be able to ask for a higher salary, no questions asked? Yes. Is it terrifying to think that those you've negotiated with now think worse of you, before you've even started the job? Yes. And we all know now that it's possible for negotiations to backfire to the point that the job no longer exists. But you don't get what you don't ask for. Sometimes it does hurt to ask, but I'm going to keep doing it anyway. And on that note, back to dissertation writing.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How to Read a Book (or Anything, Really)

Right now I'm at the bottom of page two of a peer review I just started. I was seized, at the bottom of page two, with a burning urge to flip right to the back to see how many pages the article actually is. (It's 17 pages, then another five pages of references, if you're wondering.)

Now, this is precisely the kind of thing I used to beat myself up over: what, you're 800 words in and already you're dropping your red pen and trying to figure out exactly how much is left? I am a constant page flipper, self-interrupter, a messy and inattentive reader. Except I'm learning that page-checking, table-counting, section-flipping, and self-interrupting are not the marks of a messy and inattentive reader, but an active one.

I'm not doing it wrong; I'm doing it right.

I used to think that careful, attentive, smart, good readers started at page one, and, with a uniform level of complete entranced focus, worked methodically through the page the nth. This is pretty much  the opposite of how I read (flipping, in and out of concentration, stopping and starting) so obviously I figured I was doing it wrong. Do you ever feel that way too?

As is often the case, it took teaching to help me figure things out. I noticed (as you do) that my undergrads often missed the point of what they were reading. And I noticed that my grads were having real trouble getting the readings done at all. So I tried to figure out how to help them, and I came across Paul N. Edwards' wonderful short guide, How to Read A Book. Imagine my surprise that what he proposes as an ideal academic reading strategy is what I was already doing! What I called scattered flipping he called way-finding. My tendency to look first for tables and images he called focus on the most information-dense materials. My stopping and starting reflects an unyielding fact of the limited nature of human focus.

I kept beating myself up, that is, for doing it right, because I somehow got the idea that I should be doing it differently. (I find academic life is full of these head games we play on ourselves.) If I'm honest, I will admit that I'm a pretty fast reader who's really efficient at getting the gist. When I come back from my skim, then my fast read, and do my notes on the third (fast) pass, that's where it all really sinks in, details-wise. And reading it three times this way is faster than trying to Read Harder in one intense sweep from start to finish.

Two things strike me as interesting in my own little anecdote here. First, while it turns out that I'm actually an effective and efficient, highly-skilled reader, for a long time I was really insecure about my practices. Second, academic reading is a non-intuitive skill that needs to be taught, and we should make sure to teach it.

Where did I get the idea that Reading Harder was the right way? Did I just conjure up a mental image of Good Reading and it looked like binging on Twilight books, only in academese and holding a highlighter? Or did I just assume, with my deeply-rooted imposter syndrome, that whatever way seemed easiest or most natural to me was obviously the wrong way?

And how many years did it take me to just sort of feel my way through to my current process? How much trial and trial and error and error it took for me to figure it out? Hint: a lot (and I still wasn't sure I was doing it right).

Could I have been taught? I think so. The scuttlebutt in grad school when we were all crushed under the weight, in one case, of a triple-decker novel and two critical articles every week, or, in another, a book of queer theory every week was this: skim, then bullshit. Perhaps this is why we all felt like fakers: we were faking. On the one hand, the reading expectations were ... out of line with reality. But on the other hand, I've been finding my own grad students really receptive to our using some class time to talk about the pragmatics of how to actually shift their strategies in the move from undergrad to grad, or, How to Read a Book.

So I'm posting this now for two reasons--to ask you to share whatever reading or other professional strategies you figured out for yourself the hard way, so we don't have to; also, to get you all to read Edwards' great how-to, and assign it to or share it with everyone you know. (See also, How to Give a Talk.)

Leave a comment with your reading strategies below, especially if you learned it the hard way ;-)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Conference Etiquette and Privilege

This June, I attended the worst conference panel ever. What transpired was absolutely shocking and I feel that it is important to have a discussion about the codes that exist for conference participation. Fortunately, Hook and Eye has had many posts about conference etiquette over the years, so I think this is a great place to start.

Part 1: Worst panel ever
I attended a two-presenter, 1 hour panel just before lunch on the second day of a three day conference. I should note now that the rest of the conference was awesome. One of the best I have ever attended. This panel however....

