Thursday, October 29, 2015
Every third Saturday, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Brunch gets served, coffee gets poured, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip, and babies, and partners, and jobs. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis. We've been doing this for years.
Each session, two of us send around a 25-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—nineteenth century novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, the picturesque, modern drama—we’ve come to know each others' work well over the many years we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize fresh eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed. And not just in our academic writing. Most of us are now finished or nearly finished our dissertations, and doing some combination of teaching/working/writing/preparing for the future. We trade tips and horror stories about job applications, book proposals, writing resumes, finding jobs, figuring out what comes next. And we're still doing it together.
I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. Our PhD program is quite large—my cohort had nine people in it, and that's about average for the English program at York—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a graduate program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other--a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help you get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. Few of us are intending to stay in academia, but our writing skills are crucial to our success wherever we end up, and being together--writing a lot, and writing well--will serve us well wherever we end up. Indeed, it has already. I'm testament to that.
I can't say how grateful I am for our little group, one that is filled with people who make me a better scholar, a better friend, a better person. It's no coincidence that on the same day as our last writing group session, our host Sam also held a meeting for the group of couples we both joined to sponsor a refugee family from Syria--that's the kind of people my writing group is. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate scholarly community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as a person and a writer, and in ways I couldn't have imagined back in the days when we all thought we were headed for the tenure track. That our group has continued and adapted as our plans and goals and lives have changed is a wonderful thing.
So tell me: what version of academic or creative community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?
Monday, October 26, 2015
My mother passed away in September from injuries sustained after a fall; she died on the first day of the fall teaching term. I have all kind of feminist criticisms about our health care system, and I’ll be writing about those soon. But first, grief. For the record, any time of the year that your mother dies is a terrible time of year but it’s the timing that my sympathetic colleagues have most remarked on. And if it hadn’t happened to me, I too would immediately wonder how to handle such an upheaval in schedule. Since it has happened to me, here’s the answer: I haven’t handled it. It’s the steamroller that has run over me, cartoon-like, and I can only work with the physical demands that are left.
It’s emotional labour, no question, but to tell the truth, it’s taking a toll on my body. Fatigue activates my sciatica, which is now a long taut string of poker-hot muscle that hobbles me. Being in public is a challenge; the performance of normality is the hardest work of all. I swing between being too voluble about the horrible to saying nothing at all. I am indebted to my colleagues who have offered me everything from tea to Kleenex to non-judgemental ears to teaching classes if I feel I can’t. The fact that I appear to have replaced my memory with a sieve has fazed no one. My Chair advised me well to cancel a class or two when I was too stunned to make a good decision, and – maybe more importantly – he was also mindful enough not to insist that I was too stunned to make a good decision. And when he asked me what I wanted to tell the students when I cancelled classes, I knew what I had to say.
I chose to tell my students that I was cancelling class because I had a death in the family. When I was a student, I found the lack of information given to me about a professor's sudden absence not practically useful and a bit insulting as it assumed that I was a doofus who couldn't be trusted with basic human information. I remember saying to the department admin, “I don’t need salacious details. I just want to know if she’s okay.” This appeal got me the hairy eyeball. Now that I was the prof, I knew that my students would eventually look me in the face and my face would tell all. I needed to prepare them.
To be clear, I’m not a pool of tears trickling from room to room, discomfiting students. I speak in full sentences, grade papers, discuss texts; I write and sit on committees. But I know that I look odd, strangely strung out: broken blood vessels in my eyes, no makeup, everything a little off-kilter. Because that’s grief. One thing that happens when death occurs is that the boundaries between private and public are wiped out for a while. You have to conduct private business in ways that are horribly public. Many things about the breaching of those boundaries has been and continues to be shocking, but my students have been great. Many immediately sent me condolences via email, or told me when they saw me that they were sorry for my loss. I could even see a few of them -- those I've taught several times -- keeping a close eye on me in my first few classes back.
In turn, I have protected them from the awful knowledge that one's mother can die by just keeping my statement about "a death in the family." Because it's not right to frighten them, but it is right to let them step up and be adults, to make the leap to the understanding that their professors have lives, and loves, and tragedies. It’s right to show them their red-eyed professor who is not absent and not made of stone. It’s right to show them that grief forges its own pedagogical model.
Friday, October 23, 2015
|photo cred. Chloe Wicks|
|photo cred. Kat Chambers|
Thursday, October 22, 2015
I do most of my writing in a room in my house we call the library, a room that used to hold something like five thousand books--on shelves, in piles on the floor, tucked under the yellow Danish chair that never got used. Very many of those books were written by, or about, the women I consider my literary mothers, poets and novelists and theorists. They were all bought, or written by, or gifted to one of my actual mothers, my husband's mother, who was the Canadian academic-translator-editor Barbara Godard. Very many of those books were gifted a few years ago to the university to which we both belonged, but many others still line the walls as I write, or come down to share something with me when I need to hear a critical voice that's not my own.
I'm currently reading and writing my way through the grouping of poems that Jay Macpherson wrote to submit to the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize when she was in her Master's degree, poems that she would turn into O Earth Return: A Speculum for Fallen Women, and then into her Governor General's Award-winning collection The Boatman. Macpherson had been spending a lot of time in rooms very different from my library full of women--in Robert Graves's studio, where women and women writers were relegated to the position of Muse, and in Northrop Frye's office, where his library shelves were stocked with very male canon-fodder--and she began to wonder where in those rooms she fit, where she might find the missing mothers she needed as a young woman writer. So she went out to find them, which she did, as I do, through reading and writing them. She found one in Eve, "the mother of all living" ("Eve in Reflection"), and another in the Queen of Sheba. She found others in the myths of Sibylla, Eurynome, Andromeda. But what she also found was that her mothers were in a double bind. In the literature and myth she so loved, women were the object, always subsumed under the male gaze and secondary to the plot of the male story. They only became women in and of themselves after they had fallen, after they had transgressed and been cast off. Then, and only then, in developing a self-consciousness that set them apart from their male creators--as Eve with her apple did from God and Adam--did they have an identity of their own.
So, Macpherson let them fall. And found her mothers, who had been hidden in the canonical texts she loved all along. She also found herself as a writer, not as Graves's Muse, or as Frye's disciple, or as a writer bound by the strictures of the canon, but as someone who could freely play with the stories she loved, turning them inside out and upside down in order to see how they fit together, to see how she fit into them, and they into her, however uncomfortably: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye. Her poems are full of mirrors and reflections, women drowned and women watching images of themselves wavering on the water. As Barbara wrote in an essay about one of Macpherson's best friends and poetic daughters, Margaret Atwood, "in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity." In her early poems, Macpherson wrote to weave her mirror doubles--her fallen women, her personal goddesses--into eternity. Macpherson is one of my fallen women--fallen out of the canon, fallen from critical favour--and now I write to weave her back into the story of the creation of that thing we call Canadian literature. I write to give her a story of her own that isn't a subplot in a narrative about the canonical men--Frye, Graves, George Johnston, Hans Jonas--who have been credited with shaping hers.
As I sit on my sofa reading words that "the mom," as my husband Alexis calls her, wrote back in 1987, my reading is mirrored, doubled. I sit reading an article Barbara wrote in the space where the words I read were written. I am reading Macpherson through Atwood through Godard. I am sitting on the sofa with the man who was, in my imagination of one of those days in 1987, downstairs making himself an after-school snack while his mother sat upstairs writing the words I am reading, a hungry twelve year old who now often reminds me to eat because he knows hangry when he sees it. I am finishing a dissertation on Canadian literature in a house that used to be home to one of the people who made doing that possible, who forced English departments like the one we both called home to teach the literature of our country, to recognize it as a legitimate subject of inquiry, to put writers like Macpherson on the syllabus and the comprehensive exams. I think about what it must have been like to do this work--the writing, the reading, the advocacy--as a mostly single parent with a growing son, what sacrifices that must have required of both of them, what sacrifices I don't have to make because Alexis is grown and because we don't have children of our own and because Barbara and my other mothers made them before me. And I recognize that because of Barbara and Jay, the mothers who came before me, I don't have to go looking for my academic and writerly mothers--they're here, in the room, on the shelves, and with me as I write.
Photo credit: James Gillespie.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Monday, October 19, 2015
Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen's University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen's University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
Friday, October 16, 2015
Six months ago, almost no one outside academia knew what an adjunct was. Now, after National Adjunct Walkout Day, and strikes at two of Ontario's largest universities, we know that poorly paid and precarious workers called adjuncts (also known as sessionals) are responsible for more than half of the teaching done at universities and colleges throughout North America. On average, adjuncts are paid just $2,500 for teaching a university-level course in the U.S. and $7,500 in Canada. Their contracts expire at the end of every semester, and they have no benefits or sick days.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Sometimes I look in the mirror and I'm surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I'm starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.
This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It's flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.
This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I'm still reaching for greater heights, I'm kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.
I'm not sure how to do this. I've climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed--I've had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others--to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity--I'll tell you frankly that it's ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.
I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I'm kind of discovering what that means, in practice.
I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?
Friday, October 9, 2015
Thursday, October 8, 2015
I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that's what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it's just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I'm running fewer funding competitions now that I'm at a smaller institution, I've got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).
A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications--to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year--easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia--for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications--I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That's pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It's been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.
If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you'd hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I'm reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they'd be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it's not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias--by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B's collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too--superb versus good, outstanding versus competent--and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.
Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding--or admission to a top-notch graduate program--they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)--not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They've gone so far as to add a big section to their "Letters of Reference" instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.
I've adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they'll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they're writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they're exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems--to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have--is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can--I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they're assessing applications. It's something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.
But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn't because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Not only is Dalhousie enrolling record numbers into its various femme-babble gender studies programs this year--much to MSVU's chagrin, I'm sure--I see that a Dal prof has taken it upon herself to loudly condemn National Post columnist/CBC troll doll Rex Murphy for (gasp) making fun of that silly girl at Columbia University who's been dragging a mattress around behind her all year.So patronizing, so dismissive, so sarcastic, really hardly even worth a close-read. A bit of research on this publication unsurprisingly revealed that Douglas has traveled in or somewhere near rape apologist circles for awhile, dating back to the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013, when he claimed that there "wasn't enough evidence" to charge the boys accused of her gang-rape, and proceeded to level blame at Parsons' mother. In 2011, Frank Magazine was involved in another seemingly anti-feminist scandal when Douglas fired one of his employees for "questioning a column on sexism." With 14 000 followers on Twitter, this guy is certainly not a nobody.
Andrew Douglas, in turn, derides Erin's reference to "Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women" (which, yes, is a Thing, a horrifying and urgent Thing), and ridicules one of her class assignments in which she incorporates the study of affect into digital mapping technology--the very kind of "Thinking Through the Body" practice about which she has recently blogged. Murphy claims that the goal of the discipline of the humanities is "to teach what is worth knowing; to train the intellect; to acquaint students with, and help them appreciate, the glories of the human mind and its finest achievements." In proposing that the university system must draw us away from popular culture to that which he deems "the glories of the human mind," in objecting to Sulkowicz's use of her body as a locus for protest and change, Rex Murphy implicitly calls for the erasure of disruptive female bodies from university campuses. This form of sexism, epitomized in Murphy's and Douglas's articles, does not simply involve slut-shaming or antiquated approaches to literature, but additionally involves an internalized discomfort with women's bodies as topics and subjects of engagement in humanities classrooms.
My vision of the academy involves Jane Austen, John Milton, and Madonna, and accepts that honest educational encounters with contemporary culture and with the past will uncover unpleasant truths, truths that lie far below the "glories of the human mind and its finest achievements" (which are implicitly, in this context, gendered male). My vision of the academy incorporates womens' bodies into the conversation and exposes the ways they are systematically attacked, erased, murdered, and raped. My vision of the academy embraces embodied practices and approaches to literature, and resists the neoliberal urge to reduce what we do as scholars to impersonal numbers and metrics. Basically, my vision of the academy wants nothing to do with the twisted vision offered by these offensive online attacks against women in major Canadian media outlets.
NB: A version of this blog post appeared a week ago, under the title "Solidarity with Dr. Wunker," but I removed it soon after posting because it wasn't quite fully developed. Thanks are due to Andrew Ferris (Department of English, Princeton) for reading that earlier draft with a generous eye, and helping me clarify and expand some of my ideas regarding the proper role of the academy.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Let's dismiss one big lie right off the bat: no matter what mygradskills.ca or your university tells you, there is no such thing as turning your C.V. into a résumé. Career professionals who work with PhDs phrase résumé writing as converting your C.V. to make people who have only ever written a C.V. feel more at home and less like they're starting from scratch, but we're stretching the truth by using words like "converting" to describe the process. Yes, a C.V. and a résumé are both documents that contain lists of things you've done and degrees you hold. Yes, they both usually follow some sort of chronological order. But that's about where the similarities stop, and their differences are major.
A C.V. is intended to be a catalogue of your professional accomplishments, and a comprehensive one. It is intended to show what you did, and when. At most, it has a few columns, some subheadings, and a little light bolding and italicizing as formatting. In all likelihood, it contains no qualifying or descriptive information about any of its entries. A résumé, on the other hand, is not comprehensive but highly selective. It is intended less to demonstrate what you did but how, using what skills, and to what effect. It qualifies and describes almost everything, normally using CAR (challenge-action-result) statements. And it can have formatting ranging from the generic to the highly graphic. To attempt to turn a ten or fifteen page C.V. into a two-page résumé is not only nearly impossible--it is, from my experience, counter-productive and results in a résumé that is both harder to write and not nearly as good.
So, let's start fresh.
Keep your C.V. open, because you're going to want to remember things that you did during the job that was the PhD, but we'll let the résumé be it's own thing. And for the moment, a résumé isn't what we're going to be writing. What we are going to write is a skills and experiences master list. This is the master document of all of the skills and experiences you've amassed in your life thus far, along with descriptors of those skills and accomplishments and, ideally, with quantifiable outcomes of your actions. Here's how to start creating your master list:
2. Assign skills
Assign skills, or multiple skills, to each of those things you do or have done. Include both hard and soft skills. For example:
- conferencing and teaching should get associated with the skills of public speaking, tailoring communications to the needs of a diverse audience, oral communication, and using online learning technologies like Moodle or Blackboard
- administrative work might get associated with ability to prioritize and meet multiple and competing deadlines, attention to detail, ability to manage high volumes of work, and proficiency with Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite of programs
- writing and publishing articles requires skills like written communication, ability to take and make use of feedback, editing, using LaTeX, and synthesizing and communicating complex ideas to a varied audience.
If you're having a hard time figuring out what skills are associated with each of the things you've done in your working life, it's often useful to look at job postings in fields that are of interest to you and see what skills they specifically look for; you can also look at general lists of résumé skills for inspiration.
3. Frame as CAR statements
- Thing I did: identified the fact that my university wasn't nominating enough PhDs for high-level doctoral scholarships, and figured out ways to get more applicants
- CAR statement: Conceived and implemented creative communication, recruitment, and proposal development processes and strategies that have increased Vanier and Trudeau PhD award applications by 1200% and tripled number of Vanier award winners
- skills noted in this CAR statement: communication, process improvement, strategy development and implementation, grant development
- Thing I did: researched and wrote academic articles and reports for work
- CAR statement: Performed sophisticated qualitative and quantitative research and analysis that informed policy/program development (including the creation of York University's Graduate Professional Skills program), furthered institutional research objectives, and expanded knowledge in the fields of Canadian literature, digital humanities, and higher education studies
- skills noted in this CAR statement: qualitative and quantitative research, policy analysis and development, written communication
- Thing I did: co-founded a peer-reviewed online journal
- CAR statement: Co-founded and managed an open-access digital peer-reviewed journal that created skill-building opportunities for graduate students, enhanced the reputation of York University's graduate program in English, and created a needed venue to showcase innovative interdisciplinary humanities research that averages over 100 downloads per issue
- skills noted in this CAR statement: initiative, project and people management skills, coordination skills, computer skills