The chair announced that one of the presenters (listed first in the programme) would be a little late, so the other panelist would present first. They finished their presentation, about 5 minutes over their time, but as the other presenter hadn't shown up yet, they did a little more analysis then we launched into comments and questions. As the presenter was in the middle of responding to a question, with 10 minutes left in the the panel time-slot, the other presenter (who we will call 'Mr. WTF?' entered the room, allowing the door to slam behind him, interrupted the speaker, and said, 'I'm meant to give a talk at half-past.' The chair said curtly, 'actually the panel started on the hour' (in any case it was already ten to, so Mr. WTF? was 20 minutes late for his half-past timing!!!!). The presenter finished responding to his question, then took a seat in the audience, allowing Mr. WTF? to take the last 10 minutes of the session. He sat in the first row (even after the chair suggested that he should probably sit at the front), and spent five minutes summarizing his research interests (the way you might in the first class of a graduate seminar). His summary gave the impression that he had not considered any of the relevant cultural theories for his project, and really had the tiniest inkling of a case study, about which he had not even bothered to prepare an academic paper. At the end of his five minute summary he said "any questions?"

To my surprise, the many very senior scholars in the room actually humoured him. In fact, they even tried to help him. They gave him recommendations about the glaring blindspots in his project and asked for clarification on issues that did not seem to hold up. Rather than be collegial, appreciative, or humble, Mr. WTF? was defensive. When asked to define his use of the term "popular imaginary" and explain his source for his claims about this concept, he said "I'm not a literary scholar, I'm a political scientist. We use statistics." It may interest you to know that many (i'd say at least 50%) of the people in the room were themselves NOT literary scholars!.

Following the panel, Mr. WTF? helped himself to some conference lunch then took off, having attended exactly 10 minutes of the conference, those being the 10 minutes where he himself was speaking.

Part 2: How to present a paper at an academic conference (in 5 easy steps)
1. Attend the conference
The paper that you present is really the least important aspect of conference participation. Yes it is important to showcase your work, and yes the feedback from your peers can strengthen your research, but at the end of the day the professional relationships that come out of regular conference participation are generally formed during coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and nights out at the pub. Be prepared to participate in these things. You should also be an active, considerate attendee to other panels. Basically, Mr. WTF?, no one in that room will EVER hire you. You failed to even accomplish the most basic requirement of attending a conference, which is to say, you did not actually attend a conference.

2. Attend your panel
It is beyond inappropriate to simply NOT show up to the other paper(s) on your panel. That Mr. WTF? had apparently planned to arrive 30 minutes late to his 1hr panel indicated that he did not care to listen to the other speaker. This is completely shocking behaviour. Did he really think that people should be interested in hearing what he had to say even when he clearly wasn't interested in anyone else?

3. Present a paper (or a presentation)
Showing up to a conference with absolutely NOTHING prepared is a completely inappropriate waste of everyone's time. We have all presented under-prepared. This is a fact of our busy academic lives, but I have never seen anyone show up with nothing to present. You don't need to write an academic paper if that isn't the norm in your field, but seriously, have SOMETHING to tell your audience.

4. Know your audience
Don't assume that your audience knows nothing. Don't assume that your audience knows everything. Don't assume that because you are attending a conference on "culture" that everyone in the room is a literary scholar and therefore (apparently) won't understand numbers and things. Conferences, particularly special topics conferences, tend to be interdisciplinary. Don't use the fact that you are from another field as an excuse to be unprepared, make unfounded assumptions, and lack scholarly evidence for your claims.

5. Be gracious, or at least collegial
I was shocked that my colleagues were willing to be so kind to Mr. WTF?. He met their kindness with arrogance and defensiveness. When scholars take the time to listen to your work, then engage with it through questions and suggestions, take that feedback. This is about professionalism. Don't brush aside criticisms with wholesale dismissals of the disciplinary perspective from which you assume that they are coming.

***
I guess what I am trying to say is, no matter how bad you think your worst conference presentation ever was, it definitely wasn't the worst ever. Unless of course you are MR. WTF?, then yes, it was the worst.

I know that my reading of his behaviour and motivations is likely a biased one. But too bad Mr. WTF?. Because at the end of the day, if I see a man at a conference from a "masculinized" discipline being callous and dismissive of his participation in a conference in a presumed "feminized" field of study, I see privilege.

So did I win? Have I really witnessed the worst conference presentation ever? Let me know your horror stories.



Monday, October 6, 2014

The Good Enough Professor

Today's post is the first in a series of posts we'll have from our new semi-regular blogger Lily Cho. Welcome, Lily!
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Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interview with Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me.

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough.

The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin's incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true.

So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me.

But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.

First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties.

So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 

We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy.

How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor?



Lily Cho
York